American Literature, Biography, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Blackwood's Sensation Tale, Books, Dr. William Maginn., Edgar Allan Poe, English Literature, Irish Literature, Literary criticism, William Maginn
The Norton Critical Edition of The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (2004) – a veritable encyclopaedia of Poe scholarship, edited by G. R. Thompson, and over a thousand pages in length – includes a subsection entitled “Popular Fiction: Blackwood’s and the Sensation Tale.” We here encounter William Maginn’s “The Man in the Bell” (1819): a brief, stark, tale about a bell-ringer who is accidentally trapped under one of his own bells and who subsequently suffers the most dreadful agonies. Thompson presents “The Man in the Bell” as the quintessential “sensation tale”; an uncomplicated piece of popular entertainment, and one characteristic of the genre as a whole. He implies that Maginn’s writing was thoroughly ridiculed in Poe’s “A Predicament” (1838), and we are left with an impression of Poe, the snobbish aesthete, satirising the sort of derisory lowbrow fare produced by the likes of Maginn.
Poe’s satire of Blackwood’s, whether affectionate or unfriendly, can be attributed to his general envy of literary success, which equally lead him to pen less than sensible things about figures such as Longfellow and Hawthorne. Poe would have given his eye teeth to write for a magazine such as Blackwood’s: a publication of unparalleled literary standards, which paid its contributors ten guineas a sheet. Far from being just another hack, Maginn was a lively Tory Irishman, who alternatively wrote doggerel, drinking songs, and libellous reviews; and treatise on Latin verse and essays on Shakespeare: a disparity reconciled, for example, in his translation of verses from The Beggar’s Opera into Latin. “The Man in the Bell” is (as far as we know) the only “sensation tale” which he ever wrote, and the piece is itself a rather jolly pastiche.
Maginn’s writing has rarely been studied for its own sake, and no scholar has yet followed a rather promising lead: his resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe, and his potential influence upon Poe’s writing. Both were very educated men who, whether freely or involuntarily, ended up writing for commercial literary markets. Quite who their readers were, and what they wanted or needed, was not entirely certain to early nineteenth century writers, and Maginn and Poe resemble pioneering figures, striving at a literary frontier. Both were innovators and experimentalists who produced a wide range of writing, but neither were ultimately successful as men of letters. Both were well acquainted with poverty, both died prematurely, in their forties, and it was widely assumed that alcohol had contributed to both writers’ deaths. Although Poe sympathised with America’s Whigs, and Maginn was emphatically a Tory, both appear politically reactionary when compared to the contexts in which they wrote. Maginn opposed Catholic emancipation and Poe (allegedly) disliked abolitionism. Both were ostensibly outsiders in their respective literary spheres: Maginn was an Irishman in Edinburgh and London, and Poe was a Southerner (by upbringing) in Philadelphia and New York. Yet both were familiar with working-class culture and had a high regard for the reading public, and both can be described as conservatives who considered the bourgeoisie to be distasteful.
The apparent disreputability of both men did not endear them to many nineteenth century readers. Poe had repeatedly antagonised the American literati, and after his death he was widely portrayed as unbalanced and intemperate, not least by his malevolent “literary executor” Rufus Griswold. Maginn had equally annoyed many prominent British public figures and he had died leaving his family in poverty. The late-Victorian scholar Margaret Oliphant would contend that his biography is “not deserving” to be “written at any length” and that “it is almost immoral to be sorry for him.”
There were some significant dissimilarities between both writers. Maginn acquired a reputation as a “rollicking jig of an Irishman,” whilst Poe was, in his own words, “not ‘of the merry mood’.” Poe’s writing enjoys a considerable popularly amongst modern readers, whilst no new edition of Maginn’s work has been published since 1933. Poe’s posthumous reputation was salvaged from Griswold’s smears by a range of champions, including Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Maginn, however, was less fortunate in his posthumous defenders.
For many years after his death, “William Maginn” was largely the creation of the Irish-American author and journalist Robert Shelton Mackenzie, whose editions of the Miscellaneous Writings of the Late Dr. Maginn (1857) feature so many misattributions that they ironically affirm the post-modern philosopher Michel Foucault’s definition of the author as a concept used to impose meaning upon literature. Under the misapprehension that he was anthologising Maginn’s writing, the bumbling Mackenzie gathered together poems, articles, and stories which had been published anonymously in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and Fraser’s Magazine by Thomas Hamilton, John Gibson Lockhart, William Maginn, Henry Thomson, David Moir, Robert Macnish, Percival Weldon Banks, and Francis Mahony. It was not until the twentieth century that scholars such as Miriam Thrall, Alan Lang Strout and Ralph M. Wardle began to untangle the mess which Mackenzie had made. Incidentally, Mackenzie had a talent for misattributing texts, and he penned an editorial for the Philadelphia Press in 1864 which, disastrously for him, assumed that Poe had written a poem called “The Fire Fiend” (the piece in question was a hoax perpetrated by the minor writer C.D. Gardette). Two of Maginn’s subsequent biographers, Margaret Oliphant and Miriam Thrall, were openly and rather prudishly unappreciative of his satirical writing: Oliphant despaired of Maginn’s disregard for “decency and good manners”; whilst Thrall found some of his work “revolting.” Although Poe’s writing has a greater popular appeal than that of Maginn, the latter’s posthumous reputation suffered a decline which was more unfortunate than deserved.
For a writer who aspired to keep originality “always in view,” Poe would be dismayed by the number of literary sources which successive readers have identified as influences for his writing. In Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (1969), the scholar Michael Allen cites Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, Edward Bulwer Lytton, and John Wilson’s “Christopher North” as examples of such sources, whilst the literary critic Terence Whalen has recently identified the obscure Southern writer Lucian Minor and the mathematician Charles Babbage as further influences. One does not wish, however, to accord William Maginn an equivalent importance and liken him to the secret ingredient mentioned within one of Mackenzie’s footnotes to Maginn’s Miscellaneous Writings:
Long after Odoherty’s time, Guinness’s Dublin porter came into note in rivalry with “London Stout.” The story goes that Guinness had no great note until the full body of one particular brewing attracted the attention of those who malt. On cleaning out the vat, there were found the bones and part of the dress of one of the workmen, who had been missing for some weeks…
This dissertation does not aspire to discover Maginn’s literary remains swirling at the bottom of Poe’s creative mind. Indeed, Maginn is only mentioned once in Allen’s book, and Poe may not even have been aware of Maginn’s existence. Poe may have known of several of Maginn’s works but, as the Blackwood’s writers typically conformed to a common style, he may not have been certain that they were written by the same person and nor may he have been particularly interested in their authorship. In an April 1835 letter to his proprietor Thomas W. White, Poe cites four examples of popular British magazine pieces including Maginn’s “Man in the Bell,” and he refers to the authorship of the other three whilst only categorising Maginn’s tale as “the “Man in the Bell” of Blackwood”…
[To be continued. Ed.]