“Burton not only lies, but deliberately and wilfully lies . . . Were I in your place I would take some summary method of dealing with the scoundrel, whose infamous line of conduct in regard to this whole premium scheme merits, and shall receive exposure.”-Poe to Joseph Snodgrass, June 17, 1840
Many may be familiar with the fact that Poe worked for multiple editors during the 1830s-1840s, including Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine; however, many may not know that Burton, Poe’s eccentric, conniving manager was a comedic-thespian during his day before becoming owner of his magazine, which would only run for about four years.
So, how did this actor-turned-magazine enthusiast become manager of his own magazine, and why did he and Poe have a strained relationship?
William E. Burton came to Philadelphia from London in 1834, according to William L. Keese in William E. Burton, and first appeared in September of that year at the Arch Street Theater (4). This was not his first time acting, however, for he, according to his private journal obtained by Keese, wrote while in England, “‘July 19, 1825. Opened at the theater in Southern to only 50 shillings. In Ollapod, eighth time, in the ‘Hunter of the Alps.’ I sang the comic song of ‘Gaby Grundy’s Courtship'” (46). Therefore, he had already made his footing in theater. In fact, his first performance in Philadelphia was as Ollapod (46).
After establishing himself in his new home, he contributed to periodicals with articles that were “sketches of life and character made lively by touches of humor, and not infrequently a story would appear of graver import, often rendered somber by the introduction of a weird element” (5). He later published his own collection of pieces, “Waggeries and Vagaries.” His establishment in the literary and publishing field may have inspired him to start his own magazine, known as The Gentleman’s Magazine, in 1837-this would become known to Poe as Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. Burton included his own articles in the magazine, including a notable sketch of his friend, Wallack (6).
Keese explains that Poe was associated with Burton in the conduct of a magazine about this time, however, “though Burton was disposed to be indulgent and friendly towards his associate, the comedian and the poet did not pull well together, and the relationship was severed” (9). This is when the magazine was sold to George Rex Graham, Poe’s future employer at Graham’s Magazine.
In Joseph Jefferson’s autobiography, he states, “Burton’s ambition to succeed in the various tasks he had set himself was strongly fortified by his quick apprehension and great versatility. He was at the same time managing the Arch Street Theater in Philadelphia, the Chambers Street Theater in New-York, acting nightly, and studying new characters as fast as they came out. In addition to these professional duties, he was building a country residence at Glen Cove, writing stories for the magazines, and taking prizes at the horticultural shows for hot-house grapes and flowers” (10). Not only was Burton interested in the theater and writing, but also horticulture, and, later stated, books-he carried with him to New York a library of over twelve-thousand volumes, which then grew to twenty-thousand before his death in 1860 (11).
We have established Burton’s acting career and its launch, as well as mentioned the magazine he managed and hired Poe under. Poe had already worked for the Southern Literary Messenger in his hometown of Richmond, so he had already begun forming and practicing excellent, albeit biased and sometimes very harsh editorship skills. But how did Poe come to know Burton, and why did they have that falling out previously mentioned?
Burton seemed as amiable of a boss as Poe could have had, although Burton’s daughters later recalled that their father “loved his children, but at all times demanded strict obedience…” (20). This implies a rough edge to Burton’s facade of being a comedic, genial gentleman. Would Poe have also had these strict holds on him while working under Burton?
Poe’s works were initially rejected by Burton. However, if we look at some of the material written by Poe published just a few months after being hired, including “The Fall of the House of Usher,” we can infer that Poe’s restrictions were gradually lifted. What appears to be very significant in the publishing of a story like “Usher” is that it was horrific, different, and potentially scarring to Burton’s readers. Burton was taking a risk for his magazine, just as White’s Southern Literary Messenger had done with Poe’s stories. The fact that these stories were being published, if even briefly for Burton’s, seems relatively positive in light of their relationship.
That Poe was an excellent editor wasn’t a question to Burton, who wrote in an announcement of the June, 1839 issue, “William E. Burton, Editor and Proprietor, has much pleasure in stating that he has made arrangements with Edgar A. Poe, Esq., late Editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, to devote his abilities and experience to a portion of the Editorial duties of the Gentleman’s Magazine” (EAPoe). Burton had full confidence in his new editor.
Not only might they have gotten along as colleagues, but also as acquaintances, for Poe might have found common ground with Burton in the fact that Burton was a thespian, just like Poe’s biological parents. With Poe’s appreciation for theater, as well as literature, one might surmise that Burton and Poe would have had well-mannered conversations regarding these subjects.
Unfortunately, these weren’t enough for the proprietor and his assistant’s relationship, and their ultimate falling out occurred. In Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, Arthur Hobson Quinn explains that Poe wrote all of the reviews between the July and August issues, which were Burton’s responsibility (283). He follows this up with another statement, “Burton began to feature his own name on the front wrappers with larger display type. Yet Poe was acting as Editor during Burton’s absences on the road” (293). Finally, a letter by Charles W. Alexander on October 20, 1850, reminisces,
…I well remember his [Poe’s] connection with the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” of which Mr. Burton was editor, and myself the publisher, at the period referred to in connection with Mr. Poe.
The absence of the principal editor on professional duties left the matter frequently in the hands of Mr. Poe, whose unfortunate failing may have occasioned some disappointment in the preparation of a particular article expected from him, but never interfering with the regular publication of the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” as its monthly issue was never interrupted upon any occasion, either from Mr. Poe’s deficiency, or from any other cause, during my publication of it, embracing the whole time of Mr. Poe’s connection with it. That Mr. Poe had faults seriously detrimental to his own interests, none, of course, will deny. They were unfortunately, too well known in the literary circles of Philadelphia, were there any disposition to conceal them. But he alone was the sufferer, and not those who received the benefit of his pre-eminent talents, however irregular his habits or uncertain his contributions may have occasionally have been (297).
With a fair perspective from a bystander, may we approach more of the happenstance between Burton and Poe. Although a supposed letter from Burton to Poe, to which Poe responded to, is lost, Poe responds to said “ghost” letter with the following,
Sir,-I find myself at leisure this Monday morning, June 1, to notice your very singular letter of Sunday, and you shall now hear what I have to say. In the first place, your attempts to bully me excite in my mind scarcely any other sentiment than mirth. When you address me again, preserve, if you can, the dignity of a gentleman. If by accident you have taken it into your head that I am to be insulted with impunity I can only assume that you are an ass. This one point being distinctly understood I shall feel myself more at liberty to be explicit. As for the rest, you do me gross injustice; and you know it (297-298).
He goes on to chastise Burton for making him write 11 pages per month on average, not the supposed 2 or 3 that were, apparently, asked of Poe in the beginning (299). He then continues,
At first I wrote long articles which you deemed inadmissible, [sic] & never did I suggest any to which you had not some immediate and decided objection. Of course I grew discouraged & could feel no interest in the Journal. I am at a loss to know why you call me selfish. If you mean that I borrowed money of you-you know that you offered it-and you know that I am poor. In what instance has any one ever found me selfish…You first “enforced,” as you say, a deduction of salary…You next spoke disrespectfully of me behind my back…Lastly, you advertised your magazine for sale without saying a word to me about it. I felt no anger at what you did-none in the world (299-300). [Note: Quinn states that this letter may have been a rough draft copy of the one sent to Burton; however, Mrs. Richmond, when enclosing the letter to biographer John Ingram, explained that it was “a perfect copy…precisely like the original” (300).]
Amidst all of this, the rumor of Burton’s getting rid of the magazine to attend to his own prospective theater had gotten to Poe, as well as come true, for Burton’s theatrical project premiered in the opening of the National Theater on Chestnut Street on August 31, 1840. Because of this, any sort of break between the two was inevitable. As for Burton’s managerial skills, and describing the sort of treatment Poe underwent, Francis C. Wemyss, manager of the Walnut Street Theater, states of Burton, “As an actor, Mr. W. E. Burton has no superior on the American Stage-but as a manager, his faults are, first, want of nerve to fight a losing battle; in success he is a great general, but in any sudden reverse, his first thought is not to maintain his position, but to retreat” (301).
In the end, Burton’s magazine was sold to Graham, Poe was, for the most part, transferred, and the name William E. Burton left a sour taste in Poe’s mouth. Not only did Poe confide in Snodgrass that he was convinced that it was never Burton’s intention to stay true to the initial offer he had given Poe before taking the job, but in an April 1, 1841 letter to Snodgrass as well, he implied that Burton had spread rumors regarding Poe’s drinking habits (301-303). (Don’t let the date it was written fool you, for Poe was not in the least joking in this letter.)
But who ultimately won in the end? One could argue that Burton won, for he sought his theatrical pursuits free of debt and any nightmarish effects Poe and Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine may have had on him. As for Poe, he continued working only for nine more years thereafter, consistently impoverished, getting into literary and editorial brawls with writers such as Longfellow and editors such as Griswold, and riding a rollercoaster of slight gain and immense loss.
Ultimately, when the two parted, Burton returned to playing his characters, where as Poe continued writing his own.