ENTRY

Southern Literary Messenger

SUMMARY

The Southern Literary Messenger was one of the most successful and influential literary magazines in the South. Founded by Richmond printer Thomas Willis White and edited for a time by Edgar Allan Poe, the Messenger, according to the magazine’s editor James Ewell Heath in the first issue, was meant to serve as “a kind of pioneer, to spy out the land of literary promise [in the South], and to report whether the same be fruitful or barren.”

In the early nineteenth century, literary magazines published in the North, such as Harper’s, set the tone for American literary dialogue. To capitalize on the relatively untapped market of southern readers, several editors attempted to establish similar journals in the South. But most of these journals failed quickly, in large part because there were fewer southern readers, and those who did read preferred the better-established northern magazines.

The Southern Literary Messenger and Its Staff

  • Edgar Allan Poe
    Edgar Allan Poe (1848)

    This image of the author Edgar Allan Poe is a copy of a daguerreotype made by Edwin H. Manchester at the Masury & Hartshorn studio in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 9, 1848. Four days earlier, Poe had taken an overdose of laudanum in an attempted suicide after Sarah Helen Whitman, a local poet, had refused his marriage proposal. Whitman called this dark portrait Ultima Thule, from the Greek and Latin, meaning the most extreme reaches of the world and alluding to Poe's poem "Dream-Land." She later told a Poe biographer that the image "was taken after a wild distracted night … had left its sullen shadow on his brow." Michael Deas, an expert on Poe imagery, has described this portrait as "the image of the tragic romantic poet: solemn, detached, consumed by his own wildly self-destructive nature." The original daguerreotype disappeared in 1860, but in the 1850s Whitman had at least four copies of the image made—including this one, which measures only three inches in height.

    Poe was fascinated by early photography and sat for at least eight daguerreotype portraits between 1842 and his death in 1849.

  • Thomas Willis White
    Thomas Willis White

    Thomas Willis White, the founder of the Southern Literary Messenger, a literary journal in Richmond, is the subject of this oil painting.

  • Southern Literary Messenger Building
    Southern Literary Messenger Building

    This undated photograph shows the building in Richmond that housed the Southern Literary Messenger, an influential literary journal published from 1834 until 1864. The magazine was edited for a time by Edgar Allan Poe, and this image is part of the Edgar Allan Poe Papers at the University of Virginia.

    Citation:  Edgar Allan Poe Papers, 1836–1955, in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library, Accession #3857, 3857-a, 3857-c, 3857-d, 3857-e, 4610. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

As a result, the Messenger foundered until 1835 when, on the recommendation of John Pendleton Kennedy, White hired Poe, then an unknown and impoverished poet, to serve as the journal’s literary editor. Under Poe’s direction, the journal greatly increased circulation, improved in quality, and developed connections with the northern literary establishment. But the position, which required long hours of reviewing manuscripts—many of them poorly written—severely taxed Poe’s patience and endurance. He left the journal in 1837 to pursue a writing career in the North, leaving White and his assistant, Matthew F. Maury, to produce the journal. Although a capable printer, White had little education or literary acumen. Under his direction, the journal published a hodgepodge of personal essays, tedious treatises on the classics, occasional poems, and effusive reviews.

In 1842, after suffering a stroke, White sold the Messenger to Benjamin Blake Minor (1818–1905), a Richmond attorney. Under Minor the journal shifted from chiefly literary content to primarily political and historical issues, publishing a long series on Virginia history, Captain John Smith‘s A True Relation (1608), essays on military strategies and diplomacy, and defenses of slavery. In 1845 Minor acquired William Gilmore Simms’ Southern and Western Monthly Magazine and merged it with the Messenger, briefly using the convoluted title Southern and Western Literary Messenger and Review. In 1847 Minor took a teaching position at the Virginia Female Institute in Staunton, Virginia, and sold the journal to John Reuben Thompson.

Thompson returned the journal to its literary focus, publishing work by many of the most prominent southern authors, including Poe, Philip Pendleton Cooke, William Gilmore Simms, and Henry Timrod. In spite of increasing quality, the journal struggled to generate subscriptions, again perhaps reflecting a limited audience for literature in the South. As issues related to slavery flared during the 1850s, the journal’s content increasingly veered toward issues of states’ rights, defenses of slavery, and polemics against abolitionism.

George William Bagby

In 1860, when Thompson became editor of Southern Field and Fireside, and a physician, George W. Bagby took over the journal, the Southern Literary Messenger became a propagandistic organ of southern seccessionism. Severing all ties with the northern literary establishment, Bagby published “purely Southern articles … that smack of the soil,” as he wrote in his June 1860 “Editor’s Table.” During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the journal published accounts of battles, and criticized both the North and the Confederate government, especially its president, Jefferson Davis. As economic conditions deteriorated in Virginia during the war, the journal ceased publication in 1864.

RELATED CONTENT
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TIMELINE
1834
The Southern Literary Messenger, one of the most successful and influential literary magazines in the antebellum South, is founded by Thomas Willis White.
1835
John Pendleton Kennedy encourages Edgar Allan Poe to apply for an assistant editor position at the Southern Literary Messenger, a Richmond-based magazine founded the previous year by Thomas Willis White. Poe receives the job and is soon promoted to editor.
January 1837
Edgar Allan Poe leaves his job as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger and moves north, working in various editorial posts, most notably at Graham's Magazine in Philadelphia.
1842
The Southern Literary Messenger is sold to Benjamin Blake Minor, after Thomas White suffers a stroke.
1845
The Southern Literary Messenger acquires Southern and Western Monthly Magazine.
1847
The Southern Literary Messenger is sold to John Reuben Thompson.
June 1860
George William Bagby is named editor of the Southern Literary Messenger and uses the journal to promote Southern secessionism before and during the Civil War.
1864
The Southern Literary Messenger ceases publication as economic conditions deteriorate in Virginia during the American Civil War.
FURTHER READING
  • Minor, Benjamin. The Southern Literary Messenger, 1834–1864. Edited by Jonathan Daniel Wells. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Davis, David. Southern Literary Messenger. (2020, December 14). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/southern-literary-messenger.
MLA Citation:
Davis, David. "Southern Literary Messenger" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (14 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Sep. 2021
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