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A Chapter On Autography

July 2024
8min read

Early in 1841 Edgar Allan Poe became the first literary editor of the new Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine . Poe, already a force in American letters, found in Graham’s a superb showcase for his powerful imagination; for the owner and editor, George Rex Graham, was open to any project that would enliven his publication. The average literary magazine of the era was an amalgam of the mediocre, the conventional, and the insipid. Graham set out to revamp this weary field with fresh material, and it is a pretty fair index of his success that in little more than a year’s time the magazine’s subscribers increased from eight to forty thousand. Graham’s recipe was simple enough on the face of it; he gave his readers light essays, originalßction, and verse and spiked it all with sprightly editorial gossip. In so doing he produced that rarity, a magazine equally attractive to men and women, and for a while Graham’s yielded the then enormous annual profit of fifty thousand dollars. Graham’s editorial mixture was ideally suited to Poe’s restless genius. For example, Poe wrote to virtually all the famous American authors of his time, and soon he had assembled enough replies to enable him to embark on a curious project.

In November of 1841 Poe published “A Chapter on Autography.” In it he wrote

… that a strong analogy does generally and naturally exist between every man’s chirography and character, will be denied by none but the unreflecting. … Our design is three-fold:—In the first place, seriously to illustrate our position that the mental features are indicated (with certain exceptions) by the hand-writing; secondly, to indulge in a little literary gossip; and, thirdly, to furnish our readers with a more accurate and at the same time a more general collection of the autographs of our literati than is to be found elsewhere. … Next to the person of a distinguished man-of-letters, we desire to see his portrait—next to his portrait, his autograph. In the latter, especially, there is something which seems to bring him before us in his true idiosyncrasy—in his character of scribe.

The article that followed was composed entirely of reproductions of autographs accompanied by brief notes m which Poe used the peculiarities of the handwriting to illumine each author’s character. With its resonances of the occult and its opportunities to cavil at rivals, this literary handwriting analysis was a natural occupation for Poe, and he carried it through with evident enthusiasm.

Poe does not seem to search very deeply into psychological implications hidden in the loops and curlicues of the signatures—which he refers to as the MS ., that is, manuscript or handwriting—and some of his analyses are wonderfully unedifying. Of the popular author James Kirke Paulding, for instance, he writes,

No correct notion of Mr. Paulding’s literary peculiarities can be obtained from an inspection of his MS ., which, no doubt, has been strongly modified by adventitious circumstances. His small as, ts, and cs are all alike. … The paper which he ordinarily uses is of a very fine glossy texture, and of a blue tint, with gilt edges. His signature is a good specimen of his general hand.

On the, other hand the signature of Professor Charles Anthon of Columbia College, which to the untutored eye is not signally different from that of Mr. Paulding, inspires Poe to a good eighty lines of mildly abusive speculation, concluding authoritatively,

We see … in Professor Anthon’s autography, each and all of the known idiosyncrasies of his taste and intellect. We recognise at once the scrupulous precision and finish of his scholarship and of his style—the love of elegance which prompts him to surround himself, n his private study with gems of sculptural art, and beautifully bound volumes, all arranged with elaborate attention to form, and in the very pedantry of neatness. We perceive, too, the disdain oj superfluous embellishment which distinguished his compilations, and which gives to their exterior appearance so marked an air of Quakerism. We must not forget to observe that the “want of force” is a want as perceptible in the whole character of the man, as in that of the MS .

If this seems to be a good deal of information to mine out of Anthon’s staid signature, then consider Poes response to that of a Mr. Benjamin, which speaks clearly to him of the man’s “exquisite sensibility and passion.” One does not have to read through many of Poe’s analyses to suspect that the author is perpetrating a cheerful fraud and has done no more than light on a clever way to air his opinions of his contemporaries. Whatever his beliefs about the efficacy of handwriting analysis, his pithy, sardonic observations make good reading. In the end, of course, they reveal far more about Poe than about his subjects.

The article must have been popular, for Poe went on to write two more, eventually scrutinizing the signatures of over a hundred men and women. His compilation provides a plangent lesson about the transience of fame; Poe in his introduction stressed that “in the necessity of selection which circumstances impose upon us, we confine ourselves to the most noted among the living literati of the country,” yet for every familiar name there are a dozen that are today completely forgotten. Here, then, is a selection of signatures of men and women, famous and obscure, as they appeared in Graham’s Magazine, together with Poe’s barbed commentary. A few of the authors under examination are shown as they appeared in an 1888 set of “Authors.” It is some index of the huge popularity of that uplifting card game that this particular set is only one of scores in the collection of Herbert J. Siegel of Wyncote, Pennsylvania. —R.F.S.

Mr. Ingraham, or Ingrahame, (for he writes his name sometimes with, and sometimes without the e ), is one of our most popular novelists, if not one of our best. He appeals always to the taste of the ultra-romanticists (as a matter, we believe, rather of pecuniary policy than of choice) and thus is obnoxious to the charge of a certain cut-and-thrust, blue-fire, melodramaticism. Still, he is capable of better things. His chirography is very unequal; at times, sufficiently clear and flowing, at others, shockingly scratchy and uncouth. From it nothing whatever can be predicated, except an uneasy vacillation of temper and of purpose.

Mr. Cooper’s MS . is very bad— unformed , with little of distinctive character about it, and varying greatly in different epistles. In most of those before us a steel pen has been employed, the lines are crooked, and the whole chirography has a constrained and school-boyish air. … Without appearing ill-natured, we could scarcely draw any inferences from such a MS . Mr. Cooper has seen manyvicissitudes, and it is probable that he has not always written thus. Whatever are his faults, his genius cannot be doubted.

J. Greenleaf Whittier, is placed by his particular admirers in the very front rank of American poets. We are not disposed, however, to agree with their decision in every respect. Mr. Whittier is a fine versifier, so far as strength is regarded independently of modulation. His subjects, too, are usually chosen with the view of affording scope to a certain vivida vis of expression which seems to be his forte; but in taste, and especially in imagination , which Coleridge has justly styled the soul of all poetry, he is even remarkably deficient. His themes are never to our liking.

His chirography is an ordinary clerk’s hand, affording little indication of character.

Mrs. Embury is chiefly known by her contributions to the Periodicals of the country. She is one of the most nervous of our female writers, and is not destitute of originality—that rarest of all qualities in a woman, and especially in an American woman.

Her MS . evinces a strong disposition to fly off at a tangent from the old formulae of the Boarding Academies. Both in it, and in her literary style, it would be well that she should no longer hesitate to discard the absurdities of mere fashion.

The chirography of Ex-President Adams, (whose poem, “The Wants of Man,” has, of late, attracted so much attention), is remarkable for a certain steadiness of purpose pervading the whole, and overcoming even the constitutional tremulousness of the writer’s hand. Wavering in every letter, the entire MS. has yet a firm, regular, and decisive appearance. …

Mr. Bryant’s MS . puts us entirely at fault. It is one of the most commonplace clerk’s hands which we ever encountered, and has no character about it beyond that of the day-book and ledger. He writes, in short, what mercantile men and professional penmen call a fair hand, but what artists would term an abominable one. Among its regular up and down strokes, waving lines and hair-lines, systematic taperings and flourishes, we look in vain for the force, polish, and decision of the poet. The picturesque, to be sure, is equally deficient in his chirography and in his poetical productions.

Mr. J. R. Lowell, of Massachusetts, is entitled, in our opinion, to at least the second or third place among the poets of America. …

His MS . is strongly indicative of the vigor and precision of his poetical thought. The man who writes thus, for example, will never be guilty of metaphorical extravagance, and there will be found terseness as well as strength in all that he does.

Mr. L. J. Cist, of Cincinnati, has not written much prose, and is known especially by his poetical compositions, many of which have been very popular, although they are at times disfigured by false metaphor, and by a meretricious straining after effect. This latter foible makes itself clearly apparent in his chirography, which abounds in ornamental flourishes, not illy executed, but in very bad taste.

Mr. Dawes has been long known as a poet; but his claims are scarcely yet settled. … His longer poems … will not bear examination. “Athenia of Damascus” is pompous nonsense, and “Géraldine” a most ridiculous imitation of Don Juan, in which the beauties of the original have been as sedulously avoided, as the blemishes have been blunderingly culled. In style, he is, perhaps, the most inflated, involved, and falsely-figurative, of any of our more noted poets. … His apparent erudition is mere verbiage, and, were it real, would be lamentably out of place where we see it. He seems to have been infected with a blind admiration of Coleridge—especially of his mysticism and cant.

The handwriting of Grenville Meilen is somewhat peculiar, and partakes largely of the character of his signature as seen above. The whole is highly indicative of the poet’s flighty, hyper-fanciful character, with his unsettled and often erroneous ideas of the beautiful. His straining after effect is well paralleled in the formation of the preposterous G in the signature, with the two dots byits side. Mr. Meilen has genius unquestionably, but there is something in his temperament which obscures it.

Colonel Stone, the editor of the New York “Commercial Advertiser,” is remarkable for the great difference which exists between the apparent public opinion respecting his abilities, and the real estimation in which he is privately held. Through his paper, and a bustling activity always prone to thrust itself forward, he has attained an unusual degree of influence in New York, and, not only this, but what appears to be a reputation for talent. But this talent we do not remember ever to have heard assigned him by any honest man’s private opinion. We place him among our literati , because he has published certain books. Perhaps the best of these are his “Life of Brandt,” and “Life and Times of Red Jacket.” Of the rest, his story called “Ups and Downs,” his defence of Animal Magnetism, and his pamphlets concerning Maria Monk, are scarcely the most absurd. His MS . is heavy and sprawling, resembling his mental character in a species of utter unmeaningness, which lies, like the nightmare, upon his autograph.

HW. Longfellow, (Professor of Moral Philosophy at Harvard), is entitled to the first place among the poets of America—certainly to the first place among those who have put themselves prominently forth as poets. His good qualities are all of the highest order, while his sins are chiefly those of affectation and imitation—an imitation sometimes verging upon downright theft.

His MS . is remarkably good, and is fairly exemplified in the signature. We see here plain indications of the force, vigor, and glowing richness of his literary style; the deliberate and steady finish of his compositions. The man who writes thus may not accomplish much, but what he does, will always be thoroughly done. …

The MS . of Mr. Irving has little about it indicative of his genius. Certainly, no one could suspect from it any nice finish in the writer’s compositions; nor is this nice finish to be found. … Mr. Irving has travelled much, has seen many vicissitudes, and has been so thoroughly satiated with fame as to grow slovenly in the performance of his literary tasks. This slovenliness has affected his hand-writing. But even from his earlier MSS . there is little to be gleaned, except the ideas of simplicity and precision. It must be admitted, however, that this fact, in itself, is characteristic of the literary manner, which, however excellent, has no prominent or very remarkable features.

Mr. Everett’s MS . is a noble one. It has about it an air of deliberate precision emblematic of the statesman, and a mingled grace and solidity betokening the scholar. Nothing can be more legible, and nothing need be more uniform. The man who writes thus will never grossly err in judgment, or otherwise; but we may also venture to say that he will never attain the loftiest pinnacle of renown. …

Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson belongs to a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever—the mystics for mysticism’s sake. Quintilian mentions a pedant who taught obscurity, and who once said to a pupil, “this is excellent, for I do not understand it myself.” How the good man would have chuckled over Mr. E.! His present rôle seems to be the out-Carlyling Carlyle. …

His love of the obscure does not prevent him, nevertheless, from the composition of occasional poems in which beauty is apparent by flashes . …

His MS . is bad, sprawling, illegible and irregular—although sufficiently bold.

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