A Chapter On Autography


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.