When Edgar Allan Poe met his inevitably mysterious and squalid end

When Edgar Allan Poe met his inevitably mysterious and squalid end in 1849, he was on the way to an editing job in Philadelphia. His destination was unsurprising in some ways; the city was the racing heart of magazine publishing and he'd been employed in the past on a slew of titles there, such as Graham's and Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. These and the city's other big hitters were the United States' first national press, reaching into homes from Baton Rouge to Saskatchewan, and in the previous ten years Poe’s name had helped make their fortunes.

What was macabrely coincidental, though, was that Philadelphia’s most popular title, run by Poe’s old friend John Sartain, was the stage he had chosen to unveil what he (and Sartain) suspected would be his last work, Annabel Lee. Poe had plenty to thank Sartain for, not least declining to loan him a razor when Poe was hallucinating and probably suicidal, but his motives with Annabel Lee might have been more hard-headed – he charged his friend $30 for it, for one thing. And he knew that Sartain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art was huge, with a circulation of 50,000; in fact, it had reshaped what a magazine of the time could be.

John Sartain is a bit of a difficult character for the modern reader to comprehend. A Londoner by birth, he’d followed a straight-up career path from engraver’s apprentice to master of the mezzotint, a luxuriant variant of etching. His work may have hung on drawing room walls but his skill was seen as a trade, not artistry. After he sailed for the US aged 20, though, he took to oils, watercolours and drawing. His desire to make his own art, rather than copy other works for print sales, was intense.

But he doesn't fit with our image of an influential artist, especially not a late-romantic one. He was a freemason and a businessman more than a bohemian, not especially anti-establishment and certainly no hellraiser. At home, he was a model Victorian patriarchy. In fact, despite his best efforts at the canvas, it is his work in mezzotint that has proved his most valuable legacy. It’s there in your pocket in the portrait on any banknote, and it’s there in the beguiling art design of Sartain’s Union Magazine.

When Sartain bought the title, he already knew he would have to make it stand out against the competition. Most especially, he wanted to emulate and outstrip Graham’s Magazine, where nearly a decade earlier he had become friends with its newly appointed editor, Edgar Allen Poe. His mezzotint illustrations powered Graham’s bold visual style, while Poe’s literary genius peppered its pages – The Murders in the Rue Morgue was first published here – and brought in work by the likes of Longfellow and Irving.

During their partnership, circulation his 40,000

During their partnership, circulation hit 40,000 but Poe walked out after a year, chafing at his $800 salary (in 1841 a bricklayer could earn $600). In a bitter twist, he was replaced with unseemly haste by his priggish rival and fiercest critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who trousered $1,000 a year. Poe seethed, even though the wider journalistic world rallied to him. “We would give more for Edgar Allan Poe’s toe nail,” wrote one hack, “than we would for Griswold’s soul, unless we wanted a milk-strainer. Them’s our sentiments.”

But Sartain stayed on at Graham’s, surviving Griswold’s short, mean-spirited reign and producing a work every two weeks for publication. He left as a literary heavyweight and decided that Sartain’s was to be different from Philadelphia’s other magazines, with their fripperies, flippancy and sensation. Poe had always resented giving space to fashion and music at Graham’s and now Sartain began to think he might have had a point. He determined to make Sartain’s home to an intensely American literature and art.

Its pages were filled with short stories written by both men and women that were earnest, philosophical and often piously moralistic; meanwhile factual pieces focused on taste, imagination and aesthetics. In short, it was catnip to the nation’s newly minted middle classes, still wincing at the memory of their barely literate immigrant parents. And if work by Poe and Graham’s contributors like Longfellow added a daring edge, Sartain’s mezzotints and art direction set the magazine's visual style high above its competitors.

Like any art director given editorial control, Sartain was in the habit of commissioning short stories and essays to accompany his engravings, not vice versa, which could make for eclectic editorial decisions. But when it came to Poe’s submissions – Sartain’s was first to publish The Bells – he was content to let the work breathe, unadorned. in its first imprint, the poem sits in two columns on a left-hand page with only a single point-size change across its title and five stanzas. The respect Sartain had for Poe and the friendship the two enjoyed made it all the more galling, then, that the poet’s wish for Annabel Lee was not fulfilled: Sartain’s was not the first to publish its lilting, seasick tale of love and grief.

“In the December number of our Magazine we announced that we had another poem of Mr Poe’s in hand, which we would publish in January,” wrote Sartain in a foreword to his readers. “We supposed it to be his last, as we received it from him a short time before his decease. The sheet containing our announcement was scarcely dry, before we saw the poem, which we had bought and paid for, going the rounds of the newspaper press, into which it had found its way through some agency which will perhaps be hereafter explained.”

In reality, Sartain didn’t need an explanation. He already knew who was behind the pseudonym Ludwig that bylined a poisonous obituary of Poe in the New York Daily Tribune, and which ended with Annabel Lee reproduced in its entirety. “Edgar Allan Poe is dead,” it began. “This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” That touching opener was from the pen of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe's nemesis, whose snatching of Sartain’s scoop was just the beginning of a campaign to discredit the Poe that lasted until Griswold's death eight years later.

By that time, Sartain’s was gone – Sartain himself had been double-crossed by his business partner, who siphoned money out of the company and left huge debts. Near the end of the century, in his autobiography Reminiscences of a Very Old Man, Sartain purported to see no value in the years of his Union Magazine. “It was disastrous venture to me and all those caught in my partner’s net,” he wrote. And yet was he really so unaware of the influence of his work in mezzotint and graphic design? It's worth remembering that Sartain was also a journalist with an eye for the dramatic, who wrote of Poe in 1893, “I never once saw him drunk.” So he may have been an unreliable narrator, even when it came to his own lasting legacy.

Paul Fairclough writes about film, culture and other artsy stuff when he can, and business and current affairs when he has to. His work has appeared in Little White Lies, Sight and Sound, The Guardian and Monocle Travel Guides among others.

Art by Jason Ngai