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The Easy Chair Excerpts: Poe’s “How to Write a Blackwood Article”

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Blackwood’s Magazine was a British magazine and miscellany founded in the nineteenth century. They published current events, as well as a great deal of fiction, which inspired countless writers, such as Charles Dickens, and the Brontë sisters. But the notorious Mr. Edgar Allan Poe decided to write a satire dedicated to the famous magazine — perhaps as a joke on the strictness of such a formal publication, and its tendency to strangle the life out of its writers — but perhaps not.

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In any case, it’s a splendid showcase of Poe’s talent for dry comedy. It’s told from the perspective of one Psyche Zenobia, corresponding secretary to the “Philadelphia, Regular, Exchange, Tea, Total, Young, Belles, Lettres, Universal, Experimental, Bibliographical, Association, To, Civilize, Humanity.” Or — P.R.E.T.T.Y.B.L.U.E.B.A.T.C.H. for short. Miss Zenobia likes to have it known that, when she is wearing her new crimson satin dress, with the sky-blue Arabian mantelet, and the trimmings of green agraffas, and the seven flounces of orange-colored auriculas, she is of a very striking appearance indeed.

When I joined the society (Miss Zenobia says) it was my endeavor to introduce a better style of thinking and writing, and all the world knows how well I have succeeded. We get up as good papers now in the P.R.E.T.T.Y.B.L.U.E.B.A.T.C.H. as any to be found even in Blackwood. I say, Blackwood, because I have been assured that the finest writing, upon every subject, is to be discovered in the pages of that justly celebrated Magazine. We now take it for our model upon all themes, and are getting into rapid notice accordingly. And, after all, it’s not so very difficult a matter to compose an article of the genuine Blackwood stamp, if one only goes properly about it.

It’s most entertaining to witness Miss Zenobia’s meeting with Mr. Blackwood himself — in which, of course, she learns exactly how to craft “an article of the genuine Blackwood stamp.”

When reciting certain articles that are worth reading, Mr. Blackwood says, “And then there was ‘The Man in the Bell,’ a paper by-the-by, Miss Zenobia, which I cannot sufficiently recommend to your attention. It is the history of a young person who goes to sleep under the clapper of a church bell, and is awakened by its tolling for a funeral. The sound drives him mad, and, accordingly, pulling out his tablets, he gives a record of his sensations. Sensations are the great things after all. Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure to make a note of your sensations — they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet. If you wish to write forcibly, Miss Zenobia, pay minute attention to the sensations . . .

“The first thing requisite is to get yourself into such a scrape as no one ever got into before. The oven, for instance, — that was a good hit. (Referring, of course, to “The Involuntary Experimentalist” — “all about a gentleman who got baked in an oven, and came out alive and well, but certainly done to a turn.”) But if you have no oven, or big bell, at hand, and if you cannot conveniently tumble out of a balloon, or be swallowed up in an earthquake, or get stuck fast in a chimney, you will have to be contented with simply imagining some similar misadventure. I should prefer, however, that you have the actual fact to bear you out. Nothing so well assists the fancy, as an experimental knowledge of the matter in hand. ‘Truth is strange,’ you know, ‘stranger than fiction’ — besides being more to the purpose.

Here I assured him (says Miss Zenobia) I had an excellent pair of garters, and would go and hang myself forthwith.

“Good!” he replied, “do so; — although hanging is somewhat hackneyed. Perhaps you might do better. Take a dose of Brandreth’s pills, and then give us your sensations. However, my instructions will apply equally well to any variety of misadventure, and in your way home you may easily get knocked in the head, or run over by an omnibus, or bitten by a mad dog, or drowned in a gutter. But to proceed . . .

“Above all, study innuendo. Hint everything — assert nothing. If you feel inclined to say ‘bread and butter,’ do not by any means say it outright. You may say anything and everything approaching to ‘bread and butter.’ You may hint at buck-wheat cake, or you may even go so far as to insinuate oat-meal porridge, but if bread and butter be your real meaning, be cautious, my dear Miss Psyche, not on any account to say ‘bread and butter!’ “

Leaving out a few minor details, Mr. Blackwood and Miss Zenobia eventually wrap up their meeting, with very good feelings on both sides.

I was, at length, able to write a genuine Blackwood article (says Miss Zenobia) and determined to do it forthwith. In taking leave of me, Mr. B. made a proposition for the purchase of the paper when written; but as he could offer me only fifty guineas a sheet, I thought it better to let our society have it, than sacrifice it for so paltry a sum. Notwithstanding this niggardly spirit, however, the gentleman showed his consideration for me in all other respects, and indeed treated me with the greatest civility. His parting words made a deep impression upon my heart, and I hope I shall always remember them with gratitude.

“My dear Miss Zenobia,” he said, while the tears stood in his eyes, “is there any thing else I can do to promote the success of your laudable undertaking? Let me reflect! It is just possible that you may not be able, so soon as convenient, to — to — get yourself drowned, or — choked with a chicken-bone, or — or hung, — or — bitten by a — but stay! Now I think me of it, there are a couple of very excellent bull-dogs in the yard — fine fellows, I assure you — savage, and all that — indeed just the thing for your money — they’ll have you eaten up, auriculas and all, in less than five minutes (here’s my watch!) and then only think of the sensations! Here! I say — Tom! — Peter! — Dick, you villain! — let out those” — but as I was really in a great hurry (says Miss Zenobia), and had not another moment to spare, I was reluctantly forced to expedite my departure, and accordingly took leave at once — somewhat more abruptly, I admit, than strict courtesy would have otherwise allowed.

And so — Miss Zenobia does manage to avoid being eaten by savage bull-dogs. But of course, she very well understands the hospitable sentiment behind Mr. Blackwood’s initial offer! And also, she can’t be more appreciative for the advice of such a learned and seasoned gentleman.

Who wouldn’t be?

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