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American Mystery Fiction

In keeping with the old saw that if two or more people agree about a rumor, it must be true, it is strongly emphasized here that this is a work of fiction, and any and all references and/or resemblance to persons or events of the past are fictional, and therefore are covered by artistic license. REG



H.

Journal entry

20 August,1888


Today I was accosted in the sanctuary of the Century Association clubhouse by P., the literary critic for The New-York Times.


And I was flabbergasted.


He publicly accused me of single-handedly lowering the exalted standards of American literature, and (if you can believe this cheek) literacy, by creating a low-class genre of written work to pander to what he deemed the “hoi polloi.” It was a scurrilous attack and I denied it, of course. But my question is, how did he know?


So, to set the record straight, I choose to note this account down now, should the facts ever become public knowledge, in the future. I do this both to preserve E.A.’s sterling reputation, as well as to potentially vindicate my own, if necessary. Reading this, some may say I acted in self-interest to enhance my own modest credentials as a writer and author; however, the collective, good-willed interpretation of history will ultimately establish the truth of it, for what will become the public record.


Because when I am done with these thoughts, they will go into a strongbox to be opened twenty years after my death, and my executors will have the discretion to make them public, or to burn them, depending on what is generally regarded as factual in the public domain of that future time. It is a fine line that I walk here. I seek not to discredit or dishonor E.A. in any way; however, I also do not want an unsightly blemish to spot mine own literary reputation, such as it is. So, I am reserving the opportunity to have my voice heard regarding the matter, should it become necessary.


There is no shame in what I did, either for E.A. or me, and the tale is a simple one. It happened almost fifty years ago now. In the years since then, I have achieved some modest authorial success of my own; however, I was just a stripling then, a mere lad of twenty-one, but even at that tender age, a writer nevertheless, but struggling.


E. A., however, was a decade older than me and well on his way to establishing himself as the literary giant he became. He was actually making a living from his craft (no small thing), however much he had to fight with his publishers to collect payment. And so, I was flattered when he made his request. Our working arrangement was but a straightforward commercial transaction; he would pay me to write a work of prose for him that had already been commissioned for publication.


As to the why of it? There are many possible answers. E.A.’s explanation at the time for asking me to write the story was that he had taken on too many projects and this was the only way that he could fulfill the commission, preserve his reputation as a reliable scrivener who met his deadlines, and, of course, collect payment. And I, in my youthful enthusiasm and in awe of his standing, was eager to accept. I will add here that, since then, I have never regretted my decision for a moment.


“You do understand, H.” he said earnestly after we had spoken at length of the outline of the story that I was to produce, “that you will be getting the short end of the stick. You will do the work, but it will be published under my name. I will get the credit.”


“But you will pay?” I reiterated, even though this had been alluded to, stated several times, and agreed upon, during our discussion. If I sounded tentative and uncertain it was not a reflection on his veracity, but of the generally tenuous financial arrangements that were taking place between writers and publishers back then, especially those with the periodicals. Business in this vein is much improved for authors and poets today, due to the since-established copyright act, but were known to be dire then, for this group. Writers were often short-changed or cheated outright of their payments. And E.A. well understood this, because he regarded me thoughtfully but intensely from under those dark beetled brows, before relaxing into, what was for him, a smile.


“My dear fellow,” he said, with the comforting reassurance of long experience and grounded wisdom supporting his words, “Of course I’ll pay. I may have to humiliate myself by going in cap-in-hand to the offices of these philistines to collect what has been promised and is owed me for my work, but I would never think to inflict that indignity on another author, one of our own small, often put-upon, and underpaid creative community.”


I was thrilled with this acknowledgement of my rather thin credentials at the time as enough to admit me into what he regarded as a community of authors, where, in my mind, he stood as tall as a ship’s mainmast, among so many garden stakes.


And I readily agreed to his terms, which were very generous. The twenty-seven dollars that he promised, would carry me for at least two weeks, and probably three if I stretched it out. And so, I became E.A.’s shadow scribe; or perhaps his ghost, might have been a better word for what I did. Working in his shadow as an ethereal simulacrum of E.A. himself, I created a work of short fiction that was published under his name, has now stood the test of scrutiny for almost fifty years, and is widely imitated.


There was never any written agreement between us. He did not offer one, and I did not ask. I took him at his word, which was honorable. After I delivered the manuscript, he paid quickly upon the story’s publication in Graham’s Magazine.


I had the energy of youth then, and, working at an intense pace, it took me four days to complete and proof the draft, and then rewrite a clean copy. For a short story, it did take on an epic proportion, near that of a novella, and in the end my labor would work out to a little more than a quarter of a penny per word, but I was happily satisfied.


I cannot in honesty take full credit for the work because it was E.A. who provided both the inspiration and the outline. It was me however who crafted the complete account from the point of view of the unnamed narrator who is acquainted with the protagonist (who is a character as brilliant as he is enigmatic), as well as creating the gory and gruesome details involved in the crimes (multiple murders, most foul) that the story revolves around. In all modesty, I do consider my choice of villain (if villain is the right word here) to be a stroke of near genius, a preference we settled on after E.A. rejected two other suggestions we had discussed, one of them his own idea.


As to the story’s influence and staying power, E.A. went on to complete and publish two subsequent pieces of prose cast in a similar fashion, where the very named protagonist that I had created, reappeared to triumph in those two stories. These, he wrote in his own words, without my help (or anyone else’s, that I know of). So, again, I was then, and remain now, very much flattered by his acceptance of my work as having merit enough to publish under his name. And, I admit, I am also proud that the resulting story has held up so well. But I am not so vain that I would want, in any way, to do damage to E.A.’s reputation, to benefit my own.


It has long been discussed and theorized among authors and writers that there is a finite number of themes that comprise the plot of a story, with no agreement on how many; some argue five, some seven, and some even greater numbers. I have always tried to stay outside of what I consider to be pointless discourse and dispute, although, if asked, I would have to cast my vote with Aristotle.


But I will have to acknowledge that the supercilious Times’ critic may actually have a partial point in that the type of story that E.A. and I first created back those many years ago may have been the sprinkled seed of a literary trend that has lately begun to sprout growth. I noted that just last year a story appeared in Beeton’s by that British physician, Doyle, that took on a very similar convention and tone to E.A.’s (and my) original work of four decades ago, to where, perhaps out of envy (who is to say?), the author mildly disparaged the character that I had created, by name. Ah, well, I take no offence, as it is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.


Also, it should be stated that E.A. and I did fence a bit over the title of that first longish piece of short-prose that I shadow-wrote for him. Although I was the junior in the matter, after laboring for four days on it, I had developed a dogmatic, proprietary attachment to my creation and our debate was vigorous. In the end we compromised, and due to the ravages of time on memory, I cannot now say exactly how the final version of the title was chosen. It matters not; the story stands.


I lost touch with E.A. for a time because it was shortly after the publication of that story that I went to sea again for three more years, which was where I assimilated the sights, sounds, language, and other flavors for the mind that went into much of my authored work that followed that enlightening adventure. When I came back, my efforts to focus and concentrate on harvesting the literary results from the extensive body of knowledge I had absorbed, pushed aside much else in my life. This I do regret.


Also, I will say here that despite my efforts, and I state without modesty that they were considerable – nine books of prose and a number of short stories in the ten-year period following my time at sea – I was not able to earn enough from them alone to support my family. Even travelling outside my own country again for a time did not help. This was a bitter tonic to swallow, and I was finally obligated to seek paid employment away from the literary sphere, but I have since reconciled myself to the understanding that the path of an author does not always lead to riches. If one is compelled to write, as some of us are, it may be enough to derive and savor the intense satisfaction that comes from the pure creative process, and the knowledge of one’s work singularly well-accomplished.


Indeed, until my unpleasant interaction with P. in the Century clubhouse today, I had thought little of E.A. in recent years. I have, for the most part, turned away from prose and focused muchly on verse. I was much aggrieved by the War Between the States and have sought to explain and characterize it since then, with words, both in verse and prose, and to help reconcile its aftermath. This without much success, I must add. I am also currently dabbling with a novella, but am finding the work grueling, so it is taking form slowly.


I am at a loss as to how P. from The Times may have come upon the information that I once created a work of prose in E.A.’s shadow, back in those long-ago days. Of late I had heard rumors that E.A.’s original manuscript for that first story that I wrote, once casually relegated to a waste-paper basket after publication, had been rescued by a junior employee, purchased by a third-party, and preserved for posterity. But rumors are just rumors; there is always someone out to make mischief, especially if there is coin to be had, or someone’s character or reputation to tarnish.


If I recall correctly, E.A. had re-copied out my twice-copied submission in his own hand before he submitted it for publication. This was because the modern-day convenience of Hammond and Remington typing machinery – now commonplace in publishing – was not available back then. Although he did not state so, I am confident that he would have taken great pains to ensure the destruction of my original document. So, I estimate that the chances of that manuscript turning up in my handwriting are very slim indeed, but there is always the possibility, and that is what is most troubling.


Despite all precautions, the original manuscript drafted in my hand may still exist, and, if it does, it may have been brought forward to some accredited historian for authentication. In a case like that, there would have been peer to peer conversations taking place in academia. And – with due deference to the calculations of Newton, Bradley, Fizeau and Michelson-Morley – as gossip also travels at the speed of light, that may be what P. had seized upon and was pontificating about. Or, he may have only heard the wisp of a rumor and have been fishing for more solid substance, as it were, when he button-holed me so insolently in the Century’s clubhouse.


But there is one other possibility. Although E.A. and I were not close personally, and that singular short story that I created from his outline was the only literary composition that he ever commissioned from me, I did send him some of my work on one other occasion. It was the year before he died and although I was focused intently on completing my third novel after I had returned from sea, I had briefly raised my head from those labors to engage again with society. I was also contemplating marriage at the time and was dealing with the mental conflict and confusion that I still held onto from a previous amorous dalliance. So, I turned to poetry.


I had been inspired by a youthful obsession years before with a beautiful young woman by the name of A. I drafted several stanzas with different rhyming patterns, almost something that might be set to music. I thought that by writing A. out of my head, I would resolve all the old emotions that I had carried for her and so be fully open to committing my deep affection, nay love, for E., who became my wife.


But the poem had taken on a life of its own, and as I wrote, re-wrote, and added stanzas, my reasoning, and my purpose, became clouded. And then I thought of my previous close association with E.A. of those past years and thought to solicit his advice as to how to best tame and train my recalcitrant verse. He had become even more well known in the world of poetry and prose in my absence at sea, and, with my request for counsel, I also sent him my sincere congratulations on his literary prominence and wished him well.


E.A. acknowledged my correspondence within a week, thanked me for my compliments and sent back his thoughts as to how I might make my verse tighter to better convey the love for A. that had burned so intensely in my heart. E.A.’s reply to me has long since been discarded or lost in my many moves, but my letter to him with the draft verses that I sent may still exist in his papers. It is also possible (although I don’t remember specifically) that I may have referred to our earlier literary collaboration, in that letter.


So, in light of this, it is possible that P. from The Times (or someone else) has laid his hands on those pages written in my hand and has (as people say) put two and two together to make four. Only time will tell.


E. A. was lost to the world of words and the rest of us far too soon. He died young, within the same decade that the groundbreaking story was published that, in part, has now established his status as a literary lion. This was not always so. Immediately after his death, he was the victim of vicious character assassination that damaged his professional and personal reputation for more than twenty years. It was not until about a decade ago that a noted historian countered those early smears with a more balanced biography.


As for P.’s accusation about a work of fiction lowering the standards of American literature and literacy; that he would make such a statement says much about him, and it isn’t flattering. There are those who would denigrate the things they don’t understand, or perhaps fear, to make themselves look important. I regard P. as an arrogant and pompous twit, and his assertion about “lowering standards” as pure poppycock.


The true test of a tale well told is both the length of time that it endures, and how often it is imitated. The story that P. referred to, has had many imitators.


I have been deliberately oblique in setting down this account in case it should have fallen into the wrong hands. It will take someone with true inside knowledge of E.A.’s body of work to decipher which story I refer to herein.


If you are reading this document, I will have been gone these past twenty years, or more. I attest to its accuracy and veracity below, and it is notarized with the seal and signature of a principal of one of the city’s oldest and most venerable legal firms. Make of it what you will.


H.

Notarized: T. J. & W., Partners in Law, NYC

W.

22 August, 1888

April 20, 2023 18:56

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8 comments

Michał Przywara
20:39 Apr 24, 2023

The tone of the piece is fitting the era, and I'll admit, the mystery pulled me in :) I suspected E. A. had to be Poe, but I'm not a historian and am only vaguely aware of the past, and I wasn't sure about H. I see RJ (correctly) guessed Melville - I was stuck on Lovecraft, though I suspected they never actually interacted, and yes, looking it up after reading the story, Lovecraft was born long after Poe died. So much for history lessons :) Sherlock I am not. Oh well, the story was still fun to read and reason about, and it makes me wond...

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Richard E. Gower
22:20 Apr 30, 2023

Thanks for the read, Michal, and your generous comments. I always value your insight on this forum .-:) Cheers! RG

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Mary Bendickson
17:38 Apr 23, 2023

Oh, you literary types are much too literal for me! I have some guesses but would show my ignorance divulging them:)

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Richard E. Gower
10:33 Apr 24, 2023

Thanks for the read, Mary. -:) Cheers! RG

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Michelle Oliver
01:41 Apr 21, 2023

This reads so authentically. I am so impressed by the beauty of the language and the way the missive was crafted with careful precision, thought and intent. -I have been deliberately oblique in setting down this account Oblique indeed, yet so cleverly crafted that it reads with great plausibility and historical accuracy, and due to the tightness of the POV we never doubt the reliability of the narrator. Thanks for sharing

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Richard E. Gower
10:32 Apr 24, 2023

Thanks so much for the read, your always welcome analysis, and the kudos, Michelle. They mean everything. -:) Cheers! RG

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RJ Holmquist
21:00 Apr 20, 2023

Great re-creation of a period style! I love the mystery. I am assuming that even though the claim being made is pure fiction, that the authors and the short story in question are meant to refer to real people and works. My guess: The short story in question= Murders in the Rue Morgue This is the precursor to Sherlock Holmes I think right? And published in Graham's maybe? E.A.= Poe H.= Melville? The timing seems right and he wrote his novels after being at sea. P. = I have no guess The women E. and A. I also have no guess for. Great ...

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Richard E. Gower
10:29 Apr 24, 2023

R.J., if prizes were being given out, you would get the gold medal. -:) All your ratiocination was correct, including naming Poe and Melville. As for P., he does not represent an actual person, he is merely a figment of mine own imagination. I was told by two early readers that they thought that I hadn't left enough clues along the way for readers to connect the dots, but you quickly proved that to be fallacious, -Great deducting! -:) I will leave E. and A. unaccounted for at this stage, as they are also clues, although admittedly much mo...

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