11 November 2022

The Curious Case of Mr. Poe & Mrs Hale

The centerpiece on our dining room table this month was inspired by three recent books my wife did on the subject of Thanksgiving. One figure is our old pal, Edgar Allan Poe. The limited edition Bobblehead depicts Sarah Josepha Hale.

Together, they and the turkey add up to an interesting tale with a connection to the mystery genre. In the 19th Century no editor was more powerful than Sarah Josepha Hale. For fifty years she edited the most-read periodicals in the nation, Godey’s Lady’s Book, published out of Philadelphia.

For $1 to $3 a year, Hale’s readers received monthly magazines that brought the world to the farflung homes of a growing nation, delivered by stagecoaches, steamboats, and pony express riders. In each issue, readers found sheet music, clothing patterns, blueprints for Victorian home designs, recipes, news, editorials, literary reviews, and works of fiction.

When Hale spoke, readers listened. When she suggested young ladies wear white dresses when they married, they did. When she described the curious European custom of erecting a Christmas tree in one’s home, Americans followed suit. Fifty percent of the nation blushed when she shared this exciting French word with her readers: lingerie. Hale drew the line at bloomers; she did not weigh in on that controversial bit of clothing until someone had invented a free-flowing garment women could wear when taking outdoor exercise.

Hale was a consummate crusader, but not in the way we think. She never warmed to the notion of giving women the vote. But every issue celebrated the idea of women’s education and important causes to which she urged her readers to contribute a few cents here and there. Micro-funding, in other words, as a way of making a big difference.

She ushered in the novel practice of paying professional writers for original work, instead of simply stealing copy from other publications.

Godey’s welcomed writers we would all recognize today: Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Stowe. Hale’s review section sang the praises of the young Louisa May Alcott. And then, one month in 1830, Godey’s celebrated the work of another young writer no one had ever heard of:
“It is very difficult to speak of these poems as they deserve. A part are exceedingly boyish, feeble, and altogether deficient in the common characteristics of poetry; but then we have parts too of considerable length, which remind us of no less a poet than Shelly [sic]. The author, who appears very young, is evidently a fine genius; but he wants judgment, experience, tact.”
The poetry collection was Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, the second volume of work ever published by—yes, you saw this coming—Edgar Allan Poe.

Scholars find it strange that Hale asked one of her regular contributors to cast a glance at one of Poe’s more forgettable works, and that the review appeared so quickly after publication. In order for the review to appear in this volume, she (or her reviewer John Neal) would have had to have received galleys months before the book came out. How did a 21-year-old self-published author with little clout or pocket money pull that off? We find something of a clue in a letter Hale received from her son, David E. Hale, Jr., a few years later:

I have communicated what you wrote to Mr. Poe, of whom perhaps you would like to know something. He ran away from his adopted father in Virginia who was very rich, has been in S. America, England, and has graduated at one of the Colleges there. He returned to America again and enlisted as a private soldier but feeling, perhaps a soldier’s pride, he obtained a cadet’s appointment and entered this Academy last June. He is thought a fellow of talent here but he is too mad a poet to like Mathematics.

Turns out, Hale’s son attended West Point, where he made the acquaintance of Poe. Did Poe cozy up to David, knowing David’s mother was the nation’s most influential editor? Who knows. We do know that nearly everything in David’s letter about his friend is a lie, but that’s how Poe rolled.

Poe later became a regular in Godey’s pages, contributing 22 pieces from 1834 to 1849—a mix of short stories, poems, essays, and literary gossip. The latter attracted the most notice. His column, “The Literati of New York City,” skewered his contemporaries to such a degree that New York writers complained, and Louis Godey—the magazine’s publisher—insisted on inserting a disclaimer that the opinions expressed in these articles were those of Mr. Poe’s, not Godey or Hale’s.

It’s hard to tell what Hale actually thought of Poe. One of Hale’s biographers suggests that she grew fond of Poe’s small, impoverished household, when they were living in the same city, Philadelphia, and may have helped the family with groceries and other necessities. While the magazine lavished praise on his later work, continuing to celebrate his “genius,” she’s on the record as having paid him pitifully for his work—50¢ a page for a story that appeared in her Christmas annual. (In this case, he would have pocketed $5 for a 10-page story.) That is not terribly bad, if that was all her budget allowed, but at the same time, Nathaniel Hawthorne demanded (and got) $25 a story from Godey’s. Hawthorne famously argued that if he held out for better pay, he’d be able to support his family writing only 12 stories a year. Can’t really blame him.

I have to wonder what Godey’s genteel readers made of the most famous story of Poe’s to appear in the magazine, the one in which a wealthy nobleman entombs his enemy alive in a basement crypt. A modern Hale biographer suggests that “The Cask of Amontillado” fit neatly within Hale’s worldview. She saw the world of men as hopelessly corrupt, goes the theory; women were the only hope for decency in such a world. (That particular issue goes for astronomical prices online.)

Cute story. But why is this unlikely pair decorating our Thanksgiving table in 2022? Because besides giving America white wedding dresses, Christmas trees, and the outlet for one of our most macabre authors, Hale also became the Mother of Thanksgiving. She was obsessed with the holiday her entire life and lobbied five US presidents to make Thanksgiving a national holiday that occurred on the same day every year. At that time in history, the holiday was declared by governors and lesser officials for whatever day they thought reasonable. George Washington had proclaimed a Thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November, 1799. John Adams did so too, but Jefferson maintained that the separation of church and state prevented a president from declaring a religious holiday. Later presidents whom Hale approached trotted out similar objections.

So it went until the depths of the Civil War, when Hale’s letter landed on the desk of Abraham Lincoln. His proclamation for the last Thursday in November 1863 was mocked by Confederate-leaning newspapers, but nevertheless observed by the Union. The holiday didn’t become official until an act of Congress in 1941.

I for one remain eternally grateful that Mrs. Hale lobbied presidents on behalf of this holiday. I shudder to think what we’d all be consuming at our bountiful holiday tables if Mr. Poe had been the one with the holiday obsession. I don’t think I could stomach carving the Thanksgiving raven.

I learned about this story and other connections from my wife's nonfiction books:

We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, A President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, by Denise Kiernan (Dutton, 2020).

Giving Thanks: How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday, by Denise Kiernan. (Philomel, 2022.)


  1. Interesting blog and We Gather Together sounds good, too.

  2. I had no idea about the connection between Godey's Lady's Book and Poe - thanks for the info!
    Trivia: I was first introduced to Godey's Lady's Book by "Little Town on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder, where the family is outfitting oldest daughter Mary to go the Iowa College for the Blind, but has no idea if hoops are in or out anymore (living, as they do in the wilds of Dakota Territory). So they check to see if a neighbor (5 miles away) has a GLB and can inform them what is the current fashion. Unfortunately, the neighbor only has a very old copy.

    1. That's a great story. I have to look that up. Godey's was remarkably successful because so many subscribers shared their copies with neighbors.

  3. Great post. Loved all the info.

  4. Interesting, Joe. I know nothing of all this. And the book sounds great.

    Hi to Denise.

    1. Change that to I KNEW nothing of all this. I know now.

    2. Thanks, John! I'll let her know!

  5. I was aware of bits and pieces, but until Denise and you pulled the pieces together, I had no idea of the larger picture. What a terrific bio.

    1. By the way, it's difficult for me to imagine Poe cozying up to anyone… unless he had a vial, viper, or stiletto in his pocket.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I have read bios about him but I still don't understand how/why he chose to attend West Point. It had to be because he thought he could earn a reasonable living as a soldier. But then he gave it all up!


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