How to Write a Berfrois Post



From The New Statesman:

There is a satirical story by Edgar Allan Poe, called “How to Write a Blackwood Article”, in which the editor of the notorious Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine reveals to an ambitious young journalist called the Signora Psyche Zenobia the secret of his success. “If you wish to write forcibly, Miss Zenobia,” he tells her, “pay minute attention to the sensations.” This is particularly the case should she choke to death on a chicken bone, get bitten by a mad dog or “ever be drowned or hung”. Such sensations would be worth “ten guineas a sheet”. For inspiration, he recommends an article published by Blackwood’s called “The Dead Alive”, which contains a record, “full of tastes, terror” and “sentiment”, of a man who was nailed into his coffin before the appointed hour. There is also, the proud editor continues, “Confessions of an Opium-eater”, “a nice bit of flummery” that shows “glorious imagination—deep philosophy—acute speculation—plenty of fire and fury, and a good spicing of the decidedly unintelligible”. The author of the “Confessions”, the editor reveals, was Juniper, his pet baboon.

It was, of course, Thomas De Quincey who wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which was produced for the magazine market before becoming a bestselling book. The Confessions were not, however, published in Blackwood’s at all, and thereby hangs a tale that Poe, had he known about it, would have relished.

William Blackwood, the real editor of Blackwood’s, had initially commissioned the opium confessions in late 1820, when De Quincey was an unknown, debt-ridden drug addict. This would have been De Quincey’s big break, but he never delivered. Opium is a great stopper of clocks and De Quincey, who wrote under the influence, constantly battled with deadlines. By January 1821, the only examples of his writing that Blackwood had received were high-handed letters of excuse in which he described himself as “the Atlas” of the magazine (this was the first article he had been asked to write for Blackwood’s) and said he was “hard at work, being determined to save the Magazine from the fate which its stupidity merits”. Bewildered, Blackwood replied that as far as the magazine was concerned, “it will be quite unnecessary for you to give yourself any further trouble”.

While De Quincey was busy not writing his Blackwood’s article, a drama was brewing which consumed much of his attention. These were the glory days of literary-political journalism and in January 1820 a revived version of the 18th-century monthly the London Magazine had launched, with the aim of countering the power of the Scottish periodicals.

“Thomas De Quincey and the deadly rivalries of nineteenth-century magazines”, Frances Wilson, The New Statesman