What if Edgar Allan Poe had moved to Oquawka?

by Rex Cherrington

Edgar Allan Poe made plans during the last months of his life to become the editor of a literary magazine which might have brought him to west-central Illinois. Most biographies of the famous American poet do not mention this, though it is well documented. E.H.N. Patterson of Oquawka corresponded with Poe in an effort to launch a new literary magazine in that river town. Patterson would be the publisher and Poe, the editor.


The Pattersons of Oquawka possessed impressive intellect, writing ability and the technical knowledge to run a publishing operation. J. B. Patterson, the senior editor of the Oquawka Spectator came to this part of Illinois via a circuitous route. At Winchester, Virginia he began to learn the printing trade. There he worked for Samuel Davis at the Winchester Virginia Republican.Later he went to Leesburg, Virginia, where he established a newspaper which failed, followed by another failed newspaper at Washington, D.C. While J. B. P.'s family remained at Winchester, he left Washington in 1832 and went to Rock Island where he stayed with a distant relative, George Davenport, the Indian trader. At Rock Island he joined the Illinois Militia and became regimental printer at Galena.

Later in 1832, J.B. P. returned to Rock Island and the following year became acquainted with Black Hawk. The Rock Island interpreter Antoin LeClair wanted Black Hawk's own story told but knew his pen could not do justice to the Sac and Fox leader's eloquence. Patterson's ability was recognized and at age 27 he wrote Life of Black Hawk, later revised and reissued as Autobiography of Black Hawk. Today, the Illinois State Library recognizes Black Hawk as one of the great Illinois authors. Patterson deserves more than a footnote as he crafted Leclair's translation into English prose to reflect the spirited delivery of the historic Indian leader. This book, published in several editions at various locations, made his name well known among authors and publishers.

After a brief trip to the East to promote his book, Patterson returned to the Mississippi Valley. Before he settled at Oquawka, he established the first school at Keokuk, Iowa in 1834. Patterson's family moved from Winchester, Virginia to Oquawka soon after, and J. B. P. served as a merchant, Justice of the Peace, Postmaster, and was brigade inspector and Colonel in the Illinois Militia. He prospered as a merchant, and when his financial success was secure he returned to his first choice of vocations, newspaper publisher. He purchased a used press that was already a relic with the distinction of being the first press used in Iowa Territory. Newspapers in Monmouth and Galesburg started about the same time, Knoxville a year later. Telegraph wires reached western Illinois in 1848, and there seems a likely connection to the increase in newspapers. The Oquawka Spectator was launched in February 1848.


Edwin Howard Norton Patterson, son of J. B., was eight years old when he came from Winchester, Viriginia to Oquawka. In 1845 and 1846 he engaged in preparatory studies at Jubilee College in Peoria County. In 1846 he enrolled at Knox College in Galesburg. After two years study he left, a non-graduating member of the class of 1850. In 1849, upon reaching the age of majority, his father made him a full partner in the newspaper enterprise. E. H. N. P. studied the classics but read widely among contemporary authors, and a singular admiration for Edgar Allan Poe developed. He had envisioned the publication of a literary journal at Oquawka, with Edgar Allan Poe as editor. A more ambitious dream is hard to imagine. The idea that Poe, one of America's leading authors, would come to him, an unknown youth, and relocate at a frontier river port was very audacious. Edwin, nearing age 21, was ready to see if he could bridge the enormous gap between his dream and reality.


The correspondence between Patterson and Poe was well documented over a century ago in a book, Some Letters of Edgar Allan Poe to E.H.N. Patterson of Oquawka, Illinois, with Comments by Eugene Field. The Caxton Club of Chicago published the book, limited to 186 copies. Naturally, the interest was more in letters written by Poe, but we learn about Patterson's letters. Patterson's first letter to Poe was dated December 18, 1848, bearing Poe's address at Fordham, New York. Though Poe lived at Fordham, this was not his correct address -- Fordham had no Post Office. Poe received his mail in New York City. Mail addressed to Fordham went to the New York City Post Office. There this letter fell into the hands of a clerk not acquainted with Poe who forwarded it to another village, near Fordham, with a post office but not a place frequented by Poe.


Poe answered the letter when he received it roughly four months later. Poe explained the reasons for the delay and gave Patterson the following assurance: ''I deeply regret that I did not sooner receive it; and had it reached me in due season, I would have agreed to it unhesitantly. In assuming 'originality' as the 'keystone of success' in such enterprises, you are right; and not only right, but, in yourself, almost 'original' -- for there are none of our publishers who have the wit to perceive this vital truth. What the public seek in a Magazine is what they cannot elsewhere procure.'' Poe allowed he had been looking for the chance to edit a magazine for several years, though he expressed concern about Patterson's intended subscription price of $3 per year being too low and explained, logically and methodically, that $5 was realistic and how at that price it would not pay until 1,000 subscribers were secured, ''We must aim high.''

Poe said he had only received Patterson's letter that moment; that being the case, the three page letter reveals Poe's wonderful mind, able to collect and systematically express complex thoughts. Poe's diplomacy is delightful, expressing a commitment to the aspirations of young Patterson, yet letting him know that there were many details to discuss. The finances of various literary journals were related by Poe, who set forth some requirements in a mentoring way. The famous writer closed, ''If you will write me your views on the subject -- as much in detail as possible -- and if they accord in any degree with mine -- I will endeavor to pay you a visit at Oquawka, or meet you at any place you suggest, where we can talk the matter over with deliberation.'' Patterson may not have preserved a copy of the text of his first letter but words from it that captured Poe's attention are in quotes in this reply.


E. H. N. Patterson likely had resigned himself to never seeing a reply to his first letter. His excitement derived from Poe's reply is difficult to imagine. Patterson's response to the financial guidelines set forth by Poe showed agreement: ''I will furnish an office, and take upon myself the sole charge and expense of publishing a magazine (name to be suggested by you) to be issued in monthly numbers in Oquawka, Illinois, containing, in every number, 96 pages, of the same size as those of Graham's Magazine, on good paper and new bold-face long primer(literary critical reviews to be set in smaller type)at the rate of (five) $5 per annum. Of this magazine you are to have entire editorial control, furnishing, at your expense, matter for its pages, which can be transmitted to me by mail or as we may hereafter agree upon. .. we are to share the receipts equally -- the books to be faithfully kept in the publication office at Oquawka, and one-half of all receipts from subscriptions, and private and agency sales to be forwarded to you monthly, by mail, or as you may otherwise direct.'' It would seem the offer being made to Poe was overly generous; perhaps Patterson's youthful exuberance would have troubled him, had the project come to fruition. Poe's excessive alcohol consumption was well known, particularly after his wife's death in 1847 but Patterson's admiration and sympathy for the tormented poet prevailed over any fears.


The tone of the second letter, dated May 23, 1849, is less enthusiastic than the first. Poe replied, ''... I shrink from making any attempt which may fail. For these reasons, I have thought long and carefully on what you propose; and I confess that some serious difficulties present themselves. They are not insuperable, however; and, if we bring a proper energy to the task, they may be even readily overcome. Your residence at Okquawka [sic, Poe spelled the town's name correctly in the first letter] is certainly one of the most serious of these difficulties; and I submit to you whether it be not possible to put on our title-page 'Published simultaneously at New York & St. Louis'' -- or something equivalent.'' Poe outlined a lecture tour to promote the venture and though no partnership had been formed, he requested Patterson send him $50 to cover half the cost. ''If these arrangements suit you, you can announce the agreement, &c. to your friends & proceed as if it was all signed and sealed.'' Patterson was given instructions to send his reply to Richmond, Virginia, where Poe would be calling upon the offices of The Southern Literary Messenger to see people who had published some of his works. Poe sent the draft of a cover for a magazine he had make up a year or so earlier, entitled, The Stylus. Each man was still to be moving toward the fulfillment of his greatest dream.


When Poe reached Richmond, two letters from Patterson awaited him. Poe's letter of July 19 acknowledges ''..two letters with enclosures ($50. etc.).'' Poe informed Patterson that he had contracted cholera in Philadelphia and barely escaped with his life. 1849 was an epidemic year for cholera, carried from coast to coast by gold seekers headed for California. Many Poe biographies make no mention of cholera but say he went on a wild spree in Philadelphia.

The next letter was August 7, also from Richmond, in which Poe acknowledged Patterson's last letter, dated June 7, two months earlier. He explained the delay was not his fault, ''I have suffered worse than death -- not so much from the Cholera as from its long-continued consequences in debility, and the congestion of the brain -- the latter, possibly, attributable to the calomel taken.'' With a desperate tone, emphasis was placed upon being unable to afford to engage in any activity which would fail.

Patterson had held to his position that the publication must be in Oquawka, as he had no budget for offices elsewhere. Poe likely still held out hope for St. Louis and asked Patterson to meet him there. Poe wasn't getting the offer he wanted but he and Patterson both knew that there were no better offers before him. Poe encouraged Patterson to write soon and continue corresponding with him at Richmond. This was Poe's last letter to Patterson.


Patterson answered Poe promptly and wished him a complete recovery soon. He agreed to meet him in St. Louis. He upped the ante by offering to publish in bourgeois or brevier, rather than long primer and brevier typefaces. He assured Poe he could solely adopt his own title to the magazine and that $5 per annum would be the subscription price. Patterson said he would be in St. Louis on October 15, or earlier if Poe desired.

Poe died at Baltimore on October 7, 1849 and was buried in the Westminster Presbyterian churchyard. It is not known when or by what means Patterson learned of Poe's death but the Oquawka Spectator of October 24 carried the following, ''Edgar A. Poe is dead... The doings of the Supreme One are incomprehensible, and it is not for frail man to impugn His motives, else we might wonder why the lamented poet was removed so soon, and when he was upon the eve of realizing the cherished hope of his life! Arrangements had been made by which he was, had he lived, to be placed next year at the head of a large magazine, which was to be entirely under his control. This statement may surprise many of his friends, but is nevertheless true. We are personally knowing to the whole arrangement.''

The following memorial poem appeared in the October 31 issue of The Spectator:


His spirit, before it left this lower earth,

Often in the starry heaven, where it had birth,

Communed with saintly souls and caught

Many a golden vision, which it brought

Back from the Dreamland of its heavenward flight --

Then held the glittering fancy to the sight

Of those who, less poetic, vainly sought

To rival him whose soul was heaven taught.


E.H.N. Patterson wanted to publish Poe's works and wrote to Jno. R. Thompson, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, in an effort to secure rights to publish any unpublished Poe manuscripts in their possession. The reply from Thompson postponed answering the request and discussed Poe's personality, and his remarks in no way resembled Patterson's poem. Thompson said of Poe, '' But who shall judge harshly of the dead?'' and then went on to say,''Poe had spoken to me of your design with reference to the literary enterprize of which you speak. You were fortunate, I think, in not having embarked in it, for a more unreliable person than he could hardly be found.'' Thompson said he hadn't found Poe's trunk to know if there any unpublished manuscripts in it and he had advanced him a small sum of money when he headed north for a prospective article that likely wasn't written. Only at the end of the letter was it stated that the complete works would be brought out by Rev. Dr. Griswold.

In the spring of 1850, Patterson took leave from The Spectator. He along with Knox College classmate Rufus W. Miles of Persifer Township, Knox County, joined other acquaintances from Galesburg and Knox College to take the overland trail to California and to the gold fields for themselves. In this group was G.W.G. Ferris, who later became the father of Ferris Wheel designer Nathan Olmstead Ferris, who is believed to have popped popcorn for the Queen of England; also, G. W. Gale, son of Galesburg's founding father, Rev. George W. Gale. This group went from Western Illinois to the gold fields in a little over 90 days, not all arriving at once, but clearly faster than any other group from Western Illinois had made the journey.

Patterson did not stay long in California, boarded a ship at San Francisco, crossed the Isthmus of Panama, visited Cuba and returned to Oquawka via New Orleans. E.H.N. Patterson continued his role with The Spectator with his father. When gold was found in the region of Pike's Peak some ten years later, he participated in that adventure. Apparently Colorado was much to his liking as he permanently moved there and became publisher of a newspaper, The Georgetown Miner. Not long after his relocation, he died and was buried at Georgetown in 1880. His father, J. B. Patterson lived another ten years and died at Oquawka, where he is buried.

In spite of the unfilled dream, the Pattersons possessed vision, vitality and capability. Most newspaper publishers of that time period moved often; the Pattersons' showed long term commitment to community. Articles from The Spectator in the early years show the Pattersons had high hopes for the entire region. Any increase in the growth of Knox College was applauded. Good wishes were sent to other newspapers in the area as they started or changed ownership. The Peoria and Oquawka Railroad did not fail for the Pattersons' lack of trying to stimulate the community; their newspaper was filled with expressions of a desire to cooperate with other communities for the benefit of all.

Sadly, leaders in the other communities with whom the Pattersons wished to join forces were not so broad minded and were more inclined to compete than cooperate. The citizenry of Oquawka behaved as though they would have the railroad by default as they were the premier river port of the region and the cost to build a railroad to their town was far less than going to Burlington, Iowa. Oquawka failed to offer sufficient financial support. Burlington outbid Oquawka, formed an alliance with Galesburg, and took the main line of the railroad to their town. Today their city is the first name in the BNSF. Burlington boomed while Oquawka lost much of its former importance. Could Oquawka have become a literary capitol if Poe had not died? Would Poe have lived if Patterson's first letter had not arrived four months late? History is a stream of contingencies.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website March 13, 2002

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