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Edgar Allan Poe on the Joy of Marginalia and What Handwriting Reveals about Character

“In the marginalia … we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonment — without conceit.”

“Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author,” Mortimer Adler wrote in his timeless 1940 meditation on marginalia as the yin-yang of reading and writing, adding: “Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.” As a prolific and meticulous marginalian myself, I have paid tomes’ worth of respect to my beloved authors over the years. Billy Collins even dedicated a beautiful poem to the mesmerism of marginalia, and medieval monks used the medium, long before the coinage of the term in 1819, as a canvas for entertaining complaints. But history’s greatest champion of marginalia was arguably Edgar Allan Poe.

In 1844, the godfather of the detective story began a column for The Democratic Review titled Marginalia, collecting his fragmentary reflections on writing and celebrating the joy of conversing with literature in its margins. It ran for five years and was later included in The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Vol. 2 (public library).

It’s hard not to grieve the loss of this peculiar form of personal critical commentary as we transition to digital text — which is yet to solve the question of annotation — so it pays to consider what it is, exactly, that we’re losing. In the inaugural installment of his column, Poe captures the allure of transacting thoughts with an author in the margins of his work:

In getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste.

But more than a mere personal indulgence or quirk, Poe argues that marginalia are a playground for ideas and for intellectual discourse — with the author, as well as with one’s own mind at its most uninhibited:

All this may be whim; it may be not only a very hackneyed, but a very idle practice; — yet I persist in it still; and it affords me pleasure; which is profit. . . . This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. . . . In fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.

But the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but none at all; this it is which imparts to them a value. They have a rank somewhat above the chance and desultory comments of literary chit-chat — for these latter are not infrequently “talk for talk’s sake,” hurried out of the mouth; while the marginalia are deliberately penciled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburden itself of a thought; — however flippant — however silly — however trivial — still a thought indeed, not merely a thing that might have been a thought in time, and under more favorable circumstances. In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonment — without conceit. . . .

In line with the notion that constraints fuel creative thought, Poe asserts that the very medium to which marginalia are confined causes our ideas to coalesce into cohesion:

The circumscription of space, too, in these pencilings, has in it something more of advantage than of inconvenience. It compels us (whatever diffuseness of idea we may clandestinely entertain), into Montesquieu-ism, into Tacitus-ism (here I leave out of view the concluding portion of the “Annals”) — or even into Carlyle-ism — a thing which, I have been told, is not to be confounded with your ordinary affectation and bad grammar. I say “bad grammar,” through sheer obstinacy, because the grammarians (who should know better) insist upon it that I should not. But then grammar is not what these grammarians will have it; and, being merely the analysis of language, with the result of this analysis, must be good or bad just as the analyst is sage or silly. . . .

In a later meditation, Poe considers — curmudgeonly, nitpickerly, with a charming blend of sincerity and cynicism — marginalia’s most necessary vehicle: handwriting — yet another gravely endangered species in the age of digital text. Asserting that personal script, even when only intended for oneself, should answer to the era’s standards for epistolary etiquette, Poe argues that handwriting is a window into one’s core attributes of character:

I am far more than half serious in all that I have ever said about manuscript, as affording indication of character.

The general proposition is unquestionable — that the mental qualities will have a tendency to impress the MS [manuscript]. The difficulty lies in the comparison of this tendency, as a mathematical force, with the forces of the various disturbing influences of mere circumstance. But — given a man’s purely physical biography, with his MS., and the moral biography may be deduced.

The actual practical extent to which these ideas are applicable, is not sufficiently understood. For my own part, I by no means shrink from acknowledging that I act, hourly, upon estimates of character derived from chirography. The estimates, however, upon which I depend, are chiefly negative. For example: a man may not always be a man of genius, or a man of taste, or a man of firmness, or a man of any other quality, because he writes this hand or that; but then there are MSS. which no man of firmness, or of taste, or of genius, ever did, will, or can write. There is a certain species of hand-writing, — and a quite “elegant” one it is, too; although I hesitate to describe it, because it is written by some two or three thousand of my personal friends, — a species of hand-writing, I say, which seems to appertain, as if by prescriptive right, to the blockhead, and which has been employed by every donkey since the days of Cadmus, — has been penned by every gander since first a grey goose yielded a pen.

Now, were any one to write me a letter in this MS., requiring me to involve myself with its inditer in any enterprise of moment and of risk, it would be only on the score of the commonest civility that I would condescend to send him a reply.

Complement with Mary Gordon on the joy of writing by hand and some curious marginalia found in second-hand books.

Published September 17, 2013




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