John Pendleton Kennedy is a man who lived in the 1830s in Baltimore, and chances are, you have never heard of him. That’s okay, but without Kennedy, who acted as a lifeline — a literary guardian angel, if you will — you might never have heard of Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe lived a scant 40 years (1809-1849), and for most of that time he was unwell, usually physically and sometimes mentally. He was also poverty-stricken, constantly asking friends and family for support and constantly unable to lift himself out of his penurious state. And he constantly complained about it.
His life, in other words, was not a happy one; it was, rather, a series of low points.
One of those low points was in 1834 when Poe found himself in Baltimore but, as usual, without money or means. Poe was trying to make a living with his writing and having little success. He had managed to win a prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for his story “MS. Found in a Bottle.” One of the editors of the publication was John P. Kennedy, who took an interest in the young writer and invited him to dinner.
Poe declined — for the very good reason that he had nothing to wear. He had one dark suit that he wore for all occasions, and that was the extent of his wardrobe. When Kennedy found this out, he sent him clothing and expanded his invitation. Poe could come to his house and dine at any time. Kennedy, a man of means, even lent Poe a horse so he could get around an exercise.
Kennedy took his kindness to another important level. He wrote Poe a letter of introduction to Thomas Willis White, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia, and recommended that he accept Poe’s articles. Poe sent White a story, which he promptly accepted. Thereupon, White and Poe entered a correspondence that so impressed White that he offered Poe a job as assistant editor of the journal in June 1835. Poe accepted and moved to Richmond.
Poe’s time in Richmond was not altogether a happy period for him, but his job did give him the stability and support to continue his writing. He later credited Kennedy with saving his life.
Kennedy got involved in politics and carved out a distinguished career for himself. He served as both a representative and Senator in the U.S. Congress and as Secretary of the Navy under President Millard Filmore. He led the effort to end slavery in Maryland and was instrumental in founding some of Maryland’s most important and longstanding institutions, such as St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the Peabody Library and Conservatory of Music (now part of Johns Hopkins University).
While in Congress in the 1840s, Kennedy was a strong advocate for the U.S. government investing in the telegraph and his efforts led to a $30,00 grant for its development.
In addition to his political and public service pursuits, Kennedy was also a novelist. His most famous work is Horse-Shoe Robinson, published in 1835, which delighted Washington Irving so much that he read parts of it aloud to his friends. Kennedy had a wide circle of literary friends that included Irving, Poe, William Makepeace Thackeray, and James Fennimore Cooper.
This remarkable man has been largely forgotten, but a new biography by Andrew Black (John Pendleton Kennedy: Early American Novelist, Whig Statesman, and Ardent Nationalist) has been published by the LSU Press. Let’s hope this gives him the attention he deserves.
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