The Library of Virginia
Conchologist's First Book
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Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). The Conchologist's First Book: or, A System of Testaceous Malacology, Arranged Expressly for the Use of Schools. Philadelphia: Printed for the author, by Haswell, Barrington, and Haswell, 1839.

Struggling to earn a living as a writer and as editor of the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe in 1839 eagerly accepted a fifty-dollar commission to compile a small schoolbook on sea mollusks. The year before, Thomas Wyatt had published a lengthy and highly regarded treatise on the same subject, Manual of Conchology. Eager to capture the wider student market, an enterprising Philadelphia company decided to issue a similar but shorter text compiled from research already collected. To take on the task and to fend off any potential trouble, the printer determined to select a writer of relatively little stature, someone "whom it would be idle to sue for damages."

Poe wrote a brief preface and introduction, translated a treatise by George Cuvier on the small sea animals, and then filled the remainder of the text with the paraphrased work of several other writers. Poe openly acknowledged his debt to Wyatt, Cuvier, and others, and never implied his work was original, but he was nevertheless vigorously condemned in the press and literary circles for plagiarism. The book itself, however, proved to be a great success as a basic textbook, sold out within two months, and was reprinted in 1840 and again in 1845. The Conchologist's First Book was Poe's only work to be issued in a second edition in his lifetime. Poe received no royalties. The Library of Virginia is fortunate to possess two copies, one with colored plates.