William Evans

William Evans Burton

William Evans Burton (September 24, 1804 – February 10, 1860), who often went by the nickname Billy, was an English actor, playwright, theater manager and publisher who relocated to the United States.

Life and work

Early life

Born in London on September 24, 1804, Burton was the son of William George Burton (1774-1825), a printer and the author of Research into the religions of the Eastern nations as illustrative of the scriptures in 1805. William Junior was intended for a career in the church but success as an amateur actor led him to attempt a career on the stage. After several years in the provinces, he made his first London appearance in 1831.

Relocation to the United States

In 1834 he relocated to the United States, where he appeared in Philadelphia as Dr. Ollapod in The Poor Gentleman. He took a prominent place, both as actor and manager, in New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore, the theatre which he leased in New York being renamed Burton's Theatre.

He was very successful as Captain Cuttle in John Brougham's dramatization of Dombey and Son, and in other low comedy parts in plays from Charles Dickens's novels. Burton was the author of a large number of plays, one of which, Ellen Wareham (1833), was produced simultaneously at five London theatres.

Publishing work

In 1837 in Philadelphia he established the Gentlemen's Magazine, of which Edgar Allan Poe was for some time the editor. His magazine was intended for a general audience, incorporating the standard fare of poetry and fiction, but had a focus on sporting life like hunting and sailing. Burton likely served as a literary critic himself for the magazine. To remain competitive, the magazine included better paper, more illustrations, and higher-quality printing, making production costs high. Poe became an editor in 1839, though Burton disliked Poe's harsh style of criticism. Even so, Poe's responsibilities increased whenever Burton left town to perform at other venues. It was under Burton that Poe began what has since been termed the "Longfellow War", with Poe using his role as critic to anonymously accuse the popular poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. Another critic, Willis Gaylord Clark, blamed Burton for allowing these literary attacks, telling Longfellow that Burton was: "a vagrant from England, who has left a wife and offspring behind him there, and plays the bigamist in this with another wife, and his whore besides; one who cannot write a paragraph in English to save his life".

Poe left the magazine in June 1840. Burton and Poe had a tumultuous working relationship. Burton tried selling the magazine without telling Poe, and Poe made plans to launch his own competing Philadelphia-based magazine called The Penn without mentioning it to Burton. Additionally, Burton may have written a particularly scathing negative review of Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and spread rumors of his drunkenness, which Poe denied. Poe told a friend that Burton was a "blackguard and a villain. Poe's friend Joseph E. Snodgrass thought Burton's rumor-mongering was enough for Poe to sue for slander but Poe noted his own name-calling was enough for a countersuit.

Later life

In late 1840, Burton sold his magazine to George Rex Graham for the price of $3,500 (one dollar for each subscriber), who transformed it into Graham's Magazine. Burton used the money from the sale to renovate his theater, which eventually failed. Burton went on to become the editor of the Cambridge Quarterly and the Souvenir. He also wrote several books, including a Cyclopaedia of Wit and Humour in 1857.

Burton died February 10, 1860, in New York City. At the time of his death, he had collected a library of over 500,000 volumes, especially rich in books by and relating to William Shakespeare.

William Evans Burton was the father of the English painter William Shakespeare Burton.


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