Text: William Peterfield Trent, “Poe’s Rank as a Writer,” East and West (New York), vol. I, no. 10, August 1900, pp. 305-313


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[page 305:]

Poe’s Rank as a Writer*

By W. P. Trent

[column 1:]

ALTHOUGH the question — What does the man Poe stand for? — is one of the most interesting and vexed problems in the whole range of biography, I shall scarcely touch it here, both because it requires a weighing of evidence hardly to be attempted in a popular article, and because the question — What does the writer Poe stand for? — seems to me more important for the American reader of to-day. We can, many of us, afford to be ignorant of the pitiful details of Poe’s life; we need not discuss his addiction to alcoholism or, on the other hand, the sorry treatment he has received from some of his biographers; but I do not think that any of us, if we care for the beautiful and the ingenious and the marvellous things of literature, can afford not to have quite clear ideas as to what the writer of The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher stands for in our national literature. I shall therefore leave Poe’s life to one side, with the remark, however, that I believe that his eulogists, who have as a rule shown an absurd inability to weigh evidence, have frequently done him as much harm as his detractors, who have often been unjust to him more through a lack of sympathy and a failure to understand his nature and his environment than through any positive malevolence towards him.

It is quite plain that Poe is considered by competent European critics to be the greatest author America has yet produced. His tales at least have been translated into all the chief languages and have been widely read and more or less imitated. His poems, if less well known, have perhaps been even more influential [column 2:] — their melody, their weirdness, their ideality having affected in considerable measure most modern lyrical poetry. In mere number of copies sold Uncle Tom’s Cabin probably still holds the record as the most successful book at home and abroad ever written by an American, and perhaps some of Cooper’s novels have been more widely distributed than Poe’s tales. As an influence upon conduct the writings of Emerson have seemingly had more effect abroad than the works of any other American author, and Walt Whitman has been regarded as the most typical writer we have produced; but in literary influence in its widest sense no other American vies with Poe, nor has any other won such hearty admiration. With the partial exception of Cooper, who has not strongly enlisted the critics in his favor, Poe is practically the only American since Franklin who has been accorded sincere and widespread homage in Europe for intellectual achievements other than scientific — who has in other words been recognized as one of the world’s master-writers. Irving, Longfellow, Hawthorne and other American authors have indeed been cordially received by British readers; but this is not the same thing as breaking down the barriers of language and winning the applause of the whole civilized world.

This is only to say that Poe stands better than any other American author one of the three most important tests of literary supremacy — the test of cosmopolitan approval. How he stands two other chief tests — to wit, the approval of his contemporaries at home and of posterity at home, will be discussed presently. Just here I wish to point out the fact that [page 306:] in the long and splendid annals of English literary history, the number of writers who have attained, either speedily or after a time, wide circulation and influence in foreign countries is very limited. Such great poets as Chaucer, Spenser, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Tennyson have never really conquered the Continent. Shakspere has done it; Milton has done it to a certain extent at least; Byron and Scott have done it. Richardson did it also, and the influence of Pope, Gray, Sterne and others can easily be traced; but when the list is made up it is found to be comparatively a very short one. And it is curious to notice that in the cases of Byron and Scott attempts have been made in England, just as in the case of Poe in America, to declare that they are not, after all, such very great writers, and that foreigners are not thoroughly competent to judge of their value. Shelley is held by many critics to be superior to Byron as a poet and Thackeray to Scott as a novelist. Just so Hawthorne is pronounced by a majority of American critics to be superior to Poe. Yet Hawthorne, and Thackeray and Shelley, while of course not unheard of abroad, have a local, a provincial fame as compared with Poe and Scott and Byron, and while this fact alone does not settle the supremacy of the three latter, it is certainly a very striking and important fact to be duly weighed by the critics and by the public as well. For all the truly great authors — those whose position in the first rank of writers is undisputed — the greatest Greeks and Romans, as well as Dante, Shakspere, Milton, Molière, Cervantes, Goethe, Victor Hugo, Balzac, are, through the very nature of the case, men of cosmopolitan fame. If we minimize the value of this sort of fame in the cases of Scott, Byron, and Poe, we are simply pulling them down without really raising Thackeray and Shelley and Hawthorne; for it is almost certain that it is idle to claim a supreme place for the writer who [column 2:] has not won himself a large audience outside his native land. Suppose Washington and Grant and Lee and Stonewall Jackson were not regarded as great soldiers outside America, should we be so very certain that their fame would not merely survive but increase with the years? We may conclude therefore that Poe has at least one — and a great advantage over every other American writer — he is the only American, with the possible exception of Cooper, who in the range of imaginative literature has a position of world importance.

Passing now to consider his influence in his native land, we find it convenient to treat the subject under two heads — his influence upon his immediate contemporaries and his influence upon educated people of the present day. This two-fold division is desirable because of a certain fact in literary history. All or nearly all of the greatest and the very great writers have succeeded in influencing their contemporaries as well as posterity. On the other hand few if any writers who failed to influence their contemporaries yet were subsequently recognized by posterity, have taken a first rate rank in their own literature. Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspere, Dryden, Pope, Burns, Scott, Byron, Tennyson — every one of these great men — to confine ourselves to British poets — impressed their contemporaries. Their glory may have been eclipsed at times since they died, but it has always burned up brightly again, and they may be therefore said to have held the homage of posterity also. The same thing is true of Sophocles, Virgil, Horace, Molière, Goethe — to mention only a few of the world’s avowedly great writers. If we think of Shelley and Keats as exceptions to this rule we must remember that their cases really prove little, since they did not live long enough to give their contemporaries a fair chance to estimate their worth. If they had been granted the long lives of Wordsworth and Browning, they would [page 307:] doubtless, like these latter, have won fairly wide recognition before death took them and made them “ one with Nature.”

That men who long after their deaths are discovered, as it were, by students and critics do not as a rule attain a first rate fame is quite clear. They are generally minor writers whose praises are sounded by small coteries. The case of the poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes is one in point. This unfortunate physician wrote a poem called Dream Pedlary which an extravagant gentleman, quoted by Professor Saintsbury, once declared to be worth all of Byron’s poetry put together. Beddoes’s contemporaries early in this century did not rate his work thus highly; nor does posterity today. I doubt if nine readers out of ten have ever heard his name; and certainly, when Mr. Edmund Gosse superintended an edition of his works some years ago, so few copies were sold that it has lately been easy to purchase the two volumes with their pages uncut for less than onehalf the original price. It is plain that what I am now saying is not invalidated by the fact that posterity in the main appreciates better than contemporaries the quality of a writer’s work. That is only natural since the judgment of posterity is less liable to be warped. The point to be observed is that posterity rarely thinks a writer very great whom a considerable number of his contemporaries did not also think great. Even in the case of Bunyan, whom the critics slighted for years, we have no exception to our rule. Bunyan had a profound influence upon the contemporary public for whom he primarily wrote his noble Pilgrim’s Progress.

On the other hand, however, it is quite obvious that it will not do to rely on contemporary fame as a proof of a writer’s real greatness. There is fortunately no need of enlarging upon this point. Mr. Martin Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy won him great contemporary notoriety; but who reads Tupper now! Going back [column 2:] two centuries we find Abraham Cowley almost if not quite eclipsing for a time his contemporary John Milton. In less than a century Pope was asking — “ Who now reads Cowley?” Coming down almost to the immediate present, we can all recall the vogue of Trilby; yet it was stated the other day that the two copies owned by a New England library had not left their shelf for a year. Who would like to pin his reputation as a critic to the statement that any of the late successes in fiction will be widely read ten years from now? We see therefore that in endeavoring to determine what an author stands for we must ask ourselves not merely whether he is read at home but whether he is read abroad, and also, not merely whether he is now read in his native country, but whether he was, moreover, read by his contemporaries. We must not, obviously, lay such stress upon both contemporaneous and posthumous fame abroad, because such accidents as his not obtaining a specially good translator might easily retard the progress of a writer’s foreign fame. Still it is quite plain that the very great men often obtain a contemporaneous foreign vogue.

Now coming back to Poe — let us apply to him our two-fold test of popularity in his native land. Was he successful in appealing to his American contemporaries? Does he appeal to us Americans of to-day?

It seems to me that the evidence goes to show that between 1835 and 1850 Poe made a fairly strong appeal to his fellow Americans. It is, indeed, usual to represent him as having been harshly treated, as having been slighted in favor of less worthy men, as having wasted his sweetness on the desert air of a prosaic, ungrateful land. There is just enough truth in this view of the matter to make many people hold to it tenaciously; but it is on the whole an erroneous view. Poe’s Raven had an almost instantaneous success; it paralleled, in fact, very closely the fortunes of Gray’s Elegy, the only [page 308:] English poem, perhaps, that can be said to have a superior popularity. His tales were quite widely read; his critical powers were known and feared; he had no difficulty in getting editorial positions, his difficulty lay in keeping them; he had invitations to lecture — he had warm admirers. He did not have the popularity of Longfellow, it is true, but then Longfellow’s work appealed more frankly to the large public. He did not make a fortune, but we must remember that those were days of small payments and that he would not have known how to save his money even if editors had paid him tenfold more. But when all is said we find reason to conclude that Poe satisfies fairly well our test of contemporaneous success at home. He impressed the public he aimed at — which was not the whole public and never will be the whole public. Lovers of the beautiful, the ingenious, and the weird appreciated him in 1850; they appreciate him in 1900, and if they are greater in numbers now than then, that is not remarkable. What is to be remarked rather, I must repeat, is the important fact that Poe, not a universal writer and therefore not capable of making the widest sort of appeal, nevertheless succeeded in making a sufficiently impressive and vital appeal to his contemporaries, in spite of his artistic qualities and of their comparative lack of artistic appreciation, to warrant us in saying that he stands the second of our tests. If we had found on investigation that he had had no effect upon, no appeal to his contemporary public, we should have felt that his chances of being permanently recognized as a master writer were at least somewhat jeopardized. We might legitimately have inferred from literary history that his work was lacking in vital qualities and that his position as a writer would always be open to question. There seems, however, to be no room for such an inference.

Coming to our third test, that of present popularity in his native land, we find, [column 2:] I think, every reason to believe that Poe stands this also. It is true that some years since in a ballot conducted by The Critic Poe’s name did not appear among the twenty most popular American writers, and that Mr. Gosse was moved to indite a very pessimistic letter to the editor apropos of the fact. But no strictly literary journal’s circulation is ever large, and I suspect that the people who took part in the ballot did not represent American readers specially well. Really trained critics would have been too amused at such a method of determining the relative rank of authors to have taken part in it; while the mass of readers would not have known that such a ballot was being held. Still it is not to be denied that some years ago in New England and the Middle States a jealousy against Poe’s fame was shown — due, I fancy, in part to the prevalent notion that he was a very immoral person, which notion was due in turn to sundry misrepresentations made by Griswold and others and to popular inability to investigate impartially so complicated a case of abnormal psychological development. That this prejudice is still manifested is clear from various newspaper clippings now lying before me, representing Northern and Western States. Praise of Poe, even as an artist, causes grave shaking of heads. On the other hand Southern college students deliver orations in his memory that, to adapt the words of Raleigh, might well make “Homer’s spright” to “ tremble all for grief” and curse “ the access of that celestial thief.” Poe’s fame was prejudiced also by the fact that we are on the whole a Puritan people in our attitude toward art. We not only dislike the immoral in literature — we demand the positively moral, and as Poe’s work is in the main un-moral it has never had the influence among us attained by the work of Hawthorne and Longfellow. In Europe, however, while positively moral work has always in the long run held its ground against immoral [page 309:] work, there has been no aggressive Puritanism making war on art that did not obviously and directly serve morality. The devotee of the beautiful, the ingenious, the weird has always been given a more or less free hand in his artistic work, and thus it is that Europe from the first was hospitable to Poe, and that Europeans do not understand why his influence on his own country has not been greater.

Yet when all is said it has been and is great. It is true that for a long time no good edition of his works was demanded. But this was true of Byron also who was nevertheless extensively read. Poe has been for years as well known as any other American author. His Raven, his Annabel Lee, his Bells have been declaimed in every school and given in nearly every reader and book of literary specimens. Considering the small mass of his poetical productions, this popularity of three pieces is a rather striking proof of the fact that his fame has never really been shaken. Again, his best tales have been published in numerous cheap forms and have been widely read. The Black Cat, The Gold-Bug, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Murders in the Rue Morgue have for years held their own with any short stories in the language. His poorer work has not been widely read, but is Poe the only author of whom this is true? How many of us read more than half a dozen or so of Cooper’s novels? Even with Scott and Dickens and Thackeray the public has insisted on making selections. Naturally Poe’s work in criticism has been slighted because, with all due respect to his ardent admirers, he was not a great critic for posterity, although as we shall see he was a useful critic for his contemporaries. His extravaganzas are not much read because they are, to use an inelegant expression, “not much good.” His Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym failed to become popular, because he had no conspicuous gift of sustained narration. [column 2:] He was par excellence a poet and short-story writer — he was not a novelist or a critic or a humorist or a philosopher, in spite of certain remarkable qualities of his Eureka. But as a poet and short-story writer there has not been a day when he could not count his admirers in America by thousands, and their number is constantly increasing. It is fair to conclude, then, that he satisfies our third test, that of contemporaneous popularity, for, except in the case of the universal masters, the Homers and Shaksperes [[sic]] — we demand only that an author to be proved great should be proved popular in the lines of work for which he is specially adapted provided those lines are sufficiently broad. If Tennyson’s admirers, for example, had to prove him to be a great dramatist, they would surely be unfairly handicapped.

But let us pause for a moment to ask how far we have progressed toward being able to answer the question — What does Poe stand for as a writer? We have got at least far enough to say that he is the only American who answers the threefold test of popularity which is to be applied in determining a writer’s claims to admission to the small circle of what we may call the world-writers. Poe is a writer — not for Americans only, but for mankind. No other American save possibly Cooper and Whitman can claim this high position, and if we measure literary worth by influence alone Poe must be awarded the palm not merely over Cooper but also over Hawthorne, who is considered by most American critics of to-day his only serious competitor.

But must we as individuals bow down to the world’s judgment? Some of us, while proud of Poe’s achievements and ready enough to acknowledge his literary influence and his unique position as a writer, are nevertheless not drawn to him either as a man or as an author. A majority of the competent American critics and readers is found to-day on [page 310:] Hawthorne’s side and will doubtless long continue so to be found. Few readers would endorse Mr. Henry James in speaking of Poe’s “very valueless verses,”* but even Mr. Mabie, stanch advocate of Poe as he is, only ventures to assert his equality with Hawthorne. Yet the larger world smiles when Americans assert Hawthorne’s supremacy over Poe, or even the New Englander’s equality with the man who wrote The Raven, Ligeia, and The Black Cat.

From this dilemma — for it is a dilemma to critical readers — I am not sure that I can offer any escape. In fact I shall immediately proceed to make it a more embarrassing dilemma than ever.

Suppose we leave entirely apart the result of the three tests of foreign and domestic popularity that we have just applied and consider Poe’s achievement in literature from another point of view. Let us ask ourselves what divisions can be made of his work and how well he succeeds in each division.

In the first place he is obviously successful both in prose and verse. This can be said of Emerson and Lowell also; but is either capable of rivalling Poe in the essential matter of poetic form or is either likely to increase in reputation as an artist as Poe is doing? I think not, and am free to confess that I should regard an argument on the subject as so much time wasted. Judged quantitatively, of course, Poe is not a thoroughly great poet — he cannot rank for example with Byron or Shelley. But neither can any other American. Judged qualitatively Poe ranks with any English poet of this century. None has had a greater sense of beauty, none a more exquisite lyric gift. If he had only left us more of his perfect work he would be one of the greatest poets of all time. As it is, we feel that he is for all time even if he does not rank among the supreme masters. [column 2:] We may feel that this or that poem of some other American poet will never die — but will the poet live? Probably some will; and among them I will venture to put Longfellow in spite of the depreciation his work is receiving in some quarters — but have we any doubt about Poe? As soon have a doubt about the eternity of

the glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome,

as about the imperishable fame of the author of The Raven, Lenore, Annabel Lee, Ulalume, Israfel, To One in Paradise, and half a dozen more almost perfect poems.

And in saying this I would not be understood to be an adherent of Poe’s theories of poetics. Frankly speaking, I consider a great deal of his lecture on The Poetic Principle, as well as most of his other utterances on the nature of poetry, as furnishing clear proof of the fact that he was incapable of appreciating poetry differing in kind from his own. A great, catholic critic he never was or could be — in fact, may I be excused if I whisper it? — much that he wrote on the subject of poetry was not far removed from what in the case of a lesser man we should call — twaddle. But because Poe was unjust — say to Milton on the one hand and to Longfellow on the other — should we therefore be unjust to him and speak with Mr. James of his “valueless verses” simply because we do not find in them any great incentive to virtuous living beyond what Beauty gives? He meant them to be beautiful, and beautiful he made them, being the greatest poetic artist America has produced. We may love him, the man, or not, just as we please, but if we fail to appreciate his perfect work we are surely defective in our sympathies.

But if Poe because of the quality of his inspiration is our greatest poet — (will the devotees of another notable poet, Walt Whitman, pardon me?) is he not ipso facto our greatest writer? I answer [page 311:] — No. If he were a great poet — quantitatively as well as qualitatively — his supremacy would be unquestioned; but although perhaps the greatest American poet, he is only a minor poet after all, when measured by the standards of. world-literature. Yet a great prose writer may have a much more important place in a nation’s literature than a minor poet. We must therefore take Poe’s prose into account before we can determine whether or not he is superior to every other American writer.

His prose, omitting Eureka and the miscellaneous pieces, which though interesting to the student, hardly concern the public, is easily susceptible of the two-fold division of fiction and criticism. The criticism has been highly praised by some authorities, but with all due respect to them I cannot agree, as I have already said, that it has much permanent value. Poe did an excellent service to our literature by scourging the host of bad writers who infested America in his day and by upholding higher standards of literary excellence than were then in vogue; but this only proves that we should be grateful to his memory, not that we should read the three volumes devoted to his critical essays in the Stedman-Woodberry edition. The truly great critic is one whose work illuminates the art of literature in such a way that subsequent readers either return to it or else make use of it through the medium of later critics. I do not believe that Poe was a deep enough thinker on literary subjects to make much first or secondhand recourse to his critical lucubrations necessary. As Sidney Lanier truly said — the trouble with him was that he did not know enough. The Poetic Principle may be read with profit by anyone who is sufficiently informed to detect Poe’s glaring errors, but the mass of his critical work is dead for all save enthusiasts who regard Poe as their master and cherish his every utterance. This is not to say, however, that Poe could not have [column 2:] made a critic of himself if he had tried. He had a marvellously logical and strong mind that could have been employed with eminent success in almost any field of thought. Eureka proves, perhaps, that he could have been a metaphysician; it and many other things prove his aptitude for physical science; he had a great logical faculty; he had the makings of a critic and of a scholar. But it requires, in my opinion, the blindness of discipleship to argue that what he has given us proves that he actually was a metaphysician, a scientist, a great critic, and a scholar. On the other hand it requires, to say the least, great lack of discernment and sympathy to argue as some have done that because he made frequent blunders in his incursions into the various fields of scholarship, he was a mere charlatan. His was a wonderfully strong and alert mind misdirected by vanity and not supported by sincerity. But for all his blunders, as for example when he tries to air his classical scholarship, he is rarely or never vulgar, and a charlatan always is.

But, if what I have just said be true, we are left only his fiction on which to build him a fame greater than that of the minor poet. Yet even of his fiction much must be discarded. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym has its merits, but it must be put to one side since it has never impressed many readers and since it shows plainly that Poe was not a master of sustained narrative. The extravaganzas, with perhaps one or two exceptions, must go also, for Poe was not a successful humorist. We are left therefore only the short stories contained in the first three volumes of the Stedman-Woodberry edition and not even all of these, for it would require a devotee to maintain the high excellence of such a tale as The Spectacles. Are three volumes of short stories and a very thin volume of poems sufficient basis for the fame of a great writer of the second rank? In order to answer this question properly, [page 312:] we must take a nearer view of the tales.

Considered merely as a stylist it is doubtful whether Poe could take rank as a great prose writer. In the Romances of Death* under which we may include Usher, Ligeia, Silence, and Shadow, his prose style has a marked power and beauty of a character not altogether original but nevertheless worthy of high praise. In the rest of his prose he is not in my judgment a great stylist, although he is a sufficiently effective writer. When, however, we come to consider nature and range of matter, our admiration is greatly increased. Few writers of fiction show such originality and such scope. In the domain of the weirdly terrible or beautiful we have such masterpieces as Shadow, The Fall of the House of Usher, Ligeia, Eleonora, and Silence; in the domain of tragic romance, sometimes weird, always powerful, we have The Masque of the Red Death, The Assignation, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Pit and the Pendulum; in the domain of morbid analysis we have William Wilson, with its autobiographical touches, the unparalleled Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Man of the Crowd; in the domain of the pseudo-scientific, in which Poe if not the originator is easily the master, we have Hans Pfall, the MS. Found in a Bottle, the gruesome Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, and the incomparable Descent into the Maelstrom; finally, in the domain of ratiocination, or to speak more familiarly of the detective story, in which Poe, though building on Balzac’s foundations, is practically both originator and master, we have the wonderful Gold-Bug, the absorbing Murders in the Rue Morgue, and the skilfully wrought Purloined Letter.

Now what is one to say of such masterpieces and of the wonderful mind that produced them? Is it too much to say [column 2:] that in originality, in range, and power the man who wrote these tales must rank among the greatest of the world’s masters of fiction? I at least will venture to say it, and to maintain further that the art of the short-story writer is as legitimate, though probably not so great, as that of the novelist, and that in this art few writers in all the ages should be confidently pronounced superior to Poe. Chaucer and Boccaccio should be — perhaps Balzac, Maupassant, and Turgenev. Others might add to the list, but I should hardly think that any American could be placed on it — not even Hawthorne, good as some of his short stories are.

But what are the chief qualities of this fiction besides its originality, its range, its power? I answer that it shows that, just as in his poetry Poe is at times a supreme master of the lyric impulse, so in his prose fiction he is a master of the situation of the chain of circumstances and of the mood — or perhaps better, of the warp of character. Think of the situation in The Cask of Amontillado, of the chain of circumstances in The Gold-Bug, of the warp of character in The Black Cat. Who has ever done such things better? To be sure, they are not the highest things. Neither in his poetry nor in his prose does Poe give us a criticism of life; he does not make us wiser or greatly better, but he does make us see the beautiful and feel the strange and terrible. So far as he goes his command over the emotions is unexcelled. He has no special genius for narrating events as a true novelist has, nor can he create characters; hence it is quite idle to compare his work in detail with the novels of Cooper or the romances of Hawthorne, but he is fully as authentic a master as either of them.

Yet are we now any better able to rank him with Hawthorne than we were before? He obviously has not the sustained power of creation in prose fiction that Hawthorne has — he could not have [page 313:] given us a Scarlet Letter or a House of the Seven Gables; but he has a greater range of fiction than Hawthorne; he is a poet and Hawthorne is not; he gives evidence of the possession of mental powers of which we find little trace in Hawthorne. As we have seen, his literary influence has been far greater than that of Hawthorne. Are we not warranted therefore in agreeing with the foreigners that Poe is the greatest writer America has ever produced?

Perhaps so — perhaps not. Poe is superior to Hawthorne in a number of points, but Hawthorne is superior to Poe in at least three — in the charm of his prose style, in his power of sustained narration, in his comprehension of and appeal to the human heart. To a majority of Anglo-Saxon readers this last quality of Hawthorne will probably long seem a warrant for giving him the highest place in American literature. The foreigner, not fully sympathizing with or understanding the New England setting of Hawthorne’s best work — pace the admirers of that very uneven story, The Marble Faun — has never been able to recognize what a master of the heart Hawthorne is, and will therefore continue to ignore or to underrate him.

As for ourselves, our safest course, perhaps, is to bring in a noncommittal verdict and to declare the two writers to be of equal eminence. Yet it would seem that the future is more with Poe than with Hawthorne. Poe has already influenced other generations of English and American writers and has impressed himself upon foreign literatures; Hawthorne has not. Poe’s work is set “out of space — out of time “ — no change of times or manners can limit his appeal. “The mysterious mansion of the Ushers, the death-chamber of the Lady Rowena, the seven gorgeous ball-rooms of the [column 2:] Prince Prospero will never lose their sinister fascination.” Can we be sure that time will work no ravages with the setting of Hawthorne’s novels? Will posterity continue to read him on account of his comprehension of the human heart, should a similar and a nearer genius arise? Again, verse has more permanence than the best prose and Poe has the double appeal to make. He will have in time the critics and the historians of literature on his side, because his greater literary influence and the complexity of the problems connected with his name and work will give him an increasingly larger space in critical literature. He will have the support of the poetical anthologists and the devotees of verse. And in the literary competition of the future the conciseness and variety of his fiction may stand him in good stead. Finally, as the barriers between the nations are more and more swept away, cosmopolitan values and standards will everywhere displace local or racial standards and values, and Poe will reap the full benefit of the world-fame he has already acquired.

This is the best answer I can give to the question — What is Poe’s rank as a writer? He is of all American authors up to the present time, with the possible exception of Whitman, the one who has the best chance not merely of permanent, but of increasing fame. He is not of the supreme masters — he is neither a god, nor a demigod, nor a giant — a Shakspere, a Balzac, or a Byron — but he is at least a prince in the court of Fame and the bloom of immortality is upon his lips. And I who say this so venturously am not a lover or devotee of Poe at all — I personally prefer both Cooper and Hawthorne; but I hold criticism to be based primarily upon judgment and I think one should not shut one’s mind to facts.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 305:]

*  From a lecture delivered March 12, 1900, before the Lyceum of Richmond, Va.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 310, column 1:]

*  Subsequently changed to “superficial.” See the essay on Poe in J. M. Robertson’s “New Essays toward a Critical Method” (1897).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 312, column 1:]

*  I follow the divisions adopted in that most admirable monument both to Poe and to American scholarship — the Stedman-Woodberry edition.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - EAW, 1900] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe's Rank as a Writer (W. P. Trent, 1900)