Joan Dayan, "Romance and Race," in Emory Elliott, gen. ed. The Columbia History of the American Novel. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1991. xviii + 905 pp. $59.95.
Both of these wide-ranging studies contain sections on Poe, with particular attention to the ways in which his views on race and slavery may be reflected in his fiction. In the first, Joan Dayan, writing a chapter on "Romance and Race," traces her interpretation of his racial views through several tales and the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. In "Ethnocentrism Decentered," a section of her study which focuses on Pym, Dana D. Nelson sees a "recent trend to sweep Poe's politics under the rug" and considers how such a "trend toward a depoliticized and dehistoricized reading of the Poe oeuvre concomitantly 'saves' Poe for a canon increasingly skeptical of texts that support human oppression." She adds: "I am not suggesting that acknowledging the racist dimension of Poe's work should remove his works from the canon; but I think we must at least consider the cultural work performed now by masking that aspect of his work."
What both Dayan and Nelson see as among the acts
of "masking" is the disinclination by most scholars to accept as Poe's
the review of two books on slavery which appeared in the April 1836 Southern
Literary Messenger (SLM 2:336-39), of which he was editor. Why
is assigning to Poe authorship of this review so crucial to them? Clearly
it is because, accepted as evidence, it can provide the critic with a more
extended, more theoretical, and more emotional defense of racism and slavery
than can be found in the few comments that are unquestionably his. For
Dayan, who has no doubt about Poe's authorship, this review, emphasizing
The review in question is headed simply "Slavery"; below this caption are listed two works: James K. Paulding's Slavery in the United States and the anonymous The South Vindicated..., now attributed to William Drayton. A reader of the "Paulding-Drayton Review" (Rosenthal's title) quickly sees that this is less a book review than it is an excuse for a proslavery essay. As Rosenthal notes, it was printed as Poe's by James A. Harrison in his Virginia edition (8:265-75); but, after the publication in 1924 of a letter from Poe to the prominent proslavery spokesman Beverley Tucker (to which I will return), it was credited to Tucker by William Doyle Hull in his 1941 dissertation on the Poe canon. Rosenthal's apparently inclusive article is devoted to rebuffing this widely accepted attribution and to returning authorship to Poe.
Rosenthal is concerned first with demonstrating that
the proslavery ideas expressed by Poe in other notices are
There is only one piece of documentary evidence,
and it is one which Rosenthal must convincingly challenge if the rest of
his brief for Poe is to have any weight. This is a letter from Poe to Tucker,
dated May 2, 1836 (full text in
What is actually left, however, is the plain sense of Poe's letter. Of course, it was written after the April SLM had appeared; Poe is telling Tucker not what he plans to do but what, as makeup editor, he has already done: he has made "a few immaterial alterations in your article on Slavery," including omitting a "passage in relation to the experience of a sick bed," "with a view of so condensing it as to get it in the space remaining at the end of the number" (italics added). In the printed text there are, as Hull and Turrentine noted, two anecdotes about "sick beds." But there are also four other unelaborated allusions to sick beds; Poe's cut could have been made in material "in relation to" any of these "experiences."
A fuller understanding of Poe's explanation to Tucker
requires some knowledge about the physical makeup of the March and April
issues of the SLM. An "Advertisement" on the cover of the March
number informed readers that its publication had been delayed because of
the Proprietor's (i.e., White's) desire to get in a long address by Thomas
R. Dew (2: 261-82), which is on the "Federative Republican System of Government."
(It is not, as Rosenthal misleadingly calls it, "an essay on slavery.")
The notice continues: "To counterbalance this delay, 16 pages of extra
matter are given. The April Number . . . will contain, therefore, 16
pages less than usual." (italics in original; full text given in Dwight
Thomas and David K. Jackson, The Poe Log, Boston, 1987, p. 196).
This is accurate: the March issue consisted of ten eight-page (quarto)
signatures; the April issue had only six, the last being a self-contained
(and self-puffing) "Supplement" of critical notices of the SLM. (The
point is that the supplement has no textual connection to the preceding
signature and was probably set before it.) Space was thus tight in April,
but Poe managed nevertheless to get in his own "A Tale of Jerusalem" (a
reprint), "Maelzel's Chess-Player," and the long "Drake-Halleck" review.
The latter led off the final section of "Critical Notices"; the space now
"remaining at the end of the number" (i.e., in the last eight-page signature
which he had to fill) was slightly more than four pages. What Poe placed
in the form were the "Paulding-Drayton review" (captioned with the single
word "Slavery") and another headed "Brunnens of Nassau." Rosenthal points
to a puzzle here: why would Poe have
Rosenthal, of course, wants to argue that it does, but his tactic is so weak that even he admits its inadequacy. He speculates that what Poe is talking about may be an earlier SLM article by Tucker refuting Blackstone's views on slavery. Perhaps Tucker wanted Poe to have copies of this article reprinted as a pamphlet. Or perhaps it's some other essay. But Rosenthal's own comment leaves us little to debate: "My own speculation has the serious weakness of postulating that an offprint would be called a 'number,' and I am not ready to defend a guess as a fact. Nor have I been able to locate an actual offprint."
In the rest of his long essay, Rosenthal dodges further
mention of Poe's letter and goes on to present what he takes to be other
evidence for Poe's authorship. He also makes a brief (and unproductive)
attempt to show specific parallels between "Paulding-Drayton" and passages
in Poe's works. He does not tell us whether he made the same sort of comparison
for Tucker beyond the weak claim that Tucker's prose shows a heavy reliance
on colons and semicolons and the review does not. I have space here only
to suggest what a more enterprising (and necessary) demonstration for Tucker
would show. Confining myself to what Tucker had published thus far in the
SLM, I would instance first his "Note to Blackstone's Commentaries
. . . on the Subject of Domestic Slavery . . ." (1:227-31; identified as
Tucker's in the volume index). This article and "Paulding-Drayton" share
these specific points (first page reference to "Blackstone," second to
"Paulding-Drayton"): 1) masters' care of sick slaves (1:230; 2:338-39);
2) reference to slaves as "property" (1:231; 2:337); 3) citation of Edmund
Burke on emancipation (direct in 1:231; inferentially in 2:337, in a discussion
of the French Revolution); 4) attacks on "philanthropy" (i.e., the movement
for ending slavery on humanitarian grounds) (1:231; 2:338-39); 5) allusion
to recent events in the West Indies (i.e., slave revolts) (1:231; 2:337).
Not one of these references can be found anywhere in Poe's known comments
on slavery. I would add one more point a small and curious item, but one
which offers a link between Tucker and "Paulding-Drayton." This is the
background: In December 1834, before Poe had any connection with the journal,
the SLM published the text of a "Law Lecture" given by Tucker (1:145-54).
This was directly followed by a short anonymous piece entitled "The March
of Mind," a conservative's discussion of human progress (1: 154-56). Tucker
makes a direct allusion to it in his SLM review of George Bancroft's
History of the United States (1:587-91,
Here is the sequence of relevant quotations: 1) "The
March of Mind": "nearly approaching the idolatrous reverence of a Hindoo,
for the fabled virtues of his bloody Juggernaut" (1:154). 2) Tucker's Bancroft
review: "How long it shall be before 'the march of mind,' as it
is called, in its Juggernaut car, shall pass over us..." (1:587-88; italics
in original). 3) "Paulding-Drayton": "Nulla vestigia retrorsum,"
is a saying fearfully applicable to what is called the 'march of
Other strong arguments against Poe's authorship of the review could be adduced in regard to its rhetoric and vocabulary. But I have offered enough information to show that Rosenthal's thesis is, at best, deeply flawed. Future critics should ponder this contradictory evidence before proclaiming his article an "excellent argument" (Dayan) or "impressively thorough" (Nelson).
J. V. Ridgely
Columbia University, Emeritus
[S:0 - PSAN, 1992]