Text: J. Gerald Kennedy, “Elegy for ‘A Rebel Soul’: Henry Clay Preuss and the Poe Debate,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 226-234 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 226, unnumbered:]

ELEGY FOR A “REBEL SOUL”: HENRY CLAY PREUSS AND THE POE DEBATE

J. GERALD KENNEDY

In the decade following Poe’s death, periodical writers on both sides of the Atlantic disputed his place in American letters. From the outset, “practically all criticism began, and as a rule ended, with a consideration of the life and character of the man.”(1) Griswold’s notorious “Ludwig” article was largely responsible for this preoccupation, as its moralistic half-truths prompted a flurry of attacks and defenses, all concerned as much with Poe’s social conduct as his literary accomplishments. Before the Civil War, the Poe controversy had generated more than a dozen extended essays and the first book-length study, Sarah Helen Whitman’s Edgar Poe and his Critics (1860).(2) Although these biographical wrangles impeded understanding of Poe’s writing, they now reveal much about the literary sensibility of that period dubbed by F. L. Pattee “the feminine fifties.” Behind the Poe quarrel lies a broader, more significant disagreement about the duty of the artist to his culture and specifically to prevailing moral and religious attitudes. This problem had been posed initially by the Romantic poets — mainly Byron and Shelley — whose private affairs had scandalized (and intrigued) respectable middle-class readers of the early nineteenth century. Poe was virtually the first writer of note in America to shock the popular audience; the rumor of his dissolution did nearly as much to make him known as his fifteen years in the magazine world. Quite undeservedly, he achieved notoriety as our first literary Bohemian, and his death triggered a debate, the implications of which would not become clear until the advent of twentieth-century literary modernism. For what Poe’s case dramatized for Victorian critics was the potentially subversive autonomy of art from the value code of bourgeois society.

Students of Poe have long been familiar with the major documents in this war of words, but one suggestive item has escaped scholarly notice: the essay and elegiac poem by Henry Clay Preuss, published in the Washington National Intelligencer on 19 May 1853. At times betraying his own ambivalence about Poe’s alleged frailties, Preuss nevertheless felt compelled to defend the dead author from the denunciations of certain literary pundits. In the process, he framed a resonant tribute to Poe’s genius, appealed for an end of moral judgments, and helped to mythologize Poe as a fated poet. Little is known of Preuss’s own career, but the meager available details suggest that his defense of Poe was occasioned not by friendship or personal loyalty — there is no evidence that the two ever met — but by Preuss’s own youthful identification with the emerging image of Poe, the [page 227:] literary martyr. Born in Maryland about 1825 and named for the great Kentucky statesman, Preuss later moved to Washington, where in 1847 he attempted to launch a career as a poet by publishing, at his own expense, a slender volume, The Artist and Other Poems. The title poem sheds some light on Preuss’s creative sympathies, for it commemorates the death of a young poet named Albion Floyd, who apparently languished in poverty and succumbed to tuberculosis, thus epitomizing the destiny of the artist victimized by the “cold neglect and baseness of a sordid world.” Unhappily, The Artist also met with cold neglect, and Preuss, perhaps conceding the impossibility of supporting himself as a writer, accepted a position on 23 July 1852, as a clerk in the office of the Chief Engineer of the War Department at a mere $800 per year.(3) In such circumstances he penned the Intelligencer piece the following year, voicing both a specific admiration for Poe and a general regret about public disregard for the man of letters.

The tenor and timing of Preuss’s tribute suggest that he was in all likelihood responding obliquely to Griswold and more directly to Richard H. Stoddard, whose censorious essay, “Edgar Allan Poe,” had appeared in the March 1853 National Magazine. Stoddard’s sketch, like the earlier portrait by Griswold, displays precisely the malice and self-righteousness against which Preuss sought to defend Poe. We know from Stoddard’s Recollections Personal and Literary (1903) that the New-England poet and critic had a long standing enmity for Poe, dating back at least to 1845, when Poe (then editing the Broadway Journal) rejected Stoddard’s “Ode on a Grecian Flute,” accused him of plagiarism, and forced him to leave the Journal’s editorial office.(4) In October 1852, Stoddard published a fictionalized narrative in the National Magazine that presented Poe as “A Great Man Self-Wrecked,” a “confirmed drunkard.” With his March 1853 essay he took up the cudgel once again: “To write a satisfactory paper on Poe is no easy task, there is so much that is unsatisfactory in Poe himself.” Grudgingly, Stoddard admitted that Poe was “not a confirmed drunkard” but rather a man who became intoxicated with a single drink. The truly monstrous aspect of Poe was his analytical mind, which, according to Stoddard, “seems to have utterly lacked the moral sense.” He claimed that all of the author’s work was darkened by “the radical depravity of a simply analytical mind”; over his writing hung “a starless night of desolation, the shadow of insanity.” In Stoddard’s judgment, Poe belonged to the “dyspeptic” school of Goethe and Schiller, a mode of literature corrupted by “melancholy and misanthropy” and dedicated to making its readers “unhealthy and unhappy” by laying bare “the black gulfs and chasms of our spiritual nature.” Expressing the quintessence of mid-century moral sentimentalism, Stoddard concluded: “What we want is not darkness, [page 228:] but light; not thorns in our path, but roses, and everywhere dew and freshness.”

When Preuss shortly thereafter published his appreciation of Poe in the Intelligencer (then perhaps the most widely-read newspaper in America), he pitted himself against vengeful critics like Griswold and Stoddard rather than the “dewy-roses” philosophy per se. Nevertheless he understood the relationship between the two: Poe’s “onslaught upon the ‘literary lights’ of the day,” his attack upon dullness and preciosity, had alienated him from many of his contemporaries. And these were the very purveyors of froth who, after his death, found retribution in calumny. Preuss wrote of Poe: “He had no mercy on a certain class of writers in his life; and they, in their turn, had no mercy on him after his death. Scarcely were his ashes cold in the ground when the whole pack was let loose, ‘Tray, Blanch, Sweetheart, and all’.” Preuss saw Poe as a “reformer,” whose “searching criticisms” sometimes created “the sensation of cold steel searching through the warm flesh,” but whose “cathartics” helped to impart a “healthy tone” to “our national literature.” Those who had felt the “scorching effects” of his criticism included, of course, Griswold and Stoddard; the latter’s essay, decrying the lack of “moral sense” in Poe, seems the implicit point of reference for subsequent remarks by Preuss: “Among other things, it was charged that his nature was a ‘moral vacuum’; that he had the most obscure conceptions, if any, of moral rectitude, the holiness of virtue, the sanctity of the affections, even the common proprieties of life, etc.”

Preuss answered such accusations in three ways: he first reminded readers of Poe’s domestic side, portraying him as “a most loving husband,” whose “heart was alive to the most genial impulses of our nature.”(5) Preuss then implied that Poe’s critics were too crass to appreciate his work; he recalled Fanny Osgood’s contention that “‘none but a woman could judge of Edgar A. Poe’,” and made the patently ironic argument that “none but a woman, with her refined and holy sympathies, could catch, with artistic skill, the delicate shades, the ever-varying lights, the ‘lines within lines’ of such an exquisitely-wrought piece of God’s workmanship.” Finally, he insisted that Poe’s loneliness and suffering entitled him to a freedom from moral condemnation. Poe experienced alienation because he saw more, felt more than other men; he lived his life on a visionary plane with which conventional morality had nothing to do:

There is a class of minds so isolated from their kind — so far removed beyond the sphere of our own thoughts, feeling, and existence — that it would be cruel injustice to submit them to the Protean standard of our common humanity. Poor Ishmaelites in the desert of this life, the [page 229:] very loneliness of their fate should dispose us to suspend our final judgment, and leave them to the Great Master who said “judge not lest ye shall be judged.”

Here is the principal thrust of Preuss’s defense. The radically different sensibility of the poet entitles him to immunity from censure, for the “Protean standard” of genteel conduct has no applicability to the realm of his imagination. Such “Ishmaelites” as Poe must be judged only by the products of their genius, not by the vagaries of their private lives. In the rhetoric of Christian charity, Preuss thus argued for the primacy of aesthetic values in literary criticism and the right of the artist to pursue a defiant course.

As if in response to the poem “Miserrimus,” which closed the March 1853 diatribe by Stoddard, Preuss appended to his seven-hundred-word appreciation a poem of seven stanzas, which merits reprinting as an addition to the corpus of poems about Poe and as an amplification of the image of Poe limned in the prefatory comments:

Thine was a mind of most unearthly cast,

Which held no kindred with its fellow-kind;

But, soaring on the pinions of the blast,

It towered ‘mid the clouds, while far behind

Earth’s humbler millions, wond’ring, shrunk aghast

From sights which strike the weaker vision blind,

While thou, like eagle soaring to the sun,

Hadst deemed thy giant race but scarce begun!

 

And hadst thou still maintained such dizzy height,

And dreamt thy dreamings out amid the skies,

Thou mightst have shone a bright unfading light;

But, like the setting sun, thou didst but rise

To lose thy peerless splendor in the night,

Which set its seal of darkness on thine eyes,

And, blind and tott’ring in its moral gloom,

Thy traitor-genius shaped its master’s tomb.

 

Life is a cup, its surface sweet to taste;

And he who would enjoy must learn to sip,

For, quaffing it with much-too-eager haste,

Its dregs soon turn to ashes on his lip,

And leave his soul a bleached and ruined waste,

With all the visions of his fancy nipp’d

E’en in their bud. And thus it was with thee,

O, POE! poor fallen child of Poesy!

 

With bold and fearful power thou didst tear

The mystic veil from all life’s hidden things, [page 230:]

And then thy rebel soul was doomed to bear

The penalty which too much knowledge brings:

Life’s brighter lights to thee grew dark and drear —

The mortal drooped though perched on angels’ wings!

And now, with all the gifts of genius blest,

Thou didst but ask of Death the boon of rest!

 

A child of frailty, as an heir of fame,

Men judged thee only in thy darker mood —

Stamped their cold unfeeling verdict on thy name,

Nor paused to sift the evil from the good.

Yet were there moments when the liquid flame

Had ceased with mad’ning heat to fire thy blood,

Oh! then thy better nature proved its worth

And wore a hue of Heaven more than earth.

 

Ah! little reck we of the fearful throes

Which scorched and agonized thy struggling soul

When moved by war between those deadliest foes,

The demon Vice and godlike Self-control!

How oft thy crushed, defeated spirit rose

To dare the fight again — this is not told;

We only know, now thou art ‘neath the sod,

The brute at last has triumphed o’er the God!

 

Sleep, minstrel, sleep! Oh, life e’en at its best

Was but as some dark fev’rish dream to thee;

‘Tis not for us to mar thy “long last rest”

With cold upbraidings on thy memory.

As sunset glories in the fading west

Proclaim the day-god’s fallen majesty,

So genius shines about the gifted dead

To tell mankind how great a soul has fled!

Surely we understand better from this elegy Preuss’s own limitations as a poet, yet beyond the fustian and trite phrases, the poem expresses a more interesting idea of Poe than we find in the prose defense. That the details of the poet’s struggle bear little resemblance to biographical fact is beside the point: what we see here is the myth-making process at work, the construction of an image that presumably answers a personal and cultural need. We watch Preuss endeavoring to create, out of the rumor of inebriation, an heroic Poe capable of withstanding condemnation, a Poe whose personal torment stemmed from a clash between “the demon Vice and godlike Self-control.” If Preuss concedes the issue of intemperance, he does so to dramatize Poe’s agony with his “traitor-genius.” The poem thus interweaves two main themes: the poet’s lonely quest for dangerous knowledge, [page 231:] suggested through images of flight, and his battle with drink, portrayed in terms of fire and combat. Perhaps controverting Stoddard’s claim (in “Miserrimus”) that Poe had failed to reach “the gates of light,” Preuss depicts him “soaring to the sun.” Reaching the “dizzy height” of supernal revelation carries its inevitable “penalty,” however; “too much knowledge” blasts his vision and thrusts him into “moral gloom.” By the very nature of such Promethean defiance, his “rebel soul” must endure despair (“Life’s brighter lights to thee grew dark and drear”), and this doom leads to the desire for death. Although Preuss acknowledges the self-destructive aspect of Poe’s flight toward illumination, he also depicts its godlike boldness; the poet’s “power” to “tear / The mystic veil from all life’s hidden things” separates him from common humanity and reveals his greatness.

Seen as a reply to Griswold, Stoddard, and critics of that ilk, Preuss’s defense undercuts attacks based upon narrowly moralistic grounds. Exponents of the chaste, middle-class ethos of feminized Protestantism regarded Poe as the prototypical lost soul, destroyed by his presumed faithlessness, intemperance, and morbidity. Griswold had pictured Poe in 1849 as one who “walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses”; Stoddard placed him in 1853 among those writers who confused “the boundaries of right and wrong,” ignored “the ancient landmarks of faith and morality,” leagued themselves “with darkness,” and perverted “the very life and mission of all art, viz.: the promotion of joy and gladness, and undying faith in the good and the beautiful.”(6) Poe thus represented to the conservative literati of the fifties a subversive force threatening the status quo: the dominance of the “dewy-roses” school. To defend the values of religion, temperance, optimism, and pleasantness required the vilification of Poe — a task taken up readily by those whose mediocrity Poe had exposed

For Willis, Graham, Preuss, and other admirers, the dark episodes of Poe’s life seemed more the result of misfortune than iniquity. They acknowledged the strangeness of his intellect and his tendency to alienate himself from certain arbiters of literary taste. But if his writing did not embody the sentiment and didacticism demanded in the ladies’ magazines, it was because his “teeming brain” drew its inspiration from other sources. Absorbed by the problem of disorientation — the unstrung mind and the orphaned soul — Poe largely ignored conventional notions of gentility and rectitude; this indifference (which made him Baudelaire’s patron saint) probably disconcerted even some of his American defenders, but they recognized his originality and appreciated, as his hostile critics could not, the agony of genius in an antiintellectual culture. Like Preuss’s friend, Albion Floyd, Poe fell victim to the “cold neglect and baseness of a sordid world.” If the genteel [page 232:] literati stereotyped Poe as an unprincipled inebriate, Preuss and others resisted such moralizing and praised his “rebel soul.” Although we cannot be sure that Preuss grasped all of the dark implications of Poe’s writing, he at least perceived that work in terms of a conflict between the desire for ideality and the disillusionment of forbidden knowledge. In resisting the cultural anaesthesia of pleasantness as he probed “all life’s hidden things,” Poe gave literary expression to the phenomenology of dread, the existential dilemma, which has afflicted Western thought from Poe’s day down to our own. Six years after Preuss’s defense, Sarah Helen Whitman shrewdly remarked, “Edgar Poe came to sound the very depths of the abyss. The unrest and faithlessness of the age culminated in him.”(7) This quality of rebellious despair, the element which so repulsed moralistic critics, seemed to Poe’s early defenders the very essence of his genius and the basis of his legacy.

As for Preuss, the ensuing years brought notoriety rather than fame. A few months after his defense of Poe, he submitted a long historical poem, “A Vision of Freedom,” to a local literary competition; when the selection committee, disappointed with all entries, decided not to award “Mr. Latham’s prize” of $500, a resentful Preuss published the work at his own expense in early 1854. He then began to compose lyrics for patriotic songs, and in 1854 he also published, with Stewart Macaulay, a rousing popular tune called “The Star-Spangled Home of the Free.” His most ambitious literary endeavor appeared in 1857: a five-act farce entitled Fashions and Follies of Washington Life, which in all likelihood never saw a public performance. The Civil War years brought controversy for Preuss when his loyalty to the Union cause came into question. In an 1861 newspaper essay, he questioned the use of military force to deal with the secession of South Carolina, and he forgave the insurgent troops, believing them to be simply misled by their commanders. In August 1861 Preuss came under the scrutiny of a congressional committee and was listed among government employees “against whom the evidence furnished a well-grounded suspicion of their loyalty.” The evidence against Preuss was slight-the testimony of a fellow-boarder who “came to the conclusion, from frequent conversations with him, that his sympathies were with the south in this movement.”(8) Through public displays of patriotism, such as the publication in 1862 of God Save Our Noble Union and Other Poems of the Times, Preuss managed to exonerate himself and to retain his position in the War Department, where he held forth as a clerk until the mid-1870s. His literary productions remained sporadic, patriotic, and undistinguished: in 1873 he published a light eight-page poem, “From Columbus Crocket to General Grant on the Indian Policy,” and nine years later he brought [page 233:] forth a final collection of seven lyrics, Songs of National Harmony, Peace and Brotherhood. The date of his death remains to be established, for unlike the poet whom he had celebrated in 1853, Preuss achieved final and complete obscurity. No traces of his life remain, excepting a handful of chapbooks and his early, fervent defense of Edgar Poe. Even in its outlines, however, the abortive literary career of Henry Clay Preuss suggests something of the difficulties of authorship in nineteenth-century America and something of the process by which Poe became a symbol of the artistic struggle against Philistine convention. For writers from Baudelaire to Hart Crane, his life came to epitomize the persecution of the poet in a basely materialistic culture. In large measure the apotheosis of Poe came about through the effort to counter the slander of his enemies, and in lending his pen to the honorable cause, Preuss participated in the making of an influential myth.


[page 233, continued:]

NOTES

1.  Alice L. Cooke, “The Popular Conception of Poe from 1850 to 1890;” UTSE, 22(1942), 146. The same pattern is noted in Dudley R. Hutcherson, “Poe’s Reputation in England and America, 1850-1909,” AL, 14(1942), 211-233.

2.  Some of the more substantial articles are: C. Chauncey Burr, “The Character of Edgar Allan Poe,” Nineteenth Century, 5(1852), 19-33; John M. Daniel, “Eulogium,” Southern Literary Messenger, 16(1850), 172-187; George R. Graham, “The Late Edgar Allan Poe,” Graham’s Magazine, 36(1850), 224-226; and “The Genius and Characteristics of the Late Edgar Allan Poe,” Graham’s Magazine, 44(1854), 216-225; G. W. Peck, “The Works of Edgar Allan Poe,” American Whig Review, 11(1850), 301-315; John Savage, [untitled], Democratic Review, 27(1850), 542-544; 28(Jan. 1851), 66-69; (Feb. 1851), 162-172; John R. Thompson, “The Late Edgar Allan Poe,” Southern Literary Messenger, 15(1849), 694-696. Mrs. Whitman’s book, not published until after the death of Griswold, aimed to contradict innuendo circulated by Poe’s enemies.

3.  U.S. Cong., House, Executive Documents, 32nd Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, D.C., 1853), 4: Rpt. 33, 11.

4.  See Stoddard’s chapter, “Meetings with Poe,” in Recollections (New York, 1903), pp. 145-160. See also Burton R. Pollin’s chapter on Stoddard, Discoveries in Poe (South Bend, Ind., 1970), pp. 189-204.

5.  Preuss drew his information, one suspects, from the 1850 essay by Graham and the 1852 essay by Burr, cited in n2. [page 234:]

6.  The “Ludwig” memoir of Griswold, from which the former passage is taken, is reprinted in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor, 1966), p. 32; the latter quotations from Stoddard come from the essay on Poe in the National Magazine, 2(1853), 200.

7.  Edgar Poe and his Critics, p. 65.

8.  U.S. Congress, House, Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives, 37th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, D.C., 1862), 3: Rpt. 16, 8.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - PHT, 1990] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and His Times - Elegy for a Rebel Soul: Henry Clay Preuss and the Poe Debate (J. Gerald Kennedy, 1990)