Text: James W. Gargano, “Henry James and the Question of Poe’s Maturity,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 247-255 (This material is protected by copyright)


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Many admirers of Edgar Allan Poe have bristled at young Henry James’s pronouncement that “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”(1) Indeed, James may be among the first of those critics who, like Paul Elmer More and T. S. Eliot, stigmatize Poe enthusiasts as chronically immature. From his high humanist perch, Paul Elmer More looks down on Poe as “the poet of unripe boys and unsound men.”(2) Eliot’s point in “From Poe to Valéry” differs from James’s but it certainly springs from a Jamesian sensibility.(3) Eliot contends that Poe had “the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty. The forms which his lively curiosity takes are those in which a pre-adolescent mentality delights.” Granted — something often forgotten — that James concedes a “very original genius [to] the author of the ‘Tales of Mystery”’ just as Eliot credits him with a “powerful intellect.” Yet, when the final word is spoken and the greatest are separated from the merely original, James debunks Poe as a charlatan who never outgrew an immature addiction to flashy effects. As will be shown at some length, he also provoked a mild international incident which vividly illustrates how, even from the beginning, James’s observations were lifted from an interesting context, garbled, or completely misunderstood.

For all the debate they have generated, James’s strictures on Poe are almost parenthetical remarks contained in an essay on Charles Baudelaire, originally published in the Nation (2 April 1876, pp. 279ff). In that early essay, James takes a line entirely different from that of Eugene Benson who, in 1869, described Baudelaire for the readers of the Atlantic Monthly (22: 171-179) as the “Poet of the Malign” and as a writer “remarkable for his pitiless logic and lyric fury of expression.” In contrast, James belittles the French poet as focusing on the picturesque elements of the sordid rather than on “human life at large” and accuses him of a “permanent immaturity of vision.” Essentially, James disparages Baudelaire’s treatment of evil as something which “begins outside and not inside, and consists primarily of a great deal of lurid landscape and unclean furniture” (p. 77). Unlike Hawthorne, who “felt the thing at its source,” the author of Les Fleurs du Mal is condemned as a shallow connoisseur of filth wishing to shock and disgust: in other words, Hawthorne treats the confrontation with evil as a psychologically crucial experience, while Baudelaire quite consciously utilizes it as a perverse adornment for his verses. James [page 248:] can find no justification for Baudelaire in the argument that literature must be judged in terms of art rather than subject matter. For him, art is riches and most mature when it springs from the inner compulsion of a unified sensibility that embraces the whole gamut of experience; thus, a literature, which like Baudelaire’s, exempts itself from the moral sense — and James is not thinking about restrictive religious or ethical codes — proceeds from a limited consciousness and is necessarily puerile.

Despite his seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness, then, Poe is like Baudelaire obsessed by adventitious effects rather than the large central concerns of man. His works do not appeal to the serious mind because he disdains to incorporate into them the multiple aspects of reality. He prefers the thin fringe to the core, the outré and unnatural to the natural. In short, he refuses to put his whole self and life into the creative act. In words that might not be out of place in an Eliot essay, James asserts, “People of a large taste prefer rich works to poor ones” (p. 82). From this we can infer that Poe and Baudelaire are not quite adult writers because they childishly conceive of literature as splendid exhibitionism.

When he wrote this essay on Baudelaire, James’s career as a novelist had just begun and his critical views had less catholicity than they would acquire. That his opinions could change may be observed by his later admiration for Walt Whitman, another poet he had once refused to take seriously. The influence of Poe that Burton Pollin and other critics discover in James’s fiction may appear to suggest an alteration in James’s perception of Poe’s worth .(4) After all, in The Golden Bowl, James’s last novel, the Italian Prince cites a “wonderful tale by Allan Poe” that illustrates the far reaches of the American imagination in its evocation of a “thickness of white air that was a dazzling curtain of light, concealing as darkness conceals.”(5) If the Prince could read into The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym an instance of the American imagination at its most “impenetrable,” it may be deduced that James belatedly arrived at a more favorable appraisal of Poe than he had expressed in 1876.

Yet, James saw fit to include his essay on Baudelaire in French Poets and Novelists in 1878 without modifying his condescension to Poe. In addition, he was only slightly kinder when in 1879 he pronounced Poe “a man of genius” whose “intelligence was frequently great,” only to castigate his critical judgments as “pretentious, spiteful, and vulgar.”(6) Moreover, as Adeline Tintner points out, James’s very use of Pym in The Golden Bowl did not deter him from depreciating the material he borrowed and, he thought, improved upon;(7) he could still say in 1909 that the “would-be portentous climax of Edgar Poe’s ‘Arthur Gordon Pym’” relies excessively on “the horrific in itself” and [page 249:] thus is so much “imagination wasted.”(8) Once again, Poe is blamed for expending precious genius on anomalies and wonders without human import; he figures as the manipulative artist who produces sensations to stimulate readers seeking thrills (perhaps, he has some affinity to the early version of the clever and cynical sculptor, Gloriani, in Roderick Hudson, a novel roughly contemporaneous with the essay on Baudelaire). Finally, in 1913, with the publication of A Small Boy and Others, the aging James relegates his enthusiasm for Poe to his own extreme youth when he and his brother William “communed to satiety, even for boyish appetites, over the thrill of Poe’s choicest pages.(9)

Even without prevision, any unbiased reader should have found the argument of James’s early criticism of Poe in French Poets and Novelists unmistakable. In comparing Baudelaire with an American fiction writer and in referring indiscriminately to Poe’s tales, verse, and even Eureka, James concerned himself primarily, not with individual works, but with the quality of the authors’ sensibilities. If James’s logic had been addressed, it might have been questioned and a heady critical debate might have ensued. Instead, most American reviews of French Poets and Novelists paid little attention to James’s animadversions on Poe, although the Atlantic Monthly (42[1878],119) approved of the praise accorded Hawthorne at the expense of the French poet in the “shrewd and trenchant essay on Baudelaire.” The New York Times (13 May 1878, p. 3) declared the essay on Baudelaire among the best things in the book, but it seemed to worry about the reception of James’s critical views in England. It concluded with the conviction, however, that “whether England likes these reviews or not, Americans may be sure that from no one else will they get criticism of finer flavor and sounder quality than from Mr. James.”

The English reviewers were far from sympathetic to James’s facile dismissal of Poe as poet. In the Academy, for example, George Saintsbury noted as a strange phenomenon “the incomprehensible fancy of American critics for depreciating Poe” and ruled James “out of court” for categorically referring to Poe’s “very valueless verses” (20 April 1878, p. 337). The British Quarterly Review did not agree with the critical sentiments in “the short paper upon Baudelaire” but refrained from concrete objections (1 January 1878, p. 575). The Athenaeum registered dismay at James’s wholesale indictment of Poe’s poetry. Conceding that Poe sometimes wrote badly and ultimately lacked the “deep vision of Vishnu,” the Athenaeum critic ranked “Ulalume” as “the greatest tour de force in English literature, perhaps the greatest in its line in any literature.” Although he hedged his praise of Poe with minor reservations, the reviewer affirms that if James “means to characterize as valueless the body of Poe’s poetry we . . . decidedly dissent from the criticism” (16 March 1878, p. 339). It appears that [page 250:] English periodical writers took Poe more seriously in the 1870s and 1880s than did their American confreres. Indeed, in an 1879 review of William Gill’s The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, the lordly Westminster Review concludes (n.s. 55: 224): “It is in his Poems and Tales that Poe is to be studied. In them, he was certainly great; and we predict for them a vigorous life when many productions which have succeeded better are dead.”

To examine the little international episode already mentioned is interesting as a manifestation, if not an outburst, of an ongoing English-American controversy about Poe. As the New York Times admitted in 1878, “What England thinks is still a matter of no little concern to a large majority of Americans,” Undoubtedly, the Nation’s hostility in 1875 (25 March, p. 209) to John H. Ingram’s Works of Edgar Allan Poe can be partly attributed to Yankee pique. Rebuking him for his account of Poe’s dismissal from West Point, the reviewer charges Ingram “with a total misapprehension . . . of the case (pardonable, perhaps, in an Englishman who dislikes America, and rather prefers to show that he does).” The Nation injects more nationalistic peeve into its rejection of Ingram’s survey of Poe’s life: “The picture which we must draw even from the conflict of testimonies does not justify Poe’s English biographer in inveighing against the Americans for not doing for him what it was quite impossible for any one to do.” Overly sensitive or not, at least some Americans resented British superiority to their putative attitude toward Poe as man and poet.

The actors in the international drama I wish to consider were an anonymous reviewer in the London Pall Mall Gazette and the once reputable poet-novelist-critic Edgar Fawcett. One can imagine a detached Henry James, like one of his cool, spectatorial characters, enjoying the critical skirmish from the sidelines and marveling at how totally the combatants missed the point of his essay on Baudelaire and his comments on Poe.

The controversy was occasioned by the publication in 1882 of The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, with an appreciative essay by Andrew Lang. In his notice of the book, 14 January 1882, the reviewer for the Gazette (p. 5) concedes Poe’s faults as a man and poet but praises his “extraordinary gift of style.” First, the reviewer, like Saintsbury before him, impugns those Americans who will not admit that “the poetry of Edgar Poe still remains the most individual poetic product to which the United States have given birth.” Henry James is then singled out as the typical American disparager of Poe, but his main charge — that Poe is an immature and undeveloped genius — is completely ignored. With less good nature than Saintsbury, the English reviewer airs his general annoyance with American critics, but he seems particularly upset by [page 251:] James for “venturing to speak of Poe’s ‘very valueless verses’.” With the heavy hand of many reviewers past and present, the anonymous Englishman lumps James with other Americans who “ask if critics can be ‘sincere’ in preferring Poe’s light tones of music to the intellectual severity of Bryant, the humanity of Longfellow . . . the wit of Holmes.” Of course, James never asked such a preposterous question, and his argument is passed over in favor of journalistic commonplaces.

Once he has denounced James as a “typical American” to whom he attributes judgments not expressed in the Baudelaire essay, the English reviewer further narrows the argument and delivers himself of a lecture on why Poe will outlast Bryant, Longfellow, and Holmes, who are not even mentioned in James’s work. He instructs his readers that intellectual force, love, pity, and the refinements of wit cannot insure the survival of poetry: only those poets endure who achieve “a certain indefinable felicity of style, a power of saying things as they never were said before.” With a strong whiff of chauvinism, the reviewer asserts that, since all objective critics acknowledge the superiority of English poetry to American, the English verdict that Poe “has taken his place as one of the fashioners of style” must be accepted. After all, doesn’t Poe’s influence on Tennyson, Arnold, Rossetti, and Swinburne certify the enduring qualities of his poetry? Poe was surely blessed with an “extraordinary gift of style” which “will preserve his verse, like a rose petal in a drop of glycerine.”

Two months after the Gazette’s defense of Poe, Edgar Fawcett entered the lists in support of James. His essay, “Poe As A Poet,” appeared on 25 March 1882 in The Literary World (pp. 96-97). Announcing himself a partisan of James and no friend of Poe, Fawcett recalls that upon reading “the American critic’s rather laconic condemnation,” he was impressed by his “daring posture toward a clique who have for years rhapsodized over the poetry of Poe.” Extolling James as a balanced and brilliant critic without belligerency, Fawcett applauds him for exposing an “empty poetic method and over-praised literary artificiality.”

The reference to artificiality encourages the hope that Fawcett will face up to James’s major thesis. Yet, after an angry prelude, Fawcett limits himself to contesting the Gazette’s three main points: that Poe’s gift of style makes him superior to Bryant, Longfellow, and Holmes; that Poe had the ability to say things that were never said before; and that his uniqueness of expression will insure imperishability to Poe’s verses. In presenting his counter-arguments, Fawcett disregards the larger theme of the essay on Baudelaire and never even broaches the question of Poe’s appeal to those readers arrested at a “decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” Indeed, his response to the Gazette has, [page 252:] strictly speaking, little to do with James, who serves as a pretext for an attack on British opinion and Poe.

Fawcett confronts the Gazette’s first argument with the unJamesian remark that such “pure and noble writers” as Bryant, Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell — the last of whom is mysteriously smuggled into the polemic — “are not to be named in the same year as Poe.” Such an assertion apparently calls for no proof, its truth being manifest to all readers who prefer “sincerity” to “attitudinizing.” Here Fawcett misses the opportunity to relate Poe’s imputed lack of sincerity to James’s belief in his fixation on effects for their own sake. Instead, he pursues his headlong course, making a lukewarm concession to Poe’s prose, as James had done, but still devaluing it as “not great in the first degree”: in order to see its weakness, we are advised to measure it by Hawthorne’s more imaginative works. Even “The Fall of the House of Usher” merits attention only as an arresting example of the second-rate.

Fawcett satirically agrees with the Gazette’s second claim, that Poe said things as they were never said before: “Ulalume” is charged with being about as “ludicrous” as Bret Harte’s parody of it (a far cry from the Athenaeum’s early praise of it as the greatest tour de force in English literature); melancholy in “The Raven” does not disguise its banality, and its rhythm seduces the ear and “almost insults the intelligence”; and “Annabel Lee” is so wretched a piece of melodic inanity that its very “name ought to be a warning to unborn poetasters.” Clearly, Fawcett echoes the sense of Emerson’s dismissal of Poe as the “jingle man” who concocted mindless verses. Instead of being a master of style, Poe replaces style with a multitude of febrile mannerisms.

In concluding his diatribe, Fawcett does not bother to rebut the contention that Poe’s poetry will last like a “rose-petal in a drop of glycerine.” Instead, he explodes into a series of invectives: among the terms used to characterize Poe’s poetry we find “senseless,” “tiresomely vulgar” — an anticipation of Aldous Huxley’s broadside against Poe? — “silly artifice,” “vapid inanity,” and “incontinent epithets.” Fawcett impatiently denies that Tennyson owes any debt to Poe, though he says nothing about Poe’s possible influence on Arnold and the others. With a sort of summary justice, Fawcett then exults that it is about time that Poe should be unmasked for the benefit of “those who blindly adopt the shiboleths of certain prejudiced spokesmen.” One can only suppose that Poe’s devotees were a formidable and intimidating lot in 1882 and that James went directly against received opinion.

“Poe As A Poet” ends with a vindication of James and a panegyric on his style. Blaming the literary climate in the 1880s for the undervaluation of James, Fawcett assails the times for ignoring “good sense” and preferring “gushing sentimentality in place of honest [page 253:] feeling.” After predicting that the future will celebrate James for the “native grandeur of his great style,” Fawcett concludes by seeing an appositeness in the true stylist’s unmasking of the false and pretentious one: “It appears quite in the logical way of things that he who wrote The American, Roderick Hudson, and The Portrait of a Lady, should waken us to a recognition of how tame and meretricious are Annabel Lee, The Bells, and Ulalume.”

So, an intemperate critical debate about James’s essay says nothing about his judgment that Poe’s sensibility never expanded beyond the passions and preoccupations of a precocious boy. The Jamesian bias that Poe and Baudelaire are crafty merchandisers of artistic effects designed for show rather than psychological revelation is never faced.

For what it is worth, I should like to speculate on why James perpetually downgraded Poe’s artistry. First, in spite of subterranean similarities, the two writers seem to be concerned with basically different concepts of reality. Unlike James who imported terror and evil into drawing rooms and well-mannered country gardens, Poe seeks to know the self through its relation to — perhaps confrontation with — what he regarded as elemental and universal forces. He wanted to know God and man’s place in the eternal scheme and lacked James’s almost wholly secular concern with the minutiae of contemporary social relations. Poe’s purpose requires the invention of a fictional world reflecting in its enigmatic manifestations the ultimate mystery of transcendent reality; he revels in singularly dreary tracts of no-man’s land that arouse inexplicable and other-worldly sensations, castellated abbeys fortified to shut out Death himself, pentagonal rooms that contain the history of sorrow, maelstroms and pits that conceal infernal depths, and Pym’s haunted ocean leading to quintessential blackness. To realize his fictional world, Poe refines away domestic manners and social nuance, blurs the line between the natural and the supernatural, and, in general, dissolves the delicate traceries of the actual. To James, all this was not only highly colored Gothicism but it had no structure of thought or deep feeling behind it. It is an instructive literary irony that the author of “The Jolly Corner,” the touching story of Spencer Brydon’s search for and flight from his alter ego, could not be moved by the mixed emotions of attraction and repulsion that William Wilson experiences toward his double. It is positively mystifying that the late-nineteenth-century master who narrated some of his best tales from the first-person point of view could not see his debt to Poe’s anguished and probing centers of consciousness in such masterpieces as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Ligeia.”

I believe that James was wrong about Poe and that his blind spot was his failure to recognize what Poe was doing; he could not accept the landscapes of the famous tales and poems as emblematic of inner, [page 254:] spiritual states and real torment. Finding the horror gratuitous, he could sense no humane truth in the disorders that Poe’s narrators find echoed, mirrored, and implied in natural and cosmic phenomena. I suspect that James did not grasp the fundamental fact that Poe’s visions had a stark, personal basis. Perhaps he was partly misled by Poe’s description of the calculation with which he wrote “The Raven” and the strong emphasis on deliberate effect in his famous definition of the short story. Perhaps, too, he too glibly subscribed to his friend James Russell Lowell’s superficial view that in Poe the heart was all squeezed out by the mind. In any case, James conceived Poe’s scenic horrors to be ends in themselves, cerebral tricks that aim at the purely childish excitation of sensation. Poe, then, was a clever juvenile who became adept at playing bogey man and never developed an adult involvement in the intricate web of human intercourse. For all his critical perspicacity, James saw Poe’s works as hocus-pocus and mere scenery, and he missed the inner drama, the irony, and quest for meaning behind the painted device and the stagy foreground.

As early as 1872, four years before the Baudelaire essay appeared, James had already — and I am afraid permanently — categorized Poe as an ingenious showman. Reviewing an exhibition of French art in Boston, in the Atlantic Monthly (29: 116), he describes Alexandre Decamps, a painter of the exotic and melodramatic, as an artist “whose mission is the pursuit of effect, without direct reference to truth.” He then goes on to belittle Decamps, whom he contrasts to the more serious Delacroix, by comparing the details of one of Decamps’s pictures to “some firstrate titbit of Edgar Poe or Charles Baudelaire.” Already in 1872, James had made up his mind about the nature of Poe’s talent. More than thirty-five years later, in his Preface to The Beast in the Jungle volume of the New York Edition, James still thought of Poe as the marvelous boy who never put his heart or conscience into his deliberately sensational art.(10)

Yet — and it is a big “yet” — Poe was a part of James’s literary consciousness, a part of the native American tradition in which he had his roots. Poe’s works entered his literary bloodstream and became endemic to him. In tracing the development of his own social and aesthetic sensibility in A Small Boy and Others, James could recall that, in their earliest youth, he and his brother William recognized with their “small opening minds” the “predominant lustre” of Poe’s genius in such tales as “The Gold-Bug,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He remembers “forever mounting on little platforms at our infant schools to ‘speak’ The Raven and Lenore and Annabel Lee,” and he maintains that “far from misprizing our ill-starred magician we acclaimed him surely at every turn; he lay upon our tables and resounded in our mouths, while we communed to satiety, [page 255:] even for boyish appetites, over the thrill of his choicest pages.”(11) In his later, conscious literary career, James could feel free to borrow, revise, and, as he imagined, improve upon his fictional ancestor, but he could do so only after he had established that in Poe there was a fatal disjunction between manner and content — that in the truest sense there was only manner and no content at all.

[page 255, continued:]


1.  French Poets and Novelists (1878; rpt. Freeport, N.Y., 1972), p. 76.

2.  “A Note on Poe’s Method,” SP, 20(1923), 309.

3.  HudR, 2(1949), 335.

4.  Burton R. Pollin, “Poe and Henry James: A Changing Relationship,” YES, 3(1973), 232-242.

5.  The Novels and Tales of Henry James (New York, 1909), 23:

6.  Hawthorne (1879; rpt. Garden City, n. d.), p. 58.

7.  “James Corrects Poe: The Appropriation of Pym in The Golden Bowl,” ATQ, 37(1978), 91.

8.  The Novels and Tales of Henry James, 17:

9.  Frederick W. Dupee, ed. Henry James: An Autobiography (Princeton, 1983), p. 36.

10.  See n. 8.

11.  Dupee, p. 36.





[S:0 - PHT, 1990] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and His Times - Henry James and the Question of Poe's Maturity (James W. Gargano, 1990)