Text: Robert D. Jacobs, “The Courage of a Critic: Edgar Poe as Editor,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1971


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The Courage of a Critic: Edgar Poe as Editor



Today I am going to talk to you about a man who in his first year of college ran up an astonishing debt, most of it from gambling, a man who defied his foster father and ran away from home at the age of eighteen, a man who deliberately got himself court-martialed and dismissed from the West Point Military Academy, a man who lost his first job at least partly because he drank too much, a man who regularly attacked the literary establishment as it existed in America, and, to complete this deliberately biased portrait, a man who sometimes took drugs. If, on the surface, this description sounds ominously like one of our present-day dropouts from society, it also shows how many people in the 1830’s and 1840’s regarded a man who today is one of the most revered figures in American literature. This same man, known chiefly for his fiction and poetry, was anything but a dropout; as I hope to demonstrate, he was a courageous and responsible magazine editor who dedicated his life to raising the standards of literary criticism and literary expression in the United States. Needless to say, the man I am referring to was named Edgar Poe.

In 1834 Poe was a young romantic who symbolized his attitude by wearing a Byronic collar and dressing all in black. He was jobless and penniless, although he had published three books of poems and a number of short stories. At the age of twenty-five Edgar Poe was faced with the prospect of finding work or of starving. Through the influence of John Pendleton Kennedy, a lawyer and writer of Baltimore, Poe early in 1835 became a contributor to the Southern Literary Messenger, a journal that had just been founded in Richmond, Virginia. The publisher of the Messenger was Thomas Willis White, whose previous experience in journalism consisted of his having operated a printing shop. The editor of the Messenger was James E. Heath, a minor Virginia writer whose novel Edge Hill had been published by White in 1828. Both Heath and White were solid, middle ­[page 2:] class Virginians who believed in sound morals in literature and life and who thought that sobriety, industry, and good manners were essential to good citizenship. In short, they were representatives of what young people today call the “establishment.” It is not surprising that before long the young man in black, Edgar Poe, was disturbing their tranquillity.

Poe sent White a tale called “Berenice.” It was about a nervous gentleman named Egaeus who developed a strange fixation on his wife’s teeth and who forcibly extracted them from her still-living body after she had been taken to her grave in a coma. This story shocked White, although he printed it. He wrote Poe that “Berenice” was horrible and that it could not possibly have a good moral effect on its readers. Poe’s return letter argued that stories like this made magazines popular and that the great British journals were full of sensational tales. What young Poe was trying to do was to educate his employer to the tastes of the “now” generation of the 1830’s. White, to Poe’s mind, was an ignorant provincial who did not really know what was going on in the world, whereas Poe had carefully kept up with the British journals, chiefly the prestigious Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.

The month after Poe had disturbed White with his horrible story, he upset him again, this time with a book review. The review was of a book of poems by a New Yorker named Laughton Osborn. Poe had great fun with this book, entitled Confessions of a Poet. It had been published anonymously and the author had made a prefatory statement that when it was finished he would kill himself. This, of course, was a cheap publicity stunt and Poe ridiculed it accordingly:

The author avers upon his word of honor that in commencing this work he loads a pistol and places it upon the table. He farther states that, upon coming to a conclusion, it is his intention to blow out what he supposes to be his brains. Now this is excellent. But even with so rapid a writer as the poet must undoubtedly be, there would be some difficulty in completing the book under thirty days or thereabouts. The best of powder is apt to sustain injury by lying so long ‘in the load.’ We sincerely hope the gentleman took the precaution to examine his priming before attempting the rash act. A flash in the pan — and in such a case — were a thing to be lamented. Indeed, ­[page 3:] there would be no answering for the consequences. We might even have a second series of the Confessions.

Today we might be willing to applaud Poe for making fun of the absurdity of a suicide note in a published book, but the American audience of his day was fairly tender-minded toward its poets. A local newspaper charged that Poe had not taken the trouble to read the book he had ridiculed, and Poe had to reassure White that yes, he had done his homework, but that the book reviewed was too silly to deserve serious criticism.

For a while Poe had no more trouble with the management of the Messenger, but when he came to Richmond in July or August of 1835 to act as an editorial assistant, he collided head on with massive middle-class morality. White was not a teetotaler, but he sent Poe packing in a hurry and wrote to him that anyone who drank before breakfast was not to be trusted. Poe fled back to Baltimore, jobless and penniless again.

It wasn’t long, however, before White needed Poe. His editor Heath, who served without pay, had resigned, and he had just lost his second editor, a man named Sparhawk. Reluctantly White wrote Poe to come back to Richmond and help him, which Poe did in October of 1835. The book review section of the Messenger was given into Poe’s hands for the December issue of the magazine, and Poe immediately manifested his authority by publishing an utterly devastating review of a novel by a New York journalist, Theodore S. Fay. A more cautious editor, operating within the prevailing conventions of American journalism, would have seen Fay as a man to cultivate rather than to antagonize. Fay was associate editor of a New York paper and had many influential friends. For a young assistant editor of a little Southern magazine to ridicule a prominent New Yorker as Poe did was quite foolhardy, for in those days of small magazine circulation and low pay, a journalist or a journal survived mainly by making friends. A cautious editor knew that he should collaborate with publishing houses, flatter all popular authors, and exchange favors with editors of other journals. Yet Poe not only proclaimed that Fay had resorted to shameless self-advertising in his own journal, the New York Mirror, but that his novel Norman Leslie was the “most inestimable ­[page 4:] piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or villainously insulted.”

In these days of underground newspapers and public confrontations, charges and countercharges, riots and open slander, a contemptuously satirical review of a book would seem nothing more than bad manners; but the publishing scene was different in 1835. White knew perfectly well that he couldn’t depend upon the South to support his magazine. A magazine must have four or five thousand paid subscriptions to keep going. There was no advertising income. The alienation of even a hundred subscribers would be disastrous. Then, too, there was the problem of obtaining material worth publishing. One way was to set up an exchange with other magazines in other parts of the country. This amounted to a reprint-without-pay privilege. It could be done because most magazines of the day circulated only in their own regions. White was already beginning to cultivate the editors of other magazines in New York so that he could get exchange privileges and “notices,” which amounted to free advertising. Many of White’s subscribers did live in New York, and he couldn’t effort to lose them. With all of these considerations on his mind, he was appalled at the temerity of his young assistant, who was deliberately provoking hostility from the very New York editors that should have been cultivated. What he actually said to Poe we don’t know, but he wrote ruefully to a friend that Poe had shown himself to be no lawyer, implying that he could even be sued for such a review. He hoped the blunder would pass unnoticed, but such did not turn out to be the case. Poe made enemies with the Norman Leslie review, enemies who plagued him for the rest of his career.

Not only was White upset with Poe’s reviews, but White’s trusted adviser Judge Beverley Tucker of William and Mary College also thought that Poe should not use savage satire in book reviews. It was humorous, Tucker admitted in a letter to Poe, but he thought book reviews should be dignified in tone. Poe wrote to Tucker in answer to this criticism, citing the example of such famous British reviewers as Lord Jeffrey and Christopher North and claiming that a critic weakened his authority by treating a worthless book seriously. But America ­[page 5:] was not England, and Poe did not have the backing of a well-established journal. Instead of fame, he gained instant notoriety. Newspapers and magazines over the South and East commented favorably or unfavorably on his approach, many of them saying that Poe used the “tomahawk” and “scalping knife” instead of his pen.

It would appear that Poe would have received sufficient warning by the reaction to this incident. Another man might have given in to the pressure and adopted the practice of most American reviewers, bestowing praise where it would to the most good, and avoiding censure wherever it might cause trouble. Literary logrolling and back-scratching were the order of the day in America, except in a few cases of regional rivalries or when some author, like poor Fenimore Cooper, aroused collective animosity by daring to criticize his native land. Poe, however, felt confident that he could demonstrate the validity of his judgments, even when he condemned a popular author. In the very next number of the Southern Literary Messenger (January, 1836) he reviewed a book of poems by Mrs. Lydia Huntley Sigourney, the sweet singer of Connecticut. According to E. Douglas Branch’s lively cultural history (The Sentimental Years, 1836-1860), saying bad things about Mrs. Sigourney would be like insulting the memory of George Washington: one did it at his own risk. Furthermore, Mrs. Sigourney was a contributor to the Messenger. Everything called for tact in handling this book of poems, but young Poe, beginning to feel that literary standards were worth fighting for, regretfully proclaimed that Mrs. Sigourney’s great reputation was not at all justified by her poems. In fact, Poe suggested, she had been manipulated into recognition by shrewd public relations whereas she really was nothing more than an imitator of the leading female poet of England, Mrs. Felicia Hemans.

The fat was in the fire. Poe had not made fun of Mrs. Sigourney. His tone was serious and thoughtful, but his charge was clear: a second-rate, imitative poet was enjoying an undeserved reputation. Publisher White was scandalized. Mrs. Sigourney, in righteous indignation, announced that she could no longer contribute to the Messenger, and publisher White ­[page 6:] required Poe to write a letter of apology. He did so, quite generously, and Mrs. Sigourney was mollified. White had been so disturbed at the whole affair that Judge Beverley Tucker, friend to both Poe and White, wrote at Poe’s solicitation a letter to White that defended Poe’s review. He called it “a specimen of criticism which, for niceness of discrimination, delicacy of expression, and all that shows familiarity with art, may well compare with any that I have ever seen.” This praise was justified, for Poe had done far more than attack Mrs. Sigourney’s reputation; he had also examined her poems carefully according to literary principles he had learned from his study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the noted German critic Augustus Wilhelm Schlegel. Few critics in America would have been capable of doing the same at this time, for these principles were generally considered too difficult and abstruse for application.

Tucker’s defense was sorely needed, for Poe, in spite of Tucker’s warning a month earlier that satirical reviews would win him no favor among thoughtful people, proceeded to ridicule The Partisan, a novel by William Gilmore Simms. Simms, from the literary center of Charleston, South Carolina, was by far the most prolific writer in the South, and it was the avowed editorial policy of the Southern Literary Messenger to encourage Southern writing. Furthermore, it required little effort of the imagination to see that Simms could do the Messenger a great deal of good as a friend, contributor, and journalistic colleague. Poe’s perversity in ridiculing Simms’ novel must have seemed sheer insanity to White, for here was a Southern editor of a Southern journal treating a respected Southern author with contempt. After Poe left the Messenger, Southern books were almost invariably praised in its editorial columns; but Poe made fun of Simms’ dedication of the book to a friend and went on to say that it had a faulty plot, inept characterization, vulgar language, and shockingly bad grammar. He concluded that Simms ought to take up landscape painting, for perhaps he could draw pictures better than he could write.

Quite understandably Simms was shocked and angered by this review, saying in a letter to a friend that Poe was “rude and offensive and personal.” Eventually the two became friends of ­[page 7:] sorts; at least they found themselves on the same side fighting against the literary cliques of New York. At the time, however, it appeared that Poe had made another influential enemy, and this time quite gratuitously; for Simms’ novel was not nearly so bad as Poe claimed that it was.

Yet these few months of professional reviewing were an educational experience for Edgar Poe. He was learning, among other things, that a literary critic in a country without a well-established literature must teach the public to recognize good writing instead of ridiculing bad writing off the market. He must show the public why a given work was good or bad, which meant that not only must he locate the faults of a composition but also he must demonstrate that faults really were faults when judged objectively by sound rhetorical principles. A responsible critic, Poe found, must educate the public taste. Ex cathedra pronouncements convinced no one of anything except the bad manners of the critic.

It was in April of 1836 that Poe really began his program to educate the public taste; and he did it with a review of two highly esteemed poets, Joseph Rodman Drake and Fitz-Greene Halleck, forgotten today but considered among America’s best poets during the 1830’s. First of all, Poe made it clear in his review that he was concerned with the state of American literature in general, not merely a few mediocre books. He announced that as an editor he was going to exert all of his influence to abolish the pernicious habit of praising every work written in America. Descending from the general to the particular, Poe then defended himself against the attacks of the New York editors who had been outraged by his review of Fay’s Norman Leslie. Finally, after having proclaimed that his tactics were in the interest of the literary health of America, Poe proceeded to demonstrate that he was indeed able to review a book without ridiculing either the author or the book itself. He showed that he could judge the poems of Drake and Halleck according to the highest literary principles. A model of philosophical criticism already existed in the method of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Imitating this model, Poe argued on the basis of what he knew of philosophy and psychology that the human mind had an ­[page 8:] innate idealizing tendency that created a need for an imaginative projection of a beauty more nearly perfect than any that could be perceived by the senses. It was the purpose of art, Poe claimed, to gratify man’s instinctive desire for perfect beauty. Poetry fulfilled this purpose only when it was imaginative enough to suggest ideal beauty — beauty over and beyond ordinary perception. On this aesthetic basis Poe examined the poems of Drake and Halleck, making explicit use of Coleridge’s definition of the imagination and certain passages from Shelley’s poetry to prove that Drake and Halleck, for all of their contemporary reputation, had failed in the first requirement of art; that is, they failed to suggest a beauty that could appeal to the imagination. Shelley could do this, Poe said, and quoted from Shelley’s poems to prove it; but Drake and Halleck operated at a much lower level, at the level that Coleridge had designated as the fancy. Poe even rewrote several passages from Drake to prove that it was no great trick to compose verses of this low quality.

Poe achieved a certain maturity in this review. Not only did he set forth aesthetic principles, but also he analyzed particular passages and used the comparative method to reinforce his argument. No longer was he extorting laughs at the expense of poor-devil authors; instead he signalled his intention to praise or condemn according to an objective method of evaluation.

It would be gratifying to say that Poe always remained at this high level, but such is not the case. Poe was human. He had his crotchets, his prejudices, and all too often he indulged them. For one thing, he could not tolerate bad grammar. For another, he had what our young people call a “hang-up” on plagiarism. It was a characteristic of the romantic period to place a high value on originality, and none placed a higher value on it than Poe. Some of his troubles in later years came from his ill-advised condemnation of other writers as imitators or plagiarists. Then, too, Poe was extremely sensitive. He reacted — say, overreacted — when he himself was the subject of criticism. In spite of these failings, however, Poe made a brave effort to develop objective standards for evaluation and to explain them to the public. Yet the obstacles were formidable, and the way ­[page 9:] Poe met these obstacles demonstrates, to my mind, at least, his courage as a critic.

Poe had used his satirical method only a few times during his editorship of the Messenger. By his own count, out of ninety-four reviews he had been “harshly condemnatory” in only four. But this was enough to give him a reputation for “regular cutting and slashing,” as a Richmond newspaper, The Courier and Daily Compiler, expressed it. Poe answered this charge with a perfectly sensible letter to the editor, but the reputation had been made and it lasted the rest of his life. No doubt it had something to do with White’s firing Poe in December of 1836. Opinions as to why Poe left the Messenger vary. Sympathetic biographers take Poe at his own word and claim that he resigned because in his own words, “The drudgery was excessive; the salary was contemptible,” and his “best energies were wasted in the service of an illiterate and vulgar, although well meaning man, who had neither the capacity to appreciate my labors, nor the will to reward them.” All of this is partially true. The drudgery no doubt was excessive, but his salary was not contemptible by the standards of the day. In fact, Poe at first thought he was being well paid. White was losing money constantly on the Messenger and was rather heavily in debt. He couldn’t have paid Poe any more if he had wanted to. It was true that he could not appreciate Poe’s labors. He disliked Poe’s tales because they did not illustrate moral values, and he was quite disgusted by Poe’s book reviews — and said so in letters to his friends. Then, too, as one scholar has pointed out, he was jealous of Poe’s education and Poe’s assumption of authority on the magazine. The Messenger was White’s baby, and he wanted full control of all policies and editorial attitudes. Finally he did fire Poe, taking as an excuse an alleged neglect of duty. Somehow this reputation spread, that Poe was irresponsible and neglected his work, and nearly nine years later Nathaniel Parker Willis, a New York editor, recorded that he had heard that Poe could not be depended on to perform his regular tasks. Willis, who did give Poe a position in 1844, found that Poe was “good-humored, industrious and reliable.” The great trouble, apparently, was that Poe was never willing to take orders. He wanted to run a literary magazine of the highest quality; his employers usually wanted to make some money. ­[page 10:]

In January of 1837 appeared the notice that Poe was leaving the Southern Literary Messenger. Still under thirty, this young man who in the space of one year had acquired notoriety as an ill-tempered critic hostile toward his brother-authors found himself without a job and without any money.

Poe went to New York looking for work, but no magazine welcomed him. Perhaps it was because there was a financial panic and money was scarce; or perhaps it was because he had antagonized the New York editorial fraternity. At any rate, it was more than a year before he found another position, and he found it not in New York but in Philadelphia. In May of 1839 Poe against his better instincts went to work for William E. Burton, well known as a stage comedian and theater manager. Burton had just launched a journal called Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. It was a “for men only” publication. By this I do not mean that it was a sex journal — after all, this was the 1830’s. It did, however, concentrate on topics supposed to appeal to men about town — sports, gourmet foods, and art and literature. Poe with characteristic lack of tact quarreled with Billy Burton before he even got the job. He criticized Burton for leniency in book reviews, while sending him a review of the poetry of Rufus Dawes, a review that Burton rejected as being too harsh. Burton in a return letter advised Poe to get rid of his ill will toward fellow authors, indicating that he knew of Poe’s reputation as an ill-tempered critic; he also diagnosed Poe’s problem patronizingly as “melancholy” and advised him to get out and get more exercise! It would be interesting to know how Poe, who prided himself on his athletic ability, reacted to this advice. More disturbing to Poe, no doubt, was Burton’s statement that it would be magazine policy to “deal leniently with the faults of genius,” and that he would not approve of “undue severity.”

Poor Poe. Once more he had to work for a man who wanted him to relinquish his standards, modify his tone, and say nice things about whomever his employer wished to praise. Poe took the job, but he wrote to his friend Philip Pendleton Cooke not to think of subscribing to the Gentleman’s Magazine because the criticism wasn’t worth his attention. This advice deserves comment ­[page 11:] because it reveals the importance Poe placed on criticism. He published some of his best tales, including “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in the Gentleman’s Magazine, but he thought that Cooke, a writer himself, would be primarily interested in the criticism. It was not that Poe undervalued his tales — far from it — but his advice reflects his feeling that there was a great need for honest, informed critical opinion in America. Since he was not allowed to express himself freely in the Gentleman’s Magazine, he could not recommend it to a friend. As for his own book reviews, he wrote Cooke that he merely prepared occasional paragraphs, without much thought or effort. This is not quite true. Poe did write two long, thoughtful reviews for Burton, one of the romance Undine by De La Matte Fouqué and the other of Alciphron, a narrative poem by Thomas Moore; but in the main his reviews were as he described them, brief and perfunctory.

It was almost inevitable that Poe would quarrel with Billy Burton. The immediate occasion was Burton’s decision to sell the magazine without consulting Poe, but it would have happened anyway. The details of the quarrel are unnecessary to our purpose here, but Poe’s angry letter to Burton does reveal the limitations that were imposed on his criticism: “At first I wrote long articles which you deemed inadmissible, & never did I suggest any, to which you had not some immediate and decided objection. Of course I grew discouraged & could feel no interest in the Journal.” It is quite clear that Poe could not tolerate the supervision of another man, particularly one whose standards were questionable and whose judgment he did not trust.

Poe realized fully by this time that he could never do his best work in a magazine controlled by another man, so he formed plans to launch his own journal, which he intended to call the Penn. His prospectus for the magazine is worth quoting, because it states Poe’s editorial ideals:

It shall be the first and chief purpose of the Magazine now proposed to become known as one where may be found at all times, and upon all subjects, an honest and a fearless opinion. It shall be a leading object to assert in precept, and to maintain in practice the rights, while in effect it demonstrates the advantages of an absolutely independent criticism — a criticism self-sustained; guiding itself only by the purest rules of Art; ­[page 12:] analyzing and urging these rules as it applies them; holding itself aloof from all personal bias; acknowledging no fears save that of outraging the right . . . .

Even if we qualify Poe’s statement by acknowledging that a magazine prospectus is only an advertisement, we must believe that he was sincere. That sometimes he did not live up to his own high standard is true, but throughout his career he urged the American public to demand and support the kind of criticism described above. The sad thing about it is that Poe assumed that what was important to him was or should be important to the reading public. Evidently it was not, for Poe did not gain enough support to enable him to publish the Penn, nor did he ever gain control of a magazine of the type he wanted. But, as we shall see, he never stopped trying.

The plans for his magazine having failed, Poe had to find another job, which he did with George R. Graham, who had purchased the Gentleman’s Magazine from Billy Burton. Graham, who turned out to be an imaginative and successful publisher, had the wisdom to let Poe write the kind of criticism he wanted to write; and Poe’s finest reviews were published in Graham’s Magazine. By January of 1842 Graham’s new journal was an astonishing success. It had twenty five thousand subscribers, a phenomenal number in those days when four or five thousand paid subscriptions indicated fair success. This was the largest audience Poe ever had, and evidently with Graham’s approval he felt that it was time to inaugurate on a formal basis his program to teach the American public the duties and responsibilities of a literary critic. He announced his purpose in an essay called “Exordium,” the title (borrowed from classical rhetoric) signifying the introduction of an oration. In this essay he attacked literary nationalism and proclaimed that the world at large should be the proper audience for a writer; next he condemned the current type of essay-review, which neither analyzed nor evaluated, and argued that true criticism was “the test or analysis of Art,” and that it was properly employed only upon writings “which have their basis in Art itself.”

To see the practice that Poe considered invalid as criticism, we have only to examine the book reviews of the North American ­[page 13:] Review during this period. Typically they are long essays, sometimes from fifty to seventy-five pages, in which the reviewer uses the book reviewed as a point of departure from which to discuss the life and opinions of the author. Sometimes the reviewer completely neglected the examination of the book and wrote an original essay on the same subject. This, Poe maintained, was not criticism. The critic’s function, his only function, was to evaluate the literary quality of the book reviewed.

During the first months of 1842, Poe demonstrated in the pages of Graham’s Magazine the kind of criticism he had advocated in “Exordium.” Even now he occasionally lapsed into the contemptuous tone of some of his early reviews, but for the most part he stuck to principle. The high point of his career as a reviewer was reached when he published in April and May of 1842 his critiques of the poems of Longfellow and of the tales of Hawthorne. These are the reviews that are usually anthologized, the only reviews that most people who read Poe are familiar with. In them he moves from general principle to particular application, first describing what he thinks a poem or a short story should be and then analyzing Longfellow’s and Hawthorne’s works according to the ideal model. We may not agree today with Poe’s prescriptions for the poem and short tale, but we should at least recognize the merit of his procedures. Instead of using the impressionistic method of many reviewers of his time — which amounted to a mere statement of like or dislike — Poe made a brave attempt to develop ideal standards and to apply them. In general terms, we recognize that his critical judgment was sound. Longfellow, he declared, was second-rate because of his didacticism: the poet was more concerned with pointing a moral than with evoking an aesthetic response from his readers. Hawthorne, within his limits, was a first-rate writer, but his range was narrow and his tone monotonous. Hawthorne lacked versatility and his tone was nearly always melancholy, but, Poe concluded, these faults were trivial and Hawthorne was “a man of truest genius.” Today we agree with both of these verdicts.

It is sad to note that Poe resigned from Graham’s Magazine just as his finest editorial criticism appeared. It is not likely that ­[page 14:] he was discharged in favor of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, although this tale has persisted down to the present day. Graham appreciated Poe’s value, and Poe even had some hope that Graham would back him in establishing his own magazine. His reason for resigning, as he put it in a letter to Frederick W. Thomas, was his “disgust with the namby-pamby character of the Magazine, . . . the contemptible pictures, fashion-plates, music and love tales.” It is quite clear that Poe would be content with nothing less than a literary monthly, something like the Atlantic Monthly of thirty years later under the editorship of William Dean Howells. Such a magazine did not yet exist, but Poe thought that he could create one. Graham, with a sound journalistic instinct for the popular, had developed a family magazine, but Poe clung to the illusion that the American public could be persuaded to support a journal whose chief claim would be unbiased and expert literary criticism.

During the remaining seven months of 1842 Poe did freelance writing, but the stipend for his review-articles was miserably small. He tried to get a political appointment to a custom-house, that traditional refuge of nineteenth century American writers, but he failed. At last, however, he secured a backer for his own projected magazine and wrote a friend that he was to have the entire editorial control of the journal. It appeared, however, that high-level support would be needed to launch the magazine successfully, and Poe hoped to get it from the Tyler administration. Robert Tyler, the President’s son, was a poet whose work Poe had reviewed without acerbity. Then too, Tyler was a Whig from Virginia, and Poe, insofar as he had any politics at all, was a Whig. On the basis of these insubstantial connections, it was arranged for Poe to go to Washington in March of 1843, deliver some lectures, visit various government departments, and have an audience with the President.

Everything was hopefully in readiness for a triumph, but as usual everything went wrong for Poe. At dinner in Washington he took a few glasses of port wine, became quite drunk, made remarks about a Spanish gentleman’s mustaches, insisted upon wearing his overcoat inside out, and in general made something of a spectacle of himself. Worst of all, he missed his meeting ­[page 15:] with the President, for Frederick W. Thomas, the friend who had Washington connections, became ill and was unable to present him to Tyler. Thomas wrote sympathetically that Poe had behaved in Washington “certainly not in a way to advance his interests.” It was only a minor scandal, and Thomas knew that sometimes even a single glass of wine was too much for Poe; but the damage was done. There would be no Washington patronage.

In spite of this disappointment Poe still hoped to bring out the magazine, now to be called The Stylus. It was to appear in July of 1843, and Poe kept busy trying to secure contributors and subscribers. By June, however, he had to abandon the project, as he lamented in a letter to James Russell Lowell: “alas! my Magazine scheme has exploded — or, at least, I have been deprived, through the imbecility, or rather through the idiocy of my partner, of all means of prosecuting it for the present. Under better auspices I may resume it next year.” But Poe was not to resume it the next year. He could not find a backer, and he had no money and no job. To make things worse, his young wife Virginia, who had ruptured a blood vessel while singing a year earlier, was in precarious health and would continue to decline until her death early in 1847.

Once more Poe decided to try his fortune in New York, even though his enemies there were still flourishing. For months he found no work, but finally his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, appealed to Nathaniel Parker Willis for help. Willis had been the victim of Poe’s wit, but apparently the New Yorker was a forgiving soul. He was now an editor of the New York Mirror, the very newspaper Poe had ridiculed eight years earlier in the review of Norman Leslie. The coeditor of the Mirror was General George Pope Morris, whose song-poems Poe had praised highly, so on the whole the management of the Mirror was favorably disposed. In spite of the fact that Poe’s reputation among the journalists led Willis to expect him to neglect his duties and occasionally stage a violent scene, Willis gave him the job, commenting that he admired Poe’s genius and that he would let genius “atone for more than ordinary irregularity.” ­[page 16:]

We should not regard Willis’ generosity too highly, however. Morris and Willis were attempting to put the Mirror, which had been moribund, back on its feet; and Willis did not hesitate to get full publicity value from Poe’s reputation as a savage critic: “We wish to light beacons for an author’s crusade . . . . We solemnly summon Edgar Poe to do the devoir of Coeur de Leon — no man’s weapon half so trenchant.” It was a melancholy irony that Poe, who had finally emerged as a philosophical critic, had to make his way in New York on the basis of his least worthy approach. New Yorkers still thought of him as the tomahawk man, and his fine essay-reviews for Graham’s Magazine were apparently forgotten.

The kind of work Poe had to do for the Mirror was beneath his talent. Willis described it as follows: “It was his business to sit at a desk, in a corner of the editorial room, ready to be called upon for any of the miscellaneous work of the moment — announcing news, condensing statements, answering correspondents, noticing amusements, — everything but the writing of a ‘leader’ or constructing any article upon which his peculiar idiosyncrasy of mind could be impressed.” In spite of this low-paid drudgery, Poe impressed Willis as being good-humored, reliable, and industrious — a quite different character from the one that had been given him by rumor.

Poe had been with the Mirror only a few months when, through the recommendation of James Russell Lowell, he was able to become an assistant editor on a tiny literary weekly called the Broadway Journal. The paper had a small circulation, a staff of three, and very little capital. Soon Poe managed to oust the editor of the journal, a man named Charles Frederick Briggs, and become not only the editor but the owner of the magazine. He bought it for fifty dollars cash plus an assumption of its debts. At last, after all these years, he had his own journal; but it was not the handsome literary monthly he had hoped for. It was a poorly printed weekly, in newspaper format, and it was heavily encumbered by debt. Almost alone Poe kept it going a few months, but in January of 1846 he could manage it no longer. The Broadway Journal was bankrupt. ­[page 17:]

Over all, Poe’s criticism in the Broadway Journal was not of the quality that he had written in Philadelphia. Sometimes he merely reprinted earlier reviews, with some revision, and now and then he lived up to his reputation as a tomahawk man. Poe’s attacks on Longfellow during this period may not be justified by principle, for he accused the New England poet of literary dishonesty. Longfellow wrote in the period style, which made him sound like many other poets of the time, but he was not a confirmed plagiarist, as Poe would have him. It was also during this period that Poe alienated his friend James Russell Lowell and made violent attacks on the New England transcendentalists, particularly Margaret Fuller. Yet, in spite of all this controversy, Poe, in his better moments, initiated a new program in his criticism. His stance in earlier days had chiefly been one of contempt for the “mob,” the popular audience. In these years of 1845 and 1846 Poe began to modify his public attitude. He now began to argue that it was the right of the noncreative general audience to share in the aesthetic pleasures once reserved for the intellectual elite. In his reviews during this period, Poe demanded more emphatically than ever before that the artistic genius control his temperamental eccentricities, abandon his abstruse philosophies, and that he use his intelligence and common sense to appeal to the people at large. Above all, the genius should avoid “mysticism,” or mysteries in thought and expression incomprehensible to his audience. It was on this basis that Poe vilified the American transcendentalists and even took Hawthorne to task because his allegorical method removed him from public appreciation. Allegory, Poe argued, destroys the pleasure of a fiction because its end is to establish a truth. Hawthorne had every quality a great author should possess, but his obscure and ambiguous symbolism denied him a proper audience.

Some critics, even today, assume that Poe was always contemptuous of the mass audience, and certainly many of his statement early in his career bear out this assumption; but scorn for the public is a reprehensible or even an irresponsible attitude for a professional journalist. It is possible for the editor of a modern literary quarterly supported, let us say, by a university, to aim at the very highest intellectual level; but Poe of course was never sponsored by a nonprofit institution. It was in 1845, after full ­[page 18:] exposure to the brawling, contentious journalistic practices in New York that Poe began to underscore as never before the responsibility of the writer to the mass audience. This is such a striking contradiction to the position normally assumed by a romantic poet that it deserves emphasis. Shelley, whom Poe had admired intensely in 1836, had in his Defense of Poetry declared that the poet could be appreciated only by his intellectual peers and that he would not be truly honored in his own time. By 1845 Poe was explaining that Shelley never bothered to think of the needs of an audience and that his poems were like rough drafts, notes to himself. Poe had also become critical of what he called the “preposterously anomalous metaphysicianism of Coleridge.” He blamed Elizabeth Barrett for her obscurity and “mysticism,” saying that she had been infected by the “school” of Shelley and the early Tennyson. Had she studied the later Tennyson, Poe conjectured, she would have found the simplicity and clarity of a truly “natural” art.

The message is quite clear. Poe has renounced romantic expressionism — the notion that the chief value of a poem was self-expression — in favor of audience appeal. Further, he has denied the role of the poet as a seer or prophet with insight into ultimate truth. The proper role of the poet, Poe argued, was to give an experience of beauty (the “poetic effect”) to a universal audience. It was with this aim in mind, he claimed in the “Philosophy of Composition,” that he wrote “The Raven.” However outrageous his claims in this essay may seem to those who believe that the creative act is largely an unconscious or preconscious process, Poe’s assertion that composition is or should be a deliberate, willed activity aimed at a general audience was a valuable corrective to the inspirationalist psychology of art prevalent in his time. And this is precisely what Poe intended it to be:

Most writers — poets in especial — prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — an ecstatic intuition — and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peek behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought — at the true purposes seized only at the last moment — at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view — at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable — at the cautious ­[page 19:] selections and rejections — at the painful erasures and interpolations — in a word, at the wheels and pinions — the tackle for scene-shifting — the step-ladders, and demon-traps — the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

In this one masterful sentence, in which the abstract import is given tone and richness by the encircling metaphor, Poe summarizes the concept of composition toward which he had been progressing for the past half-dozen years. The metaphor proclaims his belief that art was a fictional mode designed to create a delightful illusion for an audience; the enclosed description of the actual process of composition shows the difficult and even painful procedures by which the artist refines his ideas and expression to produce the illusion which is art. Poe had been saying for years that art was not reality or truth; reality was merely the crude raw material which the artist shaped into an aesthetic form. The only valid test for art, then, was not the artist’s “sincerity,” nor his “insight,” nor his “moral vision” — those common touchstones of value implied by the notion that the poet has a vatic function — but his success in creating a fiction that would give aesthetic delight.

Needless to say, it took courage to proclaim that art was restricted to aesthetic value at a time and in a place where poetry was thought of as a heuristic device for making us better and wiser, but Poe was prepared to go even further. “The Philosophy of Composition” simply complements “The Poetic Principle,” the lecture that Poe delivered to all who would listen during 1848 and 1849. Poe had argued in the first essay that the great test of a poem was its success in creating an aesthetic effect (“beauty” to Poe was not a quality of an object but a response — an “elevation of the soul”). He made it his purpose in “The Poetic Principle” to claim immense value for the aesthetic effect by intimating that enjoying the beautiful was an aspect of man’s divinity: it was “An immortal instinct deep within the spirit of man . . . .” This was not a new position for Poe. He had established it in 1836 in his review of Drake and Halleck and he had renewed his argument in his review of Longfellow’s Ballads in 1842. Never before, however, had he advanced his claim with more ­[page 20:] eloquence, never before had he been able to support his position with a consistent philosophical argument, a theory of the universe. Poe’s Eureka, composed during 1847, delivered as lectures and published in 1848, really represents his final argument for aesthetic value.

That everyone needed to experience aesthetic pleasure in some form other than mere sensuous gratification would appear to go without saying, but Poe’s audience was committed to art that taught moral lessons. To convince them that poetry shaped the soul instead of the conscience or the reason, Poe had to reconstitute, as it were, the public conception of God and the universe. It was Poe’s essential proposition that God was an artist who created the universe for his own pleasure. In fact, the entire universe (by “universe” Poe means the solar system) was God’s manifestation in matter — His incarnation. God’s mind was manifested in the conscious intelligence of his creatures, but the spirit of God was in all things, from the unconscious stones of the roadway up through all of the gradations of life to man himself. Only man had the psychic sensitivity to be aware of this divinity, and awareness would gradually grow in man throughout the ages until the human soul would know itself truly as the spirit of God. God felt the pleasures and pains of all His creatures, for collectively all life was God in his expanded existence; but only man had the visionary capacity. Only man, in moments of prescience, could project his vision outside of his body, which Poe thought of as a cage which confined the spirit, and experience that ecstasy of divine unity which Poe called the “glory beyond the grave.” Only the artist, given the capacity to envision the perfect beauty “beyond,” could so organize the raw materials of nature as to transmit a “partion” of this beauty. As Poe had expressed it in “The Poetic Principle,” “The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted — has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.” In Eureka, Poe makes it clear that it is the God within him that prompts the artist to his lifelong struggle to apprehend, here on earth, his immortal heritage of beauty. ­[page 21:]

Poe, then, saw God as an aesthete, even as a hedonist, extending himself into a universe so that he could experience both pleasure and pain. The pain was necessary for the pleasure to be experienced, for the true quality of an event is known only through its opposite. Only in this way, Poe contended, can we explain why an omnipotent creator would permit evil in his universe:

In this view, and in this view alone, we comprehend the riddles of Divine Injustice — of Inexorable Fate. In this view alone the existence of Evil becomes intelligible; but in this view it becomes more — it becomes endurable. Our souls no longer rebel at a Sorrow which we ourselves have imposed upon ourselves, in furtherance of our own purposes — with a view — if even with a futile view — to the extension of our own Joy.

It was only the “plot” of God that was perfect, the total “design” extended in time and space. The phenomena we experience, the sights and sounds that assault the senses, are never perfectly beautiful, for the limited human sensorium cannot take in their “place” in the design. Man cannot grasp, except theoretically and abstractly, the “plot of God.” It remains for the human artist to “adapt” the raw materials of experience to the human mind. A design of limited scope must be constructed so that it may present a unified impression to the limited human mind.

This, then, is the philosophical and psychological justification for Poe’s celebrated criterion, the unity of effect. A work of art should be to the individual what the universe itself is to God: a composition of parts planned to give a unified impression. Mere structural unity was not enough. A novel or an epic poem might conceivably exhibit structural unity, if one investigated it thoroughly over a period of time; but it could never give a single impression. Abstractly one could recognize the unity of an extended work, but he could never feel it. To Poe it was the feeling of unity that counted, the psychic satisfaction of recognizing immediately the order, harmony, consistency, and relatedness that to Poe constituted beauty. In brief, what value has beauty unless it is felt? And to feel it is to “anticipate” on earth what God experiences in eternity, that “glory beyond the grave” when God, the fragments of Himself drawn together into the primal unity, once more enjoys the ecstasy of his “concentrated” existence. ­[page 22:]

Some will say that in order to support his theory Poe had to invent a God who would approve of it. Perhaps this is true. Nevertheless, to propound such a theory before the public in 1848 required either firmness of conviction or daring or both. Even Emerson, who scandalized his orthodox contemporaries, never made such a radical interpretation of the nature of God, for Emerson left God something of his moral and providential aspects by structuring compensation into the laws of nature. Poe shows God as deliberately building evil into the universe in his creative thrust toward diversity. The plots of God are perfect, Poe had asserted, but a plot simply meant a plan that totally fulfilled the intention of the plotter. God knew exactly what he wanted to do and exactly how to do it. There were no afterthoughts, no providential modifications of the divine plan. Once the plan had been put into execution, God had no more power to change it than would any one of his creatures. Inexorably the universe moved through time, expanding until the ultimate diversity would be achieved; then, the original repulsive force having expended itself, all matter would be drawn into the sun by gravitation. God’s material manifestation would be destroyed, and God would exist once more in unity — the “glory beyond the grave.”

Such an outrageous interpretation of God’s nature of course did not go unchallenged. Poe defended his theory in a letter to Charles Fenno Hoffman, editor of the Literary World. In this letter he said he knew he would be called a “pantheist, a polytheist, or a Pagan,” but he professed not to care unless someone called him a student of theology (it had been a student of theology who criticized him). To Poe the theory was an art work, a poem, beautiful in its consistency and true because it was consistent. It did not matter if people disagreed with his premises; it was enough if they found beauty, for Poe felt that the beautiful was always true in the higher sense of gratifying the yearning of the soul. Only the deformed was untrue, though it was affirmed as “real” by the senses. It was untrue because it was a denial of the essential nature of the divine, which was, Poe thought, revealed by the beauty of the creation as a whole, not by those parts which can be apprehended by our human senses. ­[page 23:]

In the preface to Eureka Poe wrote, “it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.” Critics have not always honored this request, for some have attempted to examine the work for its scientific accuracy or its logic. It is true that Poe’s concept of a bounded universe that expands only until a certain limit has been reached approximates one of the theories current today, but we are not concerned with that topic here. I offer Poe’s Eureka as his final argument in the proposition he had put before the public early in his career, that the artist had only one function, to give his audience an experience of harmony and order — what he called beauty. His whole career, then, was a cumulative act of courage, because the American public sought heuristic value in literature and placed little value on aesthetic experience. Edgar Poe had set himself an enormous task, to persuade the public of America that the experience of art was not only pleasurable but that it shaped the soul toward a desire for a transcendent order and taught us to recognize deformity wherever we found it. Poe believed in the formative effect of art, not in the neoclassic didactic sense, but in the classic sense of infusing harmony into the spirit; and he approved of the system of education found in Plato’s Republic, saying in 1841 that Greek education in its emphasis on music was directed toward the soul and ruled by the sense of beauty. This, then, was Poe’s lifelong justification for art: the experience of beauty taught us to recognize the divine within us, for it shaped the soul in harmony with the purpose of God.

After the publication of Eureka, very little time was left to Poe; and he spent that time trying to implement his dream of a personally controlled magazine through which he could continue his work of educating the American public. Finally he found a backer who agreed to finance the expensive format that Poe demanded instead of the cheap little magazine that would have been perhaps more practicable. We all know the ending of the story. At last, with his hopes close to realization, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore delirious and close to death. On Sunday, October 7, one hundred and twenty-one years ago, Poe died in the Washington College Hospital. For all of his failings, his use of drugs and alcohol, his occasional malice and self-serving, we can see his career as a professional critic as a ­[page 24:] remarkably courageous one; for he spent his energy and his intelligence boundlessly in trying to convince the people of America that good art was immensely valuable and that bad art should never be given to a public incapable of judging for itself.



This lecture was delivered by Dr. Robert Jacobs of the University of Kentucky at the Forty-Eighth Annual Commemorative Program of the Poe Society, October 11, 1970.

© 1971 and 1998, by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

Jacobs is almost certainly mistaken in his ascertion that Poe used drugs. For a detailed analysis of this issue, see Poe Drugs and Alcohol.


[S:1 - CCEPE, 1971] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Courage of a Critic: Edgar Poe as Editor (R. D. Jacobs, 1971)