Text: J. Albert Robbins, “The State of Poe Studies,” Poe Newsletter­, April 1968 (no. 1), 1:1-2


[page 1, column 1:]

The State of Poe Studies

Indiana University

In 1957 Edward H. Davidson said that “for three quarters of a century [critics and scholars] have made Poe the most thoroughly and intelligently investigated writer in American literature.” To this I say, Not so. In my opinion (and in these remarks I am clearly expressing personal convictions) Poe began his life an orphan and, until now, has continued to be a scholarly and critical orphan.

Oh, there is no shortage of books and articles on Poe. They flow in a steady stream year after year — journalistic and rehashed biographies, more often than not; source studies (useful but not definitively illuminating) and critical hunches (some useless, some interesting, a few significant). On rare occasions a truly significant article or book appears, but the total effect is pathetic. There is a flood of words, but they threaten to drown, not buoy us. Consider the eight American authors in Floyd Stovall’s review of research and criticism. Poe’s peers here are Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Twain, and James. The memorable scholarship and criticism on Poe is puny when compared with that of these seven. Five of these seven are the subject of Matthiessen’s memorable American Renaissance and, although Matthiessen has written brief pieces on Poe, those are not among his best criticism. There is no study for Poe comparable to Newton Arvin’s splendid book on Melville. Two most unusual books on Poe did appear in 1957, Edward H. Davidson’s Poe, A Critical Study and Patrick F. Quinn’s The French Face of Edgar Poe; but what have we had since then that can match the quality of Roy R. Male’s Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision (1957), Milton Stern’s Fine Hammered Steel of Herman Melville (1957), Perry Miller’s Consciousness in Concord (1958), Sherman Paul’s Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration (1958), Millicent Bell’s Hawthorne’s View of the Artist (1962), and Warner Berthoff’s The Example of Melville (1962) ? If we went beyond these contemporaries and near-contemporaries to consider superior studies of Twain, Dickinson, and James, the disparity would be even more obvious.

Poe has not wanted for able and devoted scholars, and we have all profited from the work of such men as Woodberry, Campbell, Stovall, Arthur H. Quinn, and Mabbott. Many useful articles on individual poems and tales continue to be written, but the miscellaneous nature of much Poe scholarship and criticism is matched by the absence of fully committed scholars. Professor Mabbott is the only “total” Poe scholar now alive. Henry James is [column 2:] ably served by Leon Edel, but there is no such scholar-critic to aid the cause of Edgar Poe. It is frustrating to see such quantities of scholarship on Poe add up to so little. The same biographical facts are told and retold, the same speculations about Poe’s temperament and personality are repeated, and the same attacks and defenses go on and on. If only Poe were less fascinating! If only he did not excite partisans, sentimentalists, and Freudians to such excesses! The facile epithets for book titles are so ready at hand — “haunted man,” “dreamer,” “martyr,” “Israfel.” Is there another American writer of the past century who has stirred two women so diverse as Marie Bonaparte and Mary E. Phillips to produce such weighty and curious studies — one finding anal eroticism everywhere and the other preserving the results of massive research in adulatory and unreadable prose? One is led to wish that Poe could have, like Melville, lain for a time in limbo, forgotten and ripe for meaningful rediscovery; but since the day when Griswold rushed into print with his wicked Ludwig article, Poe has never been out of sight or out of mind. The enigma of his personality and the puzzle of his art have kept Poe very much in mind (which he would have liked) and very controversial (which would have delighted him). Poe continues to mock and make fools of us from beyond the grave. For all the enterprise, there are such disappointing results! We are fairly close to a true understanding of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne Whitman, Melville, and James (perhaps somewhat less close to an understanding of Twain), but I have no such faith that we are close to grasping Poe.

Why is it that — except for such accomplishments as the editing of poems by Campbell and Stovall, of Politian by Mabbott, of the letters by Ostrom — so many things need doing or re-doing? There is no satisfactory bibliography. There is no edition which meets modern standards. Fine as it is in so many ways, Arthur H. Quinn’s biography fails to capture some of Poe’s more elusive qualities and is weak in its critical judgments. Poe’s reading and reviewing are especially important, but no one has attempted the definitive study. Helpful as it is, Davidson’s critical study has not fully filled the needs of interpretation. There is no annotated list of Poe dissertations. A chronological source book along the lines of Leyda’s Melville Log and Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson would be immeasurably useful, but there is none. Until 1966 there was no collection of reprinted criticism (though now there are two). Until now, there has been no Poe Newsletter.

Notoriety, not renown, inflates the prices of first editions and manuscripts and keeps some useful documents locked away in vaults. For reasons which are puzzling, Poe admirers, when not quirky, are likely to be reclusive fellows. Perhaps it is in emulation of their idol. I cannot conceive a congregation of Poe admirers meeting on a [page 2, column 1:] common ground of warmth and shared purpose and visiting the master’s old scenes with the happy results of the confraternity of Melvilleans at Williamstown and Pittsfield in 1966. What might Poe studies be if we had the equivalent of those remarkable Yale seminars of Stanley T. Williams which produced such useful books as those of Harrison Hayford, Merrell R. Davis, William H. Gilman, Walter E. Bezanson, Merton Sealts, and Dorothee Finkelstein? Indeed, I do take issue with Davidson’s view of things in 1957 and agree rather with Richard Beale Davis, who, two years later, said, “In the present era of intense critical re-evaluation of our major nineteenth-century writers such as Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, it is ironic that so little sustained attention is given to Poe, who is still, with Whitman, the best known of our writers throughout the rest of the world.” This raises another issue on which only beginnings have been made — Poe’s international reputation and influence.

To turn to practicalities, rather than dwelling longer upon our collective imperfections, I might best indicate what to me seems most rewarding in approaching Poe, by postulating an intelligent and earnest student — undergraduate, graduate, or layman — who wishes to get at Poe with a minimum of frustration and waste of time. With the warning that I shall not try to cite the many articles that usefully illuminate single poems or tales, I would advise him to commence with a thoughtful reading of all the poems and all the tales and some of the criticism. (Robert L. Hough’s selection of criticism, published three years ago, would suffice for a beginning there.) I would also ask him to keep in mind what several scholars have said in recent years, a judgment with which I fully agree — that Poe reveals himself much more fully in his tales than in his poems. For this reason, I suggest a reading of all the poems, but urge a reading of all the tales, Arthur Gordon Pym , and Eureka.

I would have him then read from Poe’s letters with especial attention to the March 19, 1827 letter to John Allan, the April 30, 1835 letter to Thomas W. White, and the July 2, 1844 letter to James Russell Lowell. Our [column 2:] student would now be ready to gain a sense of the life and, of course, he should read Arthur Quinn’s biography, with the warning that Quinn’s critical efforts are seldom successful. He would now be ready to undertake criticism above Poe and I would prescribe first Geoffrey Rans ’ excellent little book, Edgar Allan Poe (1965) — the last chapter of which provides a splendid short essay on scholarship. If he wished, he could then read Jay B. Hubbell’s more detailed essay on scholarship in Stovall’s Eight American Authors, realizing that it stops at the end of 1954.

With the two recent collections of criticism at hand — Eric W. Carlson’s (1966) and Robert Regan’s (1967), I would advise him to commence with Allen Tate’s two classic essays (one is in Carlson, the other in Regan) and then read with care what I consider to be the most illuminating essay of general criticism ever written, Richard Wilbur’s introduction to his Dell volume of Poe’s poems (1959). (These thirty-two pages are of more worth than a dozen books which I could, but won ’t, cite.) At this point I would recommend D. H. Lawrence’s early essay on Poe; Chapters 4 and 5 in Harry Levin’s Power of Blackness (1958); two essays on Pym: Chapter 6 in Patrick Quinn’s French Face of Edgar Poe (1957, but first published separately in 1952) and Sidney Kaplan’s introductory essay to the Hill and Wang Pym (1960); and Terence Martin’s “The Imagination at Play” (1966). Here, or at some point, he should acquaint himself with Edward H. Davidson’s Poe, A Critical Study (1957), N. Bryllion Fagin’s The Histrionic Mr. Poe (1949), and the remainder of Patrick Quinn’s French Face. At this point I would leave my hypothetical student to explore as his own needs and tastes indicate, with a suggestion that he sample further the essays collected in the Carlson and Regan volumes and with the parting advice that in ranging widely in Poe scholarship he must acquire the ability to skim and to skip when he encounters redundancy, and the good judgment to reject the nutty, the eccentric, and the perverse — of which he will find plenty.

As for the future, Poe may continue to be a critical orphan. Keen critical perceptions never are in oversupply. But surely trained scholars can undertake a definitive bibliography. A new scholarly edition is badly needed and, if Jay Leyda cannot do a Years and Hours of Edgar Allan Poe, then someone should do it. A descriptive bibliography of Poe dissertations would provide another useful research tool. A selective and sensible assessment of Poe scholarship and criticism is increasingly urgent. Poe as a world author needs definitive study. A census of materials in private collections — including those recently acquired by public institutions (such as the superb collection of the late William H. Koester, now at Texas) — would be of great utility. At some time in the future the great critical biography could be undertaken by some scholar-critic with powers to shape the mass of accumulating fact and to interpret the many sides of Poe’s personality, sensibility, thought, and art.

Meanwhile, small discoveries and limited insights have their importance. If editors and publishers could just weed out the hacks and the eccentrics, all might come into better balance and truer perspective. But that is wishing, and I have little faith in the wish.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]