Text: Sanford E. Marovitz “Poe’s Reception of C. W. Webber’s Gothic Western, ‘Jack Long; or, The Shot in the Eye ’,” from Poe Studies, June 1971, vol. IV, no. 1, 4:11-13


[page 11, column 2:]

Poe’s Reception of C. W. Webber’s Gothic Western,
“Jack Long; or, The Shot in the Eye”

Kent State University

When Charles Wilkins Webber brought out his Tales of the Southern Border in 1853, he introduced the collection with “Jack Long; or, The Shot in the Eye,” a “Western” thriller that had already been in print since 1844 and was still circulating widely. According to Henry Nash Smith, “Jack Long” was a “sensational success,” a statement that is substantiated by the opening lines of the 1853 edition, which evince Webber’s understandably sharp reaction to the “millions” of “pirated” and “mutilated” versions of the tale being distributed by the “daily and weekly press” (1). So impressive was the story that three years after its initial publication, Edgar Allan Poe commended it highly in his revised (and somewhat deprecating) discussion of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (November 1847). “One of the happiest and best-sustained tales I have seen,” Poe wrote, “is ‘Jack Long; or The Shot in the Eye ’ “(2). In the same essay he praised Webber’s high evaluation of Hawthorne’s art, an estimate he had seen some fourteen months earlier in The American Review (September 1846), of which Webber was assistant editor: “no one has a keener relish [than Webber] for that kind of writing which Hawthorne has best illustrated” (XIII, 142), Poe recalled, probably thinking at the time of “Jack Long,” which he was to mention specifically a few pages later.

In the main, it is perfectly clear why Poe so warmly praised “Jack Long.” The tale not only largely conforms with the dicta Poe had proposed as guidelines for the writing of short fiction, having what Poe considered a well-constructed plot, but also manifests that aura of mystery and shadow, the “power of blackness,” that is characteristic of much of his own best creative work. Among the dark elements that would have appealed to Poe are the revenge motif, the ritual slayings, the symbolic regression of the character to a primitive state, the theme of the Doppelganger or divided ego, and the motif of the “eye.”

“Jack Long” was probably in part derived from the central idea of Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods; or, The Jibbenainosay, which had been published only seven years before Webber’s story. The basic issue of both tales concerns a lone seeder-turned-killer determined to avenge a wrong. Like Nathan Slaughter (”the Jibbenainosay” or the “Spirit-that-walks “), Jack Long is believed to be a supernatural creature (”the Bearded Madman” and “the Bearded Ghost”) until he is at length identified; in slaying their enemies, both Nathan and Jack leave identifying marks on the corpses (Bloody Nathan scalps the Shawnees after dispatching them and then cuts a deep cross into their torsos, whereas Jack’s mark is a bullet hole through one eye and out the back of the skull); both are attacked and left for dead before commencing [page 12:] their acts of vengeance; there are suggestions that both may be suffering from psychological maladies induced by being struck on the head; and both appear to retrogress to their basic animal natures during their killing sprees, displaying an almost instinctive cunning, patience, and ferocity in their determination to ensnare and slay their foes.

Although both Webber and Bird, like Cooper, Simms, and lesser writers of ante-bellum frontier romances, fully intended to depict the early West in its original colors, idealization of character was inevitable (3). But for Poe, such idealization would not have detracted from the verisimilitude of the tale; as Robert D. Jacobs has explained, when Poe and his contemporaries judged characters in fiction, “they measured not by life itself but by what they thought people should be.”4 There can be no question about the idealization of Jack Long, who might have been a reincarnation of Natty Bumppo out on the Texas plain, and who, indeed, was himself trapped by the same flaw that led the Deerslayer to shoot an eagle for no reason and then regret it—unrestrainable pride in marksmanship. Vanity leads Jack to subdued boastfulness—displayed by showing rather than simply telling of his accomplishments —and thence to the nearly fatal whipping that humiliates him. From a highly idealized hunter, an Adamic figure living a blissful life on the plains with his wife and two children, Jack Long becomes a primitive avenger in direct contrast to the mythical demigod of his earlier, happier days. When he has avenged his brutal beating, love replaces hate, Jack is restored to his wife’s bedside, and a cycle has been completed through the extirpation of evil by good.

The alternation between extremes which Jack Long suffers in his changes from demigod to demon and back was doubtless one of the features of the tale that appealed to Poe. Whereas Jack is given an unmistakable reason for his killings, however, Poe’s murderers and destroyers are less obviously motivated. As Joseph J. Moldenhauer has pointed out, Poe rarely specified “a reasonable, concrete motive for his characters ’ destructive urges”, and he has suggested further that in “William Wilson” and numerous other tales Poe’s killers identify with their victims and achieve a final unity with them in death (5). Since Poe held that the universe is destined for ultimate annihilation, murder, from this point of view, is an act of synthesis inspired not simply by the negative desire for self-destruction or even the annihilation of a surrogate self (that is, the victim) but by the positive desire to attain “unity” with the basic design of the universe. A similar world view among Dark Romanticists generally is allied to the seemingly irreconcilable dualism within the ego, a view which led to the popularity of the Doppelganger as a literary device: the writer posits the ego and alter ego, driving and probing them at will in order to reunite them in a final act that is simultaneously synthesis and annihilation. Poe uses the Doppelganger motif in “William Wilson” and, less obviously, in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which the twin Ushers are linked by “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” (III, 297), and they are physically conjoined in the climactic total annihilation of the house of Usher and themselves.

Moldenhauer points out that, like Roderick Usher, an unexpectedly high number of Poe’s deranged figures and [column 2:] destroyers are artists (or craftsmen who refine murder into an art). When one relates this observation to Poe’s paradoxical association (in Eureka) of the artist with the completed work of art and, in turn, with death—that is, annihilation through creation—it is difficult not to believe that Poe must have regarded himself as a creator working toward his own fatal end through the increasing integrity of his poem or tale in a chaotic and fragmented cosmos. Similarly, then, Jack Long can be seen as an artist-craftsman (a sharpshooter) seeking his own self-destruction through killing off, one by one, the band of outlaws who had whipped him, though his is to be a limited self-destruction that would annihilate not the whole man but only that part of his consciousness which still suffers humiliation. Webber implicitly expressed Long’s need to commit ritual slaughter by describing “the Bearded Ghost” as a creature who has returned from the grave, a dead living man, as it were, marked by the psychic scars of Hinch’s whip, who cannot regain his original pure life until his integrity is restored through vengeance. In describing the genesis of Jack’s transformation immediately upon his return to consciousness after the beating, Webber makes the point clear: “That was a fearful wakening to Jack Long; but it was to a new birth” (p. 23).

In addition to the dual-natured hero, Poe must also have approved of the sustained Gothic effect of “Jack Long.” Apparently with no intention of deceiving the reader that the killer is anyone or anything other than Jack Long, Webber reinforces this use of effect for its own sake with images of supernaturalism, madness, and death. After his beating and subsequent four-month disappearance, for example, Long returns as if from the dead, unaccompanied and dressed in skins like a primitive. Shortly before the discovery of Jack’s first victim, the narrator learns of a spectral figure that had been recently encountered in a nearby thicket: the creature was “a tall, gaunt, skeleton-like figure, dressed in skins, with the hair out—a confounded long beard—and such eyes!” (p. 28) Jack’s condition here and afterward is strikingly similar to that of a man in a trance, a “sleep-waking” state that fascinated Poe and can be traced in American fiction as far back as Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly: or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799). Again the narrator himself muses: “What shadowy, inscrutable foe was this who always struck when least expected, and with such fearful certainty, yet left no trace behind? Was it, indeed, some supernatural agent of judgment, visited upon their enormities?” (p. 35) And still later, “The Bearded Ghost [might be seen] striding rapidly, like a tall thin spectre, . . . . [or] standing beneath some old trees by the road side, still as its shadow, the keen, sepulchral eyes shining steadily through the gloom, . . . . [or] mounted, careering like a form of vapor past the dark trunks of the forest aisles, or hurrying swiftly away . . . . across the wide prairie, always hair-clad and gaunt, with a streaming beard, and the long heavy rifle on his shoulder” (p. 36).

The emphasis that Webber places upon eyes is also in keeping with the metaphoric and dramatic value of the eye to Poe, who used the device often in his own writings. During the beating, Jack shows no overt reaction to Hinch’s lash but stares at his tormentors wordlessly and open-eyed, impressing their likenesses indelibly upon his mind until, as Webber dramatically expresses it, “THEY [page 13:] WERE REGISTERED” (p. 25) . In the course of his vengeance, Long’s eyes are described as “sepulchral” (p. 36): “It is impossible to imagine them. They didn ’t move at all in the shaggy hollow sockets, more than if they were frozen in them; and the glare that streamed out from them was so cold and freezing” (p. 28). For Long’s victims, destruction of the organ and the man are one and the same. This idea is succinctly expressed in Webber’s description of Jack’s final terrifying shot: believing that his escape from the avenger is close at hand, Hinch hears a click behind him, turns, “and there he was! That long rifle was bearing straight upon him—those cold eyes dwelt steadily on his for a moment—and, crash! all was forever blackness to Hinch the Regulator! (6) . . . . [He had been] shot through the ,eye! “ (p. 44, Webber’s italics). With his “vengeance consummated” at last, Jack can “look his wife again in the eyes, and receive her form to rest again upon his bosom.” Such sustained emphasis on the eye must have caught the attention of Poe, who himself made much of “fiery” or “luminous” eyes in works like “The Black Cat,” “Ligeia,” and “The Raven” (7).

One final point may be made about the appeal “Jack Long” had for Poe. In a recent study, The Romance in America, Joel Porte has succinctly elucidated the association of Poe, the Western wilderness, and the infinite, a triad that at first could appear to be forced only through violence into conjunction. Drawing in part upon Edwin Fussell’s paralleling of Poe’s explorations into the consciousness with a concern for the wilderness, Porte indicates first that Poe commonly incorporated natural scenery to “represent human disaster,” and secondly that “the theme of ‘life in the wilderness ’ and that of the deeper psychology are ultimately one.” Porte suggests that “the American hero,” devoid of European customs and traditions, “is by very definition ‘in the wilderness. ’. . . . He is free—indeed, compelled—to confront in solitude the ultimates of the universe and his own soul” (8). That this theme was surely in Webber’s mind as he wrote is apparent in an early paragraph of the story, in which he describes his hero as an embodiment of America’s prevailing ideal of Manifest Destiny:

[Jack] had never thought it at all essential to ask leave of any government as to how or where he should make himself a home, or even to inquire what particular nation put in its claim to any region that suited his purposes. His heritage had been the young earth, with its skies, its waters, and its winds, its huge primeval forests, and plains throwing out their broad breasts to the sun—with all the sights and sounds and living things that moved and were articulate beneath God’s eye—and what cared he for the authority of men! (p. 13)

The likelihood that Poe appreciated and admired Jack’s idyllic, unfettered existence on the range can best be recognized by paralleling Webber’s portrayal with Poe’s own description of an ideal life, which appears in “The Domain of Arnheim,” published in 1847, the same year in which he commented so favorably on Webber’s story. The “condition of bliss” considered most important by Ellison, Poe’s “poet of the landscape,” was

the simple and purely physical one of free exercise in the open air.... He instanced the ecstacies of the fox-hunter, and pointed to the tillers of the earth, the only people who, as a class, can be fairly considered happier than others. His second [column 2:] condition was the love of woman. His third, . . . . was the contempt of ambition. His fourth was an object of unceasing pursuit. . . . (VI, 177)

As Robert D. Jacobs has indicated, Poe’s description is a dear delineation of the Southern agrarian ideal being voiced by a Southern gentleman, but it could serve equally well as a sketch of Jack Long’s blissful life in the wilderness with his wife and children.

In short, it is unlikely that Poe’s high estimation of Webber’s most popular and most enduring tale was based on a quick, careless reading. The fact alone that he found “Jack Long” to compare favorably with Hawthorne’s tales cannot be idly dismissed. “Jack Long” may lack the ambiguity and subtle suggestiveness of Poe’s and Hawthorne’s tales, and perhaps it concludes too neatly a la Longfellow and Bryant with an unnecessary moralistic appendage (”Powerful elements sometimes slumber in the breasts of quiet men,” and so on). But in addition to incorporating some of the most characteristic elements of American Romanticism, Webber’s story includes undertones and devices that Poe often employed in his own best work, thus earning Poe’s high praise as being among “the happiest and best-sustained tales” he had ever read.



(1) Virgin Land: The American West as Symhol and Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1950), p. 72. C[harles] W[ilkins] Webber, “Jack Long, or, The Shot in the Eye,” in Tales of the Southern Border (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1853), p. 9; hereafter page references to “Jack Long” will be cited from this edition and will be incorporated in the text.

(2) The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York: AMS Press, 1965), XIII, 154; hereafter cited in the text by volume and page numbers.

(3) Because Poe left his position as editor and reviewer for the Southern Literary Messenger in January 1837, he may not have read Nick of the Woods, though he was certainly familiar with much of Bird’s earlier fiction. Having favorably reviewed two of Bird’s Mexican novels in 1835, he followed them up with notices on The Hawks of Hawk Hollow (”. . . . in many respects, a bad imitation of Sir Walter Scott” [VIII, 73]) in the same year and Sheppard Lee in 1836. Also in 1836, three months prior to his review of Sheppard Lee, he sent Bird a letter requesting not a promised but a “demipromise[d]” contribution to the Messenger (XVII, 35-36).

(4) Poe: Journalist & Critic (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State UP, 1969), P. 74

(5) “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections Between Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision,” PMLA, 83 (May 1968), 292, see esp. n. 22.

(6) Historically, the term “Regulators” is synonymous with vigilantes, a group of citizens who unite to protect themselves and their community when official means of law enforcement are weak or unavailable. Hinch’s Regulators, however, are simply a band of outlaws and bullies.

(7) The black cat’s “solitary eye of fire” (in “The Black Cat”) stares at the murderer from within the newly opened cellar tomb (V, 155). In “Ligeia,” the “sentiment” through which the narrator “recognize[s]” the integrity of the “circle of analogies” that constitutes the universe is a direct result of his gazing into the “large and luminous orbs” of his loved one, eyes which are unmistakably hers when the Lady Ligeia appears to have returned from the grave in the climactic final linff of the story (11, 252). While meditating, the narrator of “The Raven” senses that the bird’s “fiery eyes . . . . bored into [his] bosom’s core” (VII, 98).

(8) The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James (Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1969), pp. 30, 53-54.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]