Text: Richard P. Benton, “Willis — and Poe,” Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:55-56


[page 55, column 2:]

Willis — and Poe

Cortland P. Auser. Nathaniel P. Willis. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969. 175 pp. $3.95. 

In The Literature of the American People (1951), Arthur Hobson Quinn summed up, briefly but adequately, the literary importance of Nathaniel P. Willis, the most popular “magazinist” of his time. And it was Quinn’s view that Willis “is now unjustly deprived of some of the laurels he won so lightly.” Although Willis wrote much that was ephemeral and only of historical interest today, he left a sufficient body of work that has enough intrinsic value to justify Quinn’s statement. Lacking imagination and psychological depth, largely incompetent in narrative technique, with no really conscious control over the structure of a story, Willis yet had a keen and accurate eye, a strong sense of setting, occasional dramatic flair, and an infectious charm and lightness of touch, especially as a familiar essayist, a genre in which he sometimes rivalled Charles Lamb. It should therefore be auspicious that we now have Cortland P. Auser’s new and comprehensive study of Willis’ career and writings aimed at securing him a more permanent place in American literature. Unfortunately, for several reasons, this aim is not satisfactorily accomplished.

Auser does give us a comprehensive and accurate account of Willis’ career as dandy and bon vivant, traveler, social butterfly, and magazinist. And he acquaints us with Willis’ temperament and character of mind, with his tastes and editorial policies, with the variety and extent of his writings, with his general strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and with his favorite themes. But in method and organization Auser’s book is too much like an average M.A. thesis. He is insufficiently discriminating and selective, and fails to emphasize which of Willis’ works are really worthy of our attention today and which might better remain in Limbo. Keeping his critical comments sketchy and brief, he tends to substitute paraphrase for criticism, not giving any work extended critical analysis. In this matter he might have taken his cue from George Arms’ effective re-evaluation of Bryant, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow in The Fields Are Green (1953). In fact, for extended critical analysis, he had a perfect model in Edgar Allan Poe, the best critic of Willis so far.

In his review of Willis’ Inklings of Adventure in the Southern Literary Messenger for 1836, Poe subjected one of Willis’ worst stories, “Niagara,” to ironical, razor-sharp dissection. Again, in his article, “The American Drama,” first published in the American Whig Review for 1845, Poe presented a brilliant anatomy of Willis’ play, Tortesa the Userer. Except for mentioning that Poe thought well of this drama despite its defects, Auser makes no use of Poe’s extended analyses of Willis’ art.

Willis’ best writing, as Quinn pointed out, appears in his travel essays or “Letters” from abroad to the New York Mirror, which were published in 1835 as Pencillings by the Way; and in his familiar essays of 1839 in A l’Abti: Ot, The Tent Pitched, which Lowell considered his “most significant prose,” and which were issued in 1840 and 1844 as Letters from Under a Bridge. Although Auser [page 56:] praises the essays written for the Mirror, calling attention to Willis’ superb description of a Parisian “masked ball at the height of the plague” (which influenced Poe; see my note in ATQ, No. 1, 1969) and to his fine portraits of the Countess Guiciolli and of Thomas Moore, he does not discuss particular essays as a whole.

His treatment of Willis’ fiction is only somewhat more particular than in the case of the essays. In Chapter IV Auser discusses the short stories which have domestic or foreign settings. In Chapter V he describes those which deal with society life in England and America, those of a humorous turn, and those which have for their theme, as he puts it, “the importance of a man’s natural ability in balancing the qualities of the aristocratic gentry,” and he reviews Willis’ only novel, Paul Fane. But such a story as “F. Smith,” one of Willis’ worst, receives more space than “Kate Crediford,” one of Willis’ cleverest and best designed tales, or “The Picker and the Piler,” perhaps Willis’ most powerful, dramatic piece. Apart from retelling its plot and pointing out its innovative theme, Auser exposes Willis’ novel to no criticism.

Auser devotes most of Chapter VI to a discussion of Willis’ poetry, including his two plays. Auser is no doubt right in suggesting that the only poems which might prove still readable are the occasional lyrics Willis wrote about New York City life, which Auser describes as “light” and “sparkling.” It is curious, however, that Auser fails to mention Willis’ best serious New York City Iyric, “Unseen Spirits,” which Poe praised.

In his section on Willis’ relations with Poe, Auser fails to mention Willis’ rejection of Poe’s poem, “Fairyland,” when the former was editor of The American Monthly Magazine, and his contemptuous exposure of this rejection in the November 1829 issue. Nor does Auser acknowledge the important influence — mostly by way of reaction against Willis — which Willis exercised on Poe’s fiction and criticism, except for erroneously describing Daughrity’s article “Poe’s ‘Quiz on Willis’” (AL, 5, 1933) he twice (pp. 45, 166) describes Daughrity’s article as having to do with Poe’s “Lionizing”; actually it treats of Poe’s “The Duc de L’ Omelette,” whereas it is my article (SSE, 5, 1968) which reveals that “Lionizing” was a quiz on Willis. Auser also neglects other studies linking Willis and Poe, most prominently two of my own: an article which discusses Willis’ probable connection with Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” (PN, I, 1968) and an essay which reveals Willis’ catalytic influence on Poe’s critical theory and practice (AL, 39, 1967).

Other, more general, problems are not infrequent. One is to be found in Auser’s description of Willis’ story, “The Spirit Love of ‘Ione S.’” in which he speaks of “Phebe and her sister,” whereas Phebe Jones has no sister, and he means the sister of Gideon Flimmins. Auser also fails to recognize that Willis’ two “Chinese” stories, “The Poet and the Mandarin” and “The Inlet of Peach Blossoms,” are the first examples of Chinoiserie in our literature; he describes these stories only as “clever adaptations.” First published in 1842 when American interest in China had been stimulated by the Opium War, Willis depended heavily in composing “The Inlet of Peach Blossoms” — as William Fenn revealed in 1935 — on an essay by Sir John Francis Davis which included translations from [column 2:] original Chinese literature. Although “The Poet and the Mandarin” is a negligible story that is not very Chinese, in “The Inlet of Peach Blossoms” Willis unconsciously introduced, and successfully integrated, several themes which have figured prominently in original Chinese literature, and told an interesting story that is still readable.

In short, Auser’s book suffers from a general lack of evaluative selection and emphasis, and from a lack of extended, analytic criticism, as well as from several kinds of omissions. But, although Auser has not succeeded in convincing the reader that Willis deserves a more permanent place in American literature, his book does call our attention to him and his writings and is informative in many respects. But if Willis is to receive a just reevaluation, he now needs a tastefully selected edition of his best pieces — say, twenty essays, ten stories, and five New York City lyrics. Not a very original writer, he was yet something of an innovator. Auser points out that his introduction of the “international” theme anticipated Henty James and that his surprise endings were later capitalized on by O. Henry. One might add that his early Chinoiserie anticipated Pearl Buck. Not a writer who could probe the heart of the human condition, like a Poe, Hawthorne, or Melville, his travel and familiar essays are frequently charming and entertaining. Although usually defective in structure and trivial in theme, many of his short stories are still good reading. He could be clever and amusing, could be an effective parodist, could on occasion strike a genuine Gothic note, and on other occasions could be truly dramatic. There is no question that he deserves a better turn.

Richard P. Benton, Trinity College.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]