Text: Burton R. Pollin, “The Word ‘Autorial’ in Poe’s Criticism: History and Implications,” Poe Studies, June 1977, Vol. X, No. 1, 10:15-18


[page 15:]

The Word “Autorial” in Poe’s Criticism:
History and Implications

Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, Emeritus

Having frequently seen the word “autorial” used by commentators on Poe, I committed a signal fault in compiling the lists for my brochure Poe Creator of Words: I neglected to investigate the provenance of a word so singular in itself and yet so common in Poe’s writings, with the result that it was omitted from my list of his coinages. Frankly, I thought him too good a Latinist for such an invention and failed to verify the notion chat “auctorial,” the more legitimate adjective for “pertaining to an author or to his works,” had not yet come into existence. Poe, of course felt the need of such a direct referential word for one of his primary concerns in life — being an author or engaging in authorship. The many important passages in his works containing his coinage have insinuated into the minds of numerous Poe students the word “autorial” as a standard term, to be used independently without quotation marks or italics, although the earliest instances in the Poe canon show his awareness of its novelty.

The first instance involved one of his favorite concepts — the “nice dovetailing of . . . constituent parts” needed for “perfection of plot” — in a discussion of Bulwer’s novel Night and Morning, in the April 1841 Graham’s Magazine. Bulwer has aimed at a totality of effect through a “design” which would appeal to a cultivated taste, but he shifts attention too rapidly from one incident to anocher. “The writer seems in a perpetual flurry to accomplish what, in autorial parlance, is called ‘bringing up one’s time.’” The reader becomes conscious of the excessive length of the narrative because his attention is diverted and scattered by “multitudinous incidents.” One must notice that Poe’s first use of “autorial” refers to the professional group of authors as having their own critical vocabulary and orientation.

This first instance follows Poe’s discussion of a favorite but somewhat obscure critical concept: the incidental “comment” by an author alone raises a work of narration above the level of straight reportage to a more artistic or philosophical plane. The doctrine is derived from his own [page 16:] reading on the theory of Greek drama, and his language shows the mixture of the two genres in his mind. I mention it here because his future use of the word will often be in the context of the adequacy o, authors’ comments. Here Poe says: “By the frequent ‘bringing up’ of his events the dramatist strove to supply . . . the want of the combining, arranging, and especially of the commenting power, now in possession of the narrative author. No doubt it was a deep but vague sense of this want which brought into birth the Greek chorus . . . representing or personifying the expression of the sympathy of the audience in the matters transacted” (1). Poe may have initially derived this idea from his reading of August Wilhelm Schlegel’s remarks on the chorus as an “ideal spectator,” or, as is more likely, from excerpts or an abstract of Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature published in some contemporary periodical (2). Poe propounded the same idea in his September 1841 Graham’s review of Marryat’s Joseph Rushbrook, or the Poacher, which is all plot and narrative with no comment: “Comment, in the author’s own person, upon what is transacting, is left entirely out of question. There is thus none o, that 6inding power perceptible, which often gives a species of unity (the unity of the writer’s individual thought) to the most random narrations. . . . The commenting force can never be safely disregarded.” Here he refers to his previous discussion of the “commenting power, in the old Greek drama” (H, X, 200-201). This is far indeed from the “unity of effect” that was to become the cachet of Poe’s critical theory within a short time.

Soon, in the November 1841 issue of Graham’s, Poe discusses unfavorably another popular novel of mere narration, William Harrison Ainsworthy’s Guy Fawkes, and he alludes to his previous comment on the Marryat book with which it shares the same deficiency. “The story being, no doubt, written to order, for magazine purposes and in a violent hurry, has been scrambled through by means of incident solely. It is totally wanting in the autorial comment” (H, X, 218). Poe’s italics suggest that he is conscious of creating a new word. This typographical tendency I have already discussed (3). It is interesting that Poe feels the inadequacy of his explanation of the “deficiency” and proposes Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Godwin’s Caleb Williams (to give them Poe’s short titles) as attaining a “juste milieu” — by which he means a balance between comment and factual narrative (4).

Within three years Poe is to use the term as though it has become standard, no longer requiring italics, but still summing up much of the honorific implications of authorship, for he applies it to De la Motte Fouque, author of the greatly admired romance Undine, in “Marginalia” 98, in the Democratic Review of December 1844 (H, XVI, 50); the text but not the word is derived largely from his review of 1839 (H, X, 30-39).(5) Here too he is discussing “the high artistical ability” which combines all into an “absolute unity of effect”: “How delicate and graceful are the transitions from subject to subject!C a point severely testing the autorial power. . . .” Here the adjective has a broader application than in previous instances. Bur Poe reverts to his earlier use a year later in the Broadway Journal of August 9, 1845, while discussing Massimo D’Azeglio’s Ettore Fieramosca, or The Challenge of Barletta; this book is “defective in . . . the ‘autorial comment’ — that which adds so deep a charm to the novels of Scott, of [column 2:] Bulwer . . . more especially to the works of Godwin and Brockden Brown” (H, XIII, 224). A reviewer of such prolific output may be forgiven for forgetting that he specifically stripped Bulwer of that power in April 1841 (see above). Again Poe singles out the phrase with quotation marks as though conscious of its being novel, if not a neologism.

This review produced an adverse response from the New York Mirror, which was no longer edited by Poe’s friend Nathaniel Willis. Apparently some attention was paid to Poe’s phrase and critical tenet, and he, in turn, was unquestionably pleased by the opportunity for satire, for in the “Editorial Miscellany” of the Broadway Journal of August 23 (II, 109; uncollected by Harrison), he poked fun at the Mirror’s “obvious puff” or extravagant praise, probably from the pen of the translator of the book C. Edwards Lester, a puff which is full of amusing typographical blunders. Calling itself a “resume” — wrong both in meaning and in French accents, as Poe indicatesC the article yields him this richly erroneous passage for quotation: “A certain critic has complained that the book lacks ‘autorial commaut;’ . . . He says it is ‘all incident;’ and what else in the name of Walter Scott would you have in a historical romance? This is just what a historical romance is written for, says McCauley.” Poe then comments: “We are the ‘certain critic’ here alluded to. The phrase ‘autorial commaut’ as quoted by Mr. Lester’s friend or self is a falsehood — one of his 50,000. We defy him to show us in our critique anything resembling what he unblushingly attributes to us. . . . Who is the Mr. McCauley to whom he attributes so much rigmarole about historical romance?” Poe appreciated such a chance to stir up a “bobbery” to attract readers to his dying journal.

The word had now taken hold of Poe’s critical mind, for twice more in the month of August 1845 it occurs, legitimatized without italics or quotation marks. In the American Whig Review he discusses “The American Drama” at length, reminding us again of the word’s provenance in his criticism. In citing Longfellow’s preface to The Spanish Student, he observes “How the autorial originality . . . is threefold,” consisting “of the general thesis; . . . of the several incidents[;] . . . of manner, or tone . . . to produce a fully original effect . . .” (H, VIII, 59). Since he discusses his “Italics” at the foot of the page, he surely now regards this word at least as perfectly conventional. In August 1845, in “Marginalia” 139 C, in Godey’s Lady’s Book, Poe contrives to attach the most honorific of associations to this coinage, showing something about his own attitude toward the literary personality. In a discussion of international copyright, a “question” already “overloaded with words,” he says, he decries the argument of expediency, the harm done through “the almost exclusive dissemination among us of foreign — that is to say, of monarchical or aristocratical sentiment in foreign books . . . in the gilded pill of the poem or the novel,” and, last, “the resentment excited in the universal heart of literature” — by which Poe means “authors”: “The autorial body is the most autocratic on the face of the earth.” Woe, predicts Poe, to “those institutions . . . which systematically persist in trampling it under foot” (H, XVI, 79). Of course, there is much more of the legitimate grudge than of reasoned prophecy in these remarks from the harried, impecunious editor of the moribund Broadway Journal. [page 17:]

The penultimate instance of the word “autorial” that I have found retains the association with professionalism implied in the last passage. It also shows Poe’s assurance now in thrusting it upon the public with no apologetic italics or quotation marks, for it defiantly becomes part of the subtitle of his prominent, keenly anticipated series begun in Godey’s Lady’s Book in May 1846: The Literati of New York City. Some Honest Opinions at Random Respecting Their Autorial Merits, with Occasional Words of Personality (H, XV, 1). Clearly Poe differentiates between the term as used critically and, as in this instance biographically, for here it refers to the experiences or incidents in an author’s life. Poe does not cheapen the term by using it, aside from the title, for any one of the thirty-eight “literati” discussed in the six installments of the series in the magazine (H, XV, 1-137).

The last instance is simply a leftover, printed in 1850 by Rufus W. Griswold from Poe’s “bequeathed” papers, although it matches in ideas if not exactly in wording the September 1848 Southern Literary Messenger review of Estelle Anna Lewis’ The Child of the Sea and Other Poems (H, XIII, 155-165). In view of Poe’s obvious flattery of this wealthy and influential woman, one may continue to assume that it retains for him its honorific associations: “In summing up the autorial merits of Mrs. Lewis, all critical opinion must agree in assigning her a high, if not the highest rank among the poetesses of her land.” At least, he qualifies the merits which follow this with “But as yet . . . she has given merely an earnest of tree powers” (H, XIII, 224-225). And by this time Poe has certainly given an earnest of his language-making power. He wished to create a truly needed adjective to refer to “author” and “authorship,” implying a reputable, even honorable profession and having a distinctive literary overtone and Latinic ending. The lack of a current spelling for the rootword (“autor”) merely gave the whole a slightly French quality (compare “auteur”), which made it even more fitting for literary criticism in Poe’s opinion.

A brief history of the use of this and cognate forms clarifies Poe’s role in establishing “autorial” as an acceptable term. In the eighteenth century “autorial” did not exist so far as Johnson’s compendious dictionary was concerned, but neither did “auctorial” or “authorial.” This is also true of the other standard dictionaries of that century, such as Walker’s and Bailey’s. Indeed, the first instance of any of these three adjectives recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1796 “authorial” taken from Ritson, followed by an 1816 from Scott, an 1882 from the Athenaeum, and an 1844 from Tupper (for the adverb “authorially”). But it also gives one instance of “autorial” in the same list (as an apparent variant) from Poe with a vague reference to Works, III, 1864, the result of its irregular, slack method of gathering Poe entries from a defective, poor reprint of Griswold’s four-volume edition (6). The citation is a phrase taken from the eighth or last of my instances above, concerning Mrs. Lewis. Most interesting is the OED’s parenthetical comment after “authorial also autorial”: “Autorial is a futile variation; L. analogies would give auctorial” (Poe probably rejected this possibility as too pedantic). True to the tenor of this statement the OED gives no place to this putative form of “auctorial” although it presents “auctor” as a “seller or vendor” and, under “author;’ gives [column 2:] various spellings of “auctour” for the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Incidentally, it gives the useful although apparently obsolete form “authorical” of 1564 with one revival in the 1837 Athenaeum: “Mere authorical backslidings.”

Clearly the OED cannot help us to determine whether Poe might have heard it or read it during his own period, despite his italics and quotation marks. There is no reason to think so, for Noah Webster’s large An American Dictionary of the English Language of 1857 gives only “authorial” and this with one citation taken from the Edinburgh Review; clearly even this “root” form is an un-American word. Modern dictionaries of Americanisms, such as Craigie’s Dictionary of American English and Mitford M. Mathews’ Dictionary of Americanisms, omit all three forms of the adjective for “author” (7). The question arises, then, of whether another nineteenth-century authority lists any of the adjectival forms, including Poe’s. That multi-volume, would-be competitor of the OED, the Century Dictionary (New York, 1889), cites an “authorial” in a work by Isaac D’Israeli, directly available to Poe, and one “autorial,” but that is simply our third instance above, of 1844: “testing the aueorial power.” Now, into the language has crept our first “auctorial” in “the auctorial eye,” observed in The Century, which was the post-1880 name given to Scribner’s Monthly. It would appear then that Poe’s form should be considered his own invention.

How well it seems to have taken hold, sprouting into common or at least into literary speech, was the initial and will be the final question; on the answer depends, to a degree, the freedom of Poe students to eliminate quotation marks or italics. Surprising differences exist between the popular, abridged dictionaries and the so-called complete lexicons. For example, the 1946 New Practical Standard Dictionary based on the Funk and Wagnalls unabridged (New York, 1946) gives only one adjectival form, which I have found in no ocher source: “authorian.” Perhaps it is too reminiscent of “authoritarian” to have had wide currency or to persist. Barnhart, in his American College Dictionary ( 1947) lists only “authorial.” as does the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (New York: World Publishing Co., 1951). But the Funk and Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary of the English Language (New York, 1964) gives, entirely without citations, “autharial” and “autorial” under “author” and, separately, “auctorial.” The bible of many editors, Webster’s . . . New International Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield: G. and C. Merriam) is irresolute. In the edition of 1923, all three forms are given, with “auctorial” labeled “rare” and “autorial” without citation, called a variant of “authorial.” In the 1961 Third edition the “auctorial” form has lost its “rarity” and is made equivalent to “authorial,” but Poe’s form, “autorial,” has disappeared entirely. This same omission occurs in the 1967 Random House Dictionary of the English Language. In 1969 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives only “auctorial” and neither of the ocher adjectives. The situation is no better in England, for Henry Cecil Wyld’s Universal Dictionary of the English Language (1932) ignored all three forms. What procedure then is left to students of Poe, eager to discuss “autorial comment” and “autorial power”? I suggest that we boldly strike out for “autorial” [page 18:] without quotation marks or italics, as a demonstration that the word, like “psychal,” is needed in the language and has been given frequent and classic usage by Edgar Allan Poe (8).



(1) James A. Harrison, ed., The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Crowell, 1902), X, 119-123; all future textual citations will refer to this edition as “H.” I must here express gratitude for a CUNY grant toward work on the Harvard edition of Poe which enabled me also to gather and process materials for this small study.

(2) For Schlegel on the role of the “Chorus,” see G. R Thompson, Poe’s Fiction (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), p. 213, n. 24, and the text to which this refers. I regard the evidence against Poe’s dose study of Schlegel’s whole book as very weighty but too involved to present here.

(3) See Poe Creator of Words (Baltimore: Enoch Pratt Free Library and Baltimore Poe Society, 1974), p. 15.

(4) My views on this comparison by Poe are indicated more fully in Discoveries is Poe (South Bend: Notre Dame Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 112-114.

(5) For Poe’s variations in attitude, views, and comments on this “touchstone of taste,” see my study, “Undine in the Works of Poe,” Studies in Romanticism, 14 (1975), 59-74. The “Marginalia” items were renumbered by the late T. O. Mabbott to account for Griswold’s and Harrison’s omissions and errors in sequencing.

(6) See Poe Creator of Words, p. 18.

(7) Note pp. 18 and 19 in Poe Creator of Words for their occasional disagreements with the OED, which deprived my lists there of thirteen putative Poe coinages.

(8) To the seven “psychal” loci cited in Poe Creator of Words, p. 35, may I here add two more: H, XIII, 156 and XIV, 196?


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