Text: Burton R. Pollin, “The Richmond Compiler and Poe in 1845: Two Hostile Notices,” Poe Studies, June 1985, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 18:6-7


[page 6:]

The Richmond Compiler and Poe
in 1845: Two Hostile Notices

City University of New York, Emeritus

Poe’s first and perhaps greatest journalistic success was as innovative and notoriously critical “editor” of the Richmond Southern Literary Messenger in 1835-36. A major aid to his efforts was the stream of favorable articles printed in the press of Virginia and other Southern states, which Poe generously excerptecd and reprinted in two supplements to the magazine during 1836. One of the most supportive papers during the mid-1830s was the Richmond Courier and Daily Compiler, founded as the city’s first daily newspaper in May 1813 (under a slightly different title) and continuing until 1853. The changes in the journal’s title, owners, and editors through the thirties are well sketched by Agnes Bondurant, but she does not explain the reason for the marked shift to negative criticism of Poe in the 1845-46 articles, reprinted here for the first time, that we shall examine.(1)

A brief list of the contacts between Poe and the Compiler in the 1830s shows the following:

1) In a letter of 30 May 1835 to T. W. White, Poe comments on the Compiler criticism about his thoroughness in reading a poor work reviewed in the April 1835 Messenger (Letters, 1, pp. 59-60).

2) Poe reprints the 7 February 1836 Compiler passage by “X. Y. Z.” of almost two columns in the Messenger supplement of April 1836 (II, 345), describing Poe’s achievements in this way: “brilliant genius and endowments” but with “errors of judgment — faults in taste.”

3) In the same supplement (p. 346), Poe reprints a passage from a later Compiler, defending him against an adverse critic by citing, verbatim, a long excerpt from the Washington National Intelligencer praising his editorial management and specified creative pieces.

4) The July 1836 Messenger’s supplement (11, 518) reprints five long paragraphs from the Compiler praising the magazine and particularly Poe.

5) A paragraph in the Compiler [Courier] of 31 August 1836 warns Poe against resorting to “cutting and slashing” criticism but generally praises his efforts.(2)

6) Poe defends himself in a long letter of 1 or 2 September 1836, giving much information about his numerous reviews and his attitude about criticism.(3)

7) A brief note describing Poe as a caricaturist and satirist appears in an unspecified issue of the Compiler and is included among the advertisements in the Appendix of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (December 1839).(4)

It is clear that the Compiler was favorably disposed toward Poe for his prominent role in the expansion and fame of the Messenger and also for his creative works, at least to the end of 1836 and probably into 1840. For the major portion of 1835-36, the Compiler’s editors were John S. Gallaher and William H. Davis, with James A. Cowardin replacing Gallaher in January 1X37. On 19 April 1845, Davis was replaced by William Cabell Carrington, who may have been responsible for the markedly different tone of [column 2:] the following review of Poe’s Tales, published late in June 1S45 under “NOTES ON NEW BOOKS.“(5)

TALES, by Edgar A. Poe; “Library of American Books:” Wiley & Putnam.

Perhaps it is not necessary in this community to do more than state that the best pieces of Mr. Poe have been collected in a volume, and are now for sale here; for most literary persons have doubtless formed a decided judgment of thc merits of this author. Personal predilection and prejudice has unconsciously so much influence upon our estimate of a writer, that when, as is the case with Mr. Poe. he has lived among us, contracted friendships, perhaps incurred dislikes, and shown us his real stature and strength, it is impossible to acquire an impartial opinion of his works. And this will account for the popularity in this country of some foreign authors who are ranked less highly at home. For our part, we think these tales manifest unusual talent, and indeed genius — but of a morbid, unpoised character; they resemble the strange outpourings of an opium eater, while under the influence of that stimulating drug, and we may properly adopt a part of the language of a critic, who, when speaking of Poe, says his book “appears to us a collection of visions of some one to whom Fancy only comes in a fit of the nightmare. The man has mounted the wrong peak of Parnassus. We were never there, but they tell us that there were two: they who climed [sic] the one became poets, and they who scaled the other, madmen.“(6)

The reviewer — presumably Carrington — implies an awareness of Poe’s interaction with the Richmond community in the past and a strong doubt about his stability. While the notice does grant Poe unusual talent,” even ‘‘genius,” and “real stature and strength” on the one hand on the other it alludes to “dislikes” and “prejudice” and highlights the ‘‘morbid” nature of his tales by comparing them with an opium-eater’s and a madman’s “outpourings.” The reviewer seeks and achieves a predominantly negative impression for the works of a writer who is almost a “native son He is invidious even in his purported quotation, which shifts the burden of opprobrium onto some nameless “critic” whose comment never came into my survey of the extant reviews.7 The reference to Parnassus in this quotation is traditional, for this 8070-foot mountain in the south of Phocis, rising over the town of Delphi, is both the holy place of Apollo and the muses and the scene of the orgies of the Bacchantes: hence the fairly common association of poetry with madness, as here. Poe himself occasionally raised the question of the thin line between “genius” and “madness” in the eyes of the world, of course, as in Marginalia 247 of June 1849 (see Writings, II, 388).

The last Compiler item linking Poe with the paper is in one of a series of “Letters from the North” by a correspondent from Princeton who signs himself “T. L. C.” It appears as the last paragraph of “Letter XVIII,” dated 6 January 1846 in the Compiler for 9 January of that year (p. 2, column 5), and refers to the general belief that a new proprietor was about to take over Poe’s foundering Broadway Journal, which published its last issue on 3 January 1846.

I see that the “Broadway Journal” has just changed hands, and that the “Dennis of American literature,” as Poe has been wittily styled — is to annoy the public, or the small portion of it who saw his paper — through its columns no longer. He signalized the close of his career by declaring lately that he considered Tennyson (the man whom he imitates) “the greatest poet that ever lived!” and by declaring farther that he was “willing to bear all the reproach [page 7:] this might call down on him.” His vanity might have spared itself this bravado, as men of sense have no time to waste, ‘‘reproaches on every fellow who chooses to seek notoriety by venting such swaggering absurdies [sic].‘‘(8)

The sardonic reference to John Dennis (1657-1734), author of tragedies and criticism, may derive from Alexander Pope’s allusions to him in Essay on Criticism (3.58588) or the Dunciad (1.106). Referring to Poe’s leaving the journal as “the close of his career” is similarly disparaging in view of his three earlier brilliant editorships. The reference to Tennyson is to Poe’s uncollected two-sentence review, in the 29 November 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal (II, 322), of Tennyson’s Poems (2 volumes) issued by Ticknor of Boston: ‘‘This is a very neat, and altogether tasteful new edition of a poet, who (in our own humble but sincere opinion,) is the greatest that ever lived. We are perfectly willing to undergo all the censure which so heretical an opinion may draw down upon us.” Poe’s esteem for Tennyson was strong and persistent.(9) Here it is expressed in almost the same words used at the beginning of Marginalia 44 in the Democratic Review of December 1844 (Writings, II, 153-154): ‘‘I am not sure that Tennyson is not the greatest of poets.”

The parenthetical reference to Tennyson as “the man whom he imitates” may arise from an ambiguous and probably facetious footnote to “Poems Written in Youth” in The Raven and Other Poems published on 19 November 1845: “Private reasons — some of which have reference to the sin of plagiarism, and others to the date of Tennyson’s first poems — have induced me, after some hesitation, to re-publish these, the crude compositions of my earliest boyhood. They are printed vertat;‘ll . . .” (p. 55). The truth is that the influence on Poe of Coleridge, Byron, Moore, Shelley, and even Keats is far more noticeable than that of Tennyson, despite Poe’s general admiration for Tennyson and this jaunty self-indictment in the 1845 volume.

These items are probably not the last of the notices concerning Poe in the Richmond Compiler, which survived long enough to publish his obituary and to review the first three volumes of the Redfield collected works (1850). But until a thorough search through all the scattered files turns up others, these two suffice to show the decline of Poe’s reputation among Richmond journalists in the midforties.



1 - The only account of the paper is Bondurant, Poe’s Richmond (1942; rev. ed., Richmond: Poe Associates, 1978) pp. 168-71. She correctly stresses its support for T. W. White’s Southern Literary Messenger under Poe’s guidance, but strangely claims that after 1845 it “disappeared altogether.” The Richmond Virginia Historical and State Libraries have the fullest (though still incomplete) runs of the paper. My thanks are owed to these libraries and to the CUNY Research Foundation for aid in visiting and inspecting their Compiler holdings.

2 - See Sidney P. Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 56-57, for a summary with the date, and Letters, I, 102, for the text.

3 - See Letters, 1, 100-103, and Complete Works, VIII, xii-xv.

4 - Item A 67 in Esther F. Hyneman, Edgar Allan Poe. An Annotated Bibliography . . . (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1974), p. 7.

5 - For James Andrew Cowardin (1811-82) see the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (New York, 1921), II, 51-52. [column 2:] After being Thomas Ritchie’s chief clerk and general assistant, he became owner of the Compiler and later sold it to Carrington. He was popular, energetic and cheerful. Of Carrington little can be gleaned from any standard source. The Virginia Hisrorical Society graciously helped with his death-date, leading me to the New York Evening Post announcement of 3 January 1852: He died 6 December 1851 and was proprietor then of the Richmond Whig, which contrary to my theory — carried very favorable notices of Poe’s August lecture and at his death; see A. H. Quinn Poe (New York: Appleton, 1941), pp. 62u, 644.

6 - Nor included in my “Annotated Checklist of Contemporaneous Notices,‘’ Poe Studies, 13 (December 1980), 17-34.

7 - That it was nor among the numerous reviews of the Tales examined suggests publication in a local newspaper with a similarly adverse view rather than a “national‘’ magazine.

8 - This appears in Volume 68, No. 8, 9 January 1846, page 2, column 5, in the newspaper, now called the Richmond Times and Compiler. Marching the initials with names in the DLB has proved fruitless, bur surely the author and editor shared the same viewpoint about Poe.

9 - See Pollin, Dictionary of Names and Titles in Poe’s Collected Works (New York: Da Capo, 1968), p. 90, for the loci of over two dozen Tennyson-related passages or articles, invariably lauditory. There is no truly comprehensive, searching study of the literary relations of the two poets.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]