Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Robert M. Bird” (Text-B), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe­ (1850), 3:257-261


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­ [page 257, continued:]

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ROBERT M. BIRD.

BY The Gladiator, by Calavar, and by The Infidel, Dr. Bird has risen, in a comparatively short space of time, to a very enviable reputation; and we have heard it asserted that his novel “The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow,”* will not fail to place his name in the very first rank of American writers of fiction. Without venturing to subscribe implicitly to this latter supposition, we still think very highly of him who has written Calavar.

Had this novel reached us some years ago, with the title of “The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow: A Romance by the author of Waverley,” we should not perhaps have engaged in its perusal with as much genuine eagerness, or with so dogged a determination to be pleased with it at all events, as we have actually done upon receiving it with its proper title, and under really existing circumstances. But having read the book through, as undoubtedly we should have done, if only for the sake of Auld Lang Syne, and for the sake of certain pleasantly mirthful, or pleasantly mournful recollections connected with Ivanhoe, with the Antiquary, with Kenilworth, and above all, with that most pure, perfect, and radiant gem of fictitious literature the Bride of Lammermuir — having, we say, on this account, and for the sake of these recollections read the novel from beginning to end, from Aleph to Tau, we should have pronounced our opinion of its merits somewhat in the following manner.

“It is unnecessary to tell us that this novel is written by Sir Walter Scott; and we are really glad to find that he has at length ventured to turn his attention to American incidents, scenery, and manners. We repeat that it was a mere act of supererogation to place the words “[[‘]]By the author of Waverley”[[’]] in the title page. The book speaks for itself. The style vulgarly so called — the manner properly so called — the handling of the subject to speak pictorially, or graphically, or as a German would ­[page 258:] say plastically — in a word, the general air, the tout ensemble, the prevailing character of the story, all proclaim, in words which one who runs may read, that these volumes were indited ‘By the author of Waverley.’ “ Having said thus much, we should resume our critique as follows: “The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow is, however, by no means in the best manner of its illustrious author. To speak plainly it is a positive failure, and must take its place by the side of the Redgauntlets, the Monasteries, the Pirates, and the Saint Ronan’s Wells.”

All this we should perhaps have been induced to say had the book been offered to us for perusal some few years ago, with the supposititious title, and under the supposititious circumstances aforesaid. But alas! for our critical independency, the case is very different indeed. There can be no mistake or misconception in the present instance, such as we have so fancifully imagined. The title page (here we have it) is clear, explanatory, and not to be misunderstood. “The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow, A Tradition of Pennsylvania,” that is to say, a novel, is written, so we are assured, not by the author of “Waverley,” but by the author of that very fine romance “Calavar” — not by Sir Walter Scott, Baronet, but by Robert M. Bird, M.D. Now Robert M. Bird is an American.

In regard to that purely mechanical portion of this novel, which it would now be fashionable to denominate its style, we have very few observations to make. In general it is faultless. Occasionally we meet with a sentence ill-constructed — an inartificial adaptation of the end to the beginning of a paragraph — a circumlocutory mode of saying what might have been better said, if said with brevity — now and then with a pleonasm, as for example — “And if he wore a mask in his commerce with men, it was like that iron one of the Bastile, which when put on, was put on for life, and was at the same time of iron,” — not unfrequently with a bull proper, videlicet. “As he spoke there came into the den, eight men attired like the two first who were included in the number.” But we repeat that upon the whole the style of the novel — if that may be called its style, which style is not — is at least equal to that of any American writer whatsoever. In the style properly so called — that is to say in the prevailing ­[page 259:] tone and manner which give character and individuality to the book, we cannot bring ourselves to think that Dr. Bird has been equally fortunate. His subject appears always ready to fly away from him. He dallies with it continually — hovers incessantly round it, and about it — and not until driven to exertion by the necessity of bringing his volumes to a close, does he finally grasp it with any appearance of energy or good will. The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow is composed with great inequality of manner — at times forcible and manly — at times sinking into the merest childishness and imbecility. Some portions of the book, we surmise, were either not written by Dr. Bird, or were written by him in moments of the most utter mental exhaustion. On the other hand, the reader will not be disappointed, if he looks to find in the novel many — very many well sustained passages of great eloquence and beauty.

The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow, if it add a single bay to the already green wreath of Dr. Bird’s popular reputation, will not, at all events, among men whose decisions are entitled to consideration, advance the high opinion previously entertained of his abilities. It has no pretensions to originality of manner, or of style — for we insist upon the distinction — and very few to originality of matter. It is, in many respects, a bad imitation of Sir Walter Scott. Some of its characters, and one or two of its incidents, have seldom been surpassed, for force, fidelity to nature, and power of exciting interest in the reader. It is altogether more worthy of its author in its scenes of hurry, of tumult, and confusion, than in those of a more quiet and philosophical nature. Like Calavar and The Infidel, it excels in the drama of action and passion, and fails in the drama of colloquy. It is inferior, as a whole, to the Infidel, and vastly inferior to Calavar.

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We must regard “Sheppard Lee,’’ upon the whole, as a very clever, and not altogether unoriginal, jeu d’esprit. Its incidents are well conceived, and related with force, brevity, and a species of directness which is invaluable in certain cases of narration — while in others it should be avoided. The language is exceedingly unaffected and (what we regard as high praise) exceedingly well adapted to the varying subjects. Some fault may be found ­[page 260:] with the conception of the metempsychosis which is the basis of the narrative. There are two general methods of telling stories such as this. One of these methods is that adopted by the author of Sheppard Lee. He conceives his hero endowed with some idiosyncracy beyond the common lot of human nature, and thus introduces him to a series of adventures which, under ordinary circumstances, could occur only to a plurality of persons. The chief source of interest in such narrative is, or should be, the contrasting of these varied events, in their influence upon a character unchanging — except as changed by the events themselves. This fruitful field of interest, however, is neglected in the novel before us, where the hero, very awkwardly, partially loses, and partially does not lose, his identity, at each transmigration. The sole object here in the various metempsychoses seems to be, merely the depicting of seven different conditions of existence, and the enforcement of the very doubtful moral that every person should remain contented with his own. But it is clear that both these points could have been more forcibly shown, without any reference to a confused and jarring system of transmigration, by the mere narrations of seven different individuals. All deviations, especially wide ones, from nature, should be justified to the author by some specific object — the object, in the present case, might have been found, as above-mentioned, in the opportunity afforded of depicting widely-different conditions of existence actuating one individual.

A second peculiarity of the species of novel to which Sheppard Lee belongs, and a peculiarity which is not rejected by the author, is the treating the whole narrative in a jocular manner throughout (inasmuch as to say “I know I am writing nonsense, but then you must excuse me for the very reason that I know it,”) or the solution of the various absurdities by means of a dream, or something similar. The latter method is adopted in the present instance — and the idea is managed with unusual ingenuity. Still — having read through the whole book, and having been worried to death with incongruities (allowing such to exist) until the concluding page, it is certainly little indemnification for our sufferings to learn that, in truth, the whole matter was a dream, and that we were very wrong in being worried about it at all. ­[page 261:] The damage is done, and the apology does not remedy the grievance. For this and other reasons, we are led to prefer, in this kind of writing, the second general method to which we have alluded. It consists in a variety of points — principally in avoiding, as may easily be done, that directness of expression which we have noticed in Sheppard Lee, and thus leaving much to the imagination — in writing as if the author were firmly impressed with the truth, yet astonished at the immensity of the wonders he relates, and for which, professedly, he neither claims nor anticipates credence — in minuteness of detail, especially upon points which have no immediate bearing upon the general story — this minuteness not being at variance with indirectness of expression — in short, by making use of the infinity of arts which give verisimilitude to a narration — and by leaving the result as a wonder not to be accounted for. It will be found that bizzarreries thus conducted, are usually far more effective than those otherwise managed. The attention of the author, who does not depend upon explaining away his incredibilities, is directed to giving them the character and the luminousness of truth, and thus are brought about, unwittingly, some of the most vivid creations of human intellect. The reader, too, readily perceives and falls in with the writer’s humor, and suffers himself to be borne on thereby. On the other hand, what difficulty, or inconvenience, or danger can there be in leaving us uninformed of the important facts that a certain hero did not actually discover the elixir vitæ, could not really make himself invisible, and was not either a ghost in good earnest, or a bonâ fide wandering Jew?


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 257:]

­ *  The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow: a Tradition of Pennsylvania. By the author of Calavar and the Infidel. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard.


Notes:

This notice combines excerpts of Poe’s reviews, from the Southern Literary Messenger, of The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow and Sheppard Lee.


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[S:1 - Works, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Robert M. Bird (Text-B)