Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The American in England,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. VIII: Literary Criticism - part 01 (1902), pp. 214-222


[page 214, continued:]


[Southern Literary Messenger, February, 1836.]

LIEUTENANT SLIDELLS very excellent book, “A Year in Spain,” was in some danger of being overlooked by his countrymen when a benignant star directed Murray’s attention to his [[its]] merits. Fate and Regent Street prevailed. Cockney octavos carried the day. A man is nothing if not hot-pressed; and the clever young writer who was cut dead in his Yankee-land habiliments, met with bows innumerable in the gala dress of a London imprimatur. The “Year in Spain” well deserved the popularity thus inauspiciously attained. It was the work of a man of genius; and passing through several editions, prepared the public attention for any subsequent production of its author. As regards “The American in England,” we have not only read it with deep interest from beginning to end, but have been at the trouble of seeking out and perusing a great variety of critical dicta concerning it. Nearly all of these are in its favor, and we are happy in being able to concur heartily with the popular voice — if indeed these dicta be its echoes.

We have somewhere said — or we should have [page 215:] somewhere said — that the old adage about “Truth in a well” (we mean the adage in its modern and improper — not in its antique and proper acceptation) should be swallowed cum grano salis at times. To be profound is not always to be sensible. The depth of an argument is not, necessarily, its wisdom — this depth lying where Truth is sought more often than where she is found. As the touches of a painting which, to minute inspection, are “confusion worse confounded” will not fail to start boldly out to the cursory glance of a connoisseur — or as a star may be seen more distinctly in a sidelong survey than in any direct gaze however penetrating and intense — so there are, not unfrequently, times and methods, in which, and by means of which, a richer philosophy may be gathered on the surface of things than can be drawn up, even with great labor, e profundis. It appears to us that Mr. Slidell has written a wiser book than his neighbors merely by not disdaining to write a more superficial one.

The work is dedicated to John Duer, Esq. The Preface is a very sensible and a sufficiently well-written performance, in which the Lieutenant while “begging, at the outset, to be acquitted of any injurious prejudices” still pleads guilty to “that ardent patriotism which is the common attribute of Americans, a feeling of nationality inherited with the laws, the language, and the manners of the country from which we derive our origin, and which is sanctioned not less by the comparison of the blessings we enjoy with those of other lands, than by the promptings of good feeling, and the dictates of good taste.” It is in the body of the book, however, that we must seek, and where we shall most assuredly find, strong indications of a genius not the less [page 216:] rich, rare, and altogether estimable for the simplicity of its modus operandi.

Commencing with his embarkation at New York, our author succeeds, at once, in rivetting the attention of his readers by a succession of minute details. But there is this vast difference between the details of Mr. Slidell, and the details of many of his contemporaries. They — the many — impressed, apparently, with the belief that mere minuteness is sufficient to constitute force, and that to be accurate is, of necessity, to be verisimilar — have not hesitated in putting in upon their canvass all the actual lines which might be discovered in their subject. This Mr. Slidell has known better than to do. He has felt that the apparent, not the real, is the province of a painter — and that to give (speaking technically) the idea of any desired object, the toning down, or the utter neglect of certain portions of that object is absolutely necessary to the proper bringing out of other portions — portions by whose sole instrumentality the idea of the object is afforded. With a fine eye then for the picturesque, and with that strong sense of propriety which is inseparable from true genius, our American has crossed the water, dallied a week in London, and given us, as the result of his observations, a few masterly sketches, with all the spirit, vigor, raciness and illusion of a panorama.

Very rarely have we seen any thing of the kind superior to the “American in England.” The interest begins with the beginning of the book, and abides with us, unabated, to the end. From the scenes in the Yankee harbor, to the departure of the traveller from England, his arrival in France, and installment among the comforts of the Hotel Quillacq, all is terse, [page 217:] nervous, brilliant and original. The review of the ship’s company, in the initial chapter of the book is exceedingly entertaining. The last character thus introduced is so peculiarly sketched that we must copy what the author says about him. It will serve to exemplify some of our own prior remarks.

“Let me not forget to make honorable mention of the white-headed little raggamuffin who was working his passage, and who, in this capacity, had the decks to sweep, ropes to haul, chickens and pigs to feed, the cow to milk, and the dishes to wash,” &c. &c. [[more text omitted here]]

Some incidents at sea — such as the narrow escape from running down a brig, and the imminent danger incurred by an English pilot — are told with all the gusto of a seaman. Among other fine passages we may particularize an account of British sailors on shore at Portsmouth — of a family group on board a steamer — of the appearance of the Kentish coast — of the dangers of the Thames — of the Dover coach — of some groups in a London coffee-room — of a stand of hackney-coaches — of St. James’ Park — of a midnight scene in the streets — of the Strand — of Temple-Bar — of St. Paul’s and the view from the summit — of Rothschild — of Barclay and Perkins’ Brewery — of the Thames’ Tunnel — of the Tower — of the Zoological Gardens — of Robert Owen — of the habits of retired citizens — and of the rural tastes of Englishmen. A parallel between Regent Street and Broadway brings the two thoroughfares with singular distinctness to the eye of the mind — and in the way of animated and vivid description we can, at this moment, remember nothing in the whole range of fact or fiction much superior to the Lieutenant’s [page 218:] narrative of his midnight entrance into London. Indeed we can almost pardon a contemporary for speaking of this picture as sublime. A small portion of it we copy — but no just idea of its total effect can be thus gathered — an effect depending in a great measure upon the gradual manner in which it is brought about.

“I know nothing more exhilarating than to be suddenly ushered in the night into a populous quarter of a great city. My recollection readily conjures up the impressions made upon me,” &c. &c. &c. [[more text omitted here]]

There are some few niaiseries in the work before us, which, although insufficient to affect its character as a whole, yet constitute a weak point in what otherwise is beautiful, and cause us to regret sincerely, the accidents which have admitted them. We may mention, in especial, the too frequent introduction of the monosyllable “how,” in such sentences as “they told how” — “it was related how” — “I was informed how,” &c. Mr. Slidell will find, upon self-scrutiny, that he has fallen into this habit through the sin of imitation. The Lieutenant, too, suffers his work to savor far too strongly of the ship, and lets slip him no opportunity of thrusting upon the public attention the fact of his particular vocation — insisting, indeed, upon this matter with a pertinacity even ludicrous — a pertinacity which will be exemplified in the following passage:

  · · · · · · · ·  


Again. Although the author evinces, in theory, a very laudable contempt for that silly vanity so often inducing men to blazon forth their intimacy with the distinguished; and although, in the volumes now before us, he more than once directs the arrows of his [page 219:] satire at the infirmity — still he is found not altogether free from it himself; and, in one especial instance, is even awkwardly uneasy, lest we should remain ignorant of his acquaintance with Washington Irving. “I thought,” quoth the Lieutenant, when there was no necessity for thinking about any such matter, “I thought of the ‘spectral box-coats’ of my inimitable friend Geoffrey Crayon; and would have given the world in that moment of despondency, for one of his quiet unwritten jokes, or one friendly pressure of his hand.”

Upon Mr. Slidell’s mechanical style we cannot bring ourselves to look with favor. Indeed while running over, with some astonishment, a few of his singularly ill-constructed sentences, we begin to think that the sentiments expressed in the conclusion of his Preface are not, as we at first suspected, merely the common cant of the littérateur, and that his book is actually, as he represents it to be, “the result of an up-hill journey,” and “a work which he regards with a feeling of aversion.” What else than great tedium and utter weariness with his labor, could have induced our author to trust such passages as the following to the critical eye of the public?

“The absence of intellectual and moral culture, in occupations which rendered it unnecessary for those who worked only to administer food to themselves and profit or luxury to the class of masters, could only account for the absence of forehead, of the ornamental parts of that face which was moulded after a divine model.”

We perused this sentence more than once before we could fathom its meaning. Mr. Slidell wishes to say, that narrowness of forehead in the rabble is owing to want [page 220:] of mental exercise — they being laborers not thinkers. But from the words of our author we are led to conclude that some occupations (certainly very strange ones) rendered it unnecessary for those who worked, to administer food to themselves — that is, to eat. The pronoun “it,” however, will be found, upon examination, to refer to “moral culture.” The repetition of the word “only” is also disagreeable, and the entire passage is overloaded with verbiage. A rigid scrutiny will show that all essential portions of the intended idea are embodied in the lines Italicised. In the original sentence are fifty-four words — in our own eighteen — or precisely one third. It follows, that if all the Lieutenant’s sentences had been abridged in a similar manner — a process which would have redounded greatly to their advantage — we might have been spared much trouble, and the public much time, trouble, and expense — the “American in England” making its appearance in a duodecimo of one hundred and ninety-two pages, rather than in two octavos of five hundred and seventy-six.

At page 122, vol. I, we have what follows.

“My situation here was uncomfortable enough; if I were softly cushioned on one side, this only tended, by the contrast, to increase the obduracy of a small iron rod,” [[rest of quotation omitted by Harrison]]

If I were,’ in this sentence, is not English — but there are few persons who will believe that “if” does not in all instances require the subjunctive. In the words “a small iron rod which served as a parapet to protect me from falling off the precipice over which hung, and against which I was forced,” &c. let us say nothing of the injudicious use of the word parapet as applied to a small iron rod. Passing over this, it is evident, that the [page 221:] second relative pronoun “which,” has for its antecedent, in strict syntactical arrangement, the same noun as the first relative pronoun “which” — that is to say, it has the word “precipice” for its antecedent. The sentence would thus imply that Mr. Slidell was forced against the precipice. But the actual meaning (at which we arrive by guessing) is, that Mr. Slidell was forced against the iron rod. In the words “I was forced with a pressure proportioned to the circumstances of my being compressed into a space,” &c. let us again be indulgent, and say as little as possible of the tautology in “pressure” and “compressed.” But we ask where are the circumstances spoken of? There is only one circumstance — the circumstance of being compressed. In the conclusion of the passage where the Lieutenant speaks of “a seat having doubtless been contrived to accommodate five men, and there being no greater anatomical mistake than to suppose there would be more room because four of them were women,” it is quite unnecessary to point out the “bull egregious” — a bull which could have been readily avoided by the simple substitute of “persons” for “men.”

We must be pardoned for copying yet another sentence. We will do so with the single remark that it is one of the most ludicrously ill-arranged, and altogether ungainly pieces of composition which it has ever been our ill fortune to encounter.

“I was not long in discovering that the different personages scattered about the room in such an unsocial and misanthropic manner, instead of being collected about the same board, as in France or my own country, and, in the spirit of good fellowship and of boon companions, relieving each other of their mutual ennuis,” &c. [[more text omitted here]] [page 222:]

Such passages as the foregoing may be discovered passim in “The American in England.” Yet we have heard Mr. Slidell’s English called equal to the English of Mr. Irving — than which nothing can be more improbable. The Lieutenant’s book is an excellent book — but then it is excellent in spite of its style. So great are the triumphs of genius!






[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of The American in England)