Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Lafitte: The Pirate of the Gulf,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), pp. 106-116


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[page 106, continued:]

LAFFITE: THE PIRATE OF THE GULF. BY THE AUTHOR OF THE SOUTH- WEST. NEW YORK: HARPER AND BROTHERS.

[Southern Literary Messenger, August, 1836.]

THE “author of the South-West” is Professor Ingraham. We had occasion to speak favorably of that work in our Messenger for January last. “Lafitte,” the book now before us, may be called an historical novel. It is based, in a great degree, upon a sketch [page 107:] in Mr. Flint’s “Valley of the Mississippi,” of the great Baritarian outlaw; and many of the leading incidents narrated may be found in the “Louisiana” of Marboi, and the “Memoirs” of Lutonr. We are not, however, to decide upon the merits of the story — which runs nearly thus — by any reference to historical truth.

An expatriated Frenchman resides upon the banks of the Kennebeck. He has two sons — twins — their mother having died in their infancy. Their names are Achille and Henri — the former proud, impetuous and ambitious — the latter of a more gentle nature. We are introduced to this little family when the boys are in their fifteenth year. At this epoch a jealousy of his brother, never felt before, and founded on the obvious preference of the father for Henri, arises in the bosom of Achille. Gertrude, now, a niece and ward of the old gentleman, becomes an inmate of the house. She is beautiful, is beloved by both the sons, but returns only the affection of Henri. Jealousy thus deepens into hatred on the part of Achille. This hatred is still farther embittered by an accident. Henri saves the life of his mistress, and, in so doing, rejects the proffered assistance of Achille. The lovers meet too by moonlight, and are overheard by the discarded brother, who in a moment of phrensy, plunges a knife in the bosom of Henri, hurries to the sea-coast, and, seizing the boat of a fisherman, pushes out immediately to sea. Upon the eve of being lost, he is picked up by a merehant vessel, and proceeds with her on a voyage to the Mediterranean. The vessel is captured by the Algerines — our hero is imprisoned — escapes by the aid of a Moorish maiden, whom he dishonors and abandons — is recaptured — escapes again in an open [page 108:] boat for Ceuti — is again captured by Algerines — unites with them, and subsequently commands them — is taken by the Turks — is promoted in their navy — turns Mussulman — becomes the chief of an armed horde — combats in the Egyptian ranks — becomes again a pirate — is taken by the Spaniards — is liberated and becomes a corsair again, and again. His adventures so far, however, from the period of his attack upon Henri — adventures occupying a period of fifteen years — are related by the novelist in language very little more diffuse than our own. We are now introduced, at full length to Achille, in the character of Lafitte. The scene is Jamaica, and we find the freebooter planning a descent upon the house of a wealthy Mexican exile, Velasquez. He has a daughter, Constanza, very beautiful, and a nephew, very much of a rascal. The nephew is in league with the robbers, and admits them to the house for the sake of sharing the booty. The adventure ends in the death of the traitor by a pistol-shot from the hands of Velasquez — the death of the old man himself through agitation — and the carrying off of the maiden, and much booty, by Laffite. The lady however, is treated with great deference by that noble-spirited and fine-looking young man the cutthroat, who wears a grey cloak with a velvet collar, folds his arms, gnashes his teeth, and has, we must admit it, a more handsomely furnished cabin than even the Red Rover himself. We are assured that his only object in carrying the damsel off at all, was to shield his person by means of her own, from the shots of his pursuers. Accordingly, a merchantman, bound for Kingston, heaving in sight, Constanzi is set at liberty and put on board of it, with an old negro wench Juana (all lips) and a young [page 109:] pirate boy Theodore, (all sentiment) to attend upon her orders and convoy her safely into port. “We now have a storm (in the usual manner) a wreck, and a capture. The dismasted vessel is taken by one of the galleys of Lafitte, and the lady again falls into the clutches of the buccaneers, who carry her to one of their rendezvous, a very romantic cavern, at the head of the bay of Gonzares, in the island of St. Domingo.

In the meantime the lover of the fair Constanza, one Count D’Oyley, commander of the French frigate, Le Sultan, going to visit his mistress at her paternal residence, is made aware of her disaster, follows immediately with his frigate’s tender in pursuit of Lafitte, and fails in meeting him, but has the satisfaction of being taken prisoner by one of the freebooter’s small vessels, and carried to the identical rendezvous in which lies the object of his search. The lovers repose in different caverns, and are totally unsuspicious of the so near presence of each other. But the maiden, of course, sings a song, made on purpose improviso, and all about love and the moon, and the lover, hearing every word of it, breaks through the wall (also of course) and — clasps her in his arms! But we are growing scurrilous. Lafitte arrives, and promises the two captives their freedom and a passage to Port-au-Prince in the morning. Count D’Oyley, however, having dreamed in succession four very ugly dreams, thinks it better to put no faith in the freebooter, and getting up in the middle of the night, makes his escape from the rendezvous with his mistress and Juana. In so doing he has only to dress his mistress as a man, and himself as a woman, to descend a precipice, to make a sentinel at the mouth of the cave drunk, and so walk over him — make another drunk in Lafitte’s schooner, [page 110:] and so walk over him — walk over some forty or fifty of the crew on deck — and finally to walk off with the long-boat. These things are trifles with a man of genius — and an author should never let slip an opportunity of displaying his invention. D’Oyley’s frigate happens just precisely at the right moment to be in the offing, and has no difficulty whatever in picking up all hands.

We are now brought to Baritaria — and some scenes follow of historical interest. An offer on the part of the British is made to Lafitte. He demands time for reflection, and proceeds to lay the pacquet of proposals before the Governor of Louisiana, demanding a free pardon for himself and associates as the reward of his information, and the price of his adherence to the States. After some trouble he succeeds in his application. He is present, and fights valiantly, at the battle of New Orleans. In the heat of the contest he is attacked pointedly and with vehemence by an individual in the uniform of a British naval officer — is wounded, and carried to the hospital. Here he discovers, as a nun, his cousin Gertrude, who after the attack by Achille upon Henri, has taken the veil, by way of atonement for her share in the disaster. Henri, she informs Lafitte, is not killed, but gone to France with his father. Our hero now, having recovered of his wound, vows to devote to penitence, among the monks of St. Bernard, the remainder of his life. His first object, however, being to restore, as far as possible, his ill-gotten wealth to the proper owners, he finds it necessary to purchase a vessel with the view of collecting his treasures. He does so, and proceeds to accomplish his purpose.

The naval officer who attacked him so fiercely on the ramparts at Orleans is now discovered to be D’Oyley, [page 111:] although it does seem a little singular that Lafitte, who knew D’Oyley well, should not have discovered this matter before. The Frenchman, it appears, having rescued his mistress from the cavern, as before shown, and having reached his frigate in safety, can think of no more commendable course than that of returning for the purpose of dispersing the pirates, and hanging the preserver of his own life, and of the life and honor of his mistress. With this laudable design, he drops anchor at the mouth of the cavern. In the night time, however, the poor tossed-about lady is carried off thro’ a port-hole, by Cudjo, an old negro, for some wise purposes of his own. Upon learning this occurrence the Count is very angry, and just then perceiving a schooner making her way out of the harbor, jumps at once to the conclusion that his lady is on board, and that Lafitte is the person who put her there. It is really distressing to see what a passion the Count is in upon this occasion. “Lafitte,” says he, “thou seared and branded outlaw! — cursed of God and loathed of men! — fit compeer of hell’s dark spirits ! — blaster of human happiness! — destroyer of innocence! Guilty thyself, thou would’st make all like thee! Scorner of purity, thou would’st unmake and make it guilt! Like Satan, thou sowest tares of sorrow among the seeds of peace! — thou seekest good to make it evil! Renegade of mankind! — thou art a blot among thy race — the living presence of that moral pestilence which men and holy writ term sin.’” The beauty and vigor of all this ore not at .ill diminished by the fact that the “scorner of purity” and “renegade of mankind” was necessarily deprived of the pleasure of hearing a word of it, being otherwise busily engaged in the State of Louisiana. [page 112:]

The Count, having overtaken the schooner, and found out his mistake, goes to Barataria, and thence, proceeding to New Orleans, arrives on the day of the battle. Lafitte is there discovered upon the ramparts, and the combat ensues as heretofore described. D’Oyley imagines that Lafitte is mortally wounded. In a few days, however, the newly-purchased vessel of the corsair, with the corsair on board, is pointed out to him as it is leaving the harbor, and he again starts with his frigate in pursuit. Lafitte meanwhile has proceeded to the rendezvous at which we left Constanza in the clutches of Cudjo, rescues her, and placing her safely in his vessel, determines to put her forthwith in the hands of her lover. He is met, unfortunately, by the frigate of the enraged D’Oyley. The vessels are thrown together, and the Count springs with his boarders on the deck of the schooner — turning a deaf ear to explanation. The corsair is mortally wounded by the Count. The cap of the latter falling off in the tumult, he is discovered to be Henri — the brother of Achille, or Laffite. An old man on board, called Lafon, is at the same moment opportunely discovered to be the father. Explanations ensue. Lafitte dies — the lovers are happy — and the story terminates.

It must not be supposed that the absurdities we have here pointed out, are as obtrusive in the novel of Professor Ingraham as they appear in our naked digest. Still they are sufficiently so. “Laffite,” like the “Elkswatawa” of Mr. French, is most successful, we think, in its historical details. Commodore Patterson and General Andrew Jackson are among the personages ?who form a portion of the story. The portrait of the President seems to us forcibly sketched. But our author is more happy in any respect than in delineations of character. [page 113:] Some descriptive pieces are well-drawn, and admirably colored. We may instance the several haunts of the pirates, the residence of Velasquez, the house of the council at New Orleans, and the private cabin allotted by the corsair to Constanza. The whole book possesses vigor, and a certain species of interest — and there can be little doubt of its attaining popularity. The chronological mannerism noticed in “Elkswatawa” is also observable in “Lafitte.” Some other mannerisms referrible to the same sin of imitation are also to be observed. As a general rule it may be safely assumed, that the most simple, is the best, method of narration. Our author cannot be induced to think so, and is at unnecessary pains to bring about artificialities of construction — not so much in regard to particular sentences, as to the introduction of his incidents. To these he always approaches with the gait of a crab. We have, for example, been keeping company with the buccaneers for a few pages — but now they are to make an attack upon some old family mansion. In an instant the buccaneers are dropped for the mansion, and the definite for the indefinite article. In place of the robbers proceeding in the course wherein we have been bearing them company, and advancing in proper order to the dwelling, they are suddenly abandoned for a house. A family mansion is depicted. A man is sitting within it. A maiden is sitting by his side, and a quantity of ingots are reposing in the cellar. We are then, and not till then, informed, that the family mansion, the man, the maiden and the ingots, are the identical mansion, man, maiden and ingots, of which we have already heard the buccaneers planning the attack. — Thus, at the conclusion of book the 4th, Count D’Oyley has rescued his mistress from the cavern, and [page 114:] arrived with her, in safety, upon the deck of his frigate. He has, moreover, decided upon returning with the frigate to the cavern for the laudable purpose, as aforesaid, of hanging his deliverer. We naturally expect still to keep company with the ship in this adventure; and turn over the page with a certainty of finding ourselves upon her decks. But not so. She is now merely a frigate which we behold at a distance — o stately ship arrayed in the apparel of war, and which “ sails with majestic motion into the bay of Gonzales.” Of course we are strongly tempted to throw the book, ship and all, out of the window.

The novelist is too minutely, and by far too frequently descriptive. We are surfeited with unnecessary detail. Every little figure in the picture is invested with all the dignities of light and shadow, and chiaro’scuro. Of mere outlines there are none. Not a dog yelps, unsung. Not a shovel-footed negro waddles across the stage, whether to any ostensible purpose or not, without eliciting from the author a vos plaudite, with an extended explanation of the character of his personal appearance — of his length, depth, and breadth, — and, more particularly, of the length, depth, and breadth of his shirt-collar, shoe-buckles and hat-band.

The English of Professor Ingraham is generally good. It possesses vigor and is very copious. Sometimes, however, we meet with a sentence without end, involving a nominative without a verb. For example,

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Many odd words, too, and expressions, such as “ revenge you,” in place of “ avenge you” — “ Praxitiles,” instead of “Praxiteles” — “assayed” in lieu of “essayed,” and “denouément” for “dénouement” [page 115:] — together with such things as “frissieur,” “closelier,” “selfpowered,” “folden,” and “rhodomantine” are hereto be found, and, perhaps, may as well be placed at once to the account of typographical errors.

Our principal objection is to the tendency of the tale. The pirate-captain, from the author’s own showing, is a weak, a vaccillating villain, a fratricide, a cowardly cut-throat, who strikes an unoffending boy under his protection, and makes nothing of hurling a man over a precipice for merely falling asleep, or shooting him down without any imaginable reason whatsoever. Yet he is never mentioned but with evident respect, or in some such sentence as the following. “I could hardly believe I was looking upon the celebrated Lafitte, when I gazed upon his elegant, even noble person and fine features, in which, in spite of their resolute expression, there is an air of frankness which assures me that he would never be guilty of a mean action,” &c. &c. &c. In this manner, and by these means, the total result of his portraiture as depicted, leaves upon the mind of the reader no proper degree of abhorrence. The epithet “impulsive,” applied so very frequently to the character of this scoundrel, as to induce a smile at every repetition of the word, seems to be regarded by the author as an all-sufficient excuse for the unnumbered legion of his iniquities. We object too — decidedly — to such expressions on the lips of a hero, as “If I cannot be the last in Heaven, I will be the first in Hell” — “Now favor me, Hell or Heaven, and I will have my revenge!” — “Back hounds, or, by the holy God, I will send one of you to breakfast in Hell,” &c. &c &c. — expressions with which the volumes before us are too plentifully besprinkled. [page 116:] Upon the whole, we could wish that men possessing the weight of talents and character belonging to Professor Ingraham, would either think it necessary to bestow a somewhat greater degree of labor and attention upon the composition of their novels, or otherwise, would not think it necessary to compose them at all.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Lafitte: The Pirate of the Gulf)