Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Sheppard Lee,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), pp. 126-139


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[page 126, continued:]

SHEPPARD LEE: WRITTEN BY HIMSELF. NEW YORK: HARPER AND BROTHERS.

[Southern Literary Messenger, September, 1836.]

LIKE philothea, this novel is an original in American Belles Lettres at least; and these deviations, however indecisive, from the more beaten paths of imitation, look well for our future literary prospects. Thinking thus, we will be at the trouble of going though briefly, in detail, the plot and the adventures of Sheppard Lee.

The hero relates his own story. He is born “somewhere towards the close of the last century,” in the State of New Jersey, in one of the oldest counties that border upon the Delaware river. His father is a farmer in good circumstances, and famous for making good sausages for the Philadelphia market. He has ten children besides Sheppard. Nine of these die, however, in six years, by a variety of odd accidents — the last expiring in a fit of laughter at seeing his brother ridden to death by a pig. Prudence, the oldest sister, survives. The mother, mourning for her children, becomes melancholy and dies insane. Sheppard is sent to good schools, and afterwards to the College at Nassau Hall, in Princeton, where he remains three years, until his father’s decease. Upon this occurrence he finds himself in possession of the bulk of the property; [page 127:] his sister Prudence, who had recently married, receiving only a small farm in a neighboring county. After making one or two efforts to become a man of business, our hero hires an overseer to undertake the entire management of his property.

Having now nothing to do, and time hanging heavily on his hands, Sheppard Lee tries many experiments by way of killing the enemy. He turns sportsman, but has the misfortune to shoot his dog the first day, and upon the second his neighbor’s cow. He breeds horses and runs them, losing more money in a single hour than his father had ever made in two years together. At the suggestion of his overseer he travels, and is robbed of his baggage and money, by an intelligent gentlemanly personage from Sing-Sing. He thinks of matrimony, and is about coming to a proposal, when his inamorata, taking offence at his backwardness, casts her eyes upon another wooer, who has made her an offer, and marries him upon the spot.

Upon attaining his twenty-eighth year, Mr. Lee discovers his overseer, Mr. Aikin Jones, to be a rogue, and himself to be ruined. Prudence, the sister, tells our hero moreover, that he has lost all the little sense he ever possessed, while her husband is so kind as to inform him that “he is wrong in the upper story.” A quarrel ensues and Mr. Lee is left to bear his misfortunes alone.

In Chapter V, we have a minute description of the state of the writer’s affairs at this epoch, and it must be owned that his little property of forty acres presented a sufficiently woe-begone appearance. One friend, however, remains steadfast, in the person of our hero’s negro servant, Jim Jumble — an old fellow that had been the slave of his father and was left to [page 128:] him in the will. This is a crabbed, self-willed old rascal, who will have every thing his own way. Having some scruples of conscience about holding a slave, and thinking him of no value whatever, but, on the contrary, a great deal of trouble, our hero decides upon setting him free. The old fellow, however, bursts into a passion, swears he will not be free, that Mr. Lee is his master and shall take care of him, and that if he dares to set him free he will have the law of him, “he will by ge-hosh!”

At length, in spite of even the services of Jim Jumble, our hero is reduced to the point of despair. His necessities have compelled him to mortgage the few miserable acres left, and ruin stares him in the face. He attempts many ingenious devices with a view of amending his fortune — buys lottery tickets which prove all blanks — purchases stock in a southern gold mining company, is forced to sell out at a bad season, and finds himself with one-fifth the sum invested — gets a new coat, and makes a declaration to a rich widow in the neighborhood, who makes him the laughing stock of the country for his pains — and finally turns politician, choosing the strongest party, on the principle that the majority must always be right. Attending a public meeting he claps his hands and applauds the speeches with so much spirit, that he is noticed by some of the leaders. They encourage him to take a more prominent part in the business going on, and at the next opportunity he makes a speech. Being on the hurrah side he receives great applause, and indeed there is such a shouting and clapping that he is obliged to put an end to his discourse sooner than he had intended. He is advised to set about converting all in the neighborhood who are not of the right way [page 129:] of thinking, and the post office in the village is hinted at as his reward in case the county is gained. Mr. Lee sets about his task valiantly, paying his own expenses, and the hurrahs carry the day. His claim to the post-officeship is universally admitted, but, in some way or other, the appointment is bestowed upon one of the very leaders who had been foremost in commending the zeal and talents of our author, and in assuring him that the office should be his. Mr. Lee is enraged, and is upon the point of going over to the anti-hurrahs, when he is involved in a very remarkable tissue of adventure. Jim Jumble conceives that money has been buried by Captain Kid, in a certain ugly swamp, called the Owl-Roost, not many rods from an old church. The stories of the negro affect his master to such a degree that he dreams three nights in succession of finding a treasure at the foot of a beech-tree in the swamp. He resolves to dig for it in good earnest, choosing midnight, at the full of the moon, as the moment of commencing operations. On his way to the Owl-Roost at the proper time, he passes by the burial ground of the old church, and the wall having fallen down across his path, he strikes his ankle against a fragment — the pain causing him to utter a groan. To his amazement this interjection of suffering is echoed from the grave yard; a voice screaming out in awful tones, O Lord! O Lord! and, casting his eyes around, our hero beholds three or four shapes, whom he supposes to be devils incarnate, dancing about among the tomb-stones. The beech-tree, however, is finally reached in safety, and by dint of much labor a large hole excavated among the roots. But in his agitation of mind the adventurer plants an unlucky blow of the mattock among the toes of his right foot, and [page 130:] sinking down upon the grass, “falls straight-way into a trance.”

Upon recovering from this trance, Mr. Lee finds himself in a very singular predicament. He feels exceedingly light and buoyant, with the power of moving without exertion. He sweeps along without putting his feet to the ground, and passes among shrubs and bushes without experiencing from them any hindrance to his progress. In short, he finds himself to be nothing better than a ghost. His dead body is lying quietly beside the excavation under the beech-tree. Mr. Lee is entirely overcome with horror at his unfortunate condition, and runs, or rather flies, instinctively to the nearest hut for assistance. But the dogs, at his approach, run howling among the bushes, and the only answer he receives from the terrified family is the discharge of a blunderbuss in his face. Returning in despair to the beech-tree and the pit, he finds that his body has been taken away. Its disappearance throws him into a phrenzy, and he is about to run home and summon old Jim Jumble to the rescue, when he hears a dog yelping and whining in a peculiarly doleful manner, at some little distance down in the meadow. Coming to a place in the edge of the marsh where are some willow trees, and an old worm fence, he there discovers to his extreme surprise, the body of a certain well-to-do personage, Squire Higginson. He is lying against the fence, stone dead, with his head down, and his heels resting against the rails, and looking as if, while climbing, he had fallen down and broken his neck.

Our hero pities the condition of Mr. Higginson, but being only a ghost, has no capacity to render him assistance. In this dilemma he begins to moralize [page 131:] upon the condition of Mr. H. and of himself. The one has no body — the other no soul. “Why might not I” — says, very reasonably, the ghost of Mr. Lee, “Why might not I — that is to say my spirit — deprived by an unhappy accident of its natural dwelling — take possession of a tenement which there remains no spirit to claim, and thus, uniting interests together, as two feeble factions unite together in the political world, become a body possess-ing life, strength, and usefulness? Oh, that I might be Squire Higginson!”

The words are scarcely out of his mouth, before our hero feels himself vanishing, as it were, into the dead man’s nostrils, “into which his spirit rushes like a breeze,” and the next moment he finds himself John Hazlewood Higginson, Esquire, to all intents and purposes — kicking the fence to pieces in a lusty effort to rise upon his feet, and feeling as if he had just tumbled over it. We must here give a couple of pages in the words of the author.

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Our hero finds that in assuming the body of Squire Higginson, he has invested himself with a troublesome superfluity of fat — that he has moreover a touch of the asthma — together with a whizzing, humming, and spinning in the head. One day, while gunning, these infirmities prove more than usually inconvenient, and he is upon the point of retreating to the village to get his dinner, when a crowd of men make their appearance, and setting up a great shout, begin to run towards him at full speed. Hearing them utter furious cries, and perceiving a multitude of dogs in company, he is seized with alarm and makes for the woods. He is overtaken however, charged with the murder of Sheppard Lee, and committed by Justice Parkins — a [page 132:] mass of evidence appearing against him, among which that of Jim Jumble is not the least important, who swears that the prisoner came to his house, shot his bull-dog, threatened to blow his brains out, and bragged that he had “just finished Mr. Lee.”

In this dilemma our hero relates the whole truth to the prosecuting attorney, and is considered a madman for his pains. The body of Sheppard Lee, however, not appearing, the prisoner is set at liberty, and takes his way to Philadelphia in the charge of some new friends appertaining to him as John Hazlewood Higginson, Esquire. He finds himself a rich brewer, living in Chestnut Street, and the possessor of lands, houses, stocks, and Schuylkill coal-mines in abundance. He is troubled nevertheless with inveterate gout, and a shrew of a wife, and upon the whole he regrets his former existence as plain Sheppard Lee. Just opposite our brewer’s residence is the dwelling of Mr. Periwinkle Smith, an aristocrat, wealthy or supposed to be so, although some rumors are abroad touching mortgages. He has an only daughter, and among her frequent visitors is one Isaac Dulmer Dawkins, Esq., a young dandy of the first water, tall, slim, whiskered, mustached, of pure blood, and living on his wits. This personage is often noted by our hero, upon his passage to and from the house of Mr. Smith. Suddenly his visits are discontinued — a circumstance which the brewer has soon an opportunity of explaining to his satisfaction. Going to the Schuylkill for the purpose of drowning himself, and thus putting an end at once to the gout and the assiduities of Mrs. Higginson, our hero is surprised at finding himself anticipated in his design by I. Dulmer Dawkins, Esq. who leaps into the river at the very spot selected for his [page 133:] own suicide. In his exertions to get Mr. D. out, he is seized with apoplexy — reviving partially from which, he discovers a crowd attempting to resuscitate the dandy.

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As I Dulmer Dawkins, our friend finds himself beset by the duns, whom he habitually puts off by suggestions respecting a rich uncle, of whose very existence he is sadly in doubt. Having ceased to pay attention to Miss Smith, upon hearing the rumors about the mortgages, it appears that he was jilted in turn by a Miss Betty Somebody, and thus threw himself into the river in despair. His adventures are now various and spirited, but his creditors grow importunate, and vow they will be put off no longer with the old story of the rich uncle, when an uncle, and a rich one, actually appears upon the tapis. He is an old vulgar fool, and I Dulmer Dawkins, Esquire, is in some doubts about the propriety of allowing his claim to relationship, but finally consents to introduce the old quiz, son and daughter, into fashionable society, upon considering the pecuniary advantages to himself. With this end he looks about for a house, and learns that the residence of Periwinkle Smith is for sale. Upon calling upon that gentleman however, he is treated very civilly indeed, being shown the door, after having sufficiently ascertained that the rumors about the mortgages should have been construed in favor of Mr. Smith — that he is a richer man than ever, and that his fair heiress is upon the point of marriage with a millionaire from Boston. He now turns his attention to his country cousin, Miss Patty Wilkins, upon finding that the uncle is to give her forty thousand dollars. At the same time, lest his designs in this quarter should fail, he makes an appointment to run off with the only [page 134:] daughter of a rich shaver, one Skinner. The uncle Wilkins has but little opinion of I Dulmer Dawkins, and will not harken to his suit at all. In this dilemma our hero resorts to a trick. He represents his bosom friend and ally, Mr. Tickle, as a man of fashion and property, and sets him to making love to Miss Patty, in the name of himself, I Dulmer. The uncle snaps at the bait, but the ally is instructed to proceed no farther without a definite settlement upon Miss Patty of the forty thousand dollars. The uncle makes the settlement and matters proceed to a crisis — Mr. Tickle pleasing himself with the idea of cheating his bosom friend I Dulmer, and marrying the lady himself. A farce of very pretty finesse now ensues, which terminates in Miss Patty’s giving the slip to both lovers, bestowing her forty thousand dollars upon an old country sweetheart, Danny Baker, and in I Dulmer’s finding, upon flying, as a dernier resort, to the broker’s daughter, that she has already run away with Sammy, Miss Patty Wilkins’ clodhopper brother.

Driven to desperation by his duns, our hero escapes from them by dint of hard running and takes refuge, without asking permission, in the sick chamber of old Skinner, the shaver. Finding the old gentleman dead, he takes possession of his body forthwith, leaving his own carcase on the floor.

The adventures in the person of Abram Skinner are full of interest. We have many racy details of stock-jobbing and usury. Some passages, of a different nature are well written. The miser has two sons, and his parsimony reduces them to fearful extremity. The one involves him deeply by forgery; and the other first robs his strong box, and afterwards endeavors to murder him. [page 135:]

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Horrors such as these induce our hero to seek a new existence. Filling his pockets with money, he sets off in search of a corpse of which to take possession. At length, when nearly exhausted, a drunken fellow, apparently dead, is found lying under a shed. Transferring the money from his own person to that of the mendicant, he utters the usual wish, once, twice, thrice — and in vain. Horribly disconcerted, and dreading lest his charm should have actually deserted him, he begins to kick the dead man with all the energy he has left. At this treatment the corpse suddenly becomes animated, knocks our hero down with a whiskey jug, and makes off with the contents of his pockets, being a dozen silver spoons, and four hundred dollars in money. This accident introduces us to the acquaintance of a genuine philanthropist, Mr. Zachariah Longstraw, and this gentleman being at length murdered by a worthy ex-occupant of Sing-Sing, to whom he had been especially civil, our hero reanimates his body with excessive pleasure at his good fortune. The result is that he finds himself cheated on all sides, is arrested for debt, and is entrapped by a Yankee pedlar and carried off to the South as a tit-bit for the anti-abolitionists. On the route he ascertains (by accidently overhearing a conversation) that the missing body of Sheppard Lee, which disappeared in so mysterious a manner from the side of the pit at the Owl-Roost, was carried off by one Dr. Feuerteufel, a German, who happened to be in search of subjects for dissection, and whose assistants were the dancing spectres in the church yard, which so terribly disconcerted our hero when on his way to the beech-tree. He is finally about to be hung, when a negro who was busied in preparing the gallows, fortunately [page 136:] breaks his neck in a fall, and our adventurer takes possession of his body forthwith.

In his character of Nigger Tom, Mr. Lee gives us some very excellent chapters upon abolition and the exciting effects of incendiary pamphlets and pictures, among our slaves in the South. This part of the narrative closes with a spirited picture of a negro insurrection, and with the hanging of Nigger Tom.

Our hero is revived, after execution, by the galvanic battery of some medical students, and having, by his sudden display of life, frightened one of them to death, he immediately possesses himself of his person. As Mr. Arthur Megrim, he passes through a variety of adventures, and fancies himself a coffee-pot, a puppy, a chicken, a loaded cannon, a clock, a hamper of crockery ware, a joint stock, a Greek Demi-God and the Emperor of France. Dr. Feuerteufel now arrives in the village with a cargo of curiosities for exhibition — among which are some mummies. In one of them our hero recognizes the identical long missed body of Sheppard Lee.

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Sheppard Lee now makes his way home into New Jersey (pursued however the whole way by the German Doctor, crying “Mein Gott! Ter Tyfel! and stop mine mummy!”) and is put to bed and kindly nursed after his disaster by his sister Prudence and her husband. It now appears (very ingeniously indeed) that, harassed by his pecuniary distress, our hero fell into a melancholy derangement, and upon cutting his foot with the mattock, as related, was confined to bed, where his wonderful transmigrations were merely the result of delirium. At least this is the turn given to the whole story by Prudence. Mr. Lee, however, [page 137:] although he partially believes her in the right, has still a shadow of doubt upon the subject, and has thought it better to make public his own version of the matter, with a view of letting every body decide for himself.

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 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 seem 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 [page 138:] 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. 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?

 


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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 Sheppard Lee)