Text: Rufus Wilmot Griswold, “Edgar A. Poe,” The Prose Writers of America (1st edition), 1847, pp. 523-524


[page 523:]


[Born 1811.]

Mr. POE was born in Baltimore, in January, 1811. At an early age he lost both of his parents, and was adopted into the family of Mr. Allan, a wealthy gentleman of Virginia, who in 1816 placed him in a school near London, at which he was fitted for college. He returned to America in 1822, and in 1825 entered the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville, then under the presidency of Dr. Dunglison. After a course of dissipation and extravagance, followed by reformation near the end of his term, he graduated, with the first honours of his class; but upon the refusal of Mr. Allan to pay some of his “debts of honour” he abandoned his half-formed plans of life, and suddenly left the country to take a part as a volunteer in the Greek revolution. When he reached St. Petersburgh, however, on his way to Athens, he found both his money and enthusiasm quite exhausted, and gladly availed himself of the assistance of the late Mr. Henry Middleton, of South Carolina, then our minister in Russia, to return home. In 1829 he entered the Military Academy at West Point, but for some reason did not long remain there; and Mr. Allan dying soon after, without making any provision for him in his will, he committed himself for support to authorship, founding his hopes of success in part upon the favourable reception given to a small volume of poems published by him in the sixteenth or seventeenth year of his age, which in the minds of good judges excited high expectations of his future distinction. The contents of this volume have recently been reprinted, with his later poems, and though fragmentary, and shadowy, some of them are highly imaginative and graceful, and they awaken regrets that events have prevented the author from making at any time more serious efforts “in what under more favourable circumstances would have been the field of his choice.”

In 1834 the proprietor of a weekly paper in Baltimore offered two premiums, one for the best prose story and one for the best poem that within a specified time should be submitted to a committee of literary men who had [column 2:] consented to act in his behalf. This committee, at the head of which was Mr. John P. Kennedy, awarded both to Mr. Poe, and in publishing their decision took occasion to mention him in a very flattering manner. The accession of reputation which he thus acquired led to his engagement by the late Mr. Thomas White, as associate editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, printed at Richmond, in which city he resided from this time until he went to Philadelphia to edit the Gentleman’s Magazine, which I think was in 1838. Here he published, in 1839, in two volumes, his Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque, and his nautical romance, entitled Arthur Gordon Pym, appeared soon after in New York. The first had less success than it deserved, and the last much less merit than might have been anticipated by those who were familiar with his shorter stories. Mr. Poe remained several years in Philadelphia, employed chiefly in writing for the magazines, and in 1844 removed to New York, where he was for some time editor of The Broadway Journal, a weekly literary gazette. Here he has recently published a volume of Tales, and The Raven and other Poems.

It is as a writer of tales that Mr. Poe has most reputation, and some of his productions of this sort exhibit extraordinary metaphysical acuteness, and an imagination. that delights to dwell in the shadowy confines of human experience, among the abodes of crime, gloom and horror. A subtle power of analysis is his distinguishing characteristic, and the minuteness of detail and refinement of reasoning which he frequently displays in the anatomy of mystery give to his most improbable inventions a wonderful reality. In his delineation every colour is applied with discrimination, and in his narrative every movement tends with inevitable certainty to the end. The analytical subtlety and the singular skill shown in the management of revolting and terrible circumstances in The Murders of the Rue Morgue produced a deep impression, and made this story perhaps the most popular that Mr. [page 524:] Poe has written. An equal degree of intellectual acuteness marks The Gold Bug and The Purloined Letter, which are more pleasing and scarcely less interesting. The Fall of the House of Usher is characterized by a sombre beauty of style, and is an instance of the power with which he paints a disease of the mind. The Descent into the Maelström, and Mesmeric Revelation may be mentioned as the most original, ingenious and forcible of the other tales included in the volume which he published in 1845. *

To Mr. Poe’s poems allusion has already [column 2:] been made. The Raven * is imaginative and spiritual, and shows in the most favourable light his artistic skill. This and many of the minor pieces are pervaded by a touching sadness, and they are all more or less indicative of his habits of dreamy speculation.

In criticism, although he is ingenious, clear and forcible, he has shown little independence and little power of rising above the consideration of the individual subject to general principles. His chief skill lies in the dissection of sentences.

He now resides in New York.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 524, column 1:]

*  This volume included twelve tales; the Grotesque and Arabesque embraced twenty-five; and the author has published probably as many as fifty others.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 524, column 2:]

*   See Poets and Poetry of America, eighth edition, page 432.




In his introductory essay on the “Intellectual, History, Condition, and Prospects of the Country,” Griswold devotes the following paragraph to Poe (p. 34):

“The tales of Mr. Poe are peculiar and impressive. He has a great deal of imagination and fancy, and his mind is in the highest degree analytical. He is deficient in humour, but humour is a quality of a different sort of minds, and its absence were to him slight disadvantage, but for his occasional forgetfulness that he does not possess it. The reader of Mr. Poe’s tales is compelled almost at the outset to surrender his mind to his author’s control. Unlike that of the greater number of suggestive authors his narrative is most minute, and unlike most who attend so carefully to detail he has nothing superfluous — nothing which does not tend to the production of the desired result. His stories seem to be written currente calamo, but if examined will be found to be results of consummate art. No mosaics were ever piled with greater deliberation. In no painting was ever conception developed with more boldness and apparent freedom. Mr. Poe resembles Brockden Brown in his intimacy with mental pathology, but surpasses that author in delineation. No one ever delighted more or was more successful in oppressing the brain with anxiety or startling it with images of horror. George Walker, Anne Radcliffe, or Maria Roche, could alarm with dire chimeras, could lead their characters into difficulties and perils, but they extricated them so clumsily as to destroy every impression of reality. Mr. Poe’s scenes all seem to be actual. Taking into view the chief fact, and the characteristics of the dramatis personæ, we cannot understand how any of the subordinate incidents in his tales could have failed to happen.”



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