Text: Edwin Percy Whipple, “[Review of ‘A Chapter on Autography’],” Boston Notion (Boston, MA), vol. I, no. 11, December 18, 1841, p. 170, cols. 1-2


[page 170, column 1, continued:]

MR. EDGAR A. POE'S “CHAPTER ON AUTOGRAPHY.[[“]] — The last number of Graham's Gentleman's Magazine contains a chapter on autography, by Edgar A. Poe. As all the world, however, is probably aware of this fact, we must beg the pardon of that large portion of it which it is presumed reads the Times, for tacitly taking it for granted that they are ignorant of so important an intellectual phenomenon. In this “chapter” fac-similes of the autographs of many great and small American authors are given, and an attempt is made to trace a connection between their mental character and the character of the chirography — damnation being dealt out liberally to all whose penmanship displays no genius, and praise awarded to those whose hand-writing pleases the said Mr. Poe. In this he seems to put a new sense on Buckingham's line,

“Nature's chief masterpiece is writing well,”

and appears to consider the movement of the pen rather than what flows from it. It is bad enough for an author to be dogmatically condemned by the phrenologist or physiognomist for the shape of his head, or the expression of his face, but to carry the same “spirit of enquiry” into his pot hooks and trammels, is a refinement of the art of tormenting.

In the article which we have under consideration, there are manifested many qualities of disposition which reflect little credit upon the author, and which are certainly out of place in a “Gentleman's Magazine.” We refer to the dogmatism, egotism, and other isms equally as offensive, from which a good portion of the production appears to spring. It is certainly a collossal piece of impertinence for Mr. Edgar A. Poe to exalt himself into a literary dictator, and under his own name deal out his opinions on American authors as authoritative. Whence derived he this absolute power? Has he by any merit of his own qualified himself to be the Sylla of the Republic of Letters? What credentials from Apollo does he show to sustain his decisions? These questions give back echoes, not replies. Indeed this gentleman is angularly disqualified for a general critic. He does not appear to form his opinions on enlarged principles of taste, but judges of an author by the manner his own particular feelings are affected. Hence, he has likes and dislikes, but little which can be called taste. It would seem to be morally impossible for him to give a sensible criticism on any form of literature, or manner of composition, which clashes with his own style and manner of thinking — We would as soon go to a New Zealander for correct views of Christianity as to Mr. Poe for correct criticism on certain authors.

As his taste is thus personal, and not impersonal — as by his mental constitution he can only appreciate a certain kind of literature — he is guilty very great presumption in dogmatically deciding upon the merits of a whole literature. Such a task as that could hardly be well performed by [column 2:] a man of an infinitely more catholic spirit and correct taste, than nature has seen fit to bestow upon Mr[[.]] Edgar A Poe.

But the sins of commission in the article are nearly overbalanced by the sins of omission. We are favored with the autographs of men of inferior talent and reputation, while we look in vain for some of the most prominent of American authors. These man who are thus exalted, are praised at the expense of their betters, — their productions are recommended to public attention, and their “unwritten” genius, if we may so express it, is lauded in a style which makes the reader wonder how the critic can ever write severely. Now we would put it to Mr[[.]] Poe, as a man who has no cureless hatred for his species, if he can have the heart to use what influence he may have to deprive the people of these United States already sufficiently afflicted with many troubles, of their best authors, and substitute in their place the “heaven-born” geniuses which he is endeavoring to lift to the pinnacles of fame. — And for some of the authors themselves, whom we take to be modest men, — at last we have seen nothiug [[nothing]] in their writings likely to make sensible men vain — must it not be very disagreeable to them to be thus lifted to such a painful eminence? Parnassus, says Goethe, has a broad top, but still I we hardly think it will hold them all. When we first read the “Chapter on Autography,” and discovered the small writers who were suddenly exalted into greatness, our first impulse was to issue an extra with the news, but we found that the pronunciation of Mr. Poe's name at the end of each of his criticisms, effectually quieted our first feelings of alarm and astonishment.

The Germans would call a profound and comprehensive critic many-sided, but Mr[[.]] Poe is decidedly one-sided. We have no acquaintance with him, but we venture to say that those who are familiar with his personal likes and dislikes can easily conjecture what will be the tenor of his criticism. One peculiarity of his article is that the contributors to Graham's Magazine, from the proprietor downwards, or from the proprietor upwards, are praised with singular benevolence. As long as Mr. Poe is allowed to retain his position as censor general of American authors, it is well to know that the path to immortality lies through Graham's Magazine.



The same article appeared about the same time in the regular form of the Boston Notion and in the Boston Daily Times, all three periodicals being issued by the same publisher. Although the article is unsigned, the identity of Mr. Whipple is made clear by his December 20, 1841 letter to R. W. Griswold, in which he says that Poe's article “set my pen in motion.”


[S:0 - BQN, 1841] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Review of a Chapter on Autography (Edwin Percy Whipple, 1841)