Text: Evert A. Duyckinck, “[Review of The Literati],” Literary World (New York, NY), vol. 7, no. 190, September 21, 1850, pp. 228-229


[page 228, column 2, continued:]


The Literati: some honest Opinions about Autorial Merits and Demerits, with occasional Words of Personality; together with Marginalia, Suggestions, and Essays. By Edgar A. Poe. With a Sketch of the Author, Rufus W. Griswold. New York: J. S. Redfield.

THE Rev. Dr. Griswold appears to have been employed to let off the late Mr. Poe's posthumous blunderbuss, on the principle involved in Dr. Johnson's saying with regard to Mallet's Sear of the infidel writings left by Bolingbroke: a job to which the Reverend Executor seems to have been by no means disinclined, inasmuch as the parties whom it seemed to the late Mr. Poe desirable to “shoot down,” are the very persons whom, from his known relations to them, the Reverend Executor himself would like “to have a crack at.”

As we find the Rev. Dr. Griswold and the late Mr. Poe standing at the front door of the volume, in the title-page, in close conjunction, and as they both lift up their voices together, promising “ honest” opinions, with only “occasional” words of personality, we are bound, on a full inspection of the work, to charge both the dead Poe and the living Griswold with introducing themselves to our attention under false pretences, The opinions, we find, are about as dishonest as they well can be, and the “words of personality” are by no means “occasional,” but constant, there being, we should say, on a fair estimate, at least twelve hundred personalities in the six hundred pages. Now we would inquire, if any interest can attach to a work from an author whose editor and executor asserts, in introducing this very book to the public, that “a volume might be filled with passages to show that his criticisms were guided by no sense of duty, and that his opinions were so variable and so liable to be influenced by unworthy considerations, as to be really of no value whatever.” — If, after this unhesitating avowal of the utterly worthless and unprincipled character of the work he is editing, we can bring ourselves to regard it with any other feeling than that of simple indifference, we would ask the Reverend Editor one or two questions to which the public, we are quite confident, would like to have answers. Was this book left by its author, Poe, to be published in its present form? or is it a compilation made by Griswold, from unedited material left by Poe? If made by Griswold, on what pence has he selected hostile criticisms, where there were later favorable criticisms written by Poe on the same parties? Are these honest opinions printed literatim et verbatim, as written by Poe, or have they undergone editorial revisal? [column 3:] As to Poe's criticisms themselves, which the Rev. Dr. Griswold has been at such pains to edit, at the same time that he charges his author with an utter want of conscience and principle — and which proceeding we would like to have the Rev. Editor reconcile to decency and common sense: as to Poe's critical libels or “honest opinions,” which Griswold has made his own, they have not the slightest earthly value. Poe was, in the very centre of his soul, a literary attorney, and pleaded according to his fee. To omit, when properly invited to do so, to retain Poe, by an advance of his peculium, was to incur his everlasting hostility; and it is a striking illustration of this, that the author, who is made the most constant occasion, throughout these six hundred pages, of malevolent abuse and misrepresentation, is one who, both from principle and necessity, never allowed himself to be taxed by the late Poe to the extent of a dollar. And yet the author of “The Literati” was not with. out a gleam of consciousness of the peculiar course he was pursuing. For instance, we have here, by favor of Dr. Griswold, resurrectionized from Graham's Magazine of 1840, or thereabouts, a particularly personal and impertinent review of the “Wakondah” of Cornelius Mathews: which Poe himself, subsequently, when sober, characterized, in a letter to Mr. Mathews now before us, — “Could I imagine that, at any moment, you regarded a certain impudent and flippant critique as more than a matter to be laughed at, I would proffer you an apology on the spot. Since I scribbled the article in question, you yourself have given me fifty good reasons for being ashamed of it.” We would like to learn from Dr. Griswold why this repudiated article now appears in print, after a lapse of eight or ten years, to the exclusion of criticisms of the same author of a friendly tenor? And why, on the other hand, the work is carefully purged of any unhandsome references to Dr. Griswold, of whom it is well known the late Mr. Poe was not sparing, during many of the years over which this collection extends? On the contrary, we find the Doctor, throughout this fat 12mo., steadily treated with the most profound gravity and decorum, while such small creatures as Henry Fielding, Margaret Fuller, Tobias Smollett, and John Neal, are thrown to the dogs: and one Robert Burns, a Scotch poet of some little repute, is coolly spoken of as “the puppet of circumstance. As a poet, no person on the face of the earth has been more extravagantly, more absurdly overrated.” We might naturally expect the admirer of Doctor Griswold's critical abilities to hold Robert Burns in very low esteem; and we are not astonished that the same writer should indulge in an unmanly fling like this, at our respectable friend, Mr. Hiram Fuller, of the Evening Mirror newspaper: — “ Had John Bernouilli lived to have the experience of Fuller's occiput and sinciput, he would have abandoned, in dismay, his theory of the non-existence of hard bodies.” If gross personality like this is wit, then is the Evening Mirror one of the wittiest newspapers in the country. There is, however, one really good thing in the book, which we must quote; not approving its particular judgement, but as an illustration of the readiness with which, by the use of certain some of the finest in the language could be reduced to absurdity: —

“The true artist, however, always rises as he proceeds, and in his last page or so brings all his elocution to a climax. Only hear Mr. Headley's finale. He has been describing the crucifixion, and now soars into the sublime: [page 229:]

“‘How Heaven regarded this disaster, and the Universe felt at the sight, I cannot tell. I know not but tears fell like rain-drops from angelic eyes when they saw Christ spit upon and struck. I I [[sic]] know not but there was silence on high for more than “half an hour” when the scene of the crucifixion was transpiring — [a scene, as well as an event, always “transpires” with Mr. Headley] — a silence unbroken save by the solitary sound of some harp-string on which unconsciously fell the agitated, trembling fingers of a seraph. I knew not but all the radiant ranks on high, and even Gabriel himself, turned with the deepest solicitude to the Father's face, to see if he was calm and untroubled amid it all. I know not but his composed brow and serene majesty were all that restrained Heaven from one universal shriek of horror when they heard groans on Calvary — dying groans. I know not but they thought God had given his glory to another, but one thing I do know [Ah, there is really one thing Mr. Headley knows!] — that when they saw through the vast design, comprehended the stupendous scene, the hills of God shook to a shout that never before rung over their bright tops, and the crystal sea trembled to a song that had never before stirred its bright depths, and the “Glory to God in the Highest,” was a sevenfold chorus of hallelujahs and harping symphonies.’”

“Here we have direct evidence of Mr. Headley's accuracy not less than his eloquence. ‘I know not but that’ one is as vast as the other. The one thing that he does know he knows to perfection; he knows not only what the chorus was (it was one of ‘ hallelujahs and harping symphonies’), but also how much of it there was — it was a ‘sevenfold chorus.’ Mr. Headley is a mathematical man. Moreover, he is a modest man; for he confesses (no doubt with tears in his eyes) that really there is one thing that he does not know. ‘How Heaven regarded this disaster, and the Universe felt at the sight, I cannot tell.’ Only think of that! I cannot! — I, Headley, really cannot tell how the Universe ‘felt’ once upon a time! This is downright bashfulness on the part of Mr. Headley. He could tell if he would only try. Why did he not inquire? Had he demanded of the Universe how it felt, can any one doubt that the answer would have been — Pretty well, I thank you, my dear Headley; how do you feel yourself!’”

We are doing Dr. Griswold's admirable no-judgment great injustice by allowing so ingenious a passage as this to stand by itself, as a specimen of the book he has edited. We must furnish another, which represents pretty fairly “he general style and tone of the late Mr. Poe's most elaborate critical articles. Poe is “running a muck” (or attempting to) at the expense of a clever and fanciful little volume of Poems by a nephew of the late Dr. Channing; and proceeds as follows: —

“At page 39, while indulging in similar bursts of fervor and of indignation, he says:

Thou meetest a common man

With a delusive show of can,

and this passage we quote, by way of instancing what we consider the only misprint in the book. Mr. Channing could never have meant to say:

Thou meetest a common man

With a delusive show of can;

for what is a delusive show of can? No doubt it should have been,

Thou meetest a little pUp

With a delusive show of tin-cup.

A can, we believe, is a tin-cup, and the cup must have been tied to the tail of the pup. Boys will do such tricks, and there is no earthly way of preventing them, we believe, short of cutting off their heads — or the tails of the pups.”

Classical, isn't it? funny? profound? and so gentleman-like — in a word, every way worthy of — Dr. Griswold. Of the parties ill used by these random curryings of the late [column 2:] Mr. Poe, we think the Rev. Dr. Griswold has the best cause to complain: we can imagine no meaner use for a Reverend Doctor of Divinity, of great critical activity and a desire to have his universal hand in everything of that kind going forward, than to be overawed by the ghost of a dead Aristarch into the editing of a work like this. Nothing but a dread of the potent deceased, and a fear of his return to avenge the neglect, could have prompted the reverend editor to bestir himself in giving publicity to so many uncivil, so many absurd, so many purposeless and worthless critical statements. The testamentary behest of the critic seems to act upon the Doctor pretty much as the ring-master's whip on the clown's hide — which causes that lively gentleman to jump about and busy himself immediately with the utterance of all sorts of commonplace Millerisms and mouldy balderdash. We trust the next time we meet Dr. Griswold it will be in better company. He may learn, if he does not know, that to play the usher to a man of talent without principle is the surest course to work the greatest injury to himself; that in this case he has lent himself to an enterprise where no honor can be acquired, and where, for the momentary gratification of his own personal feelings, he has wrought a lasting hurt to whatever of character his principal had left behind him. He has presented himself with a lucky-bag in hand, with a half bushel of decayed potatoes to one single-bladed penknife.

As for the publisher, he has done his duty by presenting these interesting and amiable twins in a clean frill and jacket: the book being well printed and substantially bound; and, whether good, bad, or indifferent, one likely, from the number of persons introduced in its pages, to excite general curiosity and secure a wide sale. It is a peculiarity of Mr. Redfield that he is not afraid to publish books: and that he is willing to let the character of the publication rest where it should, with the author and editor.





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