Text: William Douglas O’Connor, “[Review of Edgar Poe and His Critics],” Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia, PA), no volume specified, whole no. 2010, February 4, 1860, p. 3, cols. 1-2


[page 3, column 1, continued:]


One sad star, forever fixed — a growing orb forever — in the Southern galaxy, is the fame of Edgar Poe. The South has a right to be proud of him, her greatest poet, for he stands in the front rank of our men of letters, and has shed new lustre upon American literature, both at home and abroad. In this country, but more especially Great Britain, the recognition of his genius is steadily on the increase. There is some carping and cavilling; and even among those who value his genius highly, there is some misapprehension of his literary character and opinions. But, abating for this, the verdict of our ablest critics is all one way, while in Great Britain the choicest epithets and adjectives of praise are prodigally showered upon his writings.

Meanwhile, at home and abroad, warmly eulogized as an author, he has been severely judged as a man. The judgement, however, has been unfair in this — that it has been made upon his faults along. He has been judged as Shakspeare would not have judged him, and the verdict has been such as Shakspeare would not have brought against him. To take no note of his virtues — none of any nobilities of his thought or his conduct — to abstract and isolate his faults alone, and form an estimate of his whole character upon traits which at the most only made a part of it — this has been the method pursued with Edgar Poe. Is it just? Suppose some amiable critic should insist upon our estimating the character of the royal minstrel of Israel by the affair of Bathsheba — what would we think of him? Yet it is upon such a principle that this man has been tried and condemned! Worse still, he has been wantonly and elaborately defamed by his biographer, and the spurious statements of that person have been widely received as proven facts. Private library circles have long known the almost utter falsity of Dr. Griswold’s memoir, but not so the public. It is, nevertheless, certain, that whatever Edgar Poe did or was, — and he had faults and committed errors, — he was not, nor did he do, as Dr. Griswold has represented.

The first authentic movement in vindication of the slandered poet, has just been made, in an admirable little volume, entitled EDGAR POE AND HIS CRITICS, by SARAH HELEN WHITMAN. (Rudd & Carleton, New York.) Mrs. Whitman is well known by the rare imaginative beauty of her poems, which have secured her an honorable niche in our literature. She is also known as the lady once engaged to Poe, mentioned in this connection by Dr. Griswold in the memoir, as “one of the most brilliant women in New England.” Her relation to the dead poet of course gives her testimony a peculiar authority. But the true force of her book is in the manifest truth of its conception of Poe’s character, in its elucidation of the circumstances that went far toward shaping his sorrowful career, and also in its logical disproval of many injurious statements respecting his life and writings, and its presentation of traits and incidents which go far toward establishing a kindlier theory of his life than that now held. Here, for instance, is a story which lets us into the heart of a man who has been described as a monster of unkindness and malice:

“In evidence of the habitual courtesy and good nature noticeable to all who best knew him in social and domestic life, we remember an incident that occurred at one of the soirees to which we have alluded. A lady, noted for her great lingual attainments, wishing to apply a wholesome check to the vanity of a young author, proposed inviting him to translate for the company a difficult passage in Greek, of which language she knew him to be profoundly ignorant, although given to rather pretentious display of Greek quotations [column 2:] in his published writings. Poe’s earnest and persistent remonstrance against this piece of mechancete alone averted the embarrassing test.”

Now this is a little thing, but it shows a great deal of character. Does it not show the true and tender heart of the gentleman? Here, too, is a touching evidence of the affection and pity of his nature:

“So far from being selfish or heartless, his devotional fidelity to the memory of those he loved would by the world be regarded as fanatical. A characteristic incident of his boyhood will illustrate the passionate fidelity which we have ascribed to him. While at the academy in Richmond, which he entered in his twelfth year, he one day accompanied a schoolmate to his home, where he saw, for the firs time, Mrs. H—— S——, the mother of his young friend. This lady on entering the room took his hand, and spoke some gentle and gracious words of welcome, which so penetrated the sensitive heart of the orphan boy as to deprive him of the power of speech, and for a time, almost of consciousness itself. He returned home in a dream, with but one thought — one hope in life — to hear again the sweet and gracious words that had made the desolate world so beautiful to him, and filled his lonely heart with the oppression of a new joy. This lady afterwards became the confidant of all his boyish sorrows, and here was the one redeeming influence that saved and guided him in the earlier days of his turbulent and passionate youth. After the visitation of strange and peculiar sorrows, she died, and for months after her decease it was his habit to visit nightly the cemetery where the object of his boyish idolatry lay entombed. The thought of her — sleeping there in her loneliness — filled his heart with a profound and incommunicable sorrow. When the nights were very dreary and cold ,when the autumnal rains fell and the winds wailed mournfully over the graves, be lingered longest and came away most regretfully.”

This belief in the sentient life of the dead, and this tender pity for them, appears again and again with sad sincerity in his poems, which are indeed always historical — faithful transcripts, in every instance, no matter what their allegory, of his inner and outer life. But the point in the above anecdote is the proof it affords of the greatly loving heart of the man who has been so often called heartless. The same quality is shown in his tender care of his wife — a consumptive from her childhood — testified to even by Dr. Griswold who speaks of visiting Poe in an illness brought on by anxiety and long watching at the dying bed.

As a poet he has been strangely accounted deficient in the moral element — accused of being “one who did love Beauty only.” Moral editors who daily slander private citizens in public newspapers, have thought him wanting in the moral nature. Yet he himself has said that the poet’s office is to celebrate “all noble thoughts, all holy impulses, all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds.” We are told that he had no ideas of eight and wrong. What are “William Wilson,” “The Man in the Crowd,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and other tales, but so many dreadful sermons on conscience, on justice, on the sure judgement that follows sin and wrong? What keeps his own thought and speech so pure through all his pages from first to last — not one prurient fancy, not one base double-meaning or indecent allusion anywhere from beginning to end? Vice culls no defending line from anything he ever wrote — wickedness no sanctioning word. Was this because he had no moral nature — no ideas of right and wrong? The verdicts of this world are strange!

We commend this eloquent and beautiful little volume, full of strange and tender interest, and touching the sympathies and the imagination in its every line, to the good graces of our readers. It is not a complete work, but a sketch; yet its words have true imaginative depth and indefinite suggestiveness, and it constitutes, to the thoughtful reader, a key to a life, full of strange sorrows and errors, yet one which, to know truly, were to regard with compassion and love.



Although unsigned, the authorship of this review is established in Mrs. Whitman’s letter of ??, 1874 to John H. Ingram.


[S:0 - SEP, 1860] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Review of Edgar Poe and His Critics (William Douglas O'Connor, 1860)