Text: Anonymous, “Poe as a Critic,” Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), October 27, 1895, whole no. 13,803, p. 7, cols. 3-4


[page 7, column 3:]





A Study of the Poet’s Methods of Dealing with Authors — His Connection with the Southern Literary Messenger — The Raven.


(Written for the Dispatch.)

In a discussion of the fame of Edgar Allan Poe as a literary man average opinions would probably be divided between the wonderful imagination and the analytical power displayed in his fiction, and the rich imagery and the wealth of originality of his poems, tinged with his life’s melancholy.

But in estimates of his standing one phase of his career is seldom given the weight that it deserves. Carefully studied, lt will give the clue to much of his tribulation and explain some later Judgments of his ability. To his connection with the Southern Literary Messenger, of Richmond, may be traced not only much of the success of that famous old magazine, but also the twist given to his fortunes or misfortunes.

The first editorial mention of him in the publication was made in March, 1835. His tale, “Berenice,” was published In that month, and the editor, who was under an impression that Poe was a native of Richmond, wrote: “Whilst we confess that we think there is too much of German horror in his subject, there can be but one opinion as to the force and elegance of his style. He discovers a superior capacity and a highly cultivated taste In composition.” “Morella,” published in the following month, was considered unquestionably a proof that “Mr. Poe had great powers of imagination, and a command of language seldom surpassed. Yet we cannot but lament,” continued the editor, “that he has drank so deep at some enchanted fountain, which seems to blend in his fancy the shadows off the tomb with the clouds and sunshine of life we doubt, however, if anything in the same style can be cited, which contains more terrific beauty than this tale.”

Subsequently the story of his success as a prize-writer for the Saturday Visitor, of Baltimore, was told, and in the beginning of the second volume of the magazine the publisher excused his allusion to Poe by stating that journals on every side were ringing with “the praises of his uniquely original vein of Imagination and of humorous, delicate satire.” Poe had by that time become editor. His work in that capacity was varied, but his poems, his imaginative prose, his minute solution of the mystery of Maelzel’s Chess Player excited less attention than his critical notices that occupied a large portion of each number. In one way and another his responsibility for these became known to the reading world, and they aroused interest in the magazine from New York to Natchez, and from Charleston to Cincinnati. Poe was praised by some persons and censured by others. All recognized a new factor in literature. The New York Courier and Enquirer hold that his criticisms were “the boldest, the most independent, and unflinching of all that appear In the literary world.” This view was shared by others. The Richmond Whig regarded them as “correct in judgment and lashing dulness, as it always deserves to be lashed, with a cat-o’-nine-tails,” the Cincinnati Mirror alluded to “the luckless wights who feel the savage skill with which the editor uses his tomahawh and scalping-knife,” while the Natchez Herald said that “American prose writers and novelists are led under the keen critic’s knife as sheep to the slaughter.” Other publications talked of Poe’s caustic style, his acumen and judgment, his sledge-hammer and scimitar, his slaying, blistering, scalping, and dissecting methods, his use of “a club of iron to smash a fly,” or of his being in a contest like that of an eagle with a tomtit.


Comment of another character was, however, not lacking. The Lynchburg Virginian thought several of his reviews were too dogmatic and flippant, and the New Yorker contended that the southern editor had “quite too savage a way of pouncing upon unlucky wights who happened to have severally perpetrated anything below par in the literary line, like the Indian who cannot realize that an enemy is conquered until he is scalped.” The Spirit of the Times discovered a slight taint of pedantry and, in one instance, undue severity toward a clever young author.

The young author was Theodore S. Fay, whose “Norman Leslie” had been made the butt of unrestrained ridicule. Fay was connected with the New York Mirror, which accused the Messenger of trying to gain notoriety by the loudness of its abuse, and insinuated that the critic’s acidity was due to an experience in writing a successless novel. To this Poe retorted in a statement that he had never written a novel, and the Boston Galaxy, taking a hand in the fray, lamented that Fay had allowed the sting of criticism to rankle.

Poe did, not permit unfavorable notices of his work to pass unnoticed, nor did be fail upon occasion to impute motives. When the New Berne (N. C.) Spectator stated that the prospects for the success of the Messenger were slight, he wrote that he was at a loss to know who was the editor of the Spectator, but that he had a shrewd suspicion that he was “the identical gentleman, who once sent us an unfortunate copy of verses,” and he added: “If the editor of the little paper does not behave himself we will positively publish his verses.” It was natural, he wrote, for the Mirror and the Knickerbocker to feel aggrieved at the Messenger’s success, but he could not understand why the Southern Literary Journal, of Charleston, should be disposed to unite with them in “covert and, therefore, unmanly attacks.”

His attitude toward the ambitions of writers at that time was neither malicious, nor impulsive. This seems to be proved by his Introductory note to his reviews In the fifth No. of the second volume of the Messenger. “Before entering upon the detailed notice which we propose of the volumes before us,” he wrote, “we wish to speak a few words in regard to the present state of American criticism * * * * We are becoming boisterous and arrogant in the pride of a too speedily assumed literary freedom. We throw off with the most presumptuous and unmeaning hauteur all deference whatever to foreign opinion — we forget in the puerile inflation of vanity that the world is the true theatre of tho biblical histrio — we get up a hue and cry about the necessity of encouraging native writers of merit — we blindly believe that we can accomplish this by indiscriminate puffing of good, bad, and indifferent without taking the trouble to consider that what we choose to denominate encouragement is thus, by the general application, rendered precisely the reverse In a word, so far from being ashamed of the many disgraceful literary failures to which our inordinate vanities and misapplied patriotism have lately given birth and so far from deeply lamenting that these daily puerilities are of home manufacture, we adhere pertinaciously to our original blindly conceived idea, and thus often find ourselves involved in the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American. Deeply lamenting this un justifiable state of public feeling it has been our constant endeavor, since assuming the editorial duties of this journal, to stem with what little abilities we possess a current so disastrously undermining the health and prosperity of literature.”


Whatever Poe’s motives may have been no one will dispute that he had a correct idea of the condition of affairs, and his utterances are refreshing in the midst of much of latter-day criticism. But his honesty exposed him to enmities that [column 4:] could not easily be allayed, especially as he himself had aspirations in authorship. In that lay his risk and the secret of much of his later experience. A man who could write of the “atrabilious set of hyper patriots, who find fault with Mrs. Trollope’s flum-flummery about the good people of the Union,” who could in his Miller autobiographical hoax say that no opinion could be had of W. L. Stone’s style; that Edward Everett would not attain the loftiest pinnacle of renown; that Fay’s handwriting had an air of swagger, and that no one would suspect from the penmanship of Washington Irving “a high finish in the author’s composition,” had apparently never been impressed by the worldly wisdom taught in the Parable of the Unjust Steward. If it had never been necessary to palliate by reference to the eccentricity of genius those traits of Poe, that certainly detracted from his personality, or to allege that professional jealousy was the basis of antagonism to him, living and dead, the critical work he did as editor of the Messenger would be sufficient to account for much of the disparagement of him as a man and as an author.

Few other writers have had stronger friends and more bitter enemies. His genius commanded the one class; his independence of opinion, often expressed erratically, opened the way for the cultivation of the others. Into his criticisms spleen may have entered at times, but th it did not detract from their originality. Few recognized literary critics, though, can tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” and remain popular with authors and their friends. Fifty or sixty years ago authorship was not the profession that it is to-day. There was more work for fame and less for money. The writer and his book were more closely associated in the mind of readers, saving, of course, the present practice in some cases of floating rubbish upon a name that once meant worth. The desire to be known as an author, commendable as it may have been under existing circumstances, was the mother of a sensitiveness that would not easily brook unfavorable criticism, however just. Where there were few writers, each one was the more prominent target. Criticism had a more personal bearing on that account, and the resentment aroused by it was readily extended to the person of the critic. It is therefore, not surprising that, when Poe passed from his fitful life, the animosities engendered by his pen should have been added to well-founded personal grievances, or that the former should have tended toward the beclouding of the mental greatness of Poe by means of condemnation of his physical failings to which the latter were due.


He was not oblivious to the possibility of adverse feeling, for in January, 1837, in the number of the magazine in which Thomas W. White, its worthy founder, made a graceful allusion to his withdrawal from the editorship and was thoughtful enough to relieve him from tbs responsibility for writing that he had not done, Poe announced that he retired with the best wishes for the magazine, and bade a peaceful farewell to “its foes, as well as its many friends.”

White expected that Poe would continue to write for the magazine, but with slight exception the work that he afterward did for it was comparatively insignificant. If he had no grievance against White at the time, he developed it later, in spite of White’s friendliness toward him. In 1839 the Messenger expressed pleasure at Poe’s connection with Borton [[Burton]] in the management of the Gentleman’s Magazine, and said: “Mr. Poe is favorably known to the readers of the Messenger as a gentleman of fine endowments, possessing a taste classical and refined, and imagination affluent and splendid, and withal a singular capacity for mathematical detail. We always predicted that Mr. Poe would reach a high grade in American literature, but we always thought, and still think, that he is too much attached to gloomy German mysticism to be a useful and effective writer, without a total divorce from that sombre school. * * * * We wish Mr. Poe would stick to the department of criticism; there he is an able professor, and he uses up the vermin who are continually crawling unbidden into the literary arena with the skill and nonchalence of a practised surgeon. He cuts them up piecemeal and rids the republic of letters sf such nuisances. Just as a good officer of police sentences to their proper destination the night strollers and vagabonds who infest our cities. We sincerely wish Mr. Poe would, and hope that he will, take our advice in good part.”

Under the editorship of Benjamin R. Minor Poe’s name appeared again in the Messenger, and lt is said that the first complete version of the “Raven’‘ was published in the magazine in the spring of 1845. In the two or three years before his death he was frequently in the Messenger office, making the place his resort whenever he was in Richmond. He also wrote some criticisms and renewed his “Marginalia.” Just before leaving Richmond for his fateful trip to Baltimore he gave to John R. Thompson a manuscript of “Annabel Lee,” though the publication of the poem in the magazine was anticipated by its appearance in a newspaper that had been furnished with another copy.

Fifteen years later “The Fire Legend, a Nightmare,” from an unpublished manuscript attributed to him, was printed. The magazine was then within a few months of its end, and that poem was the last appearance in it of the writing of the man whose genius had done much to raise it from a struggling local issue to an American monthly.



Notes: “The Fire Legend” was published as a hoax. It was not by Poe, but Charles D. Gardette.


[S:0 - RTD, 1895] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe as a Critic (Anonymous, 1895)