Text: A. C. Barrows, “Why is Poe ‘Rejected’ in America?,” Dial, February 16, 1899, 47:109-110


­[page 109, column 1:]


(To the Editor of THE DIAL.)

A writer who is a “logic machine,” who is marked by “lack of humor “and “deficient knowledge of human nature,” is hardly fitted to secure lodgment in the American heart, though he be “the greatest intellect America has produced — assuredly the best artist.” The writer on Poe, in your issue of Jan. 16, should hardly wonder at the rejection of such a writer, however he may regret it. But, as he seems to remain puzzled by the fact, it may be worth while to point out two peculiarities of the writings of Poe, pervading them all, though more noticeable [column 2:] in his prose tales than in his poems, — peculiarities which, as I happen to know, have prevented some readers who fully appreciate his marvellous mastery of literary form from taking much delight in him.

He is astonishingly unrealistic: it is utterly impossible to persuade oneself to care much for the outcome of his fictions, because we cannot bring ourselves to that degree of faith in them which is necessary for sympathy. A rapid review of a few typical tales will make this plain; and it will be most satisfactory to select for that purpose the seven tales lately edited by Professor Perry — for Poe is entitled to be judged by his best.

No house ever fell after the manner of the “Fall of the House of Usher”; the assertion is true of the story as a whole, and of the details generally, from the queer observations made by the narrator as he approached the house to its final sinking. The weakness of “Ligeia” lies not in its being a study of an impossible problem — the return to life, in another person’s body, of a woman long dead, — but in the unreality of the scenery amid which, following his usual taste, the struggle is located. The process by which the victim in “The Cask of Amontillado” is lured to his doom is certainly thought out by a “logic machine,” but the only motive for the horrible crime is the difference between being injured and insulted, — disposed of in one sentence of twenty-one words. To secure for the story that moderate amount of credence which is required for fiction, the author should have enlarged upon the insult enough to make it seem possible that such revenge could be taken by a human being. Shakespeare did not lead up to the murder of Desdemona by saying in one short sentence that Othello suspected Cassio. A similar absence of reported motive makes it impossible to sympathize with the couple who made an “Assignation” to meet in suicide. We could care for them by first getting to have faith in them; we might actually wish that their proposed elopement from life might not be thwarted, if we knew enough about their past lives and relationships to feel that they had indeed become inseparable. The “Manuscript found in a Bottle” reports dream-storms and dream-waves. The particular “Black Cat” of the tale has a way of coming to life after being killed that reminds us of the other cat which, the day after being beheaded, appeared at the door carrying its head in its mouth. The investigations of the hero of “The Gold Bug,” though certainly told by a perfect “logic machine,” carry not the slightest conviction, as is discovered by the reader who notices that he remains perfectly passive; he does not share the excitement of the digger for the hid treasure, — does not care whether the spade turns up gold or sand. And as to the cryptogram, we all feel from the very start that it is a “put-up job.”

This strange lack of realism, or naturalness, in all Poe’s writings — for it characterizes his poetry also — doubtless results from his “deficient knowledge of human nature.” And “this effect defective comes by cause.” It is originally due to a deficient interest in morals. It is a sort and a degree of deficiency that becomes a defect in art; for it is severe criticism on a man’s artistic quality to assert that his work is not so grounded on the passions of mankind as to carry the reader through to the end with a vitalizing interest in the outcome. This assertion of the artistic importance of morals is frequently misunderstood: it has become almost a fashion to misinterpret it. It is supposed to imply only a desire for didactic morality; but it is simply a demand for moral motive as the impelling power of human action. ­[page 110:] We do not demand of Poe, or of any other literary man, that he write goody-goody tales, that he aim to show “young persons” how to live, or mistake Sunday-school books for a high type of literature. We only rememember [[remember]] that men are supremely interested in the moral aspects of life, so that the way to interest one’s fellows is to appeal to moral motives. It is a maxim of art, which should be familiar to every artist in whatsoever medium he works, that the moral creates enthusiasm and so secures belief. In point of fact, literary illusion is obtained by moral warmth rather than by clear-cut logical consistency.

The absence of the moral element from Poe’s writings will appear the moment one attempts to state the subjects of his tales in moral terms. Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is a study of the effect upon a man under temptation of the assurance that he can succeed by crime — the co-working of fatalism and ill-desire. Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” works out the results of impatience with a slight blemish in what is otherwise perfect. The “Fall of the House of Usher” might have shown how gloomy anticipations tend to fulfil themselves, if the author had not involved stone and mortar in the ruin. The problem of “Ligeia” — the victory of will over death, — can be stated, and there would have been a satisfactory basis for the action, if Poe could have kept to the subject — if he had not, as is his wont, over-emphasized the eyes, the squirming draperies, and other such details, and if he had not confused all moral sense by the notion that there was something criminal in taking a bride into such an apartment. If the murder included in “The Black Cat” is not utterly motiveless, it is at least to be hoped that a long time must pass before men take to wife-murder with no more rational promptings thereto. Comparison of “The Gold Bug” with Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” reveals at once the defect in Poe: Stevenson leads his reader gradually up to interest in the success of the quest, and arouses a distinctly moral prejudice, to which much of our interest is due; we take sides against the party among whom are to be found some of the most cruel of the pirates who had by murder and pillage gathered the treasure.

I do not care to weigh against each other Poe’s wonderful linguistic perfection and his weakness in that part of art which has to do with the gathering and marshalling of fact and motives. I only wish to remind those who are charmed by his mastery of the resources of speech that it is vain to expect our people, for the present at least, to overlook the absence of moral motive and of consequent realism. For the present: if the time ever comes when the creations of the opium-eater’s imagination are actually born into the world and live out their careers, they will be apt to take him “home to their business and bosoms,” — at least they will admire the prophetic genius which enabled him to write their biographies beforehand.


Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 7, 1899.



It may be noted that the criticsm of Poe’s works as lacking a moral perspective has often been used in arguing against the merits of Poe’s works, although it may reasonably be interpreted more as a failing of the reader than of the author (see David Hirsch, “Poe as Moralist: ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and the Transvaluation of Values,’ Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1998). A world in which everything could be assigned “moral motives” has long since passed — if it ever existed at all. (Do “moral motives” explain the Inquisition, the crusades, slavery, or a hundred other ghastly shades of history?) It might also be mentioned that far more has been written about Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” than Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” The passing of decades has not sustained the concerns related here by A. C. Barrows, although a few more modern critics, such as Harold Bloom, continue to repeat them.


[S:1 - DIAL, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - **title** (**initials**, 1899)