Text: James Routh, “Poe and the Hall of Fame,” Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), Vol. IV, no. 1, January 1911, pp. 34-42


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


[page 34:]

POE AND THE HALL OF FAME.

————

BY PROFESSOR JAMES ROUTH.

————

Poe has at last been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Like Chinese tea that has been boxed and marked according to quality as “First chop,” “Second chop” and so on, Poe has been inspected and labeled, and may now be supposed to pass current as strictly “First chop.” That this consummation has been so long delayed may be accounted one of the strangest phenomena of literary history. The explanation is still far from being wholly clear. It may be worth while, therefore, before turning away from so important an event, to look once more at the facts of Poe’s posthumous fame, a fame that has encountered such perverse, and to the minds of his fellow alumni of Virginia, as it appears, such inexplicable hindrances.

The usual explanation of the antipathy that many undoubtedly feel towards Poe is that it is due to a series of actions executed by New England critics, actions which the milder defenders of Poe call prejudice, the more radical, conspiracy. As this theory has been repeatedly advanced, and is in many quarters implicitly accepted, it may be well to observe at the outset that it rests on foundations that are flimsy, if not wholly imaginary. Emerson called Poe “that jingle man.” Are we to suppose that he was maliciously attacking Poe? The idea is exquisitely absurd. Nor was it likely that Emerson was merely repeating the ideas of others; his original independence of thought was not less vigorous than his honesty. Henry James referred to Poe’s “very valueless verses.” His phrase may have been tempted into extremes by the lure of alliteration: but Mr. James is not given to partisanship. Baudelaire, the French disciple of Poe, whose moral character was to Poe’s as black is to light grey, inspired no prejudice in New England. Why should partisan prejudice be supposed to operate against the master when it does not attack the disciple? Most conclusive of all, though, is the fact that the same ballot that first excluded Poe from the Hall of Fame also excluded the New York novelist Cooper and the New England-New York poet Bryant, and included Lee! [page 35:] There was plainly no sectional prejudice at work. No, some other motive than sectional prejudice must be sought in explaining the opinions of the sturdy fellow countrymen of Longfellow, of Whittier, and of Hawthorne.

Let us then look for a moment at the facts. Upon inspecting the literature about Poe written since his death, two facts become at once plain: first, that, except in the writing of a small minority of New England critics, Poe’s literature has always been accepted as of the highest rank; second, that his personal character was, about the time of his death, generally assigned to the lowest rank, and that the public at large, unsatisfied with the verdict, have been discussing the matter with increasing interest ever since. These facts can be well illustrated by figures. The number of editions of a writer’s work or of a part of his work is a fair index to popularity. By way of adopting a standard by which to measure popularity, we may take Longfellow, the most popular American poet, and compare the frequency of Longfellow editions with the frequency of Poe editions. The result is given in a table:

    Poe   Longfellow
1902-1905 inclusive . . . .   45   68
1906-1909 inclusive . . . .   39   75

The greatest number of Longfellow editions for any year of the second period (25) appeared in 1906, in anticipation of the Longfellow centenary in 1907. The Poe centenary in 1909 seems to have had no influence upon the number of editions. Poe then in 1902 was almost as popular an author as Longfellow. Since then the editions of his works have decreased in number while the editions of Longfellow have increased. The decrease may perhaps be explained as due to other causes than a decreasing vogue; for one thing, Poe’s works do not lend themselves to exploitation in picture books, as do Longfellow’s. But it is plainly wrong to suppose that the recognition of Poe’s work is just coming into its own.

The other fact, that the personal interest in Poe as a man is increasing, may be similarly illustrated. Here again we may take Longfellow for comparison. The following table gives the [page 36:] articles that have been printed in popular magazines about the two authors.

    Poe   Longfellow
Before 1882  . . . . . . . . .   25   104
1882-1886 inclusive . . .   21   73
1887-1891 inclusive . . .   9   10
1892-1896 inclusive . . .   18   17
1897-1901 inclusive . . .   26   12
1902-1906 inclusive . . .   25   13
1907-Dec. 1, 1910 . . . . .   60   27

During the last of these periods, that from 1907 to the present, both the Poe and the Longfellow centenary celebrations occurred. Both show an increase in public interest for this period, but the increase is much greater in the case of Poe. The Longfellow centenary brought out twelve articles, the Poe thirty-six. These figures bear out the contention that Poe’s writing is not more recognized to-day than heretofore, but that Poe the man is being more and more discussed, and that such discussion was increasing before the Hall of Fame controversy, beginning in 1900, stirred the whole matter up afresh.

The explanation of this phenomenon is not difficult, though in many details the matter is obscure. There has been, from the time when Poe sprang into fame to the present moment, a continuous and unrelenting discrimination made between the man and his work. The work has, with the exceptions mentioned, always been praised, the man violently attacked and as violently defended. During Poe’s lifetime, he was highly praised. Tennyson called him the most original American genius, Victor Hugo the “‘Prince of American literature.” Lowell said that he might be “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works” in America, if he did not sometimes mistake his phial of prussic acid for his inkstand. Even Griswold the notorious, repeating after Poe’s death one of his short sketches of that author printed in the “Poets and Poetry of America.” speaks of his “brilliant articles,” says “His poems are constructed with wonderful ingenuity, and finished with consummate art,” finds him one of the few magazine writers “who have any real skill in literary art.” and quotes Willis concerning [page 37:] “The Raven:” “It is the most effective single example of fugitive poetry ever published in this country, and is unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative life.” Can this be the Griswold we are taught to picture with horns and tail, the arch-fiend of the anti-Poe cult?

There have, it is true, been dissenters besides Emerson and James, who have esteemed Poe’s writing but little. An anonymous reviewer of the Stedman and Woodberry edition, writing in the Atlantic Monthly for April, 1896, naively concludes that “Poe was far from being the literary mountebank he is generally pictured.” John Macy, writing for the same magazine, December, 1908, attacks the French idea, presumably that of Barine and Lauvriere, that Poe was an “irresponsible genius scribbling immortality under vinous inspiration, or turning neuropsychopathic rhymes.” Even Mr. Woodberry, the admirably impartial and sympathetic biographer of Poe, is doubtful about the moral effect of his writings. Baudelaire called Poe the martyr of a raw democracy; to which Mr. Woodberry replies [Atlantic Monthly, Dec, 1884] that a cult that flowered into the Fleurs du Mal must have had a foul root, and that he prefers raw democracy, even though the root in question be Poe. This illogical doctrine is repeated by Professor Barrett Wendell. Side by side, though, with Professor Wendell’s treatment of Poe should be set his own remark, in finishing the “Book” in which he has discussed, among other writers, Irving, Cooper and Poe: “By the middle of the nineteenth century, in fact, the literary impulse of the Middle States [Irving, Cooper and Poe, understand] had proved abortive. For the serious literature of America we must revert to New England.”(!) More significant is a recent opinion expressed in the Edinburgh Review [Jan., 1910]. In the palace of imaginative literature is one haunted room. Some shun it, others are attracted. But it has a spell for all. It is the antechamber to the unknown. And above the door is the name of Poe. “His works will not always be approved, but we believe that they will always be read.”

These slightly or more markedly negative criticisms of Poe’s writing are, however, exceptional. Moreover they are explainable. There is in Poe’s work an alloy of melodrama, that pet [page 38:] vice of most great writers. This the average reader sees and readily understands, precisely as he understands the humor of George Ade’s fables, or the morality of the “Psalm of Life,” or the carefully emphasized sensations of the Sunday press. The finer qualities of Poe, the delicate satire, the heart-wringing pathos half hidden from a world he contemptuously despised, the exquisite workmanship, like that of a fine worker in mosaic, these and many other virtues are caviar to the general reader. And even by the reader of naturally good taste Poe is often misinterpreted and so made repulsive. Notice, for example, the illustrations by Mr. Frederick Coburn, contemplate the loathsome cadaver in a state of semi-putrefaction with the skin sunken and the black cat crouched upon its head: there you see the objection that many intelligent persons raise to Poe. That the “Black Cat” was a profound study of a mental state escapes such persons just as the fact fails to appear in the grossly carnal conception of Mr. Coburn. As has been observed, however, these objections are rare. For the most part Poe, as a writer, has been frankly admired.

As a man he has been regarded with different sentiments. Perhaps Poe was himself in some measure responsible for this. Drunkenness even Puritan New England might have forgiven; New England, at precisely this time, was raving over the philosophy of the opium fiend Coleridge. But most of the persons whom Poe attacked could not forgive being called charlatan. And that was what Poe called them. “As a literary people,” he wrote, “we are one vast perambulating humbug.” Again, “Chicanery is, with us, a far surer road than talent to distinction in letters.” He then refers to bribery and blackmail between critics and publishers to puff literary reputations, indulges in a few such phrases as “unadulterated quackery,” “blustering arrogance,” “bare-faced plagiarism,” and ends with a few direct allusions: “Mr. Bryant is not all a fool. Mr. Willis is not quite an ass. Mr. Longfellow will steal [plagiarize], but, perhaps, he cannot help it (for we have heard of such things) and then it must not be denied that nil tetigitquod non ornavit.” Amusing? Of course, it is amusing; and doubtless in good part true. That is precisely what they could not forgive. That it was in part true is evidenced by Lowell’s strictures upon the grossly inflated [page 39:] reputations of most writers of the day. The real trouble probably lay in the fact that Poe never met but one man who was intellectually his equal; that was Lowell, and he only saw Lowell once. Most of the others he despised and ridiculed, and they naturally hated him in return with deadly enmity. And many of them were in places of power or influence. That Poe went too far with his irresponsible satire in other ways cannot be denied. For example, on one occasion he promised to read a poem in Boston, failed to write it in time, palmed off on the audience “Al Araaf” written many years before, and then under the influence of the champagne supper that followed, confessed the whole thing. The audience was polite, but disgusted.

Poe’s victims, though, had their revenge; they gratified to the full that lowest of human motives, the desire to “get even.” Not only were all his foibles paraded forth and his virtues studiously ignored but the deliberately coined falsehoods set afloat have floated ever since, so that the mariner upon literary seas still encounters from time to time that strange and sinister flotsam and jetsam of scandal. And not only did Poe’s enemies repeat these things, they taught their successors who never knew Poe to repeat them. The more Puritanic swallowed such statements with gusto, because they fell in with their predilections. For example, a writer in the Nation for March 25, 1875, writes, apparently in good faith: “He quarreled with every one who had a less indiscriminate admiration of him than Mr. Ingram has; was adopted by a wealthy man, whose money he wasted at wine and cards, and whose affections he alienated by all sorts of misconduct, and who finally forbade him his house. He attacked every literary man of eminence greater than his own with virulent and senseless abuse [this ineffable old donkey saw none of the wit or satire], and, though poor, had that sublime contempt for earning money which Mr. Ingram would call philosophic, perhaps, but which common-sense people in America call shiftlessness.” There is the crux of the matter. He was shiftless; he was not a common-sense person. In addition to this defect there was a “Satanic” streak in Poe. While his Puritan contemporary Bryant was following Wordsworth, Poe was learning how to write by reading the “Satanic” Byron and Shelley. On the whole there was in him, his critics thought, something [page 40:] sinister. They also suspected him of being a hypocrite, and, like the virtuous people that Mark Twain mentions, gravely concluded that he was all the greater hypocrite for concealing the fact that he was one.

This view of Poe was easily carried abroad, and the Edinburgh Review, in April, 1858, expressed the conviction that he was “one of the most worthless persons of whom we have any record in the world of letters.” He was, according to this writer, idle, improvident, drunken, dissipated, treacherous, and ungrateful; he, in fact, combined “all the floating vices which genius had hitherto shown itself capable of grasping.” Again, “The lowest abyss of moral imbecility and disrepute was never attained until he came.” But why quote more of such stuff. Suffice it to say that these views had little effect upon Europe, and that the British instinct for fair play was proof against such perversions. In France, it is true, as late as 1897, was heard an echo of this, in an article by Arvede Barine, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, July 15, 1897. Poe, he says, when publicly denounced for drunkenness, “lied with the maladroitness of the criminal who loses his head when he finds himself discovered.” Frenchmen, however, know Poe’s own writings as few know them; and both the man and his work are certain of honest criticism at their hands.

This, in general outline, is the history of Poe’s posthumous career. With the death of the last of his personal enemies, the personal abuse has ceased; and the false traditions to which it gave rise are rapidly disappearing before the rising light of truth. Among the symptoms of this we have the recent acceptance of the poet by the Hall of Fame.

There is one other curious tradition of Poe which, though not directly connected with this subject, should perhaps not be passed over. In the article by Mr. Barine just mentioned, the vagueness of some of Poe’s poetry is explained as due to alcoholism of the neuropsychopathic type. This view is repeated without dissent by M. Lauvrière in his book, “Edgar Poe.” The vagueness is a feature of style learned from Shelley, whose usage Poe elsewhere follows. Moreover it was a conscious and intentional thing, as the poet explained in one of his letters. When he saw fit to be precise in his writing he surpassed in scientific accuracy [page 41:] of detail almost any writer of our language. Poe had enough of bona fide failings to answer for; but neuropsychopathic degeneration in his writing was not one of them. If this alcoholism was a pathological thing, it never, so far as can be determined, gave rise to any literary symptom.

At the present time Poe’s fame seems secure. Though not evidenced by a great profusion of popular editions, the permanent respect he commands is evidenced by the continual reappearance of his work in standard forms, in large library editions, at least three of which have recently appeared in this country, in collections of standard literature designed for the class room, in the appearance of editions of a part or the whole of his works, copiously in England, Germany, and France, and less copiously in Sweden, in the Czechish country, in Italy, Denmark, Greece, South America, and Australia. In five representative collections of world literature in English, German, and Italian, Poe is the only author who appears in all five.

Abroad, curiously enough, they frequently do not regard Poe as exactly American. Mr. Esme Stuart, writing in the English review, Nineteenth Century for July, 1893, finds him half English. In France they had adopted his tales at least three years before his death, and even at that early date were quarreling in the law courts over the right to publish them. Baudelaire a year or two later discovered in Poe the embodiment of his own literary ideas, and thereafter devoted much of his life to translating his works. Even the sections of America, now that prejudice against the man has disappeared, are contending for his glory. Boston claims his birth-place, Baltimore his paternal family, Virginia the credit for such early training as he did not acquire in England; while New York, as his home at the height of his fame, confidently regards him as a New Yorker. Truly Poe is, to-day, all things to all men, despite the fact that during most of his life he was homeless and often friendless.

The other persons who were elected to the Hall of Fame at the last election were Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Phillips Brooks, William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft, Andrew Jackson, John Lothrop Motley, Roger Williams, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frances E. Willard. Among the [page 42:] electors with whom the choice rests are, as alumni of the University of Virginia will recall with interest, two Virginians, Edwin A. Alderman, President of the University, and Richard Heath Dabney, historian and Dean of the Graduate School of the University.

 


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


Notes:

None.

 

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

[S:0 - ABUVA, 1911] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe and the Hall of Fame (J. Routh, 1911)