Text: Anonymous, “How the British Regard Poe — and America,” Literary Digest (New York, NY), vol. XXXVIII, no. 7 (whole no. 982), February 13, 1909, p. 255


[page 255, column 1:]


GOOD may have come out of Nazareth, but the British can not understand how a genius like Poe could have come out of the United States. America, having long accepted rebuke from foreign sources for her neglect and inappreciation of Poe, has waited to learn something from her critics. The centenary is rightly the occasion for the concurrent voice to make itself heard, and the foreign press have naturally accepted the opportunity. There is a bewildering display in the English journals of insolence, acrimony, and contradiction. The occasion is seized not so much to praise poor Poe as to make pitying remarks about the American people. In this Mr. G. Bernard Shaw, in an article in the London Nation, seems to be the most outspoken. His motives, however, are questioned by The Academy, with whose editor Mr. Shaw lately had a heated personal controversy. The editor of The Academy thinks it plain that Mr. Shaw can have had neither a “literary motive,” nor a “philosophical motive,” nor a “sociological motive” in writing his article. He wrote it, this editor implies, to advertise himself in America, where he is “dear to the cultivated, enlightened, democratic ring-tailed American” as the “guy who hoodooed Shakespeare.” Mr. Shaw’s chief bid for notoriety as a critic of Poe is this passage in his article in The Nation:

“There was a time when America, the land of the free and the birthplace of George Washington, seemed the natural fatherland for Poe. Nowadays the thing has become inconceivable: No young man can read Poe’s works without asking incredulously, ‘What the devil is he doing in that galley?’

“America has been found out, and Poe has not. That’s the situation. How did he live there — this finest of fine artists; this born aristocrat of letters? Alas! He did not live there; he died there and was duly explained away as a drunkard and a failure, tho it remains Open to question whether he really drank as much in his whole lifetime as the modern successful American drinks without comment in six months.

“If the Judgment Day were fixt for the centenary of Poe’s birth there are among the dead only two men born since the Declaration of Independence whose plea for mercy could avert a prompt sentence of damnation on the entire nation and it is extremely doubtful whether these two could be persuaded to pervert eternal justice by uttering it. The two are, of course, Poe and Whitman.”

The Academy goes on to say that if Mr. Shaw really “believes that his article on Edgar Allan Poe is a serious contribution to criticism, we can only say that he has succeeded in proving at the end of his own pen that he is the very worst critic in the world.”

Even the London Spectator takes Shaw instead of Poe as its point of departure, and arrives at this general estimate of the “greatest American literary genius”:

“In The Nation last week there was a paper by Mr. Bernard Shaw, who appears to be much surprized that Poe should have come out of America, as tho the very recognition of the existence of genius did not at once deprive us of all ground for surprize at its conditions. Why should not Poe come from Boston as well as Shakespeare from Stratford-on-Avon, or Tennyson from Lincolnshire, or De Quincey from Manchester? But America, we are told, is not worthy of Poe, and only two men born since the Declaration of Independence could avert the everlasting condemnation of that erring country if they could and would speak for her. One of them is Poe himself, and the other is Whitman. Mr. Shaw does not even say two men of letters. So, because Poe is insufficiently appreciated in America, as we admit he is, that country — the country of Lincoln, and J. R. Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Emerson, and Thoreau, and Hawthorne, and Lee (greater even in defeat than in victory), and Jackson, and Grant, not to mention Longfellow and Whittier (who provoke ton much controversy with Americans for our liking, and whom we shall therefore place hors coucours) — is to be eternally damned. Yet several of the names we have mentioned are linked to great human causes, and were [column 2:] borne by men of world-shaking character and purpose. Poe was a man without character, tho his guilt was probably slight. for he was a weak vessel; and he can not seriously he made a pretext for the condemnation of his country. He left his countrymen what was in its way a splendid legacy, tho really irrevelant from Mr. Shaw’s point of view — brilliant exercises in material t’atiocination (his stories are often nothing less) and verses of which the technical finish haunts every ear that has heard the sound of them. That is much; but it is an inhuman and perverse judgment which discovers in Poe the springs of truly great writing; for he was without the finest human motives on the moral side, and, for all his art, without the greatest and noblest of those resounding harmonies of which Milton and Shakespeare hold the secret.”

The Saturday Review thinks “the United States was the worst possible place for Poe,” but also admits, “even tho we exclude from consideration the apocryphal conduct which has been attributed to him, that he could scarcely have been comfortable or happy or successful, in the lower sense of the term, in any country.” This journal goes on to cast doubt on the statement that his “most beautiful trait was his devotion to his cousin-wife, Virginia, née Clemm, “and retails a list of entanglements that began, it says, when “she was scarcely in her grave.” It asserts that “his works perhaps have a more universal appeal than those of any other American writer,” but “his strong individuality inevitably led him into mannerisms, which he had not sufficient self-criticism to check.” These are pointed out in both Poe’s verse and prose. His critical essays have not, thinks The Saturday Review, received all the attention they deserve, tho “no doubt they concern, for the most part, American productions which have mercifully passed from memory.” But Mr. V. St. Clair Mackenzie. writing in The Outlook (London), finds it “strange,” even “confounding in a way, to listen to Poe discussing the principle of poetry.” He argues from this that Poe “never dreamed of claiming a place among the poets.” The same facts that form the basis for all these foregoing judgments lead the London Standard to observe that “there may have been greater literary geniuses in the nineteenth century; it is doubtful whether there was a greater artist,” and the London Times asserts editorially:

“It is certain that he was an industrious, methodical, and conscientious artist; indeed, too conscientious to make a living; for he would write nothing without making it as good as he could, and for his best he was often paid no more than if he had been the most slovenly back. In fact it was his virtues rather than his vices that destroyed him. He might have endured life hardily enough, if he had not been determined to do no bad work, and if he had not loved his wife so passionately through eight years of illness that, when it ended with her death, he was a broken man.”

Both The Times and The Standard lament the poor wages Poe was able to earn, the latter saying: “For his poems he got next to nothing; he thought himself lucky to obtain £20 for ‘The Gold Bug,’ perhaps the finest story of its kind ever written.” In another column we give some account of the literary wages of Englishmen of to-day. The Times points out this similarity between Poe and Rossetti:

“They were romantic writers because they were ill at ease in their own times, and reacted against all their circumstances. This reaction was what they exprest in their art, and it was worth expressing, for they were right to be discontented with a world in which there was but little beauty or disinterested love of it. Since they were starved of the experience of beautiful things, they imagined a beauty that often seems unreal and feverish from the intensity of their battled desire for it. But that was rather: the fault of their age than their own fault. Their morbidity was not peculiar to themselves. but a symptom of a general disease, of which only they and others like them were conscious. Because they lived in a world unhealthily indifferent to art, they thought too much perhaps about artistic processes. They were esthetic fanatics, just as moral fanatics appear in times of general profligacy.”





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