Text: Killis Campbell, “The Backgrounds of Poe,” The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (1933), pp. 99-125 (This material is protected by copyright)


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IT IS traditionally held that Poe betrays in his writings little or no touch with his times or with the land of his birth. He lived and wrote, we are told, “out of space, out of time.” An English critic, writing anonymously in the Academy for May 14, 1910, declares that his poems, “for aught themselves have to show. . . might have been written a thousand years ago, and amid the loneliness that haunts still undiscovered poles.” Both his poems and his tales, so Professor Henry A. Beers once declared, “might have been written in vacuo for anything American in them.”(2) According to the late Mr. Hamilton Wright Mabie, “Poe stands alone in our literature, unrelated to his environment and detached from his time.”(3) In the opinion of Professor Bliss Perry, he was “a timeless, placeless embodiment of technical artistry.”(4) He “escapes into a phantasmal world which registers a complete divorce from his [page 100:] environment,”(1) asserts Mr. Lewis Mumford. And a similar view has repeatedly made its way into our text-books on American literature.(2)

But so extreme a view is not, I think, sustained by a thoroughgoing examination of Poe’s writings. It is true that Poe transcended his environment in a good many ways. More than any other American of his day he was partial to old-world subjects and to other-world settings and situations. He made little use of American scenery, and he showed scarcely any concern in his more imaginative writings for the every-day affairs of his fellow-Americans. He cared little, moreover, so far as his writings reveal, for American occasions, and even less for our native legends and traditionary lore. And nowhere in his writings does he display any whole-hearted devotion to his country. But surely too much has been made of his detachment from time and place. He was not, I am convinced, in any true sense out of touch with his times, nor was he essentially un-American. On the contrary, he seems to me to have been pretty deeply indebted to his age; and not only does he reflect his American environment in much of what he wrote, but he also reveals in some of his writings the peculiar [page 101:] influence of Virginia and the South, where he spent most of his youth. I shall enumerate some of the ways in which he seems to me to have been indebted to his times, and I shall then give a number of particulars in which he appears to reflect an indebtedness to America and to the South.


In Poe’s poems I am unable to find any specific reference to contemporary movements or to contemporary conditions; but an indebtedness to his times is nevertheless discoverable in virtually every poem that he wrote. For nothing is plainer than that Poe as a poet — and he is, to me, first of all a poet — belongs with the Romanticists of his time. And he belongs not alone with Coleridge, whom the ablest of his biographers has justly characterized as “the guiding genius of [his] early intellectual life,”(1) but with Byron also and with Moore and with Shelley. He began his career as a poet by imitating Byron and Moore; he came a little later under the spell of Shelley; and both in his theorizing as to poetry and in the application of these theories to his own art he proclaimed himself the ardent disciple of Coleridge. [page 102:] In his “Tamerlane” and “Al Aaraaf” and “Israfel” he worked with Oriental materials; in “The Raven,” “The Haunted Palace,” and “Annabel Lee” he followed, even though afar off, in the footsteps of the balladists; in a dozen of his later lyrics — and notably in his rhapsodies to Mrs. Shew and Mrs. Whitman(1) — he asserted his kinship with the sentimentalists; and there is an unmistakable Gothic strain both in his earlier and in some of his later verses.(2)

In two of his poems, moreover, — Politian and “Eldorado,” — Poe dealt with contemporary happenings, albeit this fact does not lie on the surface. The plot of Politian, as the poet’s English biographer, Ingram, has shown,(3) was based on a sensational tragedy of ante-bellum Kentucky, the killing (in 1825) of Solomon P. Sharp by Jeroboam O. Beauchamp, followed by the hanging of Beauchamp and the suicide of his wife; while his “Eldorado” owed its immediate origin to the excitement aroused late in the forties by the discovery of gold in California. His “Al Aaraaf.” I like to think of as an early protest (though but poorly made out) against the “heresy of the didactic,” the poet’s first bugle blast in a battle that he was to wage all his life long in behalf of the beautiful. The “Sonnet. To Science” was a protest against the notion (which had but lately been defended by Leigh Hunt in his memorable review of [page 103:] Keats’s volume of 1820) (1) that there is no essential incompatibility between poetry and science. One of his fragments — “A Campaign Song” — is said to have been improvised for use in General Harrison’s campaign for the Presidency. Three of the poems contain references to contemporary persons of note: to Napoleon in an early version of “A Dream within a Dream,” to Miss Letitia E. Landon (“L. E. L.”) in “An Acrostic,” and to Henry T. Tuckerman in the phrase tuckermanities in “An Enigma.” Four of his poems — “A Valentine,” “An Enigma,” “An Acrostic,” and “Elizabeth” — reflect the contemporary fondness for puzzles and charades. And further confutation of the theory of a complete disseverance from things temporal is afforded by the poet’s occasional references to relatives and friends (to his wife and Mrs. Clemm, to his mother, to Miss Herring, Mrs. Whitman, Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Shew, Mrs. Lewis, and Mrs. Richmond) and by his constant, though often veiled, allusions to himself.

Poe’s indebtedness to his times is even more palpably revealed in his stories. No one can read the American newspapers of the thirties and forties of last century without observing how often the subjects of ballooning, of voyages into remote parts of, the world, of premature burial, of mesmerism, of the pestilence, and of mystification of some sort recur there. Now Poe deals with feats in aeronautics in no fewer than six of his stories: “Hans Pfaall,” “The [page 104:] Man that was Used Up,” “The Balloon Hoax,” “The Angel of the Odd,” “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” and “Mellonta Tauta.” In four of the tales — “MS. Found in a Bottle,” “Hans Pfaall,” “The Journal of Julius Rodman,” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym — he deals with miraculous or mysterious voyages into distant parts. Six of the tales — “Berenice,” “Loss of Breath,” “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Premature Burial,” and “Some Words with a Mummy” — have to do with burial before death or with restoring the dead to life. Two — “Mesmeric Revelation” and “The Strange Case of M. Valdemar” — are concerned with mesmerism, and still others touch incidentally upon mesmerism. Four of the stories — “King Pest,” “Shadow,” “The Mask of the Red Death,” and “The Sphinx” — have to do with the pestilence (cholera) which raged in the United States in the eighteen-thirties. Others — as “Hans Pfaall” and “The Balloon Hoax” — illustrate the contemporary craze for mystification and hoaxing. And still others take account of some contemporary fashion in dress or of some reform movement of the time. Thus mention is made in one story of the fashion of wearing hoop-skirts,(1) and in three tales — “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” “The Spectacles,” and “Mellonta Tauta” — of the enormous bustles in vogue in Poe’s day as articles of [page 105:] feminine adornment. In one of the earliest of the tales, “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” Poe pokes fun at reform movements; in “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” he represents his hero as having taken the “temperance pledge”; and in “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” a farce depicting conditions in an asylum for the insane, he appears to echo the contemporary interest in humanitarian activities in that direction.

Some fifteen of the tales refer more or less specifically to Poe’s own century. The extraordinary feat of “Mr. Monck Mason” and “Mr. Harrison Ainsworth” in crossing the Atlantic in a balloon — of which we have a minutely detailed account in “The Balloon Hoax” — is represented as having been accomplished on April 6, 7, and 8, 1844, a few days before the publication of the account in the New York Sun. The events recorded in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” and in “Some Words with a Mummy” are associated with the year 1845. “The Sphinx” purports to record an incident that took place in New York in 1832. Arthur Gordon Pym in the story of that name is represented as setting out from New Bedford for his fateful journey into the South Seas in June, 1827. Other tales are assigned to the nineteenth century without explicit mention of the year; and still others are associated with the closing years of the eighteenth century.(1) [page 106:]

Fully a dozen of the tales contain references to contemporary notabilities, English and American, — among those mentioned being Coleridge, Carlyle, William Godwin, Horace Smith, Lady Morgan, the Prince of Wales, Thomas Jefferson, John Randolph of Roanoke, Commodore Maury, John Jacob Astor, Washington Irving, and the poets Longfellow and Emerson; and still other tales contain references to periodicals of Poe’s time, — including Blackwood’s, Fraser’s, Bentley’s, the Edinburgh Review, the North American Review, the Knickerbocker, the Home Journal, the Brother Jonathan, and the Saturday Evening Post. In five of the tales Poe touches upon the form of government lately set up in America, referring facetiously (as I believe), in two of them, to difficulties and abuses that had already been encountered in guiding the ship of state.(2) In one of the later stories, “The Elk,” he speaks disapprovingly of the rising tide of industrialism in America, though in another late story, “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” he writes with enthusiasm of the recent accomplishments in the natural sciences and in mechanical engineering. In five of the stories [page 107:] he takes a fling of some sort at Transcendentalism,(1) being most severe in “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” where he sneeringly remarks of Mr. Toby Dammit, “It is not impossible that he was affected with the transcendentals,” and adds sarcastically: “I am not well enough versed, however, in the diagnosis of this disease to speak with decision on the point.”(2) In several other stories he adverts to the German mystics of his day and their philosophy. In “X-ing a Paragrab “ he apparently endeavors to settle an old score with the city of Boston, which had dealt with him ungraciously, as he thought, on the occasion of his visit to that city in the fall of 1845. In other stories he makes reference to contemporary fads, as phrenology,(3) and cryptography, and landscape gardening; several times he adverts to the custom of blood-letting, once to the use of the leech for a like purpose.

Perhaps as many as half of Poe’s tales were based, in whole or in part, on contemporary happenings or were suggested by contemporary publications of some sort.(4) “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” for instance, is confessedly an elaboration of a sensational murder mystery of the early forties. “Von Kempelen and his Discovery,” like the poem “Eldorado,” grew [page 108:] out of the gold excitement of ’49, being in this instance, so Poe told Duyckinck,(1) a quiz on the subject. “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” evidently took its cue, at least so far as the title is concerned, from James Kenney’s farce, “Raising the Wind” (1803), Kenney’s title being used by Poe as a sub-title for the story upon its first publication.(2) Similarly the title of his farce “ Why the Little Frenchman Wears his Hand in a Sling” was perhaps suggested by George P. Morris’s story “The Little Frenchman and his Water Lots” (1839). “Mystification” is in some fashion a satire on the contemporary custom of duelling; and four other tales — “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” “A Predicament,” “X-ing a Paragrab,” and “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.” — are directed against the whimsies of contemporary editors.(3) “Three Sundays in a Week,” as has recently been shown, is but a reworking of an anecdote from the Philadelphia Ledger.(4) Bulwer was drawn on for at [page 109:] least two of the stories, and Irving clearly enough for two others. Disraeli, Harrison Ainsworth, Horace Smith, Macaulay, Balzac, and E. T. A. Hoffmann likewise appear to have furnished grist for his mill.

That Poe’s tales, moreover, despite a strain of realism here and there, were, like the poems, a product of the Romantic Movement, is so obvious as scarcely to call for demonstration. Suffice it to say that Poe makes use, in one or another of his tales, of very nearly all the conventional devices that distinguish the work of the Gothic romancer, — the machinery of trap-doors and subterranean chambers, of secret passages and decayed castles, of ghostly apparitions, of trances, of cataleptic attacks, of life after death, — and that he exhibits virtually all the abstract qualities that we associate with Romanticism, including the elements of mystery and terror, the morbid, the grotesque, the strange, the remote, and the extravagant.

But if there were no other evidence of Poe’s touch with his times, we should still have most conclusive evidence of his closeness to his age in his critical and miscellaneous writings. These are mainly book-reviews, and hence are by their very nature as genuinely contemporary as are the pages of one of our literary weeklies of the present time.

In his book-reviews Poe passed judgment on very nearly every writer of importance belonging to his generation, — on Dickens and Bulwer and Disraeli, [page 110:] on Macaulay and Leigh Hunt and Southey, on Coleridge, on Mrs. Browning, on Tennyson, to mention but a few among his English contemporaries; on Irving and Bryant and Hawthorne and Lowell and Longfellow and Willis and Cooper and Kennedy and Simms and Margaret Fuller and Mrs. Osgood, to mention a few Americans. Here we have a painstaking review of Bulwer’s Night and Morning or a bitterly satirical notice of Theodore S. Fay’s Norman Leslie, there the famous essay on Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales; here a paper in which his fellow-critics are reprimanded for their dimness of vision in not recognizing the superior gifts of Tennyson, there the famous advance notice of Barnaby Budge, in which he astonished Dickens by outlining the course which the plot of his novel was to take; here the very minute dissection of one of Mrs. Browning’s volumes, which led Mrs. Browning to remark that he had “so obviously and thoroughly read [her] poems as to be a wonder among critics”;(1) there the contemptuous notice of Dawes’s Damascus or the slashing criticism of the long since forgotten poems of Ellery Channing.

Here, too, it was that Poe aired his views and vented his spleen on what he conceived to be the chief besetting literary evils of the day, — on literary puffery and log-rolling, on “slipshodiness”(2) in [page 110:] style, on imitation and plagiarism, on didacticism, on a blind subservience to foreign critical opinion, and on an inordinate esteem of one’s own things.

And here also — for his reviews dealt with all manner of men and things — he touches on a number of subjects that are not primarily literary in character. In three of his early papers he writes, with evident sincerity, in defense of Negro slavery,(1) in one of them dwelling on the happy relations that existed between the slave and his master,(2) in another recording the opinion that most of the pictures that had been made of slavery were drawn “in red ochre.”(3) In one of the latest of his reviews he makes a savage attack on Lowell for what he characterizes as his “fanaticism about slavery.”(4) In another he speaks of “the cabal of the North American Review”;(5) and he remarks in that connection that “it is high time that the literary South took its own interests into its own charge.” In other papers he complains that the contemporary system of anonymous reviewing is a “most despicable and cowardly practice,”(6) and declares that the stage criticism of the day was in “the control of illiterate mountebanks.”(7) In one of his “Marginalia” written shortly before his death, he remarks with reference to the growth of magazine [page 112:] literature in his day that “it is but a sign of the times, an indication of an era in which men are forced upon the curt, the condensed, the well-digested in place of the voluminous”;(1) and in another late paper he declares that “the whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward.”(2) In an article written in 1841 he speaks of “the present absurd rage for lecturing,”(3) and in a paper written a little later he characterizes the public address then in vogue as a compound of “stale wisdom, overdone sentiment, schoolboy classicalities, bad English, worse Latin, and wholesale rhodomontade.”(4)

In a somewhat less tangible way he exhibits his nearness to his times by his fondness for “cutting and slashing,” — a weakness that he may well have caught from Gifford and Jeffrey, but that had already established itself pretty securely in the political life of America. And the same may be said of his obsession about imitation and plagiarism, matters that were constantly to the fore in the periodicals of his day, as well in England as in America.

In Poe’s miscellaneous writings, moreover, — his news articles, his editorials, his “Marginalia,” his “Autography” and similar papers, and his Eureka, — we have a further body of matter that is almost exclusively contemporary in nature. He treats here of such subjects as the pay of authors in his day, the best methods of street-paving, imprisonment for [page 113:] debt, the law of copyright, early nineteenth-century movements in behalf of prohibition and temperance, the attitude of the time to the skeptic, Babbage’s calculating machine, “the uproar about Pusey,” schemes for crossing the Atlantic in an air-ship, Leverrier’s discovery of Neptune, the growth in America of an “aristocracy of dollars,” the lack of taste and the rage for “glitter” in American household decoration; or he caters to the contemporary interest in ciphers and cryptographs, offering in one of his papers to unravel any cipher that may be proposed to him; or he collects the autographs of distinguished living Americans, and dilates audaciously upon them; or he records the weekly gossip about plays and players in New York City; or he makes bold, in his Eureka, to wrestle with such questions as the origin of the universe and the evolution of matter, questions that were agitating the minds of more than one of the greatest of his contemporaries.(1)


Poe’s indebtedness to his section(2) — to pass now to the second of the twin problems under consideration — is less obvious than his debt to his times, and is [page 114:] also, I think, less significant. But there is, for all that, a good deal, especially in his prose, that cannot readily be explained except by the circumstance that he lived his life in America.

In his poems, it must be granted, such references as he makes to his local environment are few and indefinite. Possibly he refers — but if so, very vaguely — to the city of Richmond in his “Sonnet. To Zante.” It may be that he refers to Baltimore, as has been suggested, in the opening lines of “Annabel Lee.”(1) There is a veiled reference to a flower-garden at Mrs. Whitman’s home in his later lyric “To Helen.” But the only specific reference to his own land that I can find in his poems is the altogether conventional allusion to America in the seventh scene of his play Politian, in which he speaks of America as

a land new found —

Miraculously found by one of Genoa —

A thousand leagues within the golden west.(2)

Be it said, however, in explanation of the fewness of such references that it was one of Poe’s favorite critical doctrines that the lyric — and all save two or three of his poems are lyrics — should not concern [page 115:] itself with the local and the definite, but should be characterized by indefiniteness, — or, as he liked to phrase it, by “indefinitiveness.”(1) Consistently with this belief he laid the scene of most of his poems either in a spirit-world of some sort (as in “Al Aaraaf,” “Eldorado,” and “Dreamland”) or in some symbolic and dimly veiled situation (as in “Stanzas,” “Eulalie,” and “Bridal Ballad”) ; and the characters that he introduces into his poems are, with unimportant exceptions, of the same shadowy nature.(2)

Accordingly, such indebtedness to his section as is to be found in Poe’s verses must be sought, not in the introduction of local scenery or incident, but — and this applies only to the South — in his very scrupulous avoidance of the didactic in his poems (in which he associates himself with Cavalier Virginia as against the semi-Puritan New England of his day), and also — if we may adopt a suggestion once made by the poet Stedman(3) — in his emphasis upon simple musical effects, in which Stedman would trace the influence of the Negro.(4)

While, however, Poe’s indebtedness to his local [page 116:] environment is but dimly discoverable in his poems, it is abundantly evident in his stories, and in his critical and miscellaneous essays. “The Gold-Bug,” for instance, the best-known of his stories, has its setting in the neighborhood of Charleston, South Carolina, while its action centres about the traditionary American hero Captain Kidd.(1) It was, indeed, one of the conditions of admission to the contest in which this story was awarded first prize that the scene should be laid in America and the action should be concerned with some peculiarly American situation or incident. Besides “The Gold-Bug” there are four other stories whose setting is in the South, — namely, “The Oblong Box,” in which Charleston serves as the point of departure for the undertaking with which the story has to do; “The Balloon Hoax,” in which Charleston is the point at which the main action culminates; “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” the events of which occur in or near Charlottesville, Virginia, where Poe had once attended college; and “The Premature Burial,” which records an incident said to have taken place near Richmond. “The Journal of Julius Rodman,” moreover, in which Poe associates himself with the goodly company of those who have dealt with pioneering in the West, gives an account of an expedition which had its beginning in an obscure town in Kentucky.(2) [page 117:] And at least seven of the stories are more or less definitely associated with some section of the North. “The Elk” describes a scene on the Wissahickon in the vicinity of Philadelphia; “The Sphinx,” “Mel-lonta Tanta,” “X-ing a Paragrab,” and “The Strange Case of M. Valdemar” are all associated with the city of New York; “Landor’s Cottage” has to do with a rural scene not far from the same city; and the initial incident of Arthur Gordon Pym takes place off the coast of Massachusetts near the city of New Bedford. The plot underlying “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” moreover, though its scene is laid in Paris, has to do in reality, as Poe tells us in his foot-notes, with a murder committed at Weehawken, New Jersey.(1)

There are, besides, incidental references in a dozen of Poe’s stories to American places, — to Canada, to Niagara Falls, to the Hudson River, to Saratoga, Albany, and Utica, to New Bedford and Nantucket, to Boston and Concord, to Providence, to the Schuylkill River, to Baltimore, to Harper’s Ferry, to Charlottesville and Abingdon, to New Orleans and [page 118:] the Mississippi, to the Ohio and the Delaware, to Ocracoke Inlet and Cape Hatteras and Roanoke Island, to Yorktown and Bunker Hill, to a Louisiana landscape, to the Black Hills of Dakota, to the Capitol at Washington, to Thomas Jefferson’s home “Monticello,” to the Bowling Green Fountain in New York City and to the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, to a petrified forest in Texas. In addition to the contemporary American notabilities already mentioned in my effort to demonstrate Poe’s indebtedness to his time, a score of lesser Americans are referred to, including General Zachary Taylor, Thomas H. Benton, George Denison Prentice, Lewis Gaylord Clark, Rufus W. Griswold, Henry T. Tuckerman, Orestes A. Brownson, John Neal, and S. F. B. Morse. Negroes figure in the background of eight of the stories, — namely, “The Gold-Bug,” “The Oblong Box,” “The Elk,” “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and “A Predicament,” “The Spectacles,” Arthur Gordon Pym, and “The Journal of Julius Rodman”;(1) — and half a dozen or more Indian tribes are mentioned in one or another o the stories, including the Upsarokas, the Kickapoos, the Sioux, the Omahas, and the Choctaws.

An echo of the old-time animosity of the South towards New England is to be caught in the reference, in one of the late stories, to “the odious old woods of Concord”(2) evidently a back-handed [page 119:] slap at Emerson — and in the mention of making “nutmegs out of pine-knots,”(1) as also in his thrusts at Transcendentalism. Boston is several times referred to contemptuously as “Frogpondium,” and once, in a late revision of an early story, as a city with “its upper end lost. . . parmi les nues.”(2) On the other hand, Poe rises above any sectional feeling that he may have harbored when he employs a stanza from “A Psalm of Life” as the headpiece of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and he refers to the singing of “Yankee Doodle” in “Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.” In one of the stories he makes mention of the “Bowie knife,” in another of “fire-eaters,” and in yet another he uses the Jacksonian phrase “blood and thunder.”

Poe reflects his Americanism, also, both in the foresightedness that he displays in his imaginary accounts of aeronautic feats in “The Balloon Hoax” and in “Mellonta Tauta,” and likewise in his prophecies, in “Mellonta Tauta,” as to the material developments that were to come about in the course of the next century in New York City. Professor C. Al-phonso Smith maintains that Poe shows himself peculiarly American in the inventive skill that he exhibited in the construction of his stories.(3) So, also, Mr. Lewis Mumford finds in him “the literary equivalent of the industrialist and the pioneer,” and declares that in his emphasis on terror and cruelty he [page 120:] betrays the influence of pioneer life and the atmosphere that surrounded it.(1)

And is it too much to say, with Mr. Paul Elmer More, that Poe in his concern for moral questions, however superficial it may have been, — in his dwelling on the workings of the conscience, for instance, and on the innate perversity of human nature, and even in his unearthly visions (to adopt Mr. More’s own words), — reflects in some measure his American origin?(2)

And in Poe’s critical and miscellaneous essays — to bring my cataloguing speedily to an end — there is not only abundant evidence of his interest in the intellectual and literary life of America in his day, but also convincing proof of his interest in political and industrial conditions, in America’s commerce, in America’s discoveries on sea and land, and in [page 121:] multifarious other matters relating to America’s social and material well-being. Fully a third of his reviews and critical notices have to do with books by American writers, in which he allots praise and blame impartially to Northerner and Southerner alike, save in so far as he is severe in some of his reviews upon certain New Englanders, being moved, it may be, by sectional prejudice or by something of jealousy. It is in these papers, and especially in his reviews in the Southern Literary Messenger, that he exhibits most plainly his Southern bias. In an uncollected book-notice he remarks that there once existed in Virginia a society “as absolutely aristocratical as any in Europe.”(1) In several of his early papers he adverts either directly or indirectly to the Southerner’s traditional chivalry and sense of honor. In another early review he remarks, with less adroitness than was usual with him, that “we [in the South] do not put the names of our fine women in the newspapers.”(2) In another early paper he defends Virginia against the charge of disloyalty to England in the days of the Commonwealth.(3) He commends Virginia for having established its University under State auspices.(4) He writes with evident pride of the history and traditions of William and Mary, and remarks that to this ancient college is especially due “the high political character of Virginia.”(5) At the [page 122:] same time he reproaches Virginia for her failure to establish a system of public schools, pointing out that the South lagged far behind New England in this particular;(1) or he complains that Virginia “has manifested too little of that public spirit which has animated other communities.”(2) In one of his papers he deplores the literary supineness of the South and the Southern tactlessness “in all matters relating to the making of money.”(3) In another early review he admits that a “vast deal of jealousy and misapprehension” exists between the North and the South.(4) And in an early editorial he gives the history of what he calls “Lynch’s Law,” and remarks that this so-called law has had “terrible and deeply to be lamented consequences.”(5)

Against America as a nation he brings the accusation that it had allowed a “perpetual and unhealthy excitement about the forms and machinery of governmental action” so to absorb its attention “as to exclude in a strange degree all care of the proper results of good government — the happiness of a people.”(6) He speaks of “our innumerable moral, physical, and social absurdities” as a people;(7) and of our intolerance and our sensitiveness to criticism [page 123:] by foreigners. In a review of one of Cooper’s books he declares that “we are a bull-headed and prejudiced people, and it were well if we had a few more of the stamp of Mr. Cooper who would feel themselves at liberty to tell us so to our teeth.”(1) In another review he declares that “as a literary people we are one vast perambulating humbug.”(2) But he praises Americans for their “cool self-possession, courage, and enduring fortitude,” and for their possession of a “mental elasticity which liberal institutions inspire”;(3) or he notes that they have “a taste for science and a spirit of research,”(4) and he pleads for an “enlightened liberality” which shall provide maritime commercial activities, declaring at the same time that America has a treasury which can afford to “remunerate scientific research,” and that it is America’s duty, holding as it does “a high rank in the scale of nations, to contribute a large share to that aggregate of useful knowledge, which is the common property of all.”(5)

Among still other subjects of local import that he adverts to in his essays are the American love of gain, the degrading spirit of utilitarianism abroad in the land, “which sees in mountains and waterfalls only quarries and manufacturing sites”; “our national degradation and subserviency to British opinion”; [page 124:] “the dearth of satire in America”; the “universal corruption and rigmarole” in our literary criticism. Or he touches on such miscellaneous subjects as the “gong at Astor’s,” “Barnum’s baboons,” the inferiority of “Yankee razors,” the attractiveness of the White Sulphur Springs, the “briar-encumbered graveyard at Jamestown,” the iniquities chargeable against Jefferson on the score of his religious opinions. In a series of letters written in 1844 for an obscure Pennsylvania paper, the Columbia Spy,(1) he presents a body of gossip and small talk about the “doings” day by day in New York City, — in the police courts, along the docks, in the business sections, — mentioning among other things a “raree show” at the house of “Messrs. Tiffany, Young, and Ellis,” at which were to be seen all sorts of “knicknackatory”; and taking occasion incidentally to record his disapproval of the recently constructed Bowling Green Fountain and his abhorrence of the street-cries of Brooklyn and of the average Brooklyn dwelling-house, which reminds him of “silvered gingerbread.” And in his latter years, when hard put to it to keep the wolf away from the door, he condescended, in an evil hour, to publish to the world his “honest opinions” of some thirty-eight of his fellow New Yorkers aspiring to literary fame,(2) [page 125:] and thus stirred up a hornet’s nest that was not to subside until long after Poe had been laid in his grave.


Such is the evidence as I find it. In the light of the evidence it seems to me sheer folly to try to maintain that Poe was but little interested in his environment and that he owed little to it. It is true that his debt to his environment, whether in time or place, is less obvious in his more imaginative work than is the case with most of his American contemporaries — and to this circumstance, I suspect, is to be traced very largely the popular misconception which I am now combating; but even in his most imaginative work, in his best poems and tales, there is much that relates him to his times, and there is not a little in most of them that also relates him to the land in which he lived and wrought. And if we may take into account his less imaginative work, his critical and miscellaneous prose writings, it becomes at once convincingly evident that Poe was as truly related to his times and as clearly in touch with things American as were more than one of his contemporaries whose preoccupation with the things of the time and of the nation would never be called in question.



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 99:]

1.  Published in part in Studies in Philology, XX, 293-301 (July, 1923), under the title “Poe in Relation to his Times.”

2.  Initial Studies in American Letters, New York, 1895, p. 173.

3.  The Atlantic Monthly, LXXXIV, 738 (December, 1899).

4.  The American Spirit in Literature, New Haven, 1918, p. 196.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 100:]

1.  The Literary Review, April 5, 1924, p. 642. In his volume The Golden Day (New York, 1926, pp. 76, 77) Mr. Mumford modifies this opinion somewhat.

2.  There are, to be sure, those who have held to a contrary view. See, in particular, Woodberry, America in Literature, pp. 142 f.; and also, with especial reference to his Americanism, Barrett Wendell and C. Alphonso Smith, in addresses published in The Book of the Poe Centenary, University of Virginia, 1909, pp. 117 f., 159 f.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 101:]

1.  Woodberry, The Life of Poe, Boston, 1909, 1, 177. In the earlier edition of this biography (Boston, 1885, p. 93) Professor Woodberry had indeed made a more sweeping statement, — to the effect that Coleridge was the “guiding genius” of Poe’s “entire intellectual life,” — and Dr. F. H. Stovall, in an article on “Poe’s Debt to Coleridge” (University of Texas Studies in English, No. 10, 1930, p. 127), maintains that the earlier judgment more nearly fits the facts.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 102:]

1.  “To M. L. S — “ and the second of his lyrics “To Helen.”

2.  See, for instance, among his earlier verses, “The Sleeper,” ll. 47 f., and among his later work, “The Conqueror Worm.”

3.  The Southern Magazine, XVII, 588 ff. (November, 1875).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 103:]

1.  The Indicator, August 2 and 9, 1820.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 104:]

1.  Poe’s Works, VI, 60.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 105, running to the bottom of page 106:]

1.  Among incidental references to matters of contemporary interest are the mention of the pedestrian feat of Captain Barclay Allardice in [page 106:] 1809 (in the tale “Loss of Breath”) and the allusion to the law-suit against the Philadelphian Captain Daniel Mann, much in the newspapers during the year 1839, in “The Man that was Used Up.” For these and other items I am indebted to an article by Miss Cornelia Varner in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, XXXI, 77-80 (January, 1933).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 106:]

1.  “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” “Mellonta Tauta,” “The Sphinx,” “The Business Man,” and “Some Words with a Mummy “

2.  Poe’s Works, IV, 203; VI, 208-209.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 107:]

1.  “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” “Loss of Breath,” “Some Words with a Mummy,” “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” and “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.”

2.  Poe’s Works, IV, 220.

3.  Cf. Edward Hungerford, “Poe and Phrenology,” American Literature, II, 209 f. (November, 1930).

4.  See below, pp. 164 f.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 108:]

1.  Poe’s Works, XVII, 341.

2.  The Philadelphia Saturday Courier, October 14, 1843.

3.  “Lionizing” is said to have been intended as a quiz on N. P. Willis: see Poe’s Works, viii, x. “Loss of Breath” was evidently meant as a burlesque on current types of magazine fiction (see in this connection F. L. Pattee, The Development of the American Short Story, New York, 1923, pp. 122 f., and James Southall Wilson in the American Mercury, XXIV, 215 f. [October, 1931]). And most of the rest of Poe’s early stories cater to the contemporary taste for the terrible, the fantastical, and the metaphysical (see Napier Wilt, “Poe’s Attitude toward his Tales,” Modern Philology, XXV, 101 f. [August, 1927], and Miss Margaret Alterton’s thesis, Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory, Iowa City, 1925, passim).

4.  See Miss F. N. Cherry in American Literature, II, 232 f. (November, 1930).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 110:]

1.  See her letter of May 12, 1845, to R. H. Horne, reprinted by Harrison, Poe’s Works, XVII, 387.

2.  Poe’s spelling: Poe’s Works, XVI, 80.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 111:]

1.  See the uncollected review of Joseph H. Ingraham’s The South-West in the Southern Literary Messenger, II, 122-123 (January, 1836), and see also ibid., pp. 337-339 (April), 511 f. (July).

2.  Ibid., p. 338.

3.  Ibid., p. 122.

4.  Ibid., XV, 190 (March, 1849).

5.  Poe’s Works, XVI, 142.

6.  Ibid., p. 153.

7.  Ibid., VIII, 322.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 112:]

1.  Poe’s Works, XVI, 82.

2.  Ibid., p. 117.

3.  Ibid., X, 145.

4.  Ibid., p. 57.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 113:]

1.  See F. D. Bond, “Poe as an Evolutionist,” the Popular Science Monthly, Lxxi, 267 ff. (September, 1907).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 113, running to the bottom of page 114:]

2.  I ought to say at once that in speaking of Poe’s section I am thinking not alone of the South, to which indeed he professed to belong (see his statement in a letter to F. W. Thomas of June 26, 1841 [Poe’s Works, XVII, 91], “I am a Virginian, at least I call myself one”), and where he spent his most impressionable years, but of America at large, or, more precisely, of the Atlantic seaboard. Though Southern by temperament [page 114:] as well as by early training, he spent his most active years in the Middle States, — six years in Philadelphia and at least seven years in New York City, — and some of his writings were conditioned upon this fact. The Literati, for instance, would scarcely have been written if he had not been living in New York, nor “The Elk” if he had not lived at some time in Philadelphia.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 114:]

1.  The South Atlantic Quarterly, XI, 175 f. (April, 1912).

2.  Politian, edited by T. O. Mabbott, Richmond, 1923, p. 26.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 115:]

1.  See, for instance, Poe’s Works, VII, xliii; X, 41 f.; XVI, 28 f., 137 f.

2.  The poet’s mere references to certain friends and relatives (as Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Lewis, and Mrs. Clemm) constitute almost the sole exceptions.

3.  Poets of America, p. 251. See also in this connection Hervey Allen, Israfel, p. 60.

4.  Professor C. Alphonso Smith finds, also, an echo of his Americanism in his discipleship of Coleridge, which he maintains was characteristic of Virginia and the South (see The Book of the Poe Centenary, p. 174).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 116:]

1.  An American only by adoption, I grant, but in fiction and literary tradition associated only with America, I believe.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 116, running to the bottom of page 117:]

2.  In a review published in the Southern Literary Messenger as far back as 1836, Poe remarks prophetically: “Who can say, viewing the rapid [page 117:] growth of our population, that the Rocky Mountains shall forever constitute the western boundary of our republic, or that it shall not stretch its dominion from sea to sea” (Poe’s Works, IX, 88).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 117:]

1.  The heroine of “Landor’s Cottage,” it may be added, is none other than the poet’s friend, Mrs. Annie Richmond, of Lowell, Massachusetts, to whom he addressed his lyric “For Annie.” “The Oval Portrait” is said to have been suggested by a portrait made by Robert M. Sully, a Richmond artist (see Miss Mary E. Phillips, Poe — the Man, p. 691). And “Eleonora,” like “Annabel Lee,” has been held to have reference to the scene of Poe’s early love-making in Baltimore (see Ingram, p. 110, and W. F. Melton in the South Atlantic Quarterly, XI, 175 f.).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 118:]

1.  In several of these stories, Poe tries his hand at the Negro dialect, though without much success.

2.  Poe’s Works, VI, 233.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 119:]

1.  Ibid., IV, 123.

2.  Ibid., II, 199.

3.  The Book of the Poe Centenary, pp. 163 f.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 120:]

1.  The Golden Day, pp. 76, 77. — The late Professor Woodberry suggests, in his America in Literature, p. 147, that Poe’s highly idealized heroines, such as “Ligeia” and “Madeline Usher” and “Morella,” owed something perhaps to types with which the poet was acquainted in the South; and this may be, for the South of Poe’s time exhibited (I dare say) more of sentiment and more of glamor than characterized the more serious and practical-minded folk of the North; but I incline to believe that no such character as Poe depicted in these heroines, however attractive they may be, ever existed outside of the imagination — or of the pages of a book. His debt, if any, was, I suspect, rather to Bulwer or to Scott or to the idealized fiction that he found in the periodicals of his day.

2.  Shelburne Essays, 1st Series, p. 53. Mr. More, in contrasting Poe and Hawthorne with the Gothic Romanticists of England and Germany, dwells on the “genuineness” of the Romanticism of Poe and Hawthorne, and remarks that “their work is the last efflorescence of a tradition handed down. . . from the earliest colonial days,” and that their “unearthly visions. . . are deep-rooted in American history.” They wrote, observes Mr. More (p. 70), “from the depths of this profound moral experience of their people.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 121:]

1.  Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, V, 228 (October, 1839).

2.  The Southern Literary Messenger, I, 520 f. (May, 1835).

3.  Poe’s Works, VIII, 243.

4.  Ibid., p. 323.

5.  Ibid., IX, 193.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 122:]

1.  The Southern Literary Messenger, II, 67 (December, 1835).

2.  Poe’s Works, IX, 212.

3.  Ibid., IX, 95.

4.  The Southern Literary Messenger, II, 122 (January, 1836).

5.  Ibid., p. 389. This essay does not appear in any collected edition of Poe’s writings, but it is assigned to Poe by B. B. Minor (The Southern Literary Messenger [New York, 1905], p. 45), and circumstantial evidence tells strongly in favor of its authenticity.

6.  Poe’s Works, IX, 54.

7.  Ibid., p. 1.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 123:]

1.  Ibid., p. 163.

2.  Ibid., X, 185 f.

3.  The Southern Literary Messenger, IX, 587 f. (August, 1836).

4.  Poe’s Works, IX, 50.

5.  The Southern Literary Messenger, II, 588 (August, 1836).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 124:]

1.  See Doings of Gotham, ed. J. E. Spannuth and T. O. Mabbott, Pottsville, Pennsylvania, 1929.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 124, running to the bottom of page 125:]

2.  See his series of papers entitled The Literati published in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1846 (Poe’s Works, XV, 1-137). See also his “Autography” (ibid., pp. 139 f.), in which he comments in somewhat similar fashion, [page 125:] but less audaciously, upon upwards of a hundred other Americans of his day.







[S:0 - KCMP, 1933] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (K. Campbell) (The Backgrounds of Poe)