Text: Robert D. Jacobs, “The Matrix,” Poe, Journalist and Critic, 1969, pp. 3-34 (This material is protected by copyright)


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I  •  The Matrix

THROUGHOUT his life Edgar Poe thought of himself as a Southerner. He performed his first critical labors as editor of a magazine that had as its announced policy the encouragement of Southern letters.(1) If the destructive zeal of his criticism was soon to dismay the publisher of the Southern Literary Messenger and to annoy a few of its contributors, there was nevertheless much about Poe and about his critical stance that was congenial to the South of his time,(2) and a discussion of the development of Poe as a literary critic properly begins with his relationship to the region in which he spent most of his youth.

When Poe returned to Richmond, Virginia, in 1835 to take an editorial post with the Southern Literary Messenger, his interests and even his appearance must have created ambivalent reactions. No doubt he was dressed in the funereal black which he customarily wore, partly out of necessity and partly because his theatrical bent made him wish to present the image of a melancholy dreamer, the persona that appeared in his poems.(3) He looked like a gentleman down on his luck. Well and good, such a situation would arouse Southern sympathy. But he also looked like a Byronic poet, and Byronism, however much it may have been enjoyed on the printed page, was not a behavioral pattern that was approved. Poe's foster father, John Allan, had been disturbed by the young man's Byronic attitudes, which were not confined to his poetry; and Poe, in order to placate his benefactor and extract some financial support, [page 4:] once promised to give up Byron as a model.(4) The distinguished Charleston critic Hugh Swinton Legaré had summarized the problem of Byronism in an essay in the Southern Review. He appreciated the form of Byron's poems, his classic sense of structure and proportion; but he found in Byron's themes as well as in his life the evidence of a diseased and intemperate imagination.(5) Edgar Poe in his darker humors also presented the symptoms of an imagination colored by the morbid and the misanthropic. He looked like a melancholy misanthrope, and his poems and some of his tales fulfilled the promise of his appearance.

Ironically, Poe was coming to join the staff of a new magazine which had printed on the first page of its first issue a warning from a friendly New Yorker, James Kirke Paulding, to the effect that Southern writers must forget about Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Thomas Moore before they could be expected to produce anything original.(6) Yet in spite of Paulding's advice one of the first poems published in the Messenger exhibited, in the words of a “friend” of the author, “the deep misanthropy of Byron” and “the flowing smoothness and vivacity of Moore.”(7) Byronism and all it implied was a literary problem to T. W. White, the publisher of the Messenger, but it was more of a moral problem. It was easy for him, when actually confronted by the young man in black with his melancholy poems and morbid tales, to conclude that Edgar Poe [page 5:] was a romantic of the desperate sort, whose wild imagination was loosed in those regions of the macabre where no healthy mind was safe to follow. Calm reason and sturdy common sense were left gibbering at the door that led to the crypt of Berenice. Not only this, when White found that he had on his hands a literary critic as destructively savage as any who wrote for Blackwood's, his reactions became anxious and hostile. Poe could be anything, it seemed, except the gentlemanly amateur in letters that Southern mores demanded.(8)

Yet in many ways Poe and his work should have been suited to the Southern temper. He wrote on the subjects popular for lyrical poetry, the only kind for which most Southerners professed any enthusiasm. In politics, about which he never felt much urgency, he expressed the Whig attitude of the Richmond gentry in his opposition to the “democratical mobs.”(9) He showed sectional prejudice in his contempt for Boston, that capital city of all the isms. He was, with some exceptions, gallant to the ladies, fastidious in dress and manner, proud and sensitive. His one acknowledged vice was his drinking — or rather his inability to hold his liquor — but Southern gentlemen were allowed to have this vice, however much it was disapproved of by the rising middle class, as represented by White, in whose house liquor was not served.(10) In short, Poe did not deviate conspicuously from the Southern norm except in his choice of profession and in his competitive maneuvers to gain professional status. But these deviations were marked enough to cause trouble; the South was no more ready to support a professional critic than it was to support a professional poet.

Still, Poe was of the South, and his taste, at least in poetry, was formed in the South. His beginnings as a poet were in imitation of [page 6:] Byron and Moore, and throughout his career as a critic he retained his predilection for lyric poetry that developed the theme of lamentation for love and beauty lost. This was the kind of poetry he wrote himself; it was also the kind written by Edward Coote Pinkney, who preceded him by a little, and by Philip Pendleton Cooke, who followed him by a little. If he made a continuing effort as a critic to validate his preferences, he was doing no more than what Northrop Frye has argued is inevitable for the poet turned critic — projecting a defense of what he liked to read and liked to write. Thus the first question to be considered in a study of Poe as a critic is that of his taste, and he liked the same kind of poetry as did other young romantics in the South.

The “taint of melancholy” which Poe throughout his life associated with the more “soulful” aspects of beauty was, of course, one of the familiar moods of romantics everywhere, but it is somewhat unusual that this particular mood should be so favored by Southern poets. From the defiant anguish reminiscent of Byron to the delicate sadness characteristic of female poets like Mrs. Felicia Hemans, the whole range of melancholy feeling could be found in the pages of the Messenger during the 1830's. This is not to say that the magazine published only the poems of Southern poetasters who invoked melancholy. Mrs. Lydia Huntley Sigourney, a valued contributor who was called the “American Hemans,” was from the North. The significant point is that the Southern poets whom the Messenger did publish were prone to exploit melancholy. White printed what he could get, and since he did not pay for poetic contributions, what he got was mostly from the pens of amateurs who were decidedly squeamish about revealing their names (they used pseudonyms or initials) but not at all hesitant about seeing their effusions in print. Poems on Poe's favorite subject, the death of a beautiful woman, were numerous enough in the Messenger to make us feel some retroactive concern about the durability of Southern belles. Perhaps they did die often enough and young enough to inspire reams of elegiac verse. Oddly enough, however, the consolation of the conventional elegy was often absent from these Southern poems, perhaps because the poet was more interested [page 7:] in expressing Byronic despair than in following the conventions of the classical elegy. The focus is upon the feelings of the bereaved lover,(11) who is more concerned with his loss than he is with any possible reunion in Heaven. Such an attitude may sponsor the chilling reply of Poe's raven to the lover's query about future bliss in Aidenn. More than one Southern poet would have answered, “Nevermore.”

Since the themes and moods of Poe's own poetry resemble those of many of the Messenger poems during the first few years of the journal's existence, it is not unreasonable to conclude that something in the temper of the South made Poe think that sorrow for the passing of the beautiful was the most poetic subject in the world. It was the common romantic mood of transcience that the Southern amateurs seized upon, a mood we can find occasionally in almost any poet during the romantic period but not so frequently as among the Southern poets. The question is, why was this particular mood a little more congenial to the Southern poets than it was, say, to Bryant, Longfellow, Emerson, and Lowell? The most obvious answer is that the Southerners were occasional poets who were moved to expression only by events of crucial personal significance, such as love and death. More debatable but still worth comment is the fact that by the second decade of the nineteenth century some Virginians — and it is chiefly with Virginia that we are concerned — were already looking toward the past with a kind of regret. Historians since W. J. Cash have been busily engaged in destroying [page 8:] the Cavalier myth of the South, but in questions of literary origins prevailing myths are just as significant as political and economic fact. Clement Eaton and Rollin G. Osterweis have recognized this and have made use of literary materials in analyzing the temper of the antebellum South.(12) There is no need to duplicate their ample evidence, but a citation of prevalent moods that almost certainly affected Poe is in order.

Edward Davidson is probably right in suggesting that Poe may have been influenced by the tensions created in the South by the conflict between the plantation gentry and the rising mercantile class.(13) Reared in a mercantile family, Poe had only the remotest connections with the plantation gentry. In the words of Allen Tate, “A gentleman and a Southerner, he was not quite, perhaps, a Southern Gentleman.”(14) No doubt he would have liked to have been. Certainly his brief stay at the University of Virginia, where his gambling and his exorbitant expenditures for clothes earned the disapproval of his foster father, suggests that Poe was capable of imitating the vices of the alleged aristocrats. He was also capable of attempting to create a personal legend that bears striking resemblance to the Virginia cult of chivalry described by Osterweis.(15) [page 9:] His romanticized version of his past in a letter to Sarah Helen Whitman, even if we count the fact that all lovers are liars, is only the most striking evidence of his attempt to create a personal legend on Southern terms:

There is no oath which seems to me so sacred as that sworn by the all-divine love I bear you. — By this love, then, and by the God who reigns in Heaven, I swear to you that my soul is incapable of dishonor — that, with the exception of occasional follies and excesses which I bitterly lament, but to which I have been driven by intolerable sorrow, and which are hourly committed by others without attracting any notice whatever — I can call to mind no act of my life which would bring a blush to my cheek — or to yours. If I have erred at all, in this regard, it has been on the side of what the world would call a Quixotic sense of the honorable — of the chivalrous. The indulgence of this sense has been the true voluptuousness of my life. It was for this species of luxury that, in early youth, I deliberately threw away a large fortune, rather than endure a trivial wrong.(16)

There is no evidence that Poe was ever John Allan's heir, but in the manner of the cult of chivalry he liked to think of himself as one of the disinherited, for honor's sake. If we grant, then, that Poe was capable of imagining himself as a chivalric Southerner of the highest caste, then we can understand how, even in his earliest verse, he was capable of reflecting sentiments that by right should belong only to the members of the first families, brought down in the world by political and economic events beyond their control.

Clement Eaton has argued that the insecurity of the old aristocracy of Virginia would motivate a tendency toward romantic escape, and he finds an illustration in “Florence Vane,” the best-known poem of Philip Pendleton Cooke, who can with some justice be considered a member of the plantation gentry. “The theme of unrequited love, the trysting place, a ‘ruin lone and hoary,’ a dreamlike maiden, and the use of the pathetic fallacy contributed ingredients of sentimental unreality.”(17) This poem, and [page 10:] Cooke's “Young Rosalie Lee,” published in the Messenger during Poe's connection with the journal, were both on the death of a beautiful woman, and both earned Poe's unqualified approval. An elegiac mood, whatever the subject of its expression, signifies that something valuable is passing, or has gone, and we find the elegiac mood in the South of Poe's youth in sufficient abundance to justify some investigation into just what it was that was passing.

Richard Beale Davis, in a recent study of the intellectual climate of Virginia during the Jeffersonian period, maintains that the prevailing mood, at least until about 1830, was sanguine, and that the nostalgic reverence of men like William Wirt for the Revolutionary generation was not symptomatic of a general pessimism about the future.(18) Historically this is correct. When Wirt in 1812 wrote of the “fallen state of intellect in our country,” it was less in a mood of pessimism than it was in a desire to encourage the young people of the time to follow the example of their fathers.(19) A similar attitude was manifested by Jesse Burton Harrison in 1828. He too felt that the state of learning in the upper class had declined from what it was before the Revolution, but he looked forward to “a better destiny” when young men were prepared by appropriate education to be “ornaments to polite society.”(20) This is not pessimism but rather a reflection of the confidence of the Enlightenment that education could restore the quality of leadership that Virginia had manifested in the past.(21)

Such statements as the above would seem to have little relevance to a young romantic such as Edgar Poe had he not, in a review in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835, voiced precisely the same opinions:

The most lukewarm friend of the State must perceive — if he perceives anything — that the glory of the Ancient Dominion is in a [page 11:] fainting — is in a dying condition. Her once great name is becoming, in the North, a byeword for imbecility — all over the South, a type for ‘the things that have been.’ And tamely to ponder upon times gone by is not to meet the exigencies of times present or to come. Memory will not help us. The recollection of our former estate will not benefit us. Let us act. While we have a resource, let us make it of avail. Let us proceed at once, to the establishment throughout the country, of district schools upon a plan of organization similar to that of our New England friends. If then, in time, Virginia shall be regenerated — if she shall, hereafter, assume, as is just, that proud station from which her own supine and overweening self-esteem has been the means of precipitating her, ‘it will all be owing,’ (we take pleasure in repeating the noble and prophetic words of Mr. Minor,) “it will all be owing, under Providence, to the hearkening to that voice, — not loud, but solemn and earnest, — which from the shrine of Reason and the tombs of buried commonwealths, reiterates and enforces the momentous precept — “ENLIGHTEN THE PEOPLE.”(22)

One may wonder why Edgar Poe, self-styled aristocrat and avowed romantic, should have taken pleasure in quoting a democratic sentiment that, in good Enlightenment fashion, invokes the “shrine of Reason.” The mere fact that he did, however, suggests that his heritage from Virginia was by no means of a piece. This problem will be discussed in some detail, but for the moment let us say that it was incumbent on Poe to praise the speech of Lucian Minor, his employer's friend and trusted adviser. The voice of Minor was a Jeffersonian echo, dedicated to the purpose of making democracy viable by educating the people; and the voice of Edgar Poe, accommodated to editorial responsibility and the policy of the Messenger, was for the moment the voice of the rising middle class, impatient with the nostalgia for the past of the planter minority and eager to obtain status in a society in which, regardless of the declining fortunes of the few, upward mobility was more characteristic than downward.

Yet public service, characteristic as it was of the Enlightenment strain, would have had little appeal to an imagination conditioned [page 12:] by such works as Byron's Childe Harold to seek melancholy pleasure in meditation upon the glory of the past. The imagination does not invariably reflect the precise temper of an age — witness how often the urban sophisticates of the age of Queen Anne contemplated the pleasures of rural retirement — but it is vitalized when it encounters a situation that is emotionally appealing, whether or not that situation is characteristic of the society at large. The romantic imagination of the South was vitalized by the predicament of the planter minority, declining in fortune and prestige because of the various reforms instituted by Jefferson to insure the welfare of the majority.(23) In spite of his statements in his review of Minor's address, Poe's imagination was drawn toward the predicament of such men as Philip Cooke. No doubt he would have sympathized utterly with Cooke's despairing cry to his father in 1840: “It is lamentable to see the old families of the land, the first in gentility and caste reduced; to see their descendants sinking by marriage and association into humbler classes, and to see mine thus would break my heart.”(24) Uncommitted by family ties to the planter caste and thus prevented from finding a locus of value in a specifically Southern past, Edgar Poe still felt enough rapport with the situation of an aristocracy in distress to build himself a fictional world of decayed aristocrats, isolated from the commonplace by their exacerbated sensitivity. His Ligeia belongs to a family “of a remotely ancient date”; his Roderick Usher is a member of a “time-honored race”; even his William Wilson, the man who killed his conscience, comes from an old family and inherits its “imaginative and easily excitable temperament.”

Poe, like other romantic Southerners of his time, displayed the elegiac mood, but with a striking difference in subject matter. A comparison with Philip Pendleton Cooke reveals this difference. Cooke's poetic imagination, at first like Poe's excited by the melancholy [page 13:] theme of love and beauty lost, eventually moved toward an exploration of the chivalric world of Jean Froissart, an appropriate exercise for an inheritor of the Cavalier legend.(25) Cooke's tales presented the life and character of those elements of Virginia society with which he could identify. Poe's poetry, on the other hand, has only minimal reflections of the cult of chivalry and never relinquishes the melancholy theme so attractive to the Southern amateurs. The characters of Poe's tales, though members of ancient families, have little sense of family as Southerners (including Cooke) ordinarily displayed it; and the settings exhibit none of the sense of place abundantly revealed by Cooke and other antebellum writers, whose settings, however idealized, are usually in Virginia. It is as if Poe absorbed a mood and a sense of caste from the Southern subculture but lacked the specific reference that comes from personal relevance.

Let us presume that Poe's imagination undertook its journeys from the same starting point as Philip Cooke's did: a feeling of dissatisfaction with the course of events, an inclination to mourn for something valuable that has been lost, and a desire to let the world know about it. Cooke's imagination could project a situation in which honor, love, and caste were meaningful, either in their preservation or in their loss; but Poe's imagination could not rest there. He went beyond the Southern romance, beyond the borrowed conventions of the Gothic, to hypothecate in his fiction a world running down, a universe in precarious equilibrium before apocalypse. His characters, death-haunted, remain in their darkened rooms while the insensitive world goes on its way to destruction, unknowing and uncaring. Only after the punitive conflagration can man, born again, comprehend the nature of his folly, and only the preternaturally sensitive, the Roderick Ushers, can feel the [page 14:] terror of impending calamity. Poe's fiction, it is clear, is not anchored in any consoling myth and does not locate value in a way of life. Philip Cooke did not need a paradise beyond; all he needed was the preservation of status, some recognized activity in the public world, and enough prosperity with its attendant leisure to indulge in his two passions, literature and field sports.(26) The Cavalier myth was enough for Cooke, but it had no personal relevance for Edgar Poe. His imagination could not find comfort in the chivalric past, nor could he devote his energies to any preservation of its semblance in fiction. As a consequence, his fiction exploits aristocratic superiority, aristocratic aloofness, aristocratic disdain of the commonplace; but these qualities are detached from time and place and are presented in an atmosphere of foreboding, as if the very qualities which separated his characters from the common herd were also the agents of their destruction. Son of an itinerant actress and a wayward father, Poe had no claim to status in the South. He could only develop his personal myth, that of a suffering, sensitive aristocrat in a democratic shopkeeper's world.

Though much of Poe's fiction presents a world in decay, he was capable of developing the paradisal theme. As a rule he located his paradise in some unspecified golden age of the past, before science and industry blighted the face of nature and warped the human soul. Unable to hypothecate with full conviction that happy time of the eighteenth century when Virginia gentlemen felt secure in their way of life, he felt that the paradisal estate could have approached reality only in the distant past, and that it would be regained only after the purification of man's heart and soul. Yet the one time that Poe undertook to describe an earthly paradise, he did it in terms that would have been quite congenial to Southerners’ like Cooke. The topography of “The Domain of Arnheim” is probably drawn from the Hudson River Valley, but Poe's “poet of the [page 15:] landscape,” Ellison, speaks as a Southerner committed to the agrarian ideal:

The ideas of my friend may be summed up in a few words. He admitted but four elementary principles, or more strictly, conditions of bliss. That which he considered chief was (strange to say!) the simple and purely physical one of free exercise in the open air. ‘The health,’ he said, ‘attainable by other means is scarcely worth the name.’ He instanced the ecstasies of the fox-hunter, and pointed to the tillers of the earth, the only people who, as a class, can be fairly considered happier than others. His second condition was the love of woman. His third, and most difficult of realization, was the contempt of ambition. His fourth was an object of unceasing pursuit; and he held that, other things being equal, the extent of attainable happiness was in proportion to the spirituality of this object.

Certain elements of the agrarian ideal, or, more specifically, the “conditions of bliss” specified for Southern gentlemen, are obvious in Poe's words, but a passage from the work of David R. Hundley, an antebellum commentator on the social scene, displays the usual aspiration:

No matter what may be the Southern Gentleman's avocation, his dearest affections usually centre in the country. He longs to live as his fathers lived before him, in both the Old World and the New; and he ever turns with unfeigned delight from the bustle of cities, the hollow ceremonies of courts, the turmoil of politics, the glories and dangers of the battle-field, or the wearisome treadmill of professional routine, to the quiet and peaceful scenes of country life .... The old hall, the familiar faces of the old domestics — these all are dearer to the heart of the Southern Gentleman than the short-lived plaudits of admiring throngs, or the hollow and unsatisfactory pleasures of sense.(27)

Poe's Ellison resembles Hundley's gentleman in his enjoyment of retirement, his relish of the peaceful scenes of country life, but there is a characteristic difference. Hundley's gentleman is content [page 16:] to live “as his fathers lived before him, in both the Old World and the New,” but Poe's poet of the landscape must have, in addition to exercise in the open air and the love of woman (familiar Southern requirements), a spiritual object, an “object of unceasing pursuit.” Even when Poe's imagination created an Arcadia in Southern terms, he had to carry it one step beyond to make it an aesthete's dream of perfection. Poe's Ellison does not inherit a way of life. Instead he inherits a fortune of $450,000,000, travels the world over to find an appropriate landscape, and then constructs his paradise from scratch. Once more Poe showed his disaffiliation at the same time that he revealed his Southern origin. Philip Cooke's “retirement” at the Vineyard, an estate his wife inherited from the Bur-wells (the Burwell family was one of the wealthiest in Virginia), was more typical. He had a splendid view of the mountains and the Shenandoah and the love of his wife, Willianne; he could amuse himself with gardening (although on an infinitely less grandiose scale than Ellison); and he had the spiritual object, his writing of the Froissart ballads. Furthermore, for Cooke as for Ellison, earning freedom from ambition was a difficult achievement. He wrote to his father, “I am becalmed out of the current which the great world of men is moving onward upon; am sunk into inglorious quiet, whilst my temper is for action ....(28) Cooke, except for his temper for action, is very nearly typical of Hundley's Southern gentleman, whereas Poe's Ellison would have been in the South merely a parvenu, a disaffiliate who happened to be fortunate enough to inherit wealth but who created a way of life strictly on his own terms.

Edgar Poe's writing and even his life revealed the tension between what his imagination called for and what his situation permitted, a tension reinforced by his residence in a South committed in part to a romantic cult of chivalry that idealized the past and in part to concepts of improvement derived from the Enlightenment. If various aspects of the cult of chivalry engaged the romantic imagination, the course of events called for action dictated by reason and common sense. As we shall see, Edgar Poe exhibited both [page 17:] strains. As a critic of fiction he defended the romance and censured what he called the “anti-romantic” character of the American public. As a theorist he proclaimed that value resided in the exercise of sensibility afforded by poetry and that the moral suasion of poetry must be subordinate. Few Southern writers of his time stressed the aesthetic purpose of art as did Poe, but a conviction that hedonic value was the primary end of artistic expression was at least possible in a society which tended to think of art as a recreation. It would have been less likely in the New England subculture, where the Puritan tradition caused uneasiness about entertainment which was not morally or socially useful. The moral idea, as Henry James called it, was by no means alien to the Southern literary mind, but it did not receive particular stress in Southern literary criticism.(29)

Forced to become a journalistic critic, Poe became good at it. Almost miraculously, it seemed, he developed competitive ingenuities and employed them in support of T. W. White's inadequately financed magazine. He studied the tactics of successful periodicals and introduced into those areas of the Messenger for which he was responsible a professionalism that some Southerners, amateurs in [page 18:] spirit, found difficult to understand. Poe's poems may bear a resemblance to those of the Southern occasional poets, but his criticism advanced standards equivalent to those of the most formidable British quarterlies. Other critics in America might wish to elevate the morals and manners of a raw new nation, but Edgar Poe drew upon the critical tradition of an older country in his concentration upon matters of taste.

His effort to improve taste was developed along lines familiar to the South, although many Southern writers were hostile toward stringent book reviews. Still, Southerners who read anything at all read the harsh reviews of the British quarterlies and recognized the tactics of the so-called “tomahawk” review when Poe employed them in the Messenger. Many of them approved, for Southerners were prone to sanction the validity of the rhetorical approach and, as Richard James Calhoun has shown, stressed the analytical method. Calhoun argues that the nature of Southern criticism reflects the “legalistic bent of the cultivated Southern mind.”(30) Over thirty years ago Margaret Alterton maintained that the influence of the law helped shape Poe's practice as a critic,(31) and in principle she was correct, though her assumption that William Wirt, a famous jurist, acted as a mentor for the young Poe was subsequently disproved.(32) Poe's tendency as a book reviewer was to make judgments and to amass evidence to prove that they were valid.

Equally important, however, was the strain of literary conservatism in the South, something to be expected in a predominantly rural region. Publishing centers and opportunities for literary debate were mostly in the North, and though Poe spent a few of his formative years in Baltimore, he started reviewing books in Richmond, which was not much more than a village in 1835; and his first distinctive maneuver in the critical arena was an assault upon a member of a New York literary clique. Romantic in his taste and in [page 19:] his creative efforts, Poe showed the conservative strain in his book reviews. We will find in his practical criticism what have been generally recognized as eighteenth-century tendencies. These tendencies, however, should be traced not to the Age of Pope, with its stress upon rules allegedly drawn from the practice of classic writers, but to the late eighteenth century, when critical constants were derived from what were considered to be the laws of human nature, discovered by psychological investigation. A complex of traditional ideas were instrumental in the formation of Poe's critical theory and practice, particularly in his modification of romantic aesthetics to serve his own needs and convictions.


No critic works in an intellectual vacuum. However he may concentrate on the technical aspects of art, as Poe was prone to do in his book reviews, he will still owe something to the prevalent epistemologies of his time and place; and in a period of transition conflicting tendencies are inevitably present. Poe's only advanced schooling was at the University of Virginia, where, because of the influence of Thomas Jefferson, the ideas of the Enlightenment were still predominant.(33) As has already been indicated, the Enlightenment strain was evident in Lucian Minor, one of the most influential members of the Messenger circle. Accordingly, it is not surprising that Poe as a literary critic often made use of the kinds of arguments and proofs characteristic of the Enlightenment. He rarely acknowledged his Enlightenment sources, as he did when he was using the authority of the romantic critics, such as Coleridge and August Wilhelm Schlegel, who were not as familiar to the American public, yet the substratum of Enlightenment thought [page 20:] and Enlightenment method is evident in most of his work as a critic. As a youthful romantic it was incumbent on him to protest; it was the proper role for a poet. When he became a critic, however, and found it necessary to validate his claims, he began to use the kind of proofs that had been repugnant to the young poet, the proofs of reason, common sense, and what he thought of as scientific demonstration — the proofs of the Enlightenment.

When we speak of the Enlightenment in America, we must speak of the Scottish common-sense school of philosophers, for theirs was the most significant philosophical tradition in America between the time of the Revolution and the time Poe began to write book reviews.” Moreover, the literary critics who were either affiliated with the Scottish school or whose ideas were derived from it were very influential in America. As William Charvat has shown, the most popular periodicals in America during Poe's youth were the Edinburgh Review, the Quarterly Review, and Campbell's New Monthly Magazine, all of which were edited by Scots in the critical and philosophical tradition of the common-sense school.(35) Lord Kames, better known as a literary critic than as a philosopher, has been considered by one historian as a founder of the Scottish schoo1.(36) Hugh Blair's famous Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres may be regarded in part as an application of Kames's theories. The less well-known but still influential work of Archibald Alison was in the Scottish tradition, and Lord Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review was strongly influenced by Alison. These men were, with the possible exception of Edmund Burke and Dr. Johnson, the most frequently cited authorities; and two of them, Kames and Blair, produced books that were as ubiquitously studied in secondary schools and colleges as the texts of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren have been in our own time.(37) [page 21:]

It would be surprising, indeed, if Poe had remained unaffected by the most popular philosophical and critical traditions of his time, but this influence, so far as it may be detected, is covert, representing as it does a body of opinion that was taken for granted. Nevertheless the influence is there, and it furnished Poe with some of his basic arguments about the nature of the human mind and, in turn, about the origin and effect of aesthetic feeling. Poe's more specific literary applications of these authorities will be examined in the context of his criticism; here only the general attitudes and widely adopted psychophilosophical premises will be discussed.

Commentators on Poe from Woodberry to Feidelson have noted his attempts to reconcile materialism and idealism.(38) In this context it would be more precise to say that he sought to bring those intuitive agencies of truth and beauty posited by both the Scottish philosophers and the post-Kantian transcendentalists within the scope of a materialistic psychology. Poe never discounted supra-rational experiences, but in order to prove that such experiences had value, he felt that he had to locate their origin in faculties of the human mind. If this could be done, they would be regarded as natural and hence necessary. It was in this endeavor that the psychology of the Scottish common-sense school and phrenology, which must be regarded as a physiological extrapolation from the premise of discrete mental powers, fell readily to Poe's hand.

The Scottish realists opposed both the idealism of Berkeley and the skepticism of Hume;. such “metaphysical reasoning,” they felt, rashly ignored nature's laws and the constitution of the human mind. Nature is real, said the Scottish philosophers. The senses, whether they are the external senses by which man perceives the [page 22:] world or the internal senses by which he apprehends the beautiful and the good, give us valid information about the objects of perception.

John Witherspoon, one of the first proponents of the Scottish philosophy in America, emphasized its dislike for metaphysics. “The truth is,” he wrote, “the immaterial system is a wild and ridiculous attempt to unsettle the principles of common sense by metaphysical reasoning.”(39) Samuel Stanhope Smith, president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) from 1795 to 1819, defined the method of the Scots as “an investigation of the constitution and laws of nature, both in the physical and moral worlds, as far as the powers of the human mind, unaided by the lights of revelation, are competent to discover ....(40) Dugald Stewart, who was influential on Thomas Jefferson and fairly well known in the South,(41) wrote of the “frivolous and absurd discussions which abound in the writings of most metaphysical authors ....” He was much kinder to the materialists: “Instead, therefore, of objecting to the scheme of materialism, that its conclusions are false, it would be more accurate to say, that its aim is unphilosophical ... , since matter and mind, considered as objects of human study, are essentially different; the science of the former resting ultimately on the phenomena exhibited to the senses; that of the latter, on the phenomena of which we are conscious.”(42)

The Scottish philosophers, insofar as Stewart is typical, thought that speculation concerning final causes, if it were based upon an [page 23:] examination of natural laws, was not inconsistent with their method. Stewart quoted Newton's Optics in support of his position and threw in a good word for the French Physiocrats (the source of many of Jefferson's ideas), who considered “the physical and moral laws of Nature as the unerring standard which the legislator should keep in view in all of his positive institutions.”(43) Purely rational speculation, however, or a blind reliance upon supernatural revelation, as in the literalist interpretation of the Bible, were equally chimerical in comparison with the common-sense method. It is very probable that the distaste for metaphysics and mysticism apparent in many American reviews of Coleridge during the 1820's owes much to the Scottish tradition.(44) Later chapters of this study will show that Poe himself, after his initial enthusiasm for Coleridge, began increasingly to rely upon what he considered the laws of nature, as revealed by science and interpreted by common sense. Like Stewart, he took “the physical and moral laws of Nature as the unerring standard.” The construction of the universe and the constitution of the human mind became the bases for Poe's literary principles.

The chief significance of the Scottish philosophy, as far as literary criticism was concerned, was that it emphasized an investigation of consciousness. The method was not scientific, in the sense of modern experimental psychology, for it had little to do with physiology. Still, it opened the door for physiological investigation by its hostility toward “metaphysical reasoning” and by the presumption that there must be in the human mind certain natural powers or faculties responsible for intuitive cognitions — those things which we appear to know without having to think about them. In general this intuitive knowledge was called “common” sense, common because everybody had it to some degree. Two particular categories of intuitive knowledge with which the Scottish philosophers were concerned had to do with the beautiful and the good. One did not have to think about whether an object was beautiful or ugly or whether an action was good or bad; one just knew, and such knowledge appeared to have the immediacy of [page 24:] sense perception. Accordingly, “inner” senses were posited, and they were called the “taste” and the “moral sense.” Sometimes the taste and the moral sense were thought of simplistically as functioning in much the same way as the external senses, except that the stimuli were different. By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, it was recognized that these intuitive capacities were complex in their operation, and though the old terminology was still used, the references were metaphorical and did not designate specific organs. Nevertheless the activity of these faculties remained a subject for empirical investigation, and it was concluded that these seemingly intuitive capacities could be nurtured. According to Lord Kames, for instance, the moral sense was innate, but it remained rudimentary among savages. It was educable, however, and could be improved until the finest and most delicate moral discriminations could be made.(45)

Historically, the third Earl of Shaftesbury was the first British writer to emphasize this “inner” sense as a guide to conduct; but Shaftesbury, something of an aesthete, came so close to identifying the good with the beautiful that he regarded a response to the beauty of an action as a moral feeling. Francis Hutcheson, one of the forerunners of the Scottish school, followed the lead of Shaftesbury in combining reflections on beauty and morality and stressed the beauty of right actions and feelings as an element in their appeal. However, Hutcheson considered the moral sense and the sense of beauty as separate faculties, and thenceforth the distinction was taken for granted among the Scottish philosophers. The interest in the aesthetic aspects of goodness remained strong, and it was thought that there was a close connection between good morals and good taste. As Lord Kames expressed it, “a taste in the fine arts goes hand in hand with the moral sense, to which indeed it is nearly allied.”(46)

It was easy for Americans, particularly for those who inherited the Puritan attitude that art could be validated only by its moral [page 25:] usefulness, to argue from Kames that because of the close association of the taste with the moral sense, whatever was good was beautiful, and that an art which was productive of sound morality automatically fulfilled any aesthetic requirements. Even Thomas Jefferson, who could scarcely be considered an heir of the Puritans, claimed that moral action was beautiful: “When any signal act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with it's [sic] beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary, when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with it's [sic] deformity, and conceive an abhorrence of vice.”(47) Thus for Jefferson the arts could be morally useful by depicting acts “of charity or of gratitude” to be emulated.

A more surprising account of the moral usefulness of the taste may be found in the writings of the Reverend Asa Burton, a Congregationalist minister of Jefferson's generation. He broadened the concept of the taste so that it was responsible for all reactions of gratification or disgust and proclaimed it the primary faculty of the mind: “The faculty of taste is the most important property of the mind. It is the seat of all our pleasures and pains; contains all the principles of action, which govern men; it is the fountain of vice and virtue, and according to its nature when we bid farewell to life, such will be our endless state beyond the grave.”(48) Burton was trying to reinforce the religious psychology of Jonathan Edwards by proving that nothing could take the place of a genuine sense of the beauty of virtue; he was by no means trying to claim that aesthetic appreciation could supplant religion. Nevertheless, his view of taste as the “fountain of virtue and vice” illustrates the dilemma of the American theorists who wished to use the aesthetic [page 26:] sense to validate morally useful art. Emerson gave a characteristically American solution when he declared in his essay “Nature” that a noble moral action confers beauty upon its attendant circumstances.

These examples of speculation about the function of the aesthetic sense in relation to morals are cited merely to show that when Poe undertook to define the province of art he was engaging in a well-established debate about the role of the separate faculties in governing or influencing human behavior. As we shall see, he reversed the usual priorities. If a Burton or an Emerson could argue that what was good had to be beautiful, Edgar Poe could counter with the argument that what was beautiful had to be good and that beautiful art had an indirect effect upon behavior simply because it was beautiful.

Poe separated the faculty of taste from the moral sense just as Kames and Thomas Jefferson did,(49) and he asserted that if man's education had been governed by the sense of the beautiful instead of by the practical reason, he would have been better and happier. However much he may have preached against the heresy of the didactic, Poe did not eliminate moral beauty from the proper concerns of poetry. As will be shown in a later chapter, he merely wished to limit the mode of thematic expression. In poetry virtue should be depicted, not explicitly developed as a thesis. It should be beautifully presented to the imagination in order that the aesthetic sense might perform its function properly in influencing behavior. When a moral thesis is a mere exemplum, without the [page 27:] conditioning attributes of beauty, it appeals to the conscience as duty. When a moral thesis is argued, it is up to the reason to decide on its validity. Morality can be properly presented by the fine arts only when the aesthetic quality of the presentation is a governing consideration.

These matters will be examined in detail in appropriate contexts; however, it should be made clear at the outset that Poe's validation of his principles depended in large measure upon a well-established psychological tradition. On the face of it, any sharing of ideas between the epigones of the Scottish common-sense school and the ultraromantic Poe, whose imagination wandered in the wild and the weird, would seem absurd. Yet as a literary critic Poe was eclectic and sought to have the best of both worlds, that of the soaring imagination and that of a practical methodology based upon “mental science.”(50) His excursions into conflicting epistemologies remind us in a way of William James, whose radical empiricism allowed him to concede the possibility of pragmatic truth to any aspect of experience, the most visionary or the most mundane. Though no transcendentalist went further in acknowledging the claims of a suprarational experience of beauty, Poe, especially during the 1840's, expressed contempt for metaphysical speculation, just as did the Scots, and he was prone to sneer at the transcendentalists as perverters of a noble philosophy.

Increasingly, as he grew older, Poe began to demand reason and common sense as mediators between the imaginative vision and its revelation in a work of art. Accordingly, it would appear that when he began to grapple with the problems of criticism, he felt it necessary to find rational explanations of the mental and emotional phenomena of the creative act. Such explanations, he hoped, would allow him to control the creative experience and to validate his literary [page 28:] judgments scientifically. As a literary critic, Poe wanted a clear and simple system of psychology which he could regard, in Enlightenment fashion, as the laws of human nature. The Scottish philosophers provided such a system, which may be illustrated from the writings of Dugald Stewart.

Stewart hoped to achieve an understanding of the human mind that would enable him to suggest ways of controlling its aberrant tendencies. Today his Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind would be called a textbook in educational psychology, for he believed that proper educational methods, developed by an “accurate analysis of the general principles of our nature, and an account of the most important laws which regulate their operation,” would eliminate the possibility of overemphasizing one talent or tendency at the expense of the others. For Stewart an unbalanced mind was quite literally a mind whose faculties existed in disproportionate strength. Such disproportion, even though it might result in what appeared to be original genius, was inimical to the happiness of the individual and the welfare of society. In opposition to primitivistic concepts of natural genius, Stewart wrote: “happiness, in so far as it arises from the mind itself, will be always proportioned to the degree of perfection which its powers have attained; but that, in cultivating those powers, with a view to this most important of all objects, it is essentially necessary that such a degree of attention be bestowed upon all of them, as may preserve them in that state of relative strength, which appears to be agreeable to the intentions of nature.”(51)

Edgar Poe also believed that mental perfection was represented by a proportionate development of the powers of the mind, as is revealed by one of his discussions of genius: “what is the fact, as taught us by analysis of mental power? Simply, that highest genius ... is but the result of generally large mental power existing in a state of absolute proportion — so that no one faculty has undue predominance.”(52) Stewart apparently believed that hereditary weaknesses [page 29:] could be corrected by appropriate education, and accordingly he opposed specialization.(53) Poe was very little concerned with public education, but the few remarks he did make, even in the context of fiction, indicate that he thought that most of the unhappiness in the world was caused by emphasis upon practical knowledge — the reason — at the expense of the taste, or the aesthetic faculty.(54) The poetical faculties, Poe was to insist, are not at war with the mathematical faculties, and a true genius would give evidence of both. In his tales which depict neurosis Poe showed what happens when certain faculties have hypertrophied as others have withered; and in his criticism he used the psychological principle of a mental “balance of powers” in accounting for certain excellences and defects. There are many men of genius in terms of native endowment, he said, but few works of genius, because a work of genius requires the proper employment of the full mental equipment, each faculty being exerted at will in the appropriate stages of composition. The greatest error in the composition of poetry, [page 30:] he would assert more than once, was to use the reason or the moral sense in a mental activity appropriate to the aesthetic sensibility; but since a genius possessed a full complement of mental powers he would be equally averse to using the sensibility alone in an activity appropriate to the reason.(55)

Throughout his career as a critic Poe insisted that the greatest art could be produced only by an artist whose faculties existed in the balance and proportion that was the intention of nature. Although imagination and taste were characteristic of the creative mind, it took more than creative talent to produce a great work of art. Judgment, reason, patience, and the capacity for labor, Poe was to affirm on a number of occasions, were necessary to produce a good poem. Shelley was an artist with great imaginative power, but in Poe's opinion he relied too much on natural genius. As a consequence, Poe said, Shelley's poems were merely rough drafts or notes to himself; they were not finished works of art.

Poe constructed his critical theory upon a psychological basis, and the psychological systems he used reflected the Enlightenment premise that human nature in perfection would exhibit the balance and proportion of the physical universe. There were laws for mental activity as precise as the laws of physics, and to obey these laws was to carry out the intention of nature. In this he resembled Emerson, but he differed from the Concord sage in that he did not conceive of the creative mind as a relatively passive medium through which a vitalizing current of inspiration poured. Like the Scottish philosophers, Poe was prone to confine his investigation to the activity of the conscious mind and had relatively little to say about inspiration, although what little he did say was sometimes transcendental enough to enable a number of investigators to discover [page 31:] similarities between Poe's theory and that of Emerson. As a practicing critic, however, Poe concentrated on the mental activities that permitted conscious control. Even poetic vision, he once speculated, could be brought under the domination of the will if the proper conditions could be established.

Poe's first significant use of a psychological approach in criticism appears to have little to do with the traditional faculty psychology. His chief resource was phrenology, which the nineteenth century called the “science of mind,” and he amplified his phrenological concepts of various mental organs with a quasi-Coleridgean account of the imagination and the fancy. This is the subject of a later chapter, however, and phrenology is discussed here only because its premises about the mind are not so alien to the Scottish faculty psychology as they might appear. Phrenology was popularized in America chiefly through the books of George Combe, whose works went through many editions in America between 1830 and 1845. Combe, a Scot himself, claimed that his writings were nothing more than an extension and refinement of the old faculty psychology. His was a “humble attempt” to enlarge the “mental philosophy” of Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Stewart, and Thomas Brown “with the aid of the new lights afforded by Phrenology.”(56) Poe knew of Combe's work in 1836 and mentioned it in his review of the Phrenology of Mrs. L. Miles. Edinburgh, Poe asserted, was the “stronghold of faith in phrenology,”(57) and he gave every evidence of having faith in it himself.

It has already been mentioned that the Scottish philosophers, though they neglected physiology themselves, had left the way open for physiological investigation. They had written somewhat vaguely of a few faculties or “active principles” and had designated them as the reason, the taste, the moral sense, the imagination, and so forth. The phrenologists took the inevitable next step by ascribing [page 32:] all mental activities to various “organs” of the mind. They invented names for these organs and claimed to be able to analyze character by measuring the prominences on the human skull. Just as the Scottish philosophers had claimed that they were investigating the “constitution and laws of nature in both the physical and moral worlds,” so did George Combe claim to be investigating the constitution of the human mind and the fixed laws by which it was regulated.(58) He was as certain as was Dugald Stewart that by learning the natural laws of the intellect man could direct his activities in accordance with nature's intentions.

Clearly phrenology developed out of Enlightenment assumptions about man's relation to the universe, and it made use of the traditional teleological argument: one assumes the benevolence of the Great Designer and confirms the assumption by examining his designs. Poe, whose head was filled with Enlightenment science, was delighted with phrenology because it purported to validate the teleological argument with proofs as precise as those obtained in the physical sciences. The fact that the phrenologist could actually locate the organ for aesthetic feeling seemed to Poe adequate proof that there was not only an immediate cause for art but a final cause as well. The Great Designer intended for man to respond to the beautiful in nature and in art. Eventually Poe became dubious about the validity of the phrenological method because it was based upon a priori assumptions, but then he resorted to the old faculty psychology to support his claims about the nature of the aesthetic response and its final cause, and his proofs remain equally unscientific to our eyes today.

Poe's criticism as a whole falls into two categories: literary criticism and rhetorical criticism. When he was writing as a literary critic, he attempted to discover universal validating principles and made occasional ventures into aesthetics. As a rhetorical critic, however, he concerned himself with the effect of a literary work and examined the means by which appropriate or inappropriate effects were produced. Not that he would have made any such distinction, for most of his effort was devoted to transforming what [page 33:] was essentially rhetoric, or the calculation of effects, into universal procedures which he considered equally valid for composition or for judgment. In this he is reminiscent of the British psychological critics of the late eighteenth century, who had rejected the rules in favor of an analysis of the response to a work of art. As Edward N. Hooker observed, “It was undoubtedly in the minds of these essayists that from observations of the general reaction to works of art, principles of beauty could be deduced, in a manner more or less scientific, which should have the certainty of mathematics.”(59) This is precisely what Poe sought — the certainty of mathematics in the calculation and the judgment of effects — even though he made use of the postulates of Platonic metaphysics to support the value of a relatively pure aesthetic response. There was nothing unusual about this. Even the phrenologist George Combe did the same thing, as did some of the Scottish philosophers. As a rule Poe refused to accept the old neoclassic test of universal approval, the consensus gentium, for, like Lord Karnes and Sir Francis Jeffrey before him, he considered only the cultivated taste capable of making correct discriminations. Even with this opinion, however, he did not want to neglect the needs of a general audience. Believing that the proper test of art was its effect, he felt that it was possible to appeal to both the cultivated and the uncultivated taste.


The theorists referred to in the preceding pages are not “sources” in the sense that Coleridge was a source for Poe. I have used them here only as illustrations of an intellectual ambience to which he was, in part, responsive. Poe's wide and often superficial reading of current journals and of popular compendiums of “universal” knowledge makes the task of identifying the exact sources of his opinions difficult and often unprofitable. Because he was eclectic and not highly discriminative in his choices, we cannot justifiably claim that he was a disciple of any particular critic or school of criticism. [page 34:] W. K. Wimsatt's generalization that “Poe's ideas are Kantian and Coleridgean aesthetic undergoing the fate of M. Valdemar”(60) is no more adequate than John Paul Pritchard's assertion that Poe's “final definition of art ... is substantially Aristotle's doctrine of mimesis or artistic imitation.”(61) Categorical assignments, untrustworthy at best, are especially unreliable in reference to Poe.

Eventually Poe proposed a theory of the universe which would reconcile the conflicting epistemologies that appear by intimation or by direct reference in his work. This effort at a synthesis was his Eureka, which he presented in lectures during the last year of his life, but which was published only after his death. A discussion of Eureka is reserved for the last chapters of this study. It is inconceivable that Poe would have learned nothing in the eighteen years between his first critical essay and his final statement. We shall follow from here the development of his thought and his critical method, showing his enthusiasm when he encountered what seemed to him to be a new and superior mode of validation, but also showing his rejection of that mode when it proved inadequate to his needs.


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1.  Southern Literary Messenger, I (1834-35), 1.

2.  Jay B. Hubbell, “Poe and the Southern Literary Tradition,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, II (1960), 157-58.

3.  John Allan, Poe's foster father, gave him a suit of black clothes shortly after the death of Mrs. Allan. For some years this was Poe's best, perhaps his only, suit. N. Bryllion Fagin has made a convincing case for Poe's theatricality, both in his life and in his writings. See Fagin, The Histrionic Mr. Poe (Baltimore, 1949).

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4.  Poe to John Allan, May 29, 1829, in John Ward Ostrom (ed.), The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), I, 20, hereinafter cited as Letters.

5.  “Lord Byron's Character and Writings,” in Mary Legare Bullen (ed.), Writings of Hugh Swinton Legaré (Charleston, S.C., 1845), II, 358. Among the better known Southern writers, both William Gilmore Simms and Paul Hamilton Hayne took exception to Byron's character, though they admired much of his work. Terms often applied to Byron's character were “morbid misanthropy” and “licentiousness.”

6.  Southern Literary Messenger, I (1834-35), 1.

7.  Ibid., 11. The poem had been inscribed in a “young lady's album” and was submitted to the Messenger with a letter, from which this quotation was taken. The author of the letter went on to say that the anonymous poet's modesty will probably be somewhat startled at seeing himself in print ....” Such devices allowed Southern poets to avoid any taint of professionalism.

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8.  For a discussion of the position of the author in the Old South, see Jay B. Hubbell, The South in American Literature, 1607-1900 (Durham, 1954), 211-14; and Willard Thorp, “The Writer as Pariah in the Old South,” in R. C. Simonini, Jr. (ed.), Southern Writers: Appraisals in Our Time (Charlottesville, 1964), 3-18.

9.  Hubbell, The South in American Literature, 535-36.

10.  See T. W. White to Poe, September 29, 1835, in James A. Harrison (ed.), Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (17 vols.; New York, 1902), XVII, 20, hereinafter cited as Works.

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11.  Edward Davidson has described the significance of burial rituals in nineteenth-century culture, especially Southern culture, and has argued that the eroticism of some of the elegiac poems permitted the age to enjoy what was officially banned. See Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), 105-18. I have no quarrel with this assumption. However, to say that Poe “cleverly capitalized on a popular commodity” and “provided his age with a handbook on how the upper middle class should take care of its dead” raises some questions. The upper middle class of the South (and elsewhere) paid relatively little attention to Poe's tales and poems until the mid-1840's. One would think that a virtual handbook which exploited a popular commodity would win quick popular acceptance. Poe made his reputation as a critic, not as a creative writer. See Hubbell, “Poe and the Southern Literary Tradition,” 157-58.

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12.  In The Mind of the South (1941), Cash states that few of the early colonists of Virginia had any connection with the English Cavaliers and that the Southern plantation aristocracy, always small, took many years to become established. His preface summarizes the legend of the colonial aristocracy. Clement Eaton, in his Freedom of Thought in the Old South (Durham, 1940), is chiefly concerned with the decline of liberal thought in post-Jeffersonian days, but he finds a reflection of the predicament of the plantation gentry in some of the literature of the period. Osterweis, in Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South (New Haven, 1949), describes the Southern rejection of those aspects of romantic thought which stressed progress and social reform and the acceptance of the kind of romanticism that glorified the past and found value in a cult of chivalry and a loyalty to caste. Ostenveis uses literary sources far more extensively than most historians of the period, and his study is thus valuable for its account of the prevailing myths, whether or not these myths may be verified as social determinants. Much of Osterweis’ evidence is taken from the Southern Literary Messenger, which of course makes his findings pertinent to Poe.

13.  Poe: A Critical Study, 208.

14.  “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe,” in The Forlorn Demon (Chicago, 1953), 83.

15.  Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South, 82-102.

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16.  Poe to Sarah Helen Whitman, October 18, 1848, in Letters, II, 393.

17.  Freedom of Thought in the Old South, 49.

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18.  Intellectual Life in Jefferson's Virginia, 1790-1830 (Chapel Hill, 1964), 24.

19.  ‘William Wirt, The Old Bachelor (3rd ed.; Baltimore, 1818), 135.

20.  Harrison, A Discourse on the Prospects of Letters and Taste in Virginia (Cambridge, 1828), 13-26.

21.  See Davis, Intellectual Life in Jefferson's Virginia, 29-69, for an account of formal education in Virginia, theory and practice.

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22.  Works, VIII, 119-20.

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23.  For an antebellum statement of the predicament of the planters, see David R. Hundley, Social Relations in Our Southern States (New York, 1860), quoted in Willard Thorp (ed.), A Southern Reader (New York, 1955), 246-47.

24.  Cooke to his father, December 29, 1840, in John D. Allen, Philip Pendleton Cooke (Chapel Hill, 1942), 52.

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25.  Cooke's “Proem” to his Froissart Ballads (1847) reveals the attractions of his subject:

In the wells

Of Froissart's life-like chronicles,

I dipped for moving truths of old.

A thousand stories, soft and bold,

Of stately dames, and gentlemen ....

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26.  Of the two interests, field sports took precedence. Cooke's persistent amateurism is revealed in a letter to Rufus Wilmot Griswold about the Froissart Ballads: “I wrote them with the reluctance of a turkey hunter kept from his sport.” January 20, 1847, in Allen, Philip Pendleton Cooke, 77-78.

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27.  Quoted in Thorp (ed.), A Southern Reader, 249.

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28.  March 7, 1845, in Allen, Philip Pendleton Cooke, 65.

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29.  Of the better-known Southern writers, Henry Timrod and Paul Hamilton Hayne, both a generation younger than Poe, did exhibit a moral bias. To Timrod truth was a nobler aim than beauty in a poem, and Hayne was prone to make moral judgments. See Edd Winfield Parks, Ante-Bellum Southern Critics (Athens, Ga., 1962), 203, 230. Even Hayne, however, was calling for analytical criticism as late as 1859. See Richard James Calhoun, “Literary Criticism in Southern Periodicals” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1959), 11-12. And Hayne praised E. P. Whipple as the one Northern critic who always judged on aesthetic grounds. Most Northern reviewers had dispensed with judicial criticism by 1840 in favor of what Harry Hayden Clark has called “sympathetically reproductive criticism.” Professor Clark recognized that Poe's judicial method was characteristic of “contrasting Southern standards.” See Clark, “Changing Attitudes in Early American Literary Criticism, 1800-1840,” in Floyd Stovall (ed.), The Development of American Literary Criticism (Chapel Hill, 1955), 43-52. Whatever the moral bias of the particular critic, emphasis upon analysis and judgment would compel him to examine style and structure in order to make a competent evaluation. Moral judgments were not lacking in Southern criticism, even in that of Poe, but there was relatively more concern for aesthetic qualities than in the criticism of the North.

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30.  “Literary Criticism in Southern Periodicals,” 11-37,71-72.

31.  Origins of Poe's Critical Theory (Iowa City, 1925), 46-67.

32.  Richard Beale Davis, “Poe and William Wirt,” American Literature, XVI (1944) 212-20.

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33.  This point was made by Philip A. Bruce, in The History of the University of Virginia (New York, 1920-22), but for a more recent account of the way in which Jefferson attempted to establish a liberal, republican institution, see Davis, Intellectual Life in Jefferson's Virginia, 62-66. For Jefferson's thought, see Adrienne Koch, The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1943); and Herbert W. Schneider, “The Enlightenment of Thomas Jefferson,” Ethics, LIII (1943), 246-54.

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34.  Herbert W. Schneider, A History of American Philosophy (New York, 1946), 246.

35.  American Critical Thought, 1810-1835 (Philadelphia, 1936), 29.

36.  Henry Laurie, Scottish Philosophy in its National Development (Glasgow, 1902), 103.

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37.  This fact has been documented almost too many times to require reference. David Potter, in the Foreword to a recent facsimile edition of Blair's [page 21:] Lectures, stated that “at least one hundred and thirty editions were issued, the last in 1911.” Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, ed. Harold F. Harding (2 vols.; Carbondale, Ill., 1965), I, v. For the popularity of Kames, see Helen Whitcomb Randall, The Critical Theory of Lord Kames, Smith College Studies in Modern Languages, XII (October, 1940-July, 1941), 85. For the popularity of both critics, see Charvat, American Critical Thought, 30-33.

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38.  George E. Woodberry, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1909), II, 250; Charles Feidelson, Jr., Symbolism and American Literature (Chicago, 1953), 38.

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39.  Quoted in Jay Wharton Fay, American Psychology before William James (New Brunswick, 1939), 61.

40.  Quoted ibid., 62.

41.  Margaret Alterton made a case for Poe's familiarity with Dugald Stewart on the basis of an article entitled “Genius” which appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1836 (II, 297). Poe did not write the article, as Miss Alterton assumed (Origins of Poe's Critical Theory, 97), but as assistant editor he would have had to read it. In fact, the editorial note appended to the article and disagreeing with some of the assumptions is almost certainly by Poe. The author was “evidently no phrenologist,” Poe wrote. Southern Literary Messenger, II (1836), 300.

42.  Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (Albany, 1821), I, 9-14 passim.

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43.  Ibid., 240.

44.  Charvat, American Critical Thought, 21-22.

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45.  Henry Home, Lord Karnes, Sketches of the History of Man (Glasgow, 1818), I, 105.

46.  Elements of Criticism, ed. Abraham Mills (New York, 1858), 13.

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47.  Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, August 3, 1771, in Julian P. Boyd (ed.), The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950), I, 76.

48.  Burton was a Congregationalist minister whose division of the faculties into the understanding, the will, and the taste was based on his reading of Kant. His definition of the faculty of taste as the seat of all feelings of pleasure and pain was much broader than that of the Scottish philosophers. Extensive quotations from Burton's work may be found in Fay, American Psychology before William James, 75-90.

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49.  Jefferson made the distinction in a letter to Thomas Law, dated June 13, 1814: “The To Kalon ... is founded in a different faculty, that of taste, which is not even a branch of morality. We have indeed an innate sense of what we call beautiful, but that is exercised chiefly on subjects addressed to the fancy, whether through the eye in visible forms, as landscape, animal figure, dress, drapery, architecture, the composition of colors, etc., or to the imagination directly, as imagery, style, or measure in prose or poetry, or whatever else constitutes the domain of criticism or taste, a faculty entirely distinct from the moral one.” Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert L. Bergh (eds.), The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C., 1903), XIV, 141.

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50.  Léon Lemonnier exaggerated Poe's dedication to science by claiming that Poe resembled doctors who refused to believe in the soul because they could not discover it by dissection, but the discussion of science and materialism in his study of critical reaction to Poe in France is well worth reading. See Lemonnier, Edgar Poe et la critique frangaise de 1845 a 1875 (Paris, 1928).

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51.  Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, I, 22.

52.  “Fifty Suggestions,” Works, XIV, 176.

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53.  Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, I, 18-22. Stewart did not want to discourage a natural talent in a particular activity, say the “abstract sciences.” This would be frustrating the intention of nature. What he wanted to do by education was to develop other talents so that the individual would be a whole man instead of an unhappy and neurotic genius remarkable, say, in mathematical ability, but “deficient in vivacity, in imagination, and in taste.” If Poe's tales were a projection of his personal situation, as is frequently suggested, then the attractions of “mental science” are easily explained. Stewart's psychology offered some hope in that it stressed the correction of hereditary weaknesses by the “exercise” of the subnormal faculties. Phrenology was even more attractive in this respect, for it provided the means for an easy self-analysis together with suggestions for a sort of self-administered therapy. It may be that Poe's pride in his mathematical abilities and in his capacity for analysis was a rationalization of his fear that, like Roderick Usher's, his sensibility was abnormally developed at the expense of “moral energy.” This would account for the doppelganger motif in his tales and also for his eagerness to be a man of universal erudition, a type of true genius whose faculties were proportionally developed.

54.  This complaint appears in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” in the context of a polemic against applied science. As Poe explained in a footnote, he was recommending a general education of the sensibility, which he referred to elsewhere as the capacity to appreciate beauty and loathe deformity in whatever context they might appear.

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55.  In other words, nature should be followed by using each faculty according to the purpose for which it was “designed.” The faculties were allowed to cooperate, but priority should be assigned for teleological reasons. Writing a critique, for instance, is an analytical activity which occurred after the initial impression of a poem on the sensibility. Poe gave “Christopher North” (John Wilson) as an example of a critic who depended too much on his sensibility. Review of Wilson's Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, in Graham's Magazine, XX (1842), 72.

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56.  The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, ed. Joseph A. Warne (9th American ed.; Boston, 1839), ix. Poe mentioned Combe several times in his reviews and in 1841 praised him highly as a candid reasoner” who “reasons to discover the true.” Works, X, 158.

57.  Works, VIII, 252-53.

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58.  The Constitution of Man, 28.

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59.  “The Discussion of Taste from 1750 to 1770, and the New Trends in Literary Criticism,” PMLA, XLIX (1934), 581.

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60.  William K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History (New York, 1966), 479.

61.  Criticism in America (Norman, Okla., 1956), 72.



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[S:0 - PJC69, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Poe, Journalist and Critic (Jacobs)