Text: Benjamin Lease, “John Neal and Edgar Allan Poe,” Poe Studies, December 1974, Vol. VII, No. 2, 7:38-41


[page 39:]

John Neal and Edgar Allan Poe

Northeastern Illinois University

Among the earliest and most dramatic responses to Sydney Smith’s taunt — “who reads an American book?” — was that of the rambunctious New Englander John Neal (1793-1876), who invaded England and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine to further the cause of American literature and his own literary career. Neal’s British campaign was climaxed by the appearance in Blackwood’s of a series of articles, “American Writers” (1824-25), in which he complained that “with two exceptions, or at most three, there is no American writer who would not pass just as readily for an English writer. . .” (1). (Neal was, predictably, one of those two or three.) I have told the story of this campaign elsewhere (2) and offer here a passage which, though it might well have been included, does not appear in that discussion:

There is not a more disgusting spectacle under the sun than our subserviency to British criticism. It is disgusting, first, because it is buckling, servile, pusillanimous — secondly, because of its gross irrationality. We know the British to bear us little but ill-will; we know that in the few instances in which our writers have been treated with common decency in England, these writers have either openly paid homage to English institutions, or have had lurking at the bottom of their hearts a secret principle at war with Democracy: — we know all this, and yet, day after day, submit our necks to the degrading yoke of the crudest opinion that emanates from the fatherland. Now if we must have nationality, let it be a nationality that will throw off this yoke.

The writer concludes: “In Letters as in Government we require a Declaration of Independence” and “A better thing still would be a Declaration of War — and that war should be carried forthwith ‘into Africa.’”

The author of the preceding passage and concluding warlike sentiment was not John Neal but Edgar Allan Poe — in an 1845 Marginalia comment omitted from the Harrison edition of Poe’s works (3). Such ardent nationalistic sentiment is rarely associated with Poe; on the contrary [column 2:] he is usually identified with those who attacked uncritical praise of American literary productions in language like this:

. . . one is pretty sure to hear the most ridiculous and exaggerated misrepresentations, one way or the other, for or against American authorship. . . . But if we would not over-cuddle the young American writers; kill them with kindness turn their heads with our trumpeting, or produce a fatal revulsion in the popular mind let us never make a prodigious fuss about any American book which, if it were English, would produce little or no sensation.

This passage is not Poe’s but John Neal’s — an excerpt from his Blackwood’s series on American writers (4). Poe was to express similar sentiments in his review of Drake and Halleck (1836) and in “Exordium” (1842); and it has been suggested that he joined the ranks of the literary nationalists and “Young America” in 1845-46 as a temporary expediency designed to promote his always precarious literary fortunes: “Who [asks Claude Richard] could reproach any half-starving young critic with a dying wife for forcing and somewhat colouring in brighter hues some of his opinions? Who would doubt Poe might yield to such temptation” (5). Poe’s intensified attack on American subservience to British opinion has also been attributed to his disappointment over his rejection by Blackwood’s and its editorial consultant, John Wilson (“Christopher North”). Michael Allen quotes from an 1845 review in which Poe, ridiculing Wilson at every point, muses wonderingly: “And this is the criticism — the British criticism — the Blackwood criticism — to which we have so long implicitly bowed down!” (6). Allen provides a detailed account of Poe’s important involvement with Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine but says nothing about Neal’s involvement with Blackwood’s or Poe’s involvement with Neal. The explanations of Claude Richard, Michael Allen, and others leave something to be explained about Poe’s nationalism. I propose to review the Neal-Poe relationship for the light it sheds on the role each of these writers played in the American literary revolution.

Poe’s first critical recognition — a recognition he never forgot — took place in the columns of The Yankee and Boston Literary’ Gazette for September 1829. Editor Neal notified correspondent “E. A. P. of Baltimore” that, despite his shortcomings, he “might make a beautiful and perhaps magnificent poem. There is a good deal here to justify such a hope.” An excerpt from “Heaven” (later titled “Fairyland”) followed this comment. In the December number, Neal. suggested that, “with all their faults, if the remainder of Al Aaraaf and Tamerlane are as good as the body of the extracts here given . . ., he will deserve to stand high — very high — in the estimation of the shining brotherhood.” Neal also quoted at length from an extraordinary letter in which the fledgling poet calls Neal’s praise “the very first words of encouragement I ever remember to have heard,” turns to his mentor as “a man that loves the same beauty which I adore,” and identifies himself, plaintively, as one who has “no father — nor mother” (7). Two years later, reviewing Poems (1831), Neal called Poe “A fellow of fine genius” capable of “Pure poetry in one page — pure absurdity in another.” “To Helen” is reprinted as an example of pure poetry, the production of one who “has the gift, and betrays the presence . . . that cannot be mistaken.” Perhaps even more important, Neal concludes with the (for him) familiar [page 39:] complaint that he is “sick of poetry” and “would not have meddled with this volume” if not for the genius and promise of its young author (8). Poe had returned to Baltimore from New York early in 1831 and it is almost certain that Neal’s notice of his book in a prominent New York newspaper would come to his attention. Neal’s tales were appearing in The Token and other literary annuals, and the struggling young poet might have found, in Neal’s critique and example, encouragement for his own decision — made just about this time — to give up poetry for storytelling (9).

Poe never forgot the critic who gave him “the first jog in my literary career” (as he put it in an 1840 letter to Neal). It was much more than a sense of personal gratitude, however, that led Poe to praise his mentor on numerous occasions and — as late’ as 1849 — to rank John Neal “first, or at all events, second, among our men of indisputable genius (10).

But how did this budding Southern poet and Yankee editor come together in the first place? Young Poe first wrote to Neal from Baltimore where Neal’s was still a name very much to be reckoned with. Shortly after the War of 1812, the Yankee from the District of Maine had settled in Baltimore for a career in law and literature. Neal’s stormy literary career as critic, poet, and novelist came to a climax in late 1823 after a scandal over a love affair — a scandal aggravated by the fact that he incorporated details of the affair into two of his novels. He precipitously left Baltimore for a three-year visit to England where he scored a great success with William Blackwood and Blackwood’s Magazine until the financial failure of a Neal novel published by Blackwood — Brother Jonathan (1825) — cooled off this intense association between the Yankee and the Scotsman. Neal became involved in other ventures and eventually returned to America in 1827. He had failed in his plan to match the success of Irving and Cooper; but Neal could claim for his British campaign a victory of a different kind:

When it is remembered, that, up to this period, May, 1824, no American writer had ever found his way into any of these periodicals, and that American affairs were dealt with in short, insolent paragraphs, full of . . . downright misrepresentation, as if they were dealing with Fejee Islanders, or Timbuctoos, it must be admitted . . . that my plan was both well-conceived, and well-carried out (11).

From its beginnings in 1817, Blackwood’s Magazine had been an extremely influential force in America. Neal’s phenomenal success as an American contributor can be partly attributed to his sympathy with its critical tenets. Poe’s involvement with Blackwood’s, early and late, is well known (12). It is less well known that some of the numbers Poe studied while he was developing his critical theory featured articles on American writers by John Neal (13).

Neal’s psychological theory of literature has many similarities to Poe’s. Both Neal and Poe were responsive to A. W. Schlegel’s doctrine of “unity” or “totality” of effect — to what William Charvat has called “Blackwood’s doctrine of the short poem, adopted from Schlegel” (14). More recently, G. R. Thompson has demonstrated the importance to Poe of Friedrich Schlegel’s conception of irony: “the perception or creation of a succession of contrasts between the ideal and the real, the serious and the [column 2:] comic, the sinister and the absurd, through which the ‘transcendental ego’ can ambivalently mock its own convictions and productions from the height of the ‘ideal’ “ (15). Thompson suggests that Poe became familiar with A. W. Schlegel’s views through John Black’s translation of his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature; in addition, discussions of Schlegelian doctrine were pervasive in Blackwood’s and its fiction characteristically embodied such views.

Neal’s exposition of this doctrine was readily available to Poe in the Blackwood’s series on American writers; in the lengthy Preface to The Battle of Niagara (2nd ed., 1819); and, most notably, in the series in The Yankee on “The Drama.” Poe was familiar with Niagara; and in the same numbers of The Yankee in which he received his first encouragement and expressed his gratitude (September and December 1829) are two installments of Neal’s five-part series on the drama. Young Poe almost certainly took note — in the number calling attention to “E. A. P. of Baltimore” — of Neal’s explorations of “certain movements of the human heart” that must take place before a man is capable of committing murder. He probably read, too (in the October number), an explanation of the way the “heart” of the reader is aroused by an artistic manipulation of his relationship to the characters in a story (16). Poe was, moreover, well acquainted with Neal’s novels and tales — fiction charged with romantic irony. (See Works, XIII, 154; XVI, 46, 131, 152.)

John Neal struggled heroically (at times wildly and erratically) to combine this ironic vision — this intense serio-comic emphasis on self and the uncertitude of self — with his persistent quest for authentic nationality in literature. During the same decade in which Cooper said of a nursing foal that it “exacted the maternal contribution,” Neal’s adventurous experiments contributed significantly to our colloquial tradition. In the Preface to The Down-Easters (1833), he warned his readers that the rapid changes taking place in our country would soon leave us with hardly a vestige “of our strongest and sharpest peculiarities” (17). His sense of himself as an instrument for preserving a precious and vanishing heritage occasionally collided with the unity of effect he valued but rarely achieved. An anonymous critique of Neal’s manuscript novel Brother Jonathan complained that “The style has the same eternal effect of italics — & breaks — & affectation: but in many passages & descriptions, I have met with nothing more beautifully strong and original.” This critique, forwarded by William Blackwood to Neal, was to have its counterpart — some two decades later — in this observation by Poe:

[Neal] always begins well — vigorously — startlingly — proceeds by fits — much at random — now prosing, now gossiping, now running away with his subject, now exciting vivid interest; but his conclusions are sure to be hurried and indistinct; so that the reader, perceiving a falling-off where he expects a climax, is pained, and, closing the book with dissatisfaction, is in no mood to give the author credit for the vivid sensations which have been aroused during the progress of perusal. Of all literary foibles the most fatal, perhaps. is that of defective climax. Nevertheless, I should be inclined to rank John Neal first, or at all events second, among our men of indisputable genius. Is it, or is it not a fact, that the air of a Democracy agrees better with mere Talent than with Genius? (“Marginalia” [1849], Works, XVI, 152). [page 40:] Poe’s recognition of greatness and genius despite glaring deficiencies in what he elsewhere calls the “construction” of Neal’s works is reinforced by an 1848 pronouncement envisioning him as a force to be reckoned with in our emerging national literature:

The Byronic poets were all dash John Neal, in his earlier novels, exaggerated its use into the grossest abuse although his error arose from the philosophical and self-dependent spirit which has always distinguished him, and which will even yet lead him, if I am nor greatly mistaken in the man, to do something for the literature of the country which the country “will not willingly,” and cannot possibly, “let die.” (“Marginalia” [1848], Works, XVI, 13l; Poe refers to the novels Errata and Seventy-Six in Works, XVI, 46).

That this high praise and deep concern for Neal’s contribution to “the literature of the country” do not manifest a transient nationalist phase is evidenced by Poe’s 1843 review of Cooper’s Wyandotte (Works, XI, 205-220). Cooper is placed among those writers who, distrustful of their powers, choose an unfailingly popular subject — for example, life in the wilderness — and are widely read “with pleasure but without admiration.” Poe contrasts those writers to others, “not so popular, nor so widely diffused,” whose productions arouse “a distinctive and highly pleasurable interest, springing from our perception of the skill employed, or the genius evinced in the composition.” Brown, Simms, Neal, and Hawthorne are grouped among the less popular writers of skill or genius; Cooper is “at the head of the more popular division. . . .” (Compare Neal’s evaluation of Poe, in his 1850 tribute, as one “who would never be a popular Magazine-writer, although, as a man of genius, every man of genius he touched, would thrill with acknowledgment”) (18).

“It would not do for me to imitate anybody,” proclaimed John Neal in 1828 13 “All true men must rejoice to perceive the decline of the miserable rant and cant against originality,” wrote Poe in 1845 (Works, XVI, 67-68). Both writers felt it important for them, as Americans, to break new ground. Originality for both Neal and Poe encompassed a sense of terror (and an ironic ambivalence about terror) both of Germany and of the soul C the American soul. William Carlos Williams identified the blend as peculiarly American and singled out Poe as the representative American writer — more representative than Fenimore Cooper. According to Williams, Poe shied away from the easy, attractive subjects (for example, Indians and forests) to originate a style that sprang from “the local conditions, not of trees and mountains, but of the’soul.’ . .” (20). In his obituary tribute to Poe (a response to Griswold’s slanderous attack), Neal anticipated Williams’ view: Poe, he suggested, “saw farther, and looked more steadily, and more inquisitively into the elements of darkness — into the shadowy, the shifting and mysterious — than did most of the shining brotherhood about him” (21).

Despite their close ties, there were significant differences between John Neal and Edgar Allan Poe. Both writers clamored for individuality and originality but Poe, claims Benjamin T. Spencer, “Had little concern for that larger kind of originality which would involve the national as well as the individual mind, and which Emerson and Whitman sought to foster” (22). Neal’s emphases on live [column 2:] talk and authentic character reflected an organicism that foreshadowed Emerson, Whitman, and Mark Twain. As a result, Neal’s high praise of Poe — in his 1850 tribute — was accompanied by a recognition of what he considered shortcomings; while insisting on Poe’s vast superiority over the polished, shallow Horne Tooke, he nonetheless sees a resemblance: “I hold that [Poe] was a creature of wonderful power; concentrated, keen, finished and brilliant: rather Ho[rn]e Tooke-ish in his literary slope; but with ten times the genius, quite as much learning, and forty times the imagination of Tooke. . .” (23). John Neal was, in fact, a key transitional figure in the American literary revolution — one who shaped a rough and ready poetics that pulled him simultaneously in several different directions: toward Schlegelian unity of effect and Byronic sweep, toward authentic colloquialism and rhapsodic eloquence, toward the farcical and the tragic.

We have moved a considerable distance from Parrington’s dismissal of “The problem of Poe” as “quite outside the main current of American thought” and from Matthiessen’s decision to exclude Poe from his American Renaissance because his work seemed “relatively factitious when compared with the moral depth of Hawthorne or Melville” (24). The importance of John Neal has also begun to emerge. Poe stood almost alone in his praise of Neal’s tales until 1962 when Hans-Joachim Lang, a German authority on nineteenth-century American literature, discovered and reprinted in Germany two powerful stories, “David Whicher” and “Otter-Bag” — along with a selection of Neal’s critical writings.25 These and other tragicomic stories of frontier travail are cruder than Poe’s studies in self-destructiveness and madness, but at times they convey a greater poignance and horror than the younger man’s more polished productions; they deserve wider critical attention.

In “David Whicher” — the best of Neal’s stories and one that illustrates well his fictional method — an inoffensive, non-violent man of God is captured by four Indians. While playing for time by demonstrating his extraordinary skill as a woodsman, Whicher suddenly notices what seem to be the scalps of his two children — still bleeding — buckled on the chest of one of the warriors. He must have revenge; but he must be certain of the truth before violating his lifelong commitment to nonviolent faith in God’s providence. By a clever ruse, he pins the hands of the Indians in a tree prepared for this purpose and discovers that the scalps are indeed his children’s. Unable to use his axe on the murderers, Whicher leaves them to God’s providence and the wolves. On the anniversary of his terrible bereavement, the woodsman returns to the tree — and poignance suddenly dissolves into outrageous anticlimax as the auditor-narrator boggles at a tall-tale account of four skeletons “still striving to tear the tree asunder.” Neal’s ironic mode involves the telling of this harrowing tale by a ludicrous little man with green spectacles, and at the conclusion the narrator takes his leave from this mysterious storyteller, knowing “in my heart he intended to hoax me.” The hoaxing conclusion of “David Whicher” echoes what Baudelaire has described as the agonized laughter of Melmoth, whose “double and self-contradictory nature” stirs him to a mocking laughter that “freezes and torments the bowels of mercy and love” (26). [page 41:] In Poe’s ironic mode “a tragic response to the perversities of fortune and to the treacheries of one’s own mind is contrasted by a near-comic perception of the absurdity of man’s condition in the universe” (27). This statement has equal force for Neal. The bitter joke played by God upon the meek and mild and God-loving David Whicher has its counterpart in the “deceptive hoaxical” narrative framework — a joke played successively on the narrator-persona and the reader.

In turning to Indians, forests, and historical subjects, Neal transformed what he considered Cooper’s excessively bland vision of the American landscape into his own wild, darkly ironic, and peculiarly American Gothicism. Neal’s ironic vision is significantly reflected in Hawthorne; shortly before the publication of Twice-Told Tales, Jonathan Cilley wrote his old Bowdoin College classmate: “What sort of book have you written, Hath? I hope and pray it is nothing like the damned ranting stuff of John Neal, which you, while at Brunswick, relished so highly” (28). Hawthorne, in 1845, referred to “that wild fellow, John Neal, who almost turned my youthful brain with his romances. . .” (29). A commentator on romantic irony in Hawthorne’s tales, Alfred H. Marks, has observed that “Hawthorne knew the works and, at times, seems to have imitated the techniques of several of these writers [contemporaries immersed in the tradition of romantic irony] — techniques visible in John Neal, for instance. . .” (30).

Neal’s acknowledged influence on Hawthorne and his relationship with Poe are interrelated phenomena that clarify our understanding of Neal’sC and Poe’s contribution to the American literary revolution. Poe’s expressions of nationalistic sentiment, his involvement with Blackwood’s, his ironic mode — all these facets of Poe’s genius are better understood against the background of his protracted and important relationship with John Neal.



A different version of this paper was presented at the Midwest Modern Language Association meeting, November 2, 1973.

(1) American Writers: A Series of Papers Contributed to Blackwood’s Magazine (1824-1825) by John Neal, ed. F. L. Pattee (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1937), p. 29.

(2) That Wild Fellow John Neal and the American Literary Revolution (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973), esp. pp. 38-65. For quotations and references to Neal’s life and writings in this essay, refer to the index of this book.

(3) Broadway Journal, 2 (Oct. 4, 1845), 199-200. For evidence of Poe’s authorship of this item, see E. H. O’Neill, “The Poe-Griswold-Harrison Texts of the ‘Marginalia,’” American Literature, 15 (1943-44), 246-248.

(4) American Writers, pp. 29-30.

(5) “Poe and ‘Young America,’ “ Studies in Bibliography, 21 (1968), 29. For other views of Poe’s relationship to “Young America,” see John Stafford, The Literary Criticism of “Young America” ( Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1952), esp. pp. 22, 33, 47-48, 75; Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956), esp. pp. 126-127, 133-134, 145-146, 199; Robert D. Jacobs, Poe: Journalist & Critic (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 275, 286, 381 n.

(6) Poe and the British Magazine Tradition ( New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 154-156; Allen quotes from Poe’s review in the BroadwayJournal, 1 (January 4, 1845), 7.

(7) The Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette, n.s. 1 (September and December 1829), 168, 295-298. [column 2:]

(8) “Poems by Edgar A. Poe,” Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, July 8, 1831.

(9) For Poe’s debut as a writer of tales, see Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York and London: D. Appleton-Century, 1941), pp. 191-192.

(10) Poe to Neal, June 4 [1840], The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (New York: Gordian Press, 196G), 1, 137; “Marginalia” [1849], The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell 1902), XVI, 152. Hereafter referred to as Works.

(11) Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869), pp. 251-252.

(12) The most comprehensive treatment of Poe’s indebtedness to Blackwood’s is in Margaret Alterton, The Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (Iowa City Univ. of Iowa Press, 1925), pp. 7-45; see also Allen, Poe and the British Magazine Tradition, pp. 2939.

(13) Among Neal’s contributions to Blackwood’s available and probably familiar to Poe were: “American Writers,” Nos. 1-3, 16 (1824), 304-311, 415-428, 560-571; Nos. 4-5, 17 (1825), 46-69, 186-207; “Late American Books . . . ,” 18 (1825), 316-334.

(14) The Origins of American Critical Thought, 1810-1835 (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1961), p. 57. For a valuable discussion of Poe’s psychological concept of effect, see Walter Blair, A Poe’s Conception of Incident and Tone in the Tale,” Modern Philology, 46 (1941), 228-240.

(15) Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), p. 27; the reference to A. W. Schlegel in the following sentence is based on Thompson, Pp. 30-34.

(16) Poe refers to Neal’s The Battle of Niagara in “The Literati,” Works, XV, 46. Neal’s notices of Poe in The Yankee, n.s. 1 (1829) are on pp.]68 and 295-298; his articles on “The Drama” are on pp. 57-68, 134-145, 195-209, 249-258, 303-317.

(17) For another example of this pervasive concern, see Neal’s Seventy-Six (London: Whittaker, 1823), 1, 1-11.

(18) “Edgar A. Poe,” Portland Advertiser Weekly, April 30, 1850.

(19) “Unpublished Preface” [originally submitted to Blackwood’s], in Rachel Dyer: A North American Story (Portland: Shirley and Hyde, 1828), p. xi.

(20) In the American Grain (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1925), p. 227.

(21) “Edgar A. Poe,” Portland Advertiser Weekly, April 30, 1850. 22 The Quest for Nationality: An American Literary Campaign (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1957), p. 196.

(23) “Edgar A. Poe,” Portland Advertiser Weekly, April 30, 1850.

(24) V. L. Parrington, The Romantic Revolution in America, 18001860 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927), p. 58; F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance ( New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1941), p. xii, n. 3.

(25) Lang, ed., “Critical Essays and Stories by John Neal,” Jahrbuch fur Amerikastudien, 7 (1962), 204-319; the story discussed in the following paragraph, “David Whicher” (1832), is reprinted in Lang, pp. 278-288.

(26) The Essence of Laughter, ed. Peter Quennell (New York: Meridian Books, 1956). pp. 116-117; the reference is to Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer.

(27) Thompson, p. 166; the quoted adjectives in the following senrence are from Thompson’s discussion of Pym, p. 183.

(28) Cilley to Hawthorne. November 17, 1836; quoted in Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885), 1, 145.

(29) “P.’s Correspondence” [1845], Mosses from an Old Manse (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882), p. 426; Hawthorne is being ironically jocular on the whole, but seems quite straightforward in his comments on Neal and Halleck.

(30) “German Romantic Irony in Hawthorne’s Tales,” Symposium, 6 (1953), 274-275.


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