Text: Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Neal, Poe, and Others,” Poe Studies, December 1974, Vol. VII, No. 2, 7:52-54


[page 52, column 2, continued:]

Neal, Poe, and Others

Benjamin Lease. That Wild Fellow John Neal and the American Literary Revolution. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1972 xii & 229 pp. 57.95.

Benjamin Lease’s book is the first full-length study of John Neal, an interesting and important, and previously too-little-attended figure in American literary history. It is a critical biography of highest excellence. Earlier writers about Neal, such as Trent, Pattee, Quinn, and Cowie, display the colorful personality of their subject rather than analyze his literary merits. Lease deftly charts our course between aspects of Neal’s life and personality — [page 53:] colorful and tempestuous as they surely were — and manages also to direct us to the writer’s problems and productions by means of concise analyses of both. The Neal of vigorous humanity and curious style is well served through Lease’s own unflagging style and continual championing. The strangely written novels, in particular, come to us for the first time as genuinely worthwhile, if imperfect, examples of American Romanticism.

Like Stuart Levine’s recent book on Poe, Lease’s is always readable, although it virtually bristles with the formal apparatus of notes and bibliography and is without the informal style that so distresses some of Levine’s grudging critics. The sprinkling of brief studies (Neal has never dropped entirely from the sight of those who know American Literature in depth), the mammoth — and, alas, chiefly unpublished — Harvard dissertation of I. T. Richards, the meticulous, bibliographically oriented studies by Hans-Joachim Lang, the known manuscript sources, all have yielded their treasures to Lease, who generously acknowledges his predecessors. The sole peculiarity in strict scholarly procedures occurs in note 9, page 117, wherein Lease does not explain why he could not use the American edition of Seventy-Six. This text was, apparently, consulted by Harold C. Martin in a previous study, and, presumably, Lease would have had access to or would have known the whereabouts of that version of the novel. Mentioning the American edition, he offers no reason for not using it.

Much more important than such minor caveats are the excellences of Lease’s book, which serve several useful purposes for students of the American Renaissance and, more particularly, of Poe. Neal emerges as a literary personage and stylist important both in his own right and in his relation to the greater subject of our literature. Neal turned from poetry to fiction for “bread and fame,” to use the late Professor Mabbott’s words about Poe, who resembles Neal in many ways. Rightly, the fiction receives major attention here, and its components of Gothicism, sentimentalism, psychology, and personal revelation are thoroughly examined. As is true even of “classic” works of American literature, Neal’s fictions have numerous flaws. But Lease demonstrates that ore lies buried among the rubble.

Another major significance of this book is its revelation of abundant links between Neal and better-known figures of the American Renaissance, as well as with later writers, some of whom might squirm if conscious of such relationships. Among the former, Poe looms large. Lease pays more attention to the story of Neal and Poe than others have. He notes that Neal was early in recognizing Poe’s potential and that their careers as journalists and magazinists had much in common. Their literary similarities are explored, too. Neal’s Authorship and The Down-Easters, productions of the 1830’s, blend the Gothic with the comic in a manner decidedly like Poe’s.

Other such relationships make Lease’s book valuable among studies of the early nineteenth century. Neal trumpeted the work of Whittier and Longfellow, for instance, and remained a long-time friend of the latter — a curious pairing, surely. The discussion of Neal and Cooper, whose name recurs in the book, is also enlightening. Doubtless, more readers have been coached by Mark [column 2:] Twain than by John Neal to dissect Cooper’s deficiencies. Nevertheless, Neal’s strictures were levelled first, and consequently, they are important in revealing that not all attention to Cooper during his own times was laudatory. Lease points out how much more frankly Neal treated sexuality in his fiction than did Cooper — and most of his other contemporaries. The overt sexual elements in Neal’s tales leave Cooper’s notoriously flat and sappy females far behind.

Lease also illuminates the problems of literary nationalism and artistry confronting writers of the age, as American Romanticism grew conscious of itself and drew away from European models. Like Paulding, Neal exhorted his countrymen to drop the chains binding them to old-world antecedents and instead to strive for a genuinely American literature, most notably to be found in style. Neal pioneered in the colloquial idiom, and his ventures draw greater sympathy from Lease than from other scholars. He notes Neal’s importance as a precursor of other American writers tending toward the vernacular, such as Whitman, Twain, and Pound (!), as well as his pioneering in types of humor akin to the work of George Washington Harris and other humorists discerned in the backgrounds of Twain and Faulkner. Lowell’s Hosea Bigelow has previously overshadowed Neal’s Yankee types and their humor.

Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of Lease’s book is the wealth of areas it illuminates without exhausting, thus inviting further investigation. Lease hints at, yet skirts the question of Paulding’s relationship to Neal (and by implication to other figures of the era) as Gothicist, humorist, and colloquialist. In view of Poe’s chameleon adaptation of sources, we might also benefit from additional examination of Neal’s pivotal position between Brown (and Godwin revisited?) and Poe — in matters Gothic as they bear on the psychological. Neal’s modifications of the Gothic tradition, modifications akin to those of Paulding and Poe, make him a challenge to those connected with American humor in its broad and subtle features. Also of interest is Neal’s adaptation of Schlegelian doctrines, particularly that of unity of effect. Neal and Poe were to intensify such theory in their imaginative and critical writings, and one might wonder profitably just how much both imbibed from Schlegel’s pronouncements upon combinations of the tragic and comic in the creation of character. Moreover, Neal’s significance as a contributor to magazines, literary annuals, and gift books has yet to be thoroughly assessed, although Lease provides plenty of materials for a successful approach to the task. He also sheds new light on several aspects of the Byronic influence upon both Neal and Poe, though much remains to be done. Because it attempted too broad a coverage, with resulting thin analyses of any single linkage, William Ellery Leonard’s book about Byron’s impact upon early American writers now appears feeble. The shorter essays by Killis Campbell, Roy P. Basler, H. L. Kleinfeld, Richard P. Benton, and Frank Lentriccia, Jr., notwithstanding, the final word remains yet to be said on Byron in America in regard to Neal, Poe, Paulding, and Hawthorne, to list only the most obvious names. Neal’s influence upon Hawthorne also remains elusive. Lease sketches the relationship, but more work is warranted. Other major figures [page 54:] in the American Renaissance — and beyond — people these pages in provocative ways. Neal came before Emerson and Poe in bringing Coleridge to American critical theory, a fact worth remembering when courses in “Major American Writers” frequently neglect important, yet not obtrusive, facts and figures in our literary heritage.

For many of us, the affinities of Neal and Poe will merit closest scrutiny. Both were pioneers of sorts in the literary magazine arena. Here it is not amiss to mention Neal’s autobiography, Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life (1869), which merits reprinting because of its scarcity and frail condition. Besides presenting Neal at his liveliest, it would contribute a chapter to the critical history of American periodical publication during the early nineteenth century. Neal and Poe were both sensitive to magazine publishing currents, but they also attempted such other popular forms as novels and plays. Poe relished Neal’s early praise for his work, and, as in other like situations in his literary life (that linking him to McJilton, an early Southern Literary Messenger contributor who honored Poe by imitation, comes readily to mind), the younger writer may have, consequently, looked into Neal’s works more attentively than we have realized. Lease’s book is a considered step toward that realization, but the path awaits additional treading.

Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, Hahnemann Medical College


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[S:0 - PS, 1974]