Text: Donald Barlow Stauffer, “The American Face of Poe,” Poe Studies, June 1977, Vol. X, No. 1, 10:31-32


[page 31, continued:]

The American Face of Poe

Claude Richard, directeur, Edgar Allan Poe. Paris: Aditions de l’Herne, 1974. Cahiers de l’Herne Series. 478 pp. 108 Fr.

Why do the French like Poe? This is a question asked by American (and English) readers for a century. T. S Eliot thought it was because they don’t understand English. The French Poe scholar Claude Richard believes it is because they don’t understand Poe’s role as a theoretician of art. With the aid of a group of students and colleagues at the Universite Paul Valery de Montpellier, Richard has assembled an impassioned but well-documented dossier, as he calls it, to show his countrymen that the Poe they have enshrined as a quasi-French writer is not the real Poe, but a distorted version filtered down through Charles Baudelaire from the calumniations of Rufus Griswold and his fellow slanderers.

What Richard and his colleagues have done in assembling this “cahier” is to supply a Poe missing from the French consciousness. Their purpose is twofold: to correct the impression of Poe as a “drunken helot,” a poet of disorder and madness, as created by Baudelaire, and to see him rather as a poet of process — of order: a theoretician, or engineer, of poetry, in the way Valery came to perceive him. The means to achieve this is to print translations from his critical writings, from contemporary reviews and memoirs, and from essays by a number of American and English writers, as well as a group of essays by French critics. Controverting those who distort Poe’s image, Richard submits “that Poe’s text becomes richer in direct proportion to the attention paid to the specific modes of his discourse.”

He finds Baudelaire responsible for the false image of Poe — for ignoring his theoretical side, as found in “The Philosophy of Composition,” “The Rationale of Verse,” “The Poetic Principle” and numerous reviews. These three principal essays are now well-known in France, of course, but many of Poe’s reviews and essays familiar to American scholars are not The first section of the book is therefore [column 2:] a collection of translations of a group of them, here pub fished in France for the first time. They include the following reviews: a Euripides translation, a production of Antigone, Hazlitt’s The Characters of Shakespeare, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Bulwer’s Night and Morning, Cooper’s Wyandotte, two works of Dickens, de la Motte Fouque’s Undine, Bird’s Sheppard Lee, N. P. Willis’ The Book of Gems, Drake and Halleck’s poems, Moore’s Alciphron, Longfellow’s Ballads and Other Poems, Home’s Orion, and Lowell’s Poems. These are well chosen; no one writing on Poe today can do so without an awareness of the theoretical material in the Undine review, the Drake-Halleck review, and others. Richard also includes part of the 1842 Hawthorne review, which has already appeared in France, and an 1845 review of Poe’s Tales, which appeared in Thomas Dunn English’s Aristidean and which Quinn and others have long suspected, on the basis of internal evidence, to be by Poe himself. Richard’s French translation is the first reprinting of this review in either America or France.

The second section of articles, “Friends and Enemies: Edgar Allan Poe before his American contemporaries,” is prefaced by a note, “Birth of a Myth,” in which Richard argues that Poe was a victim of petty jealousies among third-rate writers in America. For thirty years after his death, he writes, they constructed a legendary figure that served their own ends of self-justification and personal aggrandizement; this was the “pitiable band” of John R. Thompson, John M. Daniel, Thomas Dunn English, Willis Gaylord Clark, Horace Greeley, C F. Briggs, and, above all, Rufus Griswold — who neither read nor understood the text of the person they vilified. He singles out Griswold, Thompson, and Daniel as practitioners of a critical genre which, under the pretext of explaining a man’s work, conceals the work for the sake of inaccurate biography. But more significantly, he sees the writing of these men as the basis for Baudelaire’s view of Poe, which in turn has established itself as the prevailing myth of Poe in Europe.

We have become forcefully aware in recent years, largely through the detective work of Professor W. T. Bandy, of Baudelaire’s woefully small knowledge of Poe when he first wrote about him. His famous and profoundly influential 1852 essay on Poe was written when he had read only the dozen tales in the 1845 edition and a handful of poems, including “The Bells.” He had not read Pym, “The Raven,” Eureka, or a single line of Poe’s criticism. What he knew of Poe’s life he found in two notorious memoirs in the Southern Literary Messenger: John R. Thompson’s “The Late Edgar Allan Poe” and John M. Daniel’s anonymous review of Griswold’s edition of the works. As Bandy has shown, the essential part of Baudelaire’s “Edgar Allan Poe, sa vie et ses ouvrages” is derived from paraphrases and translations of these two sources. In a note to his translation of the Daniel review, Richard calls it “the principal document of the literary fortune of Poe in France and of the fascinating problem of the relationship of Poe and Baudelaire.” He prints not only Daniel and Thompson, but the “Ludwig” article and Griswold’s 1850 memoir in their entirety. In an effort to destroy the myth, he also includes dissenting essays by Willis, Graham, and Lowell but despairs of their having the desired effect: “Europe, and above all France, prefers the other Poe, the [page 32:] legendary one. Certain people have said — and will still say, doubtless — that it is better that way. Perhaps; but first let us judge. Here then are the documents of the brief.”

The third set of documents contains comments by French writers: E.-D. Forgue’s 1846 review of Tales (the first French study of Poe); some minor pieces by Baudelaire not as well known as his major essays, and his “Edgar Allan Poe, sa vie et ses ouvrages,” with notes indicating the extent of its indebtedness to Thompson and Daniel; and essays and poems by Verne, Mallarme, Le Sar Peladan, Valery, and Andre Breton. The fourth and last section, “Edgar Allan Poe before his peers;’ includes translations into French of essays by Margaret Fuller, Henry James, Walt Whitman, R L. Stevenson, G. B. Shaw, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, W. H. Auden, John Cowper Powys, and Richard Wilbur; only the Eliot essays have previously appeared in French.

At the end of the volume is a selective bibliography divided into two categories: one for the study of Poe and France; the other for the study of Poe’s works. It is an attractively designed volume in an oversize format, printed on good stock with wide margins, but it is riddled with misprints and other errors, particularly in titles of tales, poems, and journals Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of a communal editorial enterprise involving eighteen teachers and students.

The collection is far from a mere “casebook” of reprinted materials for classroom use; it is an impassioned, at times even intemperate, attack on the prevalent myth of Poe the poete masudit, presented as though it were a lawyer’s brief. Richard’s accusing tone suggests that Baudelaire deliberately warped Thompson’s already false account by softening those details which were inimical to Poe, and thereby giving rise to the legend. Professor Bandy is much less harsh on Baudelaire, after having done much of the digging which unearthed his sources. Bandy’s edition of Baudelaire’s Edgar Allan Poe, la vie et ses ouvrages (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1973) also reprints the Thompson and Daniel articles and documents Baudelaire’s debt to them. Elsewhere, Bandy, too, was somewhat more harsh on what seems to be a dear-cut case of plagiarism, but in his book he concludes that Baudelaire, trying to defend Poe against his detractors, “frequency translated Daniel’s text, instead of paraphrasing it,” out of a desire “to reproduce, as accurately as possible, the facts provided by Daniel, while remaining free, of course, to differ in the interpretation of those facts” (p. xii). This makes Baudelaire into an apologist rather than a plagiarist, intent merely upon gaining for Poe a favorable hearing, rather than taking credit upon himself as a biographer and critic.

Richard, then, tends to push his case too hard — to protest too much. He may feel that this approach is necessary in a revisionist enterprise such as this, and French readers, if we are to accept his statements about their knowledge of Poe, need and can use such a book. American readers will find it useful mainly for its notations to Baudelaire’s long essay (although Bandy also provided similar annotations), the essays by French critics, and its bibliography of French editions and critics of Poe.

Donald Barlow Stauffer, State University of New York at Albany


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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