Text: Elsa Nettels, “Poe and James on the Art of Fiction,” Poe Studies, June 1980, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 13:p-p


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Poe and James on the Art of Fiction

College of William and Mary

In the history of American literary criticism, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James rank foremost among theorists of the err of fiction. Poe has been recognized as the first critic to formulate principles of the short story. James, often called the architect of the modern novel, is likewise credited wirh creating the esthetics of a literary genre. Whar has not been stressed is the number of points at which the critical principles of Poe and James coincide. In his reviews in the Southern Literary Messenger, Graham’s Magazine, and the Broadway Journal, Poe introduced a surprising number of ideas that James set forth years later in “The Art of Fiction,” the prefaces to the novels and tales in the New York Edition, and other critical essays.(1)

To note the ways in which Poe anticipated James is not to diminish James’ importance as a critic or to argue that he owed his critical principles to Poe’s reviews. On occasion James referred to Poe’s poetry and tales, which, like the legend of “the terrible, the haunting” Poe himself, gripped James’ imagination in childhood and remained vivid in his memory.(2) But James only once expressed an opinion of Poe’s criticism, when, in his biography of Hawthorne, he gave severely qualified praise to Poe’s essays on the New York literati but acknowledged that Poe “had the advantage of being a man of genius, and his intelligence was frequently great.“(3)

The purpose of the following discussion is not to argue thar Poe influenced James but rather to assert the imporrance of Poe as the first American critic to elucidate certain principles concerning the art of narration, the author’s relation ro his characters, and the techniques of portraying the supernatural — principles which were to become guiding precepts in James’ criticism. When Poe and James are viewed in relation to the history of American criticism, they are seen to occupy similar positions as critics who unired the neoclassicist’s ideals of order, harmony, and balance with the romantic’s stress upon the primacy of feeling and the power of the imagination to intuit truths not accessible to the rational faculties alone.(4)

In developing their theories of fiction, Poe and James started from the same premises: that the primary purpose of the tale or the novel is not to provide entertainment or insrruction but to render an impression which creares an illusion of reality; that the artist’s success in creating the illusion is measured in terms of the effect upon the reader; and that unity is essential to sustaining the illusion. Poe identified unity of effect, produced by unity of plot and tone, as the means of creating a picture which “leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction‘(5); similarly, James defined the work of fiction as a “living thing, all one and continuous,” [page 5:] which lives to the extent that “in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts.“(6)

To achieve unity in the work of fiction, Poe and James insisted, the writer must eliminate all elements not essential to the effect or the action to be sustained. “In the whole composition,” Poe declared, “there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design” (XI, 108). The defect that Poe most often criticized in the popular novels of the day was the “want of keeping,“(7) evident in the inclusion of irrelevant details and incidents or in the absence of a controlling purpose altogether. The effect of Bulwer’s Zanoni, for instance, was dissipated by the author’s “diverging from the burden of the story” to the extent that “many even of the leading incidents have no bearing on the denouement” (XI, 117, 118). W. H. Ainsworth’s Guy Fawkes was similarly deficient, offering “the greatest parade of measures, but measures that have no comprehensible result” (X, 215). To Poe, the great merit of Dickens’ Sketches loy Boz was their unity. Of “The Pawnbroker’s Shop” he observed: “We are enveloped in its atmosphere of wretchedness and extortion. . . . To the illustration of this one end all the gronpings and fillings in of the painting are rendered subservient” (IX, 48).

As Poe praised Dickens’ sense of unity, so James in one of his early reviews praised Balzac for describing things “only in so far as they bear upon the action. . . [;] as the soul of a novel is its action, you should only describe those things which are accessory to the action.“(8) Early and late, James shared Poe’s pleasure in the concise and tightly constructed, Poe’s dislike of the loose and the improvised. One thinks of Poe’s strictures upon excessive length when, in the preface to “The Turn of the Screw,” James expresses his preference for the fairy tale which is “short and sharp and single” and when he asserts: “We fail . . . of an agreeable unity, of the ‘roundness’ in which beauty and lucidity largely reside — when we go in . . . for great lengths and breadths.“(9)

Both Poe and James retained a strong sense of the different literary genres. As Poe carefully defined the separate provinces of the poem, the tale, and the essay, so James distinguished the “law” of drama from that of narrative observing that “‘kinds’ are the very life of literature, and truth and strength come from the complete recognition of them. . .” (p. 111). Poe, of course, distinguished sharply between long works and short ones, claiming that the former could not achieve the tonality or unity of impression possible in the latter — criteria he applied to prose as well as to poetry.(10) It remained to James to apply to the long narrative Poe’s conception of the ideal plot as a structure of interlocking parts none of which can be displaced without injury to the whole. When James compared his novels to buildings and his plots to tightly forged chains, like the action of The Sacred Fount, which “gathered substance step by step and without missing a link,‘‘(11) he was using the favorite metaphors of Poe, who compared the well-constructed plot to a “connecting chain which unites into one proper whole the varied events of the novel” (VIII, 7) and to a building “so dependently constructed, that to [column 2:] change the position of a single brick is to overthrow the entire fabric” (XIII, 17).

Repeatedly in his notebooks James insists upon the necessity of the plan or scenario in producing a tightly constructed work. The “preliminary frame” which he designed for What Maisie Knew, for example, was “indispensable for a straight and sure advance to the end.‘‘(12) The statement perfectly illustrates the principle Poe earlier enunciated that to achieve unity, the writer of a tale must work toward a pre-determined end: “It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation. . .” (XIV, 193).

Given their keen sense of fiction as composition, an integration of parts, it is not surprising that Poe and James frequently developed the analogy between the writer and the painter. As both in their fiction often visualized scenes and characters as works of art and symbolized ideas and mental states by visual images, so in their criticism they habitually referred to the work of fiction as a “picture” and a “canvas” and used the vocabulary of the painter to describe the impressions evoked for them by the works of other writers. As his review of Sketches by Box shows, Poe from the beginning sought in works of literature the integration of idea and image seen in great paintings. He praised a popular tale “Peter Snook” as a “Flemish home piece of the highest order,” the merit of which “lies in the chiaro ’scuro, — in that blending of light and shadow where nothing is too distinct, yet where the idea is fully conveyed.“(13) Likewise, James’ criticism of American and European novelists is informed by the conviction that the soul of a work of literature is an idea rendered in visual terms. “Every good story is . . . borh a picture and an idea, and the more they are interfused the better the problem is solved.“(14)

Both Poe and James similarly insisted on the identity of the general principles governing the arts of painting and literature. Poe’s statement that “the principal rules of the plastic arts, founded as they surely are in a true perception of the beautiful, will apply in their fullest force to every species of literary composition“(15) is paralleled by James’ more specific claim in “The Arr of Fiction“: “the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle) is the same, their success is the same.‘‘(16)

Both Poe and James insisred that the picture which merely copies nature is not art, that the task of the writer and the painter is to create an image of nature which will appear true to the beholder. To create truth, Poe asserted, the writer must exaggerate or adjust nature’s aspects. “Were we to copy nature with accuracy, the object copied would seem unnatural” (X, 152-153). Poe made his fullest statemenr of the idea when he commended John Slidell, the author of The American in England, for perceiving that “the apparenr, not the real, is the province of a painter — and that to give . . . the idea of any desired object, the toning down, or the utter neglect of certain portions of that object is absolutely necessary to the proper [page 6:] bringing o‘4t of other portions — portions by whose sole instrumentality the idea of the object is afforded” (VIII, 216).(17)

When Poe declared that “the apparent, not the real, is the province of a painter,” he anticipated James’ statement in the Preface to The Princess Casamassima that “the affair of the painter is not the immediate, it is the reflected field of life” (p. 65). Here James is defending his practice of presenting his story as it is reflected by the mind of a character. Likewise, Poe in most of his tales created a center of consciousness in a narrator whose impressions and sensations are the substance of the story. Poe was primarily interested in the sensations themselves, James, in the character revealed through the sensations. The method of both, however, required them to enter the minds of their characters and ro experience situations from their point of view. “I can have none of the conveyed sense and taste of the ir situation,” James stated, “without becoming intimate with them” (pp. 65-66). Indeed, to James, the power to live through another’s consciousness, “the act of personal possession of one being by another at its completest” (p. 37), was the supreme privilege of the artist and the measure of his genius.

Here again Poe anticipated James. For him, as for James, the writer of fiction achieved “the potent magic of verisimilitude” not by imitating nature, but by fully absorbing his identity in that of his characters. Poe attributed the power of Robinson Crusoe to Defoe’s possession of “the faculty of identification — that dominion exercised by volition over imagination which enables the mind to lose its own, in a fictitious, individuality.‘‘(18) To this power of identification with their characters Poe also attributed the greatness of Shakespeare, Boccaccio and Scott. “Than the power of accomplishing this perfect identification, there is no surer mark of genius” (VIII, 234-235).

On a number of other points, Poe and James were in agreement. Both disapproved of allegory, which Poe condemned as “that most indefensible species of writing” (X, 37) and which James dismissed as “quite one of the lighter exercises of the imagination.“(19) As Poe deplored the kind of readers who “think no novel is good unless it has a pretty strong dose of jealousy, reconcilement, and marriage, as a finale” (X, 98), so James rejected the idea that a novel’s “being good . . . depends on a ‘happy ending,’ on a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks.“(20)

Poe also anticipated James in asserting as a basic principle of criticism that the critics should grant the writer his subject and judge him by his treatment of it. Defining criticism as “the test or analysis of Art, (not of opinion)” (XI, 7), Poe defended tales of terror and horror from critical attack on the ground that “the true critic will but demand that the design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable” (XI, 109). In “The Art of Fiction,” James defined the office of the critic in similar terms: “we must [column 2:] grant the artier his subject, his idea, his donee; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.‘‘(21)

The most striking instance of James’ enunciation of principles first set forth by Poe is to be seen in his preface to “The Turn of the Screw.” In the analysis of the method employed in this famous tale, James came as close as he ever did to defining his artistic creation in Poe’s terms, as a calculated process undertaken to achieve a particular effect. As Poe, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” traced the evolution of “The Raven” from the initial choice of melancholy as the predominant tone of the poem, so James in this preface recalled the “cold artistic calculation” with which he sought to produce a certain effect. “The study is of a conceived ‘tone,’ the tone of suspected and felt trouble, of an inordinate and incalculable sort — the tone of tragic, yet of exquisite, mystification” (pp. 172-173).

James found his key to the creation of the desired effect in a principle which Poe had set forth some sixty years earlier in his review of Barnaby Rudge. Here Poe criticized Dickens for attempting to explain mysterious events so portentous that even the most horrific circumstances devised to account for them could not satisfy the reader. Dickens would have been well advised, Poe argued, to attempt no explanation whatever and allow the reader’s imagination to satisfy itself. “The skilful intimation of horror held out by the artist, produces an effect which will deprive his conclusion of all. These intimations — these dark hints of some uncertain evil — are often rhetorically praised as effective — but are only justly so praised where there is no denouement whatever — where the reader’s imagination is left to clear up the mystery for irself” (XI, 58).

In his creation of the figures Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, James fulfilled this dictum. In the preface, James concurred with Poe rhat a sense of “portentous evil” would be best evoked not by attributing to such figures any specific acts but by allowing the reader’s imagination to produce its own conception of the ultimate horror: “Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough . . . and his own experience, his own imagination . . . will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications” (p. 176).

Poe, in a review of the novel Sheppard Lee, gave his fullesr statement of the proper method of presenting the fantastic and the improbable. The writer should neither explain his wonders nor casr any doubt on the veracity of what he represents. He should write as if “firmly impressed wirh the truth, yer astonished at the immensity, of the wonders he relates.” While avoiding “directness of expression,” he should present situations with a “minuteness of detail” which will sustain the illusion of reality. “By making use of the infinity of arts which give verisimilitude to a narrarion — and by leaving the result as a wonder not to be accounred for,” the writer gives to his story “the characrer and the luminousness of truth” (IX, 138-139).

As if she were following Poe’s instructions, the governess and principal narrator of “The Turn of the Screw” constandy affirms the reality of what she sees, expresses a [page 7:] mounting sense of wonder and horror at the enormity of her situation, and describes the features of the ghostly Perer Quint in precise derail. That the governess’ speculations are never conclusively proved true or false places the governess, like the ghostly figures, within the world of the mysrerious and unaccountable, about which the reader is invited to speculate.

As their criticism shows, both Poe and James required of the tale of the marvellous and the supernatural what they required of other works of fiction, that it sustain the illusion of reality. Both stressed the insufficiency of a tale that provided only what Poe termed the “mere physiq?‘e of the horrible” (XII, 156). Poe criticized Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard for failing to make fantastic events either credible or interesting. “His marvels have a nakedness which repels. Nothing he relates seems either probable or possible, or of the slightest interest, whether the one or the other. His hero impresses us as a mere chimaera, with whom we have no earthly concern” (X, 219).

The principle implicit in Poe’s statement was developed by James in his preface to “The Altar of the Dead,” in which he warned against a direct, objective view of the fantastic and declared that “prodigies and marvels and miracles” were best rendered through the human consciousness that could interpret and respond to them. “The safest arena for the play of moving accidents and mighty mutations and strange encounters . . . is the field . . . rather of their second than of their first exhibition.” In themselves, supernatural marvels have no values. “Here prodigies, when they come straight, come with an effecr imperilled; they keep all their character, on the other hand, by looming through some other history — the indispensable history of somebody’s normal relation to something” (pp. 255, 256).

The failure to provide the “indispensable history” James observed in Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the work admired by Prince Amerigo in The Golden Bowl as “a wonderful tale” and “a thing to show . . . what imagination Americans could have.“(22) In the preface to “The Altar of the Dead,” James cited the spectacle of the doomed Pym drifting towards the dazzling white curtain of fog as an example of a climax which failed to develop the essential human connections. “The moving accidents, coming straight . . . are immediate and flat, and the atrempt is all at the horrific in itself” (p. 256). Years before, James had characterized Poe’s interest in the supernatural as a “matter of adventurous fancy . . . [;] it was perfectly cold and had nothing to do with his moral life.“(23) Likewise, in James’ view, the climax of Pym was divorced from the moral life of the protagonist and so became an example of the “naked marvels” to which Poe himself objected.

It is notable that the only work by Poe which James analyzed was Arthur Gordon Pym, that writer’s closest approach to a novel. James’ interest in this work no doubt reflects his own abiding interest in the novel, an interest which distinguishes him from Poe. One cannot pretend that Poe even approached James in appreciating the form of the long narrative. In failing to recognize that [column 2:] the novel, like a tale, can be unified and apprehended as one inregral srructure, Poe ignored the power of the writer and the reader to perceive as parts of one design the elements of a long work which may have taken months to write and may take days to read. When Poe declared that the “general design” of a novel will “be found to have occupied but little of the writer’s attention, and cannot, from the length of the narrative, be taken in at one view, by the reader” (IX, 46), he flatly repudiates the position of James, who sought to realize in the long novel his ideal of a “deep-breathing economy and an organic form” (p. 84).

Such differences, however, should not obscure the remarkable similarities in the essential principles upon which Poe and James based their theories of fiction. Both writers insisted that the creation of art requires the exercise of both the intuitive and the analytical faculties, that art is the product of craftsmanship as well as inspiration. Among American critics in the nineteenth century, these two were supreme in their power to analyze the interplay of mental actions, controlled and spontaneous, which produced the work of art. In his emphasis upon formal perfection as essential ro the full engagement of the reader’s feelings, Poe was at one with James, who likewise insisted that form gives meaning and intensity to characters’ experience and so creates for the reader the illusion of reality. If James is to be placed in a critical tradition, it is that inaugurated in America by Poe, who, in defining his concept of unity, in developing the analogy between literature and painting and in analyzing the most effective methods of depicting the fantasric and the marvellous, opened the way that James would choose.



1. - The most detailed studies of Poe’s criticism are Norman Foerster, American Criticism: A Study in Literary Theory from Poe to the Present (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928); Robert D. Jacobs, Poe: Journalist & Critic (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969); Sidney P. Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Miliet’ (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1963); and E. W. Parks, Edgar Allan Poe as Literary Critic (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1964). The only book which surveys the whole body of James’ criticism is Morris Roberts, Henry James’s Criticism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1929). Leon Edel, The Prefaces of Henry James (Paris: 1931), discusses the theories and methods of James’ fiction as set forth in the prefaces to the New York Edition. Also valuable is Richard P. Blackmur’s introduction to The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces 17y Henry James (New York: Scriboer’s, 1934). An extended discussion of James’ criticism of French writers can be found in Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, Henry James: The Vision of France (Paris: Societe d‘Editions, 1970). [page 8:]

2. - William Wetmore Story and His Friends: From Lettets, Diaries, and Recollections, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904), I, 78. For James’ childhood response to Poe, see also Henry James: Autobiography, edited with an introduction by Frederick W. Dupee (New York: Criterion Books, 1956), pp. 36-37. The fullest discussion of James’ attitude toward Poe is Burton R. Pollin’s “Poe and Henry James: A Changing Relationship,” The Yearhook of English Studies, 3 (1973), 232-242. For further comment on individual works, see James Hafley, “Malice in Wonderland,” Arizona Quarterly, 15 (1959), 5-12, emphasizing The Portrait of a Lady and “The Oval Portrait“; J. Gerald Kennedy, “Jeffrey Aspern and Edgar Allan Poe: A Speculation,” Poe Studies, 6 (1973), 17-18; H. G. Ruthrof, “A Note on Henry James’s Psychological Realism and the Concept of Brevity,” Studies in Short Fiction, 12 (1975), 369-373; Allen Tate, “Three Commentaries: Poe, James, and Joyce,” The Sewanee Review, 58 (1950), 1-15, emphasizing “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Beast in the Jungle“; Adeline R. Tintner, “Poe’s ‘The Spectacles’ and James’ ‘Glasses,’ ” Poe Studies, 9 (1976), 53-54. References to Poe in eleven works of James are listed in William T. Stafford, A Name, Title and Place Index to the Critical Writings of Henry James (Microcard Editions Books, 1975).

3. - Hawthorne (London: Macmillan, 1879), p. 63.

4. - For discussion of the place of Poe and James in the history of literary criticism in America, see John Paul Pritchard, Criticism in America: An Account of the Development of Critical Techniques from the Early Period of the Republic to the Middle Years of the Twentieth Century (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1956); and Floyd Stovall, ea., The Development of American Literary Criticism (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1955). For comment on the relation of Poe and James as critics, see Emerson R. Marks, “Poe as Literary Theorist: A Reappraisal,” American Literature, 33 (1961), 305; Stovall, introduction to The Development of American Literary Criticism, p. 11.

5. - “Twice-Told Tales” in Complete Works, XI, 108; hereafter cited in text by volume and page numbers.

6. - “The Art of Fiction,” Partial Portraits (London: Macmillan, 1888), p. 392.

7. - The phrase appears in “Mephistopheles in England or The Confessions of a Prime Minister,” Southern Literary Messenger, 1 (1835), 776.

8. - Notes and Reviews (Cambridge, Mass.: Dunster House, 1921), pp. 24-25.

9. - The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces by Henry James, p. 171; hereafter cited in the text by page.

10. - See “Watkins Tottle and Other Sketches,” IX, 46, “Twice-Told Tales,” XI, 106; “Tale Writing,” XIII, 152-153.

11. - The Sacred Fount (New York: Scribner’s, 1910), p. 13.

12. - The Notebooks of Henry James, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947), p. 257.

13. - “Peter Snook,” Southern Literary Messenger, 2 (1836), 730.

14. - “Guy de Maupassant,” Partial Portraits, p. 269.

15. - “Peter Snook,” Southern Literary Messenger, 2 (1836), 730.

16. - “The Art of Fiction,” Partial Portraits, p. 378.

17. - VIII, 218. See also the review of N. P. Willis’ Tortesa the Usurer: “Mr. Willis has not lost sight of the important consideration that the perfection of dramatic, as well as of plastic skill, is found not in the imitation of Nature, but in the artistic adjustment and amplification of her features” (X, 28).

29. - VIII, 170. Burton R. Pollin, in “Poe and Daniel Defoe: A Significant Relationship,” Topic, 30 (1976), 3-22, has shown that Poe was indebted for this idea, if not for the exact words, to the “Biographical Sketch of Daniel Defoe,” on pages ix-xxiii of the Harper edition of Robinson Crusoe which Poe reviewed in January, 1836.

19. - Hawthorne, pp. 62-63.

20. - ‘‘The Art of Fiction,” p. 382.

21. - “The Art of Fiction,” pp. 394-395.

22. - The Novels and Tales of Henry James (New York: Scribner’s 1907-1917), XXIII, 22.

23. - “Honore de Balzac,” The Galaxy, 20 (December 1875), 824.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]