Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Henry Cockton” (Text-B), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan PoeVol III: Literati &c. (1850), 3:460-463


[page 460, continued:]



“CHARLES O’MALLEY,” “Harry Lorrequer,” “Valentine Vox,” “Stanley Thorn,” and some other effusions now in course of publication,” are novels depending for effect upon what gave popularity to “Peregrine Pickle” — we mean practical joke. To men whose animal spirits are high, whatever may be their mental ability, such works are always acceptable. To the uneducated, to those who read little, to the obtuse in intellect (and these three classes constitute the mass) these books are not only acceptable, but are the only ones which can be called so. We here make two divisions — that of the men who can think but who dislike thinking; and that of the men who either have not been presented with the materials for thought, or who have no brains with which to “work up” the material. With these classes of people “Stanley Thorn” is a favorite. It not only demands no reflection, but repels it, or dissipates it — much as a silver rattle the wrath of a child. It is not in the least degree suggestive. Its readers arise from its perusal with the identical ideas in possession at sitting down. Yet, during perusal, there has been a tingling physico-mental exhilaration, somewhat like that induced by a cold bath, or a flesh-brush, or a gallop on horseback — a very delightful and very healthful matter in its way. But these things are not letters. “Valentine Vox” and “Charles O’Malley” are no more “ literature” than cat-gut is music. The visible and tangible tricks of a baboon belong not less to the belles-lettres than does “Harry Lorrequer.” When this gentleman adorns his countenance with lamp-black, knocks over an apple-woman, or brings about a rent in his pantaloons, we laugh at him when bound up in a volume, just as we would laugh at his adventures if happening before our eyes in the street. But mere incidents, whether serious or comic, whether occurring or described — mere incidents are not books. Neither are they the basis of books — of which the idiosyncrasy is thought in contradistinction from deed . A book without action cannot be; but a book is only such, to the extent of its thought, independently of its deed. Thus of Algebra; which is, or should be, defined as “a mode of computing with symbols by means of signs.” With numbers, as Algebra, it has nothing to do; and although no algebraic computation can proceed without numbers, yet Algebra is only such to the extent of its analysis, independently of its Arithmetic.

We do not mean to find fault with the class of performances of which “Stanley Thorn” is one. Whatever tends to the amusement of man tends to his benefit. Aristotle, with singular assurance, has declared poetry the most philosophical of all writing, (spoudiotaton kai philosophikotaton genos) defending it principally upon that score. He seems to think, — and many following him, have thought — that the end of all literature should be instruction — a favorite dogma of the school of Wordsworth. But it is a truism that the end of our existence is happiness. If so, the end of every separate aim of our existence — of every thing connected with our existence, should be still — happiness. Therefore, the end of instruction should be happiness — and happiness, [page 462:] what is it but the extent or duration of pleasure? — therefore, the end of instruction should be pleasure. But the cant of the Lakists would establish the exact converse, and make the end of all pleasure instruction. In fact, ceteris paribus, he who pleases is of more importance to his fellow man than he who instructs, since the dulce is alone the utile, and pleasure is the end already attained, which instruction is merely the means of attaining. It will be said that Wordsworth, with Aristotle, has reference to instruction with eternity in view; but either such cannot be the tendency of his argument, or he is laboring at a sad disadvantage; for his works — or at least those of his school are professedly to be understood by the few, and it is the many who stand in need of salvation. Thus the moralist's parade of measures would be as completely thrown away as are those of the devil in “Melmoth,” who plots and counterplots through three octavo volumes for the entrapment of one or two souls, while any common devil would have demolished one or two thousand.

When, therefore, we assert that these practical-joke publications are not “literature,” because not “thoughtful” in any degree, we must not be understood as objecting to the thing in itself, but to its claim upon our attention as critic. Dr. what is his name? — strings together a number of facts or fancies which, when printed, answer the laudable purpose of amusing a very large, if not a very respectable number of people. To this proceeding upon the part of the Doctor — or on the part of his imitator, Mr. Jeremy Stockton, the author of “Valentine Vox,” we can have no objection whatever. His books do not please us. We will not read them. Still less shall we speak of them seriously as books. Being in no respect works of art, they neither deserve, nor are amenable to criticism.

“Stanley Thorn” may be described, in brief, as a collection, rather than as a series, of practical haps and mishaps, befalling a young man very badly brought up by his mother. He flogs his father with a codfish, and does other similar things. We have no fault to find with him whatever except that, in the end, he does not come to the gallows.

We have no great fault to find with him, but with Mr. Bockton, his father, much. He is a consummate plagiarist; and, in our [page 463:] opinion, nothing more despicable exists. There is not a good incident in his book (?) of which we cannot point out the paternity with at least a sufficient precision. The opening adventures are all in the style of “Cyril Thornton.” Bob, following Amelia in disguise, is borrowed from one of the Smollet or Fielding novels — there are many of our readers who will be able to say which. The cab driven over the Crescent trottoir, is from Pierce Egan. The swindling tricks of Colonel Somebody, at the commencement of the novel, and of Captain Filcher afterwards, are from “Pickwick Abroad.” The doings at Madame Pompour's (or some such name) with the description of Isabelle, are from “Ecarté, or the Salons of Paris” — a rich book. The Sons-of-Glory scene (or its wraith) we have seen — somewhere; while (not to be tedious) the whole account of Stanley's election, from his first conception of the design, through the entire canvass, the purchasing of the “Independents,” the row at the hustings, the chairing, the feast, and the petition, is so obviously stolen from “Ten Thousand a Year” as to be disgusting. Bob and the “old venerable” — what are they but feeble reflections of young and old Weller? The tone of the narration throughout is an absurd echo of Boz. For example — “ ‘We’ve come agin about them there little accounts of ourn — question is do you mean to settle ‘em or don’t you?’ His colleagues, by whom he was backed, highly approved of this question, and winked and nodded with the view of intimating to each other that in their judgment that was the point.” Who so dull as to give Mr. Bogton any more credit for these things than we give the buffoon for the rôle which he has committed to memory?


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 460:]

*Stanley Thorn. By Henry Cockton, Esq., Author of “Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist,” etc., with Numerous Illustrations, designed by Cruikshank, Leech, etc., engraved and by Yeager. Lea and Blanchard: Philadelphia.





[S:0 - WORKS, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Henry Cockton (Text-B)