Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of Big Abel and the Little Manhattan” [Text-02], Godey’s Lady’s Book, vol. XXXI, no. 5, November, 1845, pp. 218-219


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THIS is by all means an original book, original in conception, conduct and tone. It may be called an emblematical romance of homely life. The most obvious design is to gossip, or rather give voice to under-toned comments about the condition of the Island of Manhattan, and, more especially, of the great city which oppresses its southern end. A less superficial purpose is that of contrasting the present condition with that under the aboriginal dynasty — of contrasting, apart from conventionality, the true values of the savage and civilized state. The story, on the mere face of it, runs that a houseless vagabond, the great-grandson of Henry Hudson the navigator, and the descendant from the last Indian chief of the Mannahatta, that these two being a little demented, or whimsical, or ignorant, through long desuetude of the world’s usages, propose to themselves (after being armed with the proper documents) the institution of a claim, in “The Supreme Court of Judicature,” to the whole island of New York. The narrative (if such it can be termed) opens with the introduction of the two claimants, who possess themselves, at the base of the white shot tower on the East river, of the papers by which the claim is to be sustained. They then proceed to a tavern, and —

“All that Lankey Fogle did, was to call out to the landlord to put more light on, which being done, he threw off his hat, turned about and looked calmly on Big Abel. There was the straight black hair, the swarthy skin, the slumberous and autumnal eye. There was no mistaking these. The Little Manhattan, beyond a doubt! And now Big Abel — where are you? A little musty scrap, out of the box, another, and still another. It seems so. In truth it does. Old Henry Hudson’s lineal heir — great-grandson, it would seem. Lankey Fogle, (this was a name he got from idle boys, and not by birth,) great-grandson to that fierce old chief, who swayed with iron this island once, heading his red Manhattanese! Big Abel, great-grandson to the old navigator-trader, of brave English blood. By right of nature this city, built it who did, is the Little Manhattan’s clearly, all. Big Abel claims, as first discoverer, (Lankey Fogle glares on this;) but, better still, purchase of some old chief or other. He thinks it was the same chief that Lankey claims from; but this he can’t make out so well. The oblong box is shut again; the why is between them, but whose, who can tell? To-morrow they will set forth, dividing it for themselves, each taking what he can, in fairness and [column 2:] good will. For they are friends now — perfect confidence — perfect confidence between them. The long mistrust with which they have lowered at each other through the courts is ended now, melted into a fine, twilight mist, in which each seems magnified and gentle to the other. To-bed, now, not as for many years, but hopeful of their own. Yes, these — so far apart in many things, so close together in their fortunes now — are whimsical enough to make belief that the old merchant-navigator and the old Indian chief are still abroad through all these streets, in spirit; that, somehow or other, as the colour of the soil shows itself in the tree, they are still out of their very graves, holding to the city as their own. Well, we shall see what came of it.”

The true purpose of the book now begins. In their rovings through the city, the claimants look with appropriative eye, each to such items of house or land, or water-privilege, or what not, as seems most in accordance with the spirit (either of nature or civilization) by which he claims. The fountains, for example, and the Indian statues at the tobacco-shop doors, are turned over, without a murmur, to the Little Manhattan. In the division which is to take place when the Supreme Court shall have favourably decided, these (the fountains and other such matters) are to be unhesitatingly the Indian’s. On the other hand, Trinity church, Delmonico’s, and all the broker’s offices, banks, etc., etc., with the wharves and the shipping more particularly, are as undeniably the right of the heir of Henry Hudson. The discussions carried on between the two afford opportunities for that suggestive contrast which may be stated, in brief, as the moral of the story. We look upon a minute account of the nooks and corners of the city, most especially of that portion of it known as the East Bowery (a terra incognita) — we look upon this and upon an infinite variety of humourous or pathetic observation, as merely an underplot to the main action, an undercurrent to the upper thesis — more properly as a meaning accompaniment to the air which is the staple of the whole.

The style throughout is peculiarly the author’s own. We cite a brief passage which will serve very well to exemplify it: —

“Done it was; and, out at the Mount Vernon gate again, they struck across the country.

“There is a little hill there, and rising that by winding paths, through an orchard, they got upon the road. Beyond, descending now, they come upon the sunken meadows, with little rills running, creeping rather, here and there, and glittering in [page 219:] the moon. About, a few late fellows, the frogs were piping, in a revel of their own; and now and then, as Lankey and Big Abel glide along, some little birds, troubled in their dreams, stirring in the bushes. In the midst of all this stillness or calm motion of the night, a figure passed them — in the very middle of the field — a figure, singing.

“It was quite clear who this was, without a question. A Poor Scholar, who had wandered out into the open country, and the clear night, to coax away certain cares that pressed at his heart; to think over a past full of gloom and sadness and hard perplexities, and to call up as he wandered on a fair shape whose shadowy hand he sought in vain, for it flew away ever as he stretched his own toward it. Pale he was, indeed, but with eyes lit as the night was with a more than common and day-time lustre. His apparel — one could see — was plain, and darkened into a better black than belonged to it in broad daylight, by the friendly night. And yet, poor and sad and sorrowful as he was, as you would suppose, he went on his way singing a cheerful song, blessing everything about him, whether [column 2:] it was the green earth his foot trod upon or the air that caught his fingers as he shook them in chorus to his singing, or the blue, far away sky he looked up to often as he walked.

“ ‘William — the Poor Scholar!’ said Big Abel to the Little Manhattan, as he crossed them. ‘He had a case in court once, I recollect. It was all about a book, and the judge said it was a glorious thing to write a book; and that’s all he got for it.’ ”

The Poor Scholar here introduced, and his mistress, form the subject of an episode, by aid of which the author is enabled to bring out in truer light the main interest of his theme.

Upon the whole, Mr. Matthews has written an ingenious, an original, and altogether an excellent book — a book especially well adapted to a series which is distinctively American. Its chief defect is a very gross indefinitiveness, not of conception, but of execution. Out of ten readers nine will be totally at a loss to comprehend the meaning of the author. Of course, nothing so written can hope to be popular; — but we presume that mere popularity is by no means Mr. Matthews’ intention.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 218, column 2:]

*  Wiley & Putnam’s Library of American Books, No. V. By Cornelius Mathews.





[S:0 - GLB, 1845] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of Big Abel and the Little Manhattan [Text-02/Text-03]