Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 1, December 1835, 2:57-59


[page 54, column 2:]


Norman Leslie. A Tale of the Present Times. New York: Published by Harper and Brothers.

Well! — here we have it! This is the book — the book par excellence — the book bepuffed, beplastered, and be-Mirrored: the book “attributed to” Mr. Blank, and “said to be from the pen” of Mr. Asterisk: the book which has been “about to appear” — “in press” — “in progress” — “in preparation” — and “forthcoming:” the book “graphic” in anticipation — “talented” a priori — and God knows what in prospectu. For the sake of every thing puffed, puffing, and puffable, let us take a peep at its contents!

Norman Leslie, gentle reader, a Tale of the Present Times, is, after all, written by nobody in the world but Theodore S. Fay, and Theodore S. Fay is nobody in the world but “one of the Editors of the New York Mirror.” The book commences with a Dedication to Colonel Herman Thorn, in which that worthy personage, whoever he may be, is held up, in about a dozen lines, to the admiration of the public, as “hospitable,” “generous,” “attentive,” “benevolent,” “kind-hearted,” “liberal,” “highly-esteemed,” and withal “a patron of the arts.” But the less we say of this matter the better.

In the Preface Mr. Fay informs us that the most important features of his story are founded on fact — that he has availed himself of certain poetical licenses — that he has transformed character, and particularly the character of a young lady, (oh fi! Mr. Fay — oh, Mr. Fay, fi!) that he has sketched certain peculiarities with a mischievous hand — and that the art of novel writing is as dignified as the art of Canova, Mozart or Raphael, — from which we are left to infer, that Mr. Fay himself is as dignified as Raphael, Mozart, and Canova — all three. Having satisfied us on this head, he goes on to say something about an humble student, with a feeble hand, throwing groupings upon a canvass, and standing behind a curtain: and then, after perpetrating all these impertinences, thinks it best “frankly to bespeak the indulgence of the solemn and sapient critics.” Body of Bacchus! we, at least, are neither solemn nor sapient, and, therefore, do not feel ourselves bound to show him a shadow of mercy. But will any body tell us what is the object of Prefaces in general, and what is the meaning of Mr. Fay's Preface in particular?

As far as we can understand the plot of Norman Leslie, it is this. A certain family reside in Italy — “independent,” “enlightened,” “affectionate,” “happy,” — and all that. Their villa, of course, stands upon the seashore, and their whole establishment is, we are assured, “a scene of Heaven,” &c. Mr. Fay says he will not even attempt to describe it — why, therefore, should we? A daughter of this family is nineteen when she is wooed by a young Neapolitan, Rinaldo, of “mean extraction, but of great beauty and talent.” The lover, being a man of suspicious character, is rejected by the parents, and a secret marriage ensues. The lady's brother pursues the bridegroom — they fight — and the former is killed. The father and mother die (it is impossible to see for what purpose they ever lived) and Rinaldo flies to Venice. Upon rejoining her husband in that city, the lady (for Mr. Fay has not thought her worth enduing with a specific appellation) discovers [page 55:] him, for the first time, to be a rascal. One fine day he announces his intention of leaving herself and son for an indefinite time. The lady beseeches and finally threatens. “It was the first unfolding,” says she, in a letter towards the denouement of the story, “of that character which neither he nor I knew belonged to my nature. It was the first uncoiling of the basilisk within me, (good Heavens, a snake in a lady's stomach!). He gazed on me incredulously, and cooly smiled. You remember that smile — I fainted!!!” Alas! Mr. Davy Crockett, — Mr. Davy Crockett, alas! — thou art beaten hollow — thou art defunct, and undone! thou hast indeed succeeded in grinning a squirrel from a tree, but it surpassed even thine extraordinary abilities to smile a lady into a fainting fit!

“When I recovered” — continues the lady — “he was gone. It was two years before I could trace him. At length I found he had sailed for America. I followed him in the depth of winter — I and my child. I knew not the name he had assumed, and I was struck mute with astonishment, in your beautiful city, on beholding, surrounded by fair ladies, the form of my husband, still beautiful, and still adored. You know the rest.” But as our readers may not be as well informed as the correspondent of the fair forsaken, we will enlighten them with some farther particulars.

Rinaldo, upon leaving his cara sposa, had taken shipping for New York, where, assuming the name of “Count Clairmont of the French army,” he succeeds in cutting a dash, or, in more proper parlance, in creating a sensation, among the beaux and belles of the city of Gotham. One fair lady, and rich heiress, Miss Flora Temple, is particularly honored by his attentions, and the lady's mother, Mrs. T., fired with the idea of her daughter becoming a real countess, makes no scruple of encouraging his addresses. Matters are in this position when the wife of the adventurer arrives in New York, and is quite bewildered with astonishment upon beholding, one snowy day, her beloved Rinaldo sleighing it to and fro about the streets of New York. In the midst of her amazement she is in danger of being run over by some horses, when a certain personage, by name Norman Leslie, but who might, with equal propriety, be called Sir Charles Grandison, flies to her assistance, whisks herself and child up in the very nick of time, and suddenly rescues them, as Mr. Fay has it, “from the very jaws of Death” — by which we are to understand from the very hoofs of the horses. The lady of course swoons — then recovers — and then — is excessively grateful. Her gratitude, however, being of no service just at that moment, is bottled up for use hereafter, and will no doubt, according to established usage in such cases, come into play towards the close of the second volume. But we shall see.

Having ascertained the address of Rinaldo, alias the Count Clairmont, the lady, next morning, is successful in obtaining an interview. Then follows a second edition of entreaties and threats, but, fortunately for the nerves of Mrs. Rinaldo, the Count, upon this occasion, is so forbearing as not to indulge in a smile. She accuses him of a design to marry Miss Temple, and he informs her that it is no concern of hers — that she is not his wife, their marriage having been a feigned one. “She would have cried him through the city for a villain,” (Dust ho! — she should have advertised him) but [column 2:] he swears that, in that case, he will never sleep until he has taken the life of both the lady and her child, which assurance puts an end to the debate. “He then frankly confesses” — says Mrs. Rinaldo, in the letter which we have before quoted, — “that his passion for Miss Temple was only a mask — he loved her not. Me he said he loved. It was his intention to fly when he could raise a large sum of money, and he declared that I should be his companion.” His designs, however, upon Miss Temple fail — that lady very properly discarding the rascal. Nothing daunted at this mishap our Count proceeds to make love to a certain Miss Rosalie Romain, and with somewhat better success. He prevails upon her to fly, and to carry with her upon her person a number of diamonds which the lover hopes to find sufficient for his necessities. He manages also to engage Mrs. Rinaldo (so we must call her for want of a better name) in his schemes.

It has so happened that for some time prior to these occurrences, Clairmont and Norman Leslie, the hero of the novel, have been sworn foes. On the day fixed for Miss Romain's elopement, that young lady induces Mr. Leslie to drive her, in a gig, a short distance out of town. They are met by no less a personage than Mrs. Rinaldo herself, in another gig, and driving (proh pudor!) through the woods sola. Hereupon Miss Rosalie Romain very deliberately, and to the great astonishment, no doubt, of Mr. Leslie, gets out of that gentleman's gig, and into the gig of Mrs. Rinaldo. Here's plot! as Vapid says in the play. Our friend Norman, finding that nothing better can be done, turns his face towards New York again, where he arrives, in due time, without farther accident or adventure. Late the same evening Clairmont sends the ladies aboard a vessel bound for Naples, and which is to sail in the morning — returning himself, for the present, to his hotel in Broadway. While here he receives a horse-whipping from Mr. Leslie on account of certain insinuations in disparagement of that gentleman's character. Not relishing this treatment he determines upon revenge, and can think of no better method of accomplishing it than the directing of public suspicion against Mr. Leslie as the murderer of Miss Romain — whose disappearance has already created much excitement. He sends a message to Mrs. Rinaldo that the vessel must sail without him, and that he would, by a French ship, meet them on their landing at Naples. He then flings a hat and feathers belonging to Miss Romain upon a stream, and her handkerchief in a wood — afterwards remaining some time in America to avert suspicion from himself. Leslie is arrested for the murder, and the proofs are damning against him. He is, however, to the great indignation of the populace, acquitted, Miss Temple appearing to testify that she actually saw Miss Romain subsequently to her ride with Leslie. Our hero, however, although acquitted, is universally considered guilty, and, through the active malice of Clairmont, is heaped with every species of opprobrium. Miss Temple, who, it appears, is in love with him, falls ill with grief: but is cured, after all other means have failed, by a letter from her lover announcing a reciprocal passion — for the young lady has hitherto supposed him callous to her charms. Leslie himself, however, takes it into his head, at this critical juncture, to travel; and, having packed up his baggage, does actually forget himself so far as to go a-Willising [page 56:] in foreign countries. But we have no reason to suppose that, goose as the young gentleman is, he is silly enough to turn travelling correspondent to any weekly paper. In Rome, having assumed the alias of Montfort, he meets with a variety of interesting adventures. All the ladies die for him: and one in particular, Miss Antonia Torrini, the only child of a Duke with several millions of piastres, and a palace which Mr. Fay thinks very much like the City Hall in New York, absolutely throws herself sans ceremonie into his arms, and meets — tell it not in Gath! — with a flat and positive refusal.

Among other persons whom he encounters is a monk Ambrose, a painter Angelo, another painter Ducci, a Marquis Alezzi, and a Countess D., which latter personage he is convinced of having seen at some prior period of his life. For a page or two we are entertained with a prospect of a conspiracy, and have great hopes that the principal characters in the plot will so far oblige us as to cut one another's throats: but (alas for human expectations!) Mr. Fay having clapped his hands, and cried “Presto! — vanish!” the whole matter ends in smoke, or, as our author beautifully expresses it, is “veiled in impenetrable mystery.”

Mr. Leslie now pays a visit to the painter Ducci, and is astonished at there beholding the portrait of the very youth whose life he saved, together with that of his mother, from the horses in New York. Then follows a series of interesting ejaculations, among which we are able to remember only “horrible suspicion!” “wonderful development!” “alack and alas!” with some two or three others. Mr. Leslie is, however, convinced that the portrait of the boy is, as Mr. F. gracefully has it, “inexplicably connected with his own mysterious destiny.” He pays a visit to the Countess D., and demands of her if she was, at any time, acquainted with a gentleman called Clairmont. The lady very properly denies all knowledge of that character, and Mr. Leslie's “mysterious destiny” is in as bad a predicament as ever. He is however fully convinced that Clairmont is the origin of all evil — we do not mean to say that he is precisely the devil — but the origin of all Mr. Leslie's evil. Therefore, and on this account, he goes to a masquerade, and, sure enough, Mr. Clairmont, (who has not been heard of for seven or eight years,) Mr. Clairmont (we suppose through Mr. L's “mysterious destiny”) happens to go, at precisely the same time, to precisely the same masquerade. But there are surely no bounds to Mr. Fay's excellent invention. Miss Temple, of course, happens to be at the same place, and Mr. Leslie is in the act of making love to her once more, when the “inexplicable” Countess D. whispers into his ear some ambiguous sentences in which Mr. L. is given to understand that he must beware of all the Harlequins in the room, one of whom is Clairmont. Upon leaving the masquerade, somebody hands him a note requesting him to meet the unknown writer at St. Peter's. While he is busy reading the paper he is uncivilly interrupted by Clairmont, who attempts to assassinate him, but is finally put to flight. He hies, then, to the rendezvous at St. Peter's, where “the un known” tells him St. Peter's won’t answer, and that he must proceed to the Coliseum. He goes — why should he not? — and there not only finds the Countess D. who turns out to be Mrs. Rinaldo, and who now uncorks [column 2:] her bottle of gratitude, but also Flora Temple, Flora Temple's father, Clairmont, Kreutzner, a German friend from New York, and, last but not least, Rosalie Romain herself; all having gone there, no doubt, at three o’clock in the morning, under the influence of that interesting young gentleman Norman Leslie's “most inexplicable and mysterious destiny.” Matters now come to a crisis. The hero's innocence is established, and Miss Temple falls into his arms in consequence. Clairmont, however, thinks he can do nothing better than shoot Mr. Leslie, and is about to do so, when he is very justly and very dexterously knocked in the head by Mr. Kreutzner. Thus ends the Tale of the Present Times, and thus ends the most inestimable piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or so villainously insulted.

We do not mean to say that there is positively nothing in Mr. Fay's novel to commend — but there is indeed very little. One incident is tolerably managed, in which, at the burning house of Mr. Temple, Clairmont anticipates Leslie in his design of rescuing Flora. A cotillon scene, too, where Morton, a simple fop, is frequently interrupted in his attempts at making love to Miss Temple, by the necessity of forward-two-ing and sachezing, (as Mr. Fay thinks proper to call it) is by no means very bad, although savoring too much of the farcical. A duel story told by Kreutzner is really good, but unfortunately not original, there being a Tale in the Diary of a Physician, from which both its matter and manner are evidently borrowed. And here we are obliged to pause; for we can positively think of nothing farther worth even a qualified commendation. The plot, as will appear from the running outline we have given of it, is a monstrous piece of absurdity and incongruity. The characters have no character; and, with the exception of Morton, who is, (perhaps) amusing, are, one and all, vapidity itself. No attempt seems to have been made at individualization. All the good ladies and gentlemen are demi-gods and demi-goddesses, and all the bad are — the d—l. The hero, Norman Leslie, “that young and refined man with a leaning to poetry,” is a great coxcomb and a great fool. What else must we think of a bel-esprit who, in picking up a rose just fallen from the curls of his lady fair, can hit upon no more appropriate phrase with which to make her a presentation of the same, than “Miss Temple, you have dropped your rose — allow me!” who courts his mistress with a “Dear, dear Flora, how I love you!” — who calls a biffet a bufet, an improvisatore an improvisitore — who, before bestowing charity, is always ready with the canting question if the object be deserving — who is everlastingly talking of his foe “sleeping in the same red grave with himself,” as if American sextons made a common practice of burying two people together — and, who having not a sous [[sou]] in his pocket at page 86, pulls out a handful at page 87, although he has had no opportunity of obtaining a copper in the interim?

As regards Mr. Fay's style, it is unworthy of a school-boy. The “Editor of the New York Mirror” has either never seen an edition of Murray's Grammar, or he has been a-Willising so long as to have forgotten his vernacular language. Let us examine one one [[sic]] or two of his sentences at random. Page 28, vol. i. “He [page 57:] was doomed to wander through the fartherest climes alone and branded.” Why not say at once fartherertherest? Page 150, vol. i. “Yon kindling orb should be hers; and that faint spark close to its side should teach her how dim and yet how near my soul was to her own.” What is the meaning of all this? Is Mr. Leslie's soul dim to her own, as well as near to her own? — for the sentence implies as much. Suppose we say “should teach her how dim was my soul, and yet how near to her own.” Page 101, vol. 1. “You are both right and both wrong — you, Miss Romain, to judge so harshly of all men who are not versed in the easy elegance of the drawing room, and your father in too great lenity towards men of sense, &c.” This is really something new, but we are sorry to say, something incomprehensible. Suppose we translate it. “You are both right and both wrong — you, Miss Romain, are both right and wrong to judge so harshly of all not versed in the elegance of the drawing-room, &c.; and your father is both right and wrong in too great lenity towards men of sense.” — Mr. Fay, have you ever visited Ireland in your peregrinations? But the book is full to the brim of such absurdities, and it is useless to pursue the matter any farther. There is not a single page of Norman Leslie in which even a school-boy would fail to detect at least two or three gross errors in Grammar, and some two or three most egregious sins against common-sense.

We will dismiss the “Editor of the Mirror” with a few questions. When did you ever know, Mr. Fay, of any prosecuting attorney behaving so much like a bear as your prosecuting attorney in the novel of Norman Leslie? When did you ever hear of an American Court of Justice objecting to the testimony of a witness on the ground that the said witness had an interest in the cause at issue? What do you mean by informing us at page 84, vol. i, “that you think much faster than you write?” What do you mean by “the wind roaring in the air?” see page 26, vol. i. What do you mean by “an unshadowed Italian girl?” see page 67, vol. ii. Why are you always talking about “stamping of feet,” “kindling and flashing of eyes,” “plunging and parrying,” “cutting and thrusting,” “passes through the body,” “gashes open in the cheek,” “sculls cleft down,” “hands cut off,” and blood gushing and bubbling, and doing God knows what else — all of which pretty expressions may be found on page 88, vol. i.? What “mysterious and inexplicable destiny” compels you to the so frequent use, in all its inflections, of that euphonical dyssyllable blister? We will call to your recollection some few instances in which you have employed it. Page 185, vol. i. “But an arrival from the city brought the fearful intelligence in all its blistering and naked details.” Page 193, vol. i. “What but the glaring and blistering truth of the charge would select him, &c.” Page 39, vol. ii. “Wherever the winds of heaven wafted the English language, the blistering story must have been echoed.” Page 150, vol. ii. “Nearly seven years had passed away, and here he found himself, as at first, still marked with the blistering and burning brand.” Here we have a blistering detail, a blistering truth, a blistering story, and a blistering brand, to say nothing of innumerable other blisters interspersed throughout the book. But we have done with Norman Leslie, — if ever we saw as silly a thing, may we be —— blistered.




Poe adds a brief further comment at the end of the literary notices for April 1836: “Mr. Fay wishes us to believe that the sale of a book is the proper test of its merit. To save time and trouble we will believe it, and are prepared to acknowledge, as a consequence of the theory, that the novel of Norman Leslie is not at all comparable to the Memoirs of Davy Crockett, or the popular lyric of Jim Crow.”


[S:0 - SLM, 1835] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (December 1835)