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


[page 57, column 2:]


The Linwoods; or, “Sixty Years Since” in America. By the Author of “Hope Leslie,” “Redwood,” &c. New York: Published by Harper and Brothers.

Miss Sedgwick is one among the few American writers who have risen by merely their own intrinsic talents, and without the a priori aid of foreign opinion and puffery, to any exalted rank in the estimation of our countrymen. She is at the same time fully deserving of all the popularity she has attained. By those who are most fastidious in matters of literary criticism, the author of Hope Leslie is the most ardently admired, and we are acquainted with few persons of sound and accurate discrimination who would hesitate in placing her upon a level with the best of our native novelists. Of American female writers we must consider her the first. The character of her pen is essentially feminine. No man could have written Hope Leslie; and no man, we are assured, can arise from the perusal of The Linwoods without a fill conviction that his own abilities would have proved unequal to the delicate yet picturesque handling; the grace, warmth, and radiance; the exquisite and judicious filling in, of the volumes which have so enchanted him. Woman is, after all, the only true painter of that gentle and beautiful mystery, the heart of woman. She is the only proper Scheherazade for the fairy tales of love.

We think The Linwoods superior to Hope Leslie, and superior to Redwood. It is full of deep natural interest, rivetting attention without undue or artificial means for attaining that end. It contains nothing forced, or in any degree exaggerated. Its prevailing features are equability, ease, perfect accuracy and purity of style, a manner never at outrance with the subject matter, pathos, and verisimilitude. It cannot, however, be considered as ranking with the master novels of the day. It is neither an Eugene Aram, nor a Contarini Fleming.

The Linwoods has few — indeed no pretensions to a connected plot of any kind. The scene, as the title indicates, is in America, and about sixty years ago. The adventures of the family of a Mr. Linwood, a resident of New York, form the principal subject of the book. The character of this gentleman is happily drawn, but we are aware of a slight discrepancy between his initial and his final character as depicted. He has two children, Herbert and Isabella. Being himself a tory, the boyish impulses of his son in favor of the revolutionists are watched with anxiety and vexation; and, upon the breaking out of the war, Herbert, positively refusing to drink the king's health, is, in consequence, ejected from his father's house — an incident upon which hinges much of the interest of the narrative. Isabella is the heroine proper; a being full of lofty and generous impulses, beautiful, intellectual, and spirittuelle — indeed a most fascinating creature. But the family of a widow Lee forms, perhaps, the true secret of that charm which pervades the novel before us. A matronly, pious, and devoted mother, yielding up her son, without a murmur, to the sacred cause of her country — the son, Eliot, gallant, thoughtful, chivalrous, and prudent — and above all, a daughter, Bessie, frail-minded, susceptible of light impressions, gentle, loving, and melancholy. Indeed, in the creation of Bessie Lee, [page 58:] Miss Sedgwick has given evidence not to be disputed, of a genius far more than common. We do not hesitate to call it a truly beautiful and original conception, evincing imagination of the highest order. It is the old story of a meek and trusting spirit bowed down to the dust by the falsehood of a deceiver. But in the narration of Miss Sedgwick it becomes a magical tale, and bursts upon us with all the freshness of novel emotion. Deserted by her lover, (Jasper Meredith, an accomplished and aristocratical coxcomb,) the spirits of the gentle girl sink gradually from trusting affection to simple hope — from hope to anxiety — from anxiety to doubt — from doubt to melancholy — and from melancholy to madness. She escapes from her home and her friends in New England, and endeavors to make her way alone to New York, with the object of restoring, to him who has abandoned her, some tokens he had given her of his love — an act which her disordered fancy assures her will effect, in her own person, a disenthralment from passion. Her piety, her madness, and her beauty stand her in the stead of the lion of Una, and she reaches the great city in safety. In that portion of the novel which embodies the narrative of this singular journey, are some passages of the purest and most exalted poetry — passages which no mind but one thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the beautiful could have conceived, and which, perhaps, no other writer in this country than Miss Sedgwick could have executed. Our readers will find that what we say upon this head is very far from exaggeration.

Jasper Meredith, considered as an actual entity, is, as we have already said, a heartless, calculating coxcomb with merely a spice of what we may call susceptibility to impressions of the beautiful, to redeem him from utter contempt. As a character in a novel, he is admirable — because he is accurately true to nature, and to himself. His perfidy to Bessie (we shall never forget Bessie) meets with poetical justice in a couple of unsuccessful courtships, (in each of which the villain's heart is in some degree concerned,) and in a final marriage with a flirt, Helen Ruthven, who fills him up, with a vengeance, the full measure of his deserts. Mrs. Meredith is a striking picture of the heartless and selfish woman of fashion and aristocracy. Kisel, the servant of Eliot Lee, is original, and, next to Bessie, the best conception in the book. He is a simple, childish, yet acute and affectionate fool, who follows his master as would a dog, and finally dies at his feet under circumstances of the truest pathos. While Miss Sedgwick can originate such characters as these, she need apprehend few rivals near the throne.

We cannot pass over in silence a little episode in which a blind child is torn away at night from a distracted mother, by one of the notorious bands of Skinners infesting the country. The mother's house is set on fire by the robbers, in their search after plunder; but her most valuable property having been previously removed to New York, the exasperated ruffians seize and bear off the fainting child, with the view of extorting money for its ransom. Eliot Lee, aided by General Putnam, rescues the child, and restores it to the mother. This whole incident is worthy of Miss Sedgwick.

We have mentioned the name of Putnam, — he as well as Washington, Lafayette, Clinton, and some other well-known personages are familiarly introduced in the narrative [column 2:] but are simply accessories to the main interest, and very little attempt is made at portraying their historical characters. Whatever is done, however, is well done. So much real pleasure have we derived from the perusal of The Linwoods, that we can hardly find it in our hearts to pick a quarrel with the fair author, for the very few trifling inadvertences into which she has been betrayed. There were, we believe, some points at which we intended to cavil, but not having pencilled them down in the course of perusal, they have now escaped our recollection. Somewhat more energy in occasional passages — somewhat less diffuseness in others — would operate, we think, to the improvement of Miss Sedgwick's generally excellent style. Now and then, we meet with a discrepancy between the words and the character of a speaker. For example: page 38, vol. i. “ ‘No more of my contempt for the Yankees, Hal, an’ thou lovest me,’ replied Jasper; ‘you remember Æsop's advice to Croesus, at the Persian court?’ ‘No, I am sure I do not. You have the most provoking way of resting the lever by which you bring out your own knowledge, on your friend's ignorance.’ ” Now all this is very-pretty, but it is not the language of school-boys. Again: page 226 vol. i.’Now out on you, you lazy, slavish, loons,’ cried Rose,’cannot you see these men are raised up, to fight for freedom, for more than themselves? If the chain is broken at one end, the links will fall apart sooner or later. When you see the sun on the mountain top, you may be sure it will shine into the deepest valleys before long.’ Who would suppose this graceful eloquence, and these impressive images to proceed from the mouth of a negro-woman? Yet such is Rose. And at page 24, vol. i. we have the following. “True, I never saw her; but I tell you, young lad, there is such a thing as seeing the shadow of things far distant and past, and never seeing the realities though they it be that cast the shadows.” The speaker here, is an old woman who a few sentences before talks about her proficiency in telling fortins.

There are one or two other trifles with which we have to find fault. Putnam's deficiency in spelling is, perhaps, a little burlesqued; and the imaginary note written to Eliot Lee, is not in accordance with that laconic epistle subsequently introduced, and which was a bona &fide existence. We dislike the death of Kisel — that is we dislike its occurring so soon — indeed we see no necessity for killing him at all. His end is beautifully managed, but leaves a kind of uneasy and painful impression, which a judicious writer will be chary of exciting. We must quarrel also, with some slight liberties taken with the King's English. Miss Sedgwick has no good authority for the use of such verbs, as “to ray.” Page 117, vol. i. “They had all heard of Squire Saunders, whose fame rayed through a large circle” — Also, in page 118, vol. i. “The next morning he called, his kind heart raying out through his jolly face, to present me to General Washington.” Nor is she justifiable in making use of the verb “incense,” with the meaning attached to it in the following sentence. Page 211, vol i. “Miss Ruthven seemed like an humble worshipper, incensing two divinities.” We dislike also, the vulgarity of such a phrase as “I put in my oar” — meaning “I joined in the conversation” — especially in the mouth of so well-bred a lady, as Miss Isabella Linwood — see [page 59:] page 61, vol. i. We do not wish either to see a marquee, called a “markee,” or a denoutement, a denceutment. Miss Sedgwick should look over her proof-sheets, or, be responsible for the blunders of her printer. The plural “genii” at page 84, vol. ii. is used in place of the singular genius. “Isabella is rather penseroso” is likewise an error — see page 164, vol. ii.; it should be penserosa. But we are heartily ashamed of finding fault with such trifles, and should certainly not have done so, had there been a possibility of finding fault with any thing of more consequence. We recommend The Linwoods to all persons of taste. But let none others touch it.






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