Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 5, June 1836, 2:???-???


Ups and Downs in the Life of a Distressed Gentleman. By the author of Tales and Sketches, such as they are. New York: Leavitt, Lord & Co.

This book is a public imposition. It is a duodecimo volume, of the usual novel size, bound in the customary muslin cover with a gilt stamp on the back, and containing 225 pages of letter press. Its price, in the bookstores, is, we believe, a dollar. Although we are in the habit of reading with great deliberation, not unfrequently perusing individual passages more than two or three times, we were occupied little better than one hour in getting through with the whole of the “Ups and Downs.” A full page of the book — that is, a page in which there are no breaks in the matter occasioned by paragraphs, or otherwise, embraces precisely 150 words — an average page about 130. A full page of this our Magazine, will be found to contain 1544 words — an average page about 1600, owing to the occasional notes in a smaller type than that generally used. It follows that nearly thirteen pages of such a volume as the “Ups and Downs “ are required to make one of our own, and that in about fourteen pages such as we are writing, (if we consider the sixteen blank half-pages at the beginning of each chapter in the “Ups and Downs,” with the four pages of index) the whole of the one dollar duodecimo we are now called upon to review, might be laid conveniently before the public — in other words, that we could print nearly six of them in one of our ordinary numbers, (that for March for instance) the price of which is little more than forty cents. We give the amount of six such volumes then for forty cents — of one of them for very little more than a fi’penny bit. And as its price is a dollar, it is clear either that the matter of which the said “Ups and Downs “ is composed, is sixteen times as good in quality as our own matter, and that of such Magazines in general, or that the author of the “Ups and Downs “ supposes it so to be, or that the author of the “Ups and Downs “ is unreasonable in his exactions upon the public, and is presuming very largely upon their excessive patience, gullibility, and good nature. We will take the liberty of analyzing the narrative, with a view of letting our readers see for themselves whether the author (or publisher) is quite right in estimating it at sixteen times the value of the ordinary run of compositions.

The volume commences with a Dedication “To all Doating Parents.” We then have four pages occupied with a content table, under the appellation of a “Bill of Lading.” This is well thought of. The future man of letters might, without some assistance of this nature, meet with no little trouble in searching for any particular chapter through so dense a mass of matter as the “Ups and Downs.” The “Introduction” fills four pages more, and in spite of the unjustifiable use of the word “predicated,” whose meaning is obviously misunderstood, is by much the best portion of the work — so much so, indeed, that we fancy it written by some kind, good-natured friend of the author. We now come to Chapter I, which proves to be Introduction the Second, and extends over seven pages farther. This is called “A Disquisition on Circles,” in which we are informed that “the motion produced by the centripetal and centrifugal forces, seems to be that of nature” — that “it is very true that the periphery of the circles traversed by some objects is greater than that of others” — that “cast a stone into a lake or a mill-pond, and it will produce a succession of motions, circle following circle in order, and extending the radius until they disappear in the distance” — that “Time wings his flight in circles, and every year rolls round within itself” — that “the sun turns round upon his own axis, and the moon changes monthly” — that “the other celestial bodies all wheel their courses in circles around the common centre” — that “the moons of Jupiter revolve around him in circles, and he carries them along with him in his periodical circuit around the sun” — that “Saturn always moves within his rings” — that “a ship on the ocean, though apparently bounding over a plain of waters, rides in fact upon the circumference of a circle around the arch of the earth's diameter” — that “the lunar circle betokens a tempest” — that “those German principalities which are represented in the Diet are denominated circles” — and that “modern writers on pneumatics affirm every breeze that blows to be a whirlwind.”

But now commences the “Ups and Downs” in good earnest. The hero of the narrative is Mr. Wheelwright, and the author begs leave to assure the reader that Mr. W. is no fictitious personage, that “with the single abatement that names are changed, and places not precisely designated, every essential incident that he has recorded actually occurred, much as he has related it, to a person who, if not now living, certainly was once, and most of them under his own observation.”

Chapter II, treats of the birth and parentage of the hero. Mr. Daniel Wheelwright originally came from New Jersey, but resides at the opening of the story, in the beautiful valley of the Mohawk “on the banks of the river, and in a town alike celebrated for the taste of its people in architecture, and distinguished as a seat of learning.” He was early instructed by his father in the “elementary principles of his trade,” which was coach-making. “He was also taught in some branches of household carpentry work, which proved of no disadvantage to him in the end.” “Full of good nature he was always popular with the boys,” and we are told “was never so industrious as when manufacturing to their order little writing desks, fancy boxes, and other trifling articles not beyond the scope of his mechanical ingenuity.” We are also assured that the young gentleman was excessively fond of oysters.

In Chapter III, Daniel Wheelwright “grows up a tall and stately youth.” His mother “discovers a genius in him requiring only means and opportunity to wing an eagle-flight.” “An arrangement therefore is effected” by which our hero is sent to school to a “man whom the mother had previously known in New Jersey, and whose occupation was that of teaching young ideas how to shoot — not grouse and woodcock — but to shoot forth into scions of learning.” This is a new and excellent joke — but by no means so good as the one immediately following, where we are told that “notwithstanding the natural indolence of his character, our hero knew that he must know something before he could enter college, and that in case of a failure, he must again cultivate more acquaintance with the felloes of the shop than with the fellows of the university.” He is sent to college, however, having “read Cornelius Nepos and three books of the AEneid, thumbed over the Greek Grammar, and gone through the Gospel of St. John.”

Chapter IV, commences with two quotations from Shakspeare. Our hero is herein elected a member of the Philo-Peithologicalethian Institute, commences his debates with a “Mr. President, I are in favor of the negative of that are question,” is “read off” at the close of every quarter, “advances one grade higher” in his classic course every year, and when about to take his degree, is “announced for a poem” in the proces verbal of the commencement, and (one of the professors, if we comprehend, being called Nott) distinguishes himself by the following satirical verses —

The warrior fights, and dies for fame —

The empty glories of a name; —

But we who linger round this spot,

The warrior's guerdon cover Nott.

Nott for the miser's glittering heap

Within these walls is bartered sleep;

The humble scholar's quiet lot

With dreams of wealth is troubled Nott.

While poring o’er the midnight lamp,

In rooms too cold, and sometimes damp,

O man, who land and cash hast got,

Thy life of ease we envy Nott.

Our troubles here are light and few; —

An empty purse when bills fall due,

A locker, without e’er a shot, —

Hard recitations, or a Knot-

Ty problem, which we can’t untie —

Our only shirt hung out to dry, —

A chum who never pays his scot, —

Such ills as these we value Nott.

O, cherished *****! learning's home,

Where’er the fates may bid us roam,

Though friends and kindred be forgot,

Be sure we shall forget thee Nott.

For years of peaceful, calm content,

To science and hard study lent,

Though others thy good name may blot,

T’were wondrous if we loved thee Nott.

For this happy effort he is admitted ad gradum in artibus, and thus closes chapter the fourth.

Chapter V, is also headed with two sentences from Shakspeare. The parents of Mr. W. are now inclined to make him a clergyman, being “not only conscientious people, but sincerely religious, and really desirous of doing good.” This project is dismissed, however, upon our hero's giving no evidence of piety, and Daniel is “entered in the office of an eminent medical gentleman, in one of the most beautiful cities which adorn the banks of the majestic Hudson.” Our author cannot be prevailed upon to state the precise place — but gives us another excellent joke by way of indemnification. “Although,” says he, “like Byron, I have no fear of being taken for the hero of my own tale, yet were I to bring matters too near their homes, but too many of the real characters of my narrative might be identified. Suffice it, then, to say of the location — Ilium fuit. “ Daniel now becomes Doctor Wheelwright, reads the first chapter of Cheselden's Anatomy, visits New York, attends the lectures of Hosack and Post, “presses into his goblet the grapes of wisdom clustering around the tongue of Mitchill, and acquires the principles of surgery from the lips, and the skilful use of the knife from the untrembling hand, of Mott.”

At the close of his second year our hero, having completed only half of Cheselden's article on Osteology, relinquishes the study of medicine in despair, and turns merchant — purchasing “the odds and ends of a fashionable fancy and jobbing concern in Albany.” He is gulled however, by a confidential clerk, one John Smith, his store takes fire and burns down, and both himself and father, who indorsed for him, are ruined.

Mr. Wheelwright now retrieves his fortune by the accidental possession of a claim against government, taken by way of payment for a bad debt. But going to Washington to receive his money, he is inveigled into a lottery speculation — that is to say, he spends the whole amount of his claim in lottery-tickets — the manager fails — and our adventurer is again undone. This lottery adventure ends with the excellent joke that in regard to our hero there “were five outs to one in, viz. — out of money, and out of clothes; out at the heels, and out at the toes; out of credit and in debt!” Mr. Wheelwright now returns to New York, and is thrown into prison by Messieurs Roe and Doe. In this emergency he sends for his friend the narrator, who, of course, relieves his distresses, and opens the doors of his jail.

Chapter IX, and indeed every ensuing chapter, commences with two sentences from Shakspeare. Mr. Wheelwright now be-comes agent for a steamboat company on Lake George — but fortune still frowns, and the steamboat takes fire, and is burnt up, on the eve of her first trip, thus again ruining our hero.

“What a moment!” exclaims the author, “and what a spectacle for a lover of the'sublime and beautiful!’ Could Burke have visited such a scene of mingled magnificence, and grandeur and terror, what a vivid illustration would he not have added to his inimitable treatise on that subject! The fire raged with amazing fury and power — stimulated to madness, as it were, by the pitch and tar and dried timbers, and other combustible materials used in the construction of the boat. The night-bird screamed in terror, and the beasts of prey fled in wild affright into the deep and visible darkness beyond. This is truly a gloomy place for a lone person to stand in of a dark night — particularly if he has a touch of superstition. There have been fierce conflicts on this spot — sieges and battles and fearful massacres. Here hath mailed Mars sat on his altar, up to his ears in blood, smiling grimly at the music of echoing cannons, the shrill trump, and all the rude din of arms, until like the waters of Egypt, the lake became red as the crimson flowers that blossom upon its margin!” At the word margin is the following explanatory note. “Lobelia Cardinalis, commonly called the Indian Eye-bright. It is a beautiful blossom, and is frequently met with in this region. The writer has seen large clusters of it blooming upon the margin of the ‘Bloody Pond’ in this neighborhood — so called from the circumstance of the slain being thrown into this pond, after the defeat of Baron Dieskau, by Sir William Johnson. The ancients would have constructed a beautiful legend from this incident, and sanctified the sanguinary flower.”

In Chapter X, Mr. Wheelwright marries an heiress — a rich widow worth thirty thousand pound sterling in prospectu — in Chapter XI, sets up a Philomathian Institute, the whole of the chapter being occupied with his advertisement [page 457:] — in Chapter XII, his wife affronts the scholars, by “swearing by the powers she would be afther clearing them out — the spalpeens! — that's what she would, honies!” The school is broken up in consequence, and Mrs. Wheelwright herself turns out to be nothing more than “one of the unmarried wives of the lamented Captain Scarlett,” the legal representatives being in secure possession of the thirty thousand pounds sterling in prospectu.

In Chapter XIII, Mr. Wheelwright is again in distress, and applies, of course, to the humane author of the “Ups and Downs,” who gives him, we are assured, “an overcoat, and a little basket of provisions.” In Chapter XIV, the author continues his benevolence — gives a crow, (cock-a-doodle doo!) and concludes with “there is no more charitable people than those of New York!” which means when translated into good English — “there never was a more charitable man than the wise and learned author of the ‘Ups and Downs.’ “

Chapter XV, is in a somewhat better vein, and embraces some tolerable incidents in relation to the pawn-brokers’ shops of New York. We give an extract — believing it to be one of the best passages in the book.

To one who would study human nature, especially in its darker features, there is no better field of observation than among these pawn-brokers’ shops.In a frequented establishment, each day unfolds an ample catalogue of sorrow, misery, and guilt, developed in forms and combinations almost innumerable; and if the history of each customer could be known, the result would be such a catalogue as would scarcely be surpassed, even by the records of a police-office or a prison. Even my brief stay while arranging for the redemption of Dr. Wheelwright's personals, afforded materials, as indicated in the last chapter, for much and painful meditation.

I had scarcely made my business known, at the first of “my uncle's” establishments to which I had been directed, when a middle-aged man entered with a bundle, on which he asked a small advance, and which, on being opened, was found to contain a shawl and two or three other articles of female apparel. The man was stout and sturdy, and, as I judged from his appearance, a mechanic; but the mark of the destroyer was on his bloated countenance, and in his heavy, stupid eyes. Intemperance had marked him for his own. The pawn-broker was yet examining the offered pledge, when a woman, whose pale face and attenuated form bespoke long and intimate acquaintance with sorrow, came hastily into the shop, and with the single exclamation, “O, Robert!” darted, rather than ran, to that part of the counter where the man was standing. Words were not wanted to explain her story. Her miserable husband, not satisfied with wasting his own earnings, and leaving her to starve with her children, had descended to the meanness of plundering even her scanty wardrobe, and the pittance for the obtaining of which this robbery would furnish means, was destined to be squandered at the tippling-house. A blush of shame arose even upon his degraded face, but it quickly passed away; the brutal appetite prevailed, and the better feeling that had apparently stirred within him for the moment, soon gave way before its diseased and insatiate cravings.

“Go home,” was his harsh and angry exclamation; “what brings you here, running after me with your everlasting scolding? go home, and mind your own business.”

“O Robert, dear Robert!” answered the unhappy wife, “don’t pawn my shawl. Our children are crying for bread, and I have none to give them. Or let me have the money; it is hard to part with that shawl, for it was my mother's gift; but I will let it go, rather than see my children starve. Give me the money, Robert, and don’t leave us to perish.”

I watched the face of the pawn-broker to see what effect this appeal would have upon him, but I watched in vain. He 120 was hardened to distress, and had no sympathy to throw away. “Twelve shillings on these things,” he said, tossing them back to the drunkard, with a look of perfect indifference.

“Only twelve shillings!” murmured the heart-broken wife, in a tone of despair. “O Robert, don’t let them go for twelve shillings. Let me try some where else.”

“Nonsense,” answered the brute. “It's as much as they’re worth, I suppose. Here, Mr. Crimp, give us the change.”

The money was placed before him, and the bundle consigned to a drawer. The poor woman reached forth her hand toward the silver, but the movement was anticipated by her husband. “There Mary,” he said, giving her half a dollar, “there, go home now, and don’t make a fuss. I’m going a little way up the street, and perhaps I’ll bring you something from market, when I come home.”

The hopeless look of the poor woman, as she meekly turned to the door, told plainly enough how little she trusted to this ambiguous promise. They went on their way, she to her famishing children, and he to squander the dollar he had retained, at the next den of intemperance.

Chapter XVI, is entitled the “end of this eventful history.” Mr. Wheelwright is rescued from the hands of the watch by the author of the “Ups and Downs” — turns his wife, very justly, out of doors — and finally returns to his parental occupation of coach-making.

We have given the entire pith and marrow of the book. The term flat, is the only general expression which would apply to it. It is written, we believe, by Col. Stone of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and should have been printed among the quack advertisements, in a spare corner of his paper.





[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (June 1836)