Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “American Novel-Writing” (Text-02), The Literary Examiner and Western Monthly Review, August 1839, 1:316-320


[page 316:]




We propose, in the subsequent Nos. of the EXAMINER, to discuss this subject at some length. Our wish is to present, in the simplest manner compatible with thorough investigation, a full view of this department of our literature. In pursuance of the design, we shall comment, much in detail, upon the works of each of our novelists; assigning each, in conclusion, the post which we consider his due, and placing what has ben altogether accomplished among us, in that relative position which we suppose just, with regard to novel-writing generally considered. When we say that in attempting this we attempt an original theme, our readers may not immediately comprehend the assertion. Yet, although it has an air of improbability, it is not the less positively true. Nothing has yet been written upon this head which even approaches a comprehensive, much less a critical, survey. Some treatises, indeed, sufficiently long, and more than sufficiently vague, have appeared, from time to time, and with a certain affectation of generality, in the North American and American Quarterly Reviews. The intention of these papers, however, was not, we presume, (being charitable,) to convey any distinct impression beyond that of the writer's ability. And, in truth, a subject so extensive as that of which we speak could scarcely be well treated, and should, therefore, not have been undertaken, in the pages of what we are accustomed to style our “Reviews,” since these ambiguous journals, from the length of time elapsing between their issues, cannot admit of the continuation of an article from one number to another. Criticisms of high merit, upon individual novels, have been met with, no unfrequently, in our monthly magazines; but these publications, (except in a few cases, where the imbecility of the critic was apparent,) have forborne to enter at length, and in detail, upon the general question. Prudential reasons, no doubt, have had much to do with their forbearance. An editor is usually either one of a coterie tacitly, if not avowedly pledged to the support of its own members; or, at least, he has a large number of friends among those who dabble in the waters of literature. It too often happens that a false sense of what is due to the chivalries of good-fellowship [column 2:] will induce him, unmindful of the loftier chivalries of truth, to put what he things the best face upon every work of every one of this number. In the case of an individual criticism, this, the best face, may be put in a multiplicity of ingenious ways.* Should the worst come to worst, an excuse may be readily found for the indefinite postponement of the promised or expected laudation. Both horns of the dilemma — the horn of the friend's vanity, and that of conscience and public opinion — may be avoided by merely saying nothing at all, when there is nothing at all of commendation to say. But shifts such as these must obviously fail the editor in the attempt at any general discussion of a branch of letters where the claimants of his notice are so numerous as in that of Romance. Here the difficulty is not of one acquaintance, but of many. Here the greatest insult would be the absolute silence. Here, if he desire not a total loss of his labor — if he would not weary by common-place; or become suspected through equivocation; or disgust by indiscrimitimidity — here there is no course left him but the straightest and the shortest — there is no path open but that of a rigid impartiality — of the sternest and most uncompromising truth.  

Thus nothing has been accomplished in the way of [page 317:] that general and connected analysis which we propose. That such an analysis is desirable should not be doubted. A very few, perhaps, among our readers, may be found to urge that the subject of Romance-writing is, in itself, of too little moment to merit any serious notice. From such opinion we dissent in toto. The readers of the July EXAMINER will there see, that in regard to imaginative writing, we have assumed a position which we intend to adhere to. Even if this were not the case, and we stood uncompromised in the matter, or had expressed opinions adverse to those we allude to, the subject is still of present importance, and warrants, at least, investigation. The public have agreed, by the eagerness of their interest in this species of literature, to give it an adventitious importance, if no more. It may be urged, too, that the more frivolous the character of that which engages so much of our attention, and occupies so vast a portion of our time, the more imperious seems the necessity of its rigid investigation.

To all parties, moreover, a distinct conception of what any division of our literary absolutely is, would seem to be a desideratrum. And, perhaps, by the man of letters alone, is the difficulty of arriving at such conception, in the case of our lighter works especially, very fully and properly understood. In truth, the corrupt nature of our ordinary criticism has become a bye-word and a reproach. Its powers have been prostrated by its own arm. The intercourse between critic and publisher, as it now almost universally stands, is comprised either in the paying and pocketing of blackmail, as the price of a simple forbearance, or in a direct system of petty and contemptible bribery properly so called — a system even more injurious than the former to the true interests of the public, and more degrading to the buyers and sellers of good and evil opinion, on account of the more positive character of the service here rendered for the consideration received. We smile at the idea of any denial of our assertions upon this topic — they are even notoriously true. In the charge of general corruption, there are, undoubtedly, one or two noble exceptions to be made. There are, indeed, some very few editors who, maintaining an entire independence, will receive no book from the publishers at all, or receive them with the perfect understanding on the part of these latter that an utterly unbiassed critique will be given. But these rare cases are insufficient to have much influence upon the popular mistrust — a mistrust which is heightened by a knowledge of the chicaneries of certain northern literary cliques, which, at the bidding of leading booksellers, manufacture, as it is needed from time to time, a pseudo-public-opinion by wholesale, for the benefit of any little hanger-on of the body, or pettifogging protector of the firm. We speak of these things not at all in merriment, but in the bitterness of scorn. We speak, too, only of things painfully notorious. It is unnecessary to cite instances, where one is found in almost every issue of a book. It is needless to call to mind the desperate case of FAY — a case where the pertinacity of the effort to gull — where the obviousness of the attempt at forestalling a judgement — where the [column 2:] wofully overdone be-Mirror-ment of that man of straw, together with the pitiable platitude of his stupid production, proved a dose somewhat too potent for even the well-prepared stomach of the mob. We say it is supererogatory to dwell upon Norman Leslie, or any other by-gone follies, when we have to-day, before our eyes, an example of the full working of the machinations alluded to, in the numerous and simultaneous anticipatory puffments of Charles Vincent, and of his worthy coadjutor, Sydney Clifton.* The grossness of these base attempts, however, has not escaped without many an indignant rebuke from the more honorable portion of the press; and we hail these symptoms of restiveness under the yoke of unprincipled ignorance and quackery (strong only in combination) as the harbingers of a better era for the interests of real merit, and of the national literature as a whole. It has become, indeed, the plain duty of each individual connected with our periodicals, heartily to give whatever influence he possesses to the good cause of integrity and the truth. The results thus attainable will be found worthy his closest attention and best efforts. We shall thus frown down all conspiracies to foist inanity upon the public consideration at the expense of every person of talent who is not a member of a coterie in power. We may even arrive, in time, at that desirable point, from which a distinct view of our men of letters may be obtained, and their several pretensions adjusted by the standard of a rigorous and self-sustaining criticism alone. That heir respective positions are as yet properly settled; that the posts which a vast number of them now hold are maintained by little better tenure than the chicanery upon which we have commented, will be asserted in full by none but the ignorant, or the parties who have the best right to feel an interest in the “good old condition of things.” No two matters can be more radically different than the reputation of some of our prominent litterateurs, as gathered from the mouths of the people, who glean it from the paragraphs of the papers, and the same reputation as deduced from the private estimate of intelligent and educated men. We do not advance this fact as a new discovery. Its truth, on the contrary, is the subject, and has been long so, of every-day witticism and mirth. Why not? Surely there can be few things more ridiculous than the general character and assumptions of the ordinary “critical notices” of new books! An editor, possibly without the shadow of the commonest attainments, often without brains, always without time, scruples not to give the world to understand that he is in the daily habit of critically reading and deciding upon a flood of publications, three-fourths of which would be Hebrew to his most [page 318:] desperate efforts at comprehension, one-tenth of whose title-pages he may probably have turned over, and whose whole mass and amount, as might be mathematically demonstrated, would be sufficient to occupy, in the most cursory perusal, the laborious attention of some ten or twenty men for a month! What he wants in plausibility, however, he makes up in obsequiousness — what in time, in temper. He is the most easily pleased man in the world. He admires every thing from the big Dictionary of Noah Webster, to the last little edition of Tom Thumb. Indeed his chief difficulty is to find tongue to express his delight. Every pamphlet is a miracle; every book in boards is an epoch in letters. His words, therefore, get bigger and bigger every day. If it were not for talking Cockney, we might call him “a regular swell.” But what is to become of him in the end? He will either go up like a balloon, or be mistaken for a pair of bellows, on account of the sonorous pertinacity of his puffs.

Should opinions thus promulgated be taken, in their wonderful aggregate, as an evidence of what American literature absolutely is, (and it may be said that, in general, they are really so taken,) we shall find ourselves the most enviable set of people upon the face of the earth. Our fine writers are legion. Our very atmosphere is redolent of genius; and we, the nation, are a huge well-contented chameleon, having grown pursy by inhaling it. We are teres et rotundus — enwrapped in excellence. All our poets are Miltons, neither mute nor inglorious; all our poetesses are “American Hemanses;” nor will it do to deny that all our novelists are either great Knowns or great Unknowns, and that every body who writes in every possible and impossible department, is the admirable Crichton, or the ghost of the admirable Crichton, or at least the admirable Crichton redivivus. We are thus in a glorious condition; and will remain so until forced to disgorge our ethereal honors. In truth, there is some danger that the jealousy of the old World will interfere. It cannot long submit to that outrageous monopoly of “all decency and all the talent” in which the gentlemen of the press give such undoubted assurance of our being so busily engaged.

But we feel angry with ourselves for the jesting tone of our observations upon this topic. The prevalence of the spirit of puffery is a subject far less for merriment than for disgust. Its truckling, yet dogmatical character — its bold, unsustained, yet self-sufficient and wholesale laudation — is becoming, more and more, an insult to the common sense of the community. Trivial as it essentially is, it has yet been made the instrument of the grossest abuse in the elevation of imbecility, to the manifest injury to the utter ruin, of true merit. It there any man of good feeling and of ordinary understanding — is there one single individual among our readers — who does not feel a thrill of bitter indignation, altogether apart from any sentiment of mirth, as he calls to mind instance after instance of the purest, of the most [[un]]adulterated quackery in letters, which as arisen to a high post in the apparent popular estimation, and which still maintains it, by the sole means of a blustering arrogance, [column 2:] or of a busy wriggling conceit, or even through the simple immensity of its assumptions — assumptions not only unopposed by the press at large, but absolutely supported in proportion to the vociferous clamor with which they are made — in exact accordance with their utter baselessness and untenability? We should have no trouble of pointing out, to-day, some twenty or thirty so-called literary personages, who, if not idiots as we half think them, or if not hardened to all sense of shame by a long course of disingenuousness, will now blush, in the perusal of these words, with a consciousness of the shadowy nature of that purchased pedestal upon which they stand — will now tremble in thinking of the feebleness of the breath which will be adequate to the blowing it from beneath their feet. With the help of a hearty good will — even we may yet tumble them down. There is not a decent individual in all Christendom who would not applaud us for so doing.

In our general design we see difficulties to be overcome — yet are prepared, because resolved, to overcome them. For example; so firm, through a long endurance, has been the hold taken upon the popular mind (at least so far as we may consider the popular mind reflected in ephemeral letters) by the laudatory system which we have deprecated, that what is, in its own essence, a vice, has become endowed with the appearance, and met with the reception of a virtue. Antiquity, as usual, has lent a certain degree of speciousnes[[s]] even to the absurd. So continually have we puffed, that we have at length come to think puffing the duty, and plain speaking the dereliction. What we began in gross error we persist in through habit. Having adopted, in the earlier days of our literature, the untenable idea that this literature, as a whole, could be advanced by an indiscriminate approbation bestowed upon its every effort, — having adopted this idea, we say, without attention to the obvious fact that praise of all was bitter although negative censure to the few alone deserving, and that the only tendency of the system, in the fostering way, would be the fostering of folly — we now continue our vile practices through the supineness of custom — even while, in our national self-conceit, we indignantly repudiate the notion of the present existence of that suppositious necessity for patronage and protection, in which originated our conduct. In a word, the press throughout the country has not been ashamed to make head against the very few bold attempts at independence, which have, from time to time, been made in the face of the reigning order of things. And, if, in one, or perhaps two, insulated cases, the spirit of severe truth, urged with high talent, and sustained by an unconquerable will, was not to be so put down — then, forthwith, were private chicaneries set in motion — then was had resort, on the part of those who conceived themselves injured by the severity of the criticism (and who were so, if the just contempt of every ingenuous man is injury,) resort to arts of the most virulent indignity — to untraceable slanders of a character so utterly outrageous and outre, that, while the sensitive minds thus assailed sunk for a brief period beneath their influence, the monstrous absurdity of the slanders [page 319:] themselves precluded the possibility (as the petty assassins had well anticipated,) of any, or even the slightest effort at reply. We say thse [[these]] things were done — while the press in general looked on, and, with a full understanding of the wrong perpetuated, spoke not against the wrong. The idea had absolutely gone abroad — had grown up little by little into toleration — that attacks however just, upon a literary reputation however obtained — however untenable — were well retaliated by the basest and most unfounded traduction of personal fame. But is this an age — is this a day — in which it can be necessary even to advert to such considerations, as that the book of the author is the property of the public, and that the issue of the book is the throwing down of the gauntlet to the reviewer whose duty is the plainest — the duty not even of approbation, or of censure, or of silence, at his own will, but at the sway of those sentiments, and of those opinions, which are derived from the author himself, through the medium of his written and published words? True criticism is the reflection of the thing criticised upon the spirit of the critic.

There is no prevalent error more at war with the real interests of literature, than that of supposing these interests to demand a suppression, in any degree, of the feelings — whether of enthusiastic admiration, or of ridicule, or of contempt, or of disgust — which are experienced, in regard only to the pages before him, by the public censor of a book thrown open avowedly to the inspection of the public. He is circumscribed, and should be circumscribed, by no limits save those of the book itself. That he should not be personal, is, of course, a point too thoroughly understood to need comment. He is to forget that the author has an existence apart from his authorship. This forgetrulness [[forgetfulness]] and the laws of critical art, are his sole fetters. Yet men are to be found, even to day, who will contend that all sarcasm is inadmissible — that its use is a personal bias, even when levelled most rigidly at letters alone — that the business of the critic, in short, is to repress every impulse (except, perhaps, when impulse makes in favor of the reviewed) and to present a false, in presenting a subdued, image of the impression he has received from what he has read. Such thinkers, however, or rather such individuals innocent of thought, are usually they who have the most to fear from the effects of the research they would overthrow. For some people, indeed, whom we know, as the loudest in outcry, the question is an awkwardly one-sided affair. No satirist, they answer very well as subjects for satire. They are no Archilochuses themselves. They have small pretensions to the αχλύς òς τρìν ετηεν. But then we have nothing to do with their peculiarities. We cannot trouble ourselves with attention to their feeble capacities for action or passion. We positively refuse to be bound down by the self-interest of their unsupported and insupportable assertions.

In the attempt at obtaining definite information in regard to the whole of any one portion of our literature — and, especially, in regard to the department of Romance — the merely general reader, or the foreigner, [column 2:] will turn in vain from the lighter to the heavier journals. It is not our intention here to dwell upon the radical, antique, systematized deficiency of our Quarterlies. It is in the favor of these saturine pamphlets, that they contain, now and then, a good essay de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis, which may be looked into, without decided somnolent consequences, at any period not immediately subsequent to dinner. But it is useless to expect criticism from periodicals called “Reviews” from never reviewing — as lucus is lucus a non lucendo. Besides, all men know, or should know, that these books are sadly given to verbiage. It is a part of their nature — a point of their faith. Nobody minds them. No one pays any attention to their proceedings. They love generalities and are rarely particular. Your veteran Reviewer has ideas of his own, and is fussy in parting with them. His wit lies with his truth, in a well; and there is always a world of trouble in getting it up. He is a sworn enemy of all things simple and direct. He gives no ear to the advice of the giant Moulineau — “Belier, mon ami commencez au commencment.” He either jumps at once into the middle of his subject, or gets in at a back door, or sidles up to it with the gait of a crab. No other mode of approach has an air of sufficient profundity. When fairly in for it, however, he is seldom able to see his way out. He is dazzled with the scintillations of his own wisdom. A film comes over his eyes — the ηχηεντες ιαμβοι. Tired of laughing at his antics, or frightened at seeing him flounder, the reader at length shuts him up in the book. “What song the Syrens sang,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture” — but we think that, in nine cases out of ten, it would pose Sir Thomas, backed by Achilles and all the Syrens in Heathendom, to say what is the object of the droll circumgyratory manuvers of a regular-bred Quarterly Reviewer.

In the fulfilment of our purpose, already stated, we shall endeavor, at least, to be perspicuous. We shall not reject the manifest advantages of method. We shall be pardoned for proceeding as if such things as previous criticisms were not. It is our desire, especially, to bear upon the reader's mind the fullest impression of the honesty of our opinions — an impression derivable from the internal evidence afforded by these opinions themselves. We shall make it manifest that we fear no man nor set of men — yet would not have it supposed, for a moment, that we design to deal at all in the language of that region where, Addison assures us, “they sell the best fish and speak the plainest English.”

In our next article under this head we shall comment upon the novels of CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN. The whole series of papers may be drawn out to some length — but this is a necessary evil. It may also chance that some of those with whom we are related on terms of honest, social friendship, come under the ban — and others, whose contributions to the pages of this Magazine place them in the light of coadjutors, and, of a consequence seem to elevate them above the wholesome investigations of critical impartiality, may accuse us [page 320:] of a lack of urbanity and literary comity in discussing their graver labors in the spirit of severe truth. The reader whose attention has been lent to a perusal of our foregoing remarks will understand the principles governing us in all such cases, and we can but say to those who may be directly concerned, that we think not less favorably of the man while it becomes our duty to expose the faults of the author.

To our co-laborers in the Press, we offer the results of our investigations, no less than to our readers. We ask from them candid consideration, and an impartial verdict. If they find us trenching upon well-deserved rights and invading meritorious reputation (for we by no means arrogate to our views freedom from error, on the contrary, in many cases we have gathered wholesome advice and improved opinions out of the censure of our professional brethren,) we shall expect to be rebuked, [column 2:] and will thank our censors for exposing our errors. If the judgements we shall, from time to time, express, be in accordance with the views taken of the same subjects by our cotemporaries, we trust to receive the benefit resulting from such similarity of critical opinion. Honest in our aim, the errors that may mark our progress will be the errors of judgement merely; in starting we allow no personal prejudices to sway us, and, consequently, whatever, that our reviewers may deem objectionable, be found in our strictures, let them do us the justice to believe that the matters on which they found their exceptions did not originate in any pre-established objections to the author personally.

In granting to us the advantages of the position we have claimed, our readers, whether professional or private, will be all the better enabled to estimate the good or evil results of our labor.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 316, column 2:]

* Several laughable instances of this equivocal good-nature have lately attracted attention; but, perhaps, the most amusing case grew out of the Southern Literary Messenger's review of the novel called “Paul Ulric.” This book, which came from the press of the Harpers, was unmitigated and irredeemable nonsense; and Mr. Poe, the editor of the Messenger, (unquestionably the most thorough and erudite critic the age affords,) made no scruple of placing its outrageous folly in a clear light. He, most justly, condemned the work in every particular. In the course of his observations on style, however, he selected a single short sentence as the best in the work — by way of showing how utterly bad all must be when such absurdity was best. A certain Philadelphia paper, of extensive circulation, copied the extract, in its next issue, with some prefatory remarks, avowing itself borne out in its high encomium of the passage, by the opinion of the editor of the Messenger.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 317, column 2:]

* To so great an extent of methodical assurance has the system of puffery arrived, that publishers, of late, make no scruple of keeping on hand an assortment of commendatory notices, duly prepared by their men of all work, and of sending these notices around to the various papers within their influence, done up in the fly-leaves of the books. Generally, these home-manufactures have been received and inserted editorially; within a few weeks, however, there have occurred some laughable instances of rebellion and exposure.


The authorship of this article may be assigned with certainty, although it may have been badly modified by the editor of the journal. Poe refers to this article in a letter to J. D. Snodgrass, July 12, 1841, “Among the Reviews (for August) I have one which will, at least, surprise you. It is a long notice of a satire by a quondam Baltimorean L. A. Wilmer. You must get this satire & read it — it is really good—good in the old-fashioned Dryden style. It blazes away, too, to the right & left—sparing not. I have made it the text from which to preach a fire-&-fury sermon upon critical independence, and the general literary humbuggery of the day. I  have introduced in this sermon some portion of a Review formerly written by me for the ‘Pittsburg Examiner’, a monthly journal which died in the first throes of its existence. It was edited by E. Burke Fisher Esqre — th[a]n whom a greater scamp never walked. He wrote to me offering 4$ per page for criticism, promising to put them in as contributions — not editorially. The first thing I saw was one of my articles under the editorial head, so altered that I hardly recognized it, and interlarded with all manner of bad English and ridiculous opinions of his own. I believe, however, that the number in which it appeared, being [[the]] last kick of the maga:; was never circulated.” There was one additional issue of the short-lived journal printed.

As noted in Poe's letter to Snodgrass, he reused some of the article in his August 1841 review from Graham's Magazine of Wilmer's The Quacks of Helicon.   He also repeated long sections in his essay “American Poetry” from the Aristidean, 1845, for example: Page 316: “Surely there can be few things more ridiculous than the general character and assumptions of the ordinary “critical notices” of new books!” which matches page 375 of the Aristidean article. Page 317: “All our poets are Miltons . . .” which matches page 378 of the Aristidean article.


[S:0 - LEWMR, 1839 (microfilm, JHU)] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Essays - American Novel-Writing (Text-02)