Text: James A. Harrison, “Introduction,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. VIII: Literary Criticism - part 01 (1902), 8:v-xvii


[page v, unnumbered:]


IN The Southern Literary Messenger for May, 1835, T. W. White, “Printer and Proprietor,” as he styles himself, made the following announcement on the first page:

“The Publisher has the pleasure of announcing to his friends and patrons that he has made an arrangement with a gentleman of approved literary taste and attainments, to whose especial management the editorial department of the Messenger has been confided. This management he confidently believes will increase the attractions of his pages, — for, besides the acknowledged capacity of the gentleman referred to, his abstention from other pursuits will enable him to devote his exclusive attention to the work.”

The “gentleman of approved literary taste and attainments” was Edgar Allan Poe. The March and April numbers of the Messenger preceding had contained Poe's “Berenice” and “Morella,” which the editor, in an editorial note, had highly commended for their powers of imagination and unsurpassed command of language. While these stories were inscribed “For The Southern Literary Messenger,” it was known that they formed part of a collection of sixteen Tales, entitled [page vi:] “Tales of the Folio Club,” six of which had been handed in by the author in competition for the $100.00 prize offered by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter” in October, 1833.

John P. Kennedy, author of “Swallow Barn,” and, later, of “Horse-Shoe Robinson,” had originally called Mr. White's attention to Poe in the following letter:

“BALTIMORE, April 13, 1835.

“DEAR SIR: Poe did right in referring to me. He is very clever with his pen — classical and scholar-like. He wants experience and direction, but I have no doubt he can be made very useful to you. And, poor fellow! he is very poor. I told him to write something for every number of your magazine, and that you might find it to your advantage to give him some permanent employ. He has a volume of very bizarre tales in the hands of —— in Philadelphia, who for a year past has been promising to publish them. This young fellow is highly imaginative, and a little given to the terrific. He is at work upon a tragedy [“Politian”], but I have turned him to drudging upon whatever may make money, and I have no doubt you and he will find your account in each other.”(1)

Evidently White's experience with Poe, in the March and April numbers, superadded to Kennedy's commendation of him, had produced so favorable an impression on the proprietor of the Messenger that he engaged the Baltimore poet first as a casual then as a constant contributor to its columns. A letter from Poe to White, dated Baltimore, May 30, 1835, is the first communication that acknowledges compensation for his literary work. [page vii:]

“Dear Sir: I duly received through Mr. Kennedy your favor of the 20th enclosing $5, and another for $4.94. I assure you it was very welcome;” and, lower down, in the same letter, he refers to his review of the “Confessions of a Poet,” which appeared in the April number, and which is the first of his acknowledged reviews for this periodical.(1) In a letter of the same date he speaks of his criticism of Mr. Kennedy's novel, “Horse-Shoe Robinson,” as a matter of which he was “seriously ashamed.” It appeared in the May number.

About six weeks later he acknowledges from Baltimore receipt of $20 from Mr. White, and, after expressing pain that his review of Marshall's Washington would not appear in “No. 11,” continues: “Look over ‘Hans Phaal’ [sic] and the Literary Notices by me in No. 10, and see if you have not miscalculated the sum due me. There are thirty-four columns in all. ‘Hans Phaal’ cost me nearly a fortnight's hard labor, and was written especially for the Messenger.”

This shows that Poe was now busily engaged in work, critical and imaginative, for Mr. White, and had become, though still living in Baltimore, his regularly paid editorial assistant, in conformity with the announcement made in the May number.

In June White wrote and asked him whether he would be willing to come to Richmond in case he should have occasion for his services during the coming winter. Poe gladly assented, anxious to return even [page viii:] as a “supervisor of proof sheets,” to the city where his youth had been mainly spent. Accordingly, August and September find him in Richmond, from which he returned September 22 (the date of his Baltimore marriage license), to marry his cousin, Virginia Clemm, then only thirteen years old. In a few weeks Mrs. Clemm, her daughter, and Poe were in Richmond, planning to keep a boarding-house on his salary of $520 a year. Three months later, having become editor of the Messenger in December, 1835, his salary was increased to $800 per annum. This number and this year became memorable in Poe annals as the date of the caustic critique of Theodore S. Fay's “Norman Leslie,” a silly romance of the Knickerbocker school, which Poe ground to powder, thereby exciting the implacable hostility of the Manhattanites. The pet of the metropolitan press was so savagely attacked by the young editor — himself only twenty-six — that the entire press of the country reverberated for months with echoes of the controversy, and Poe, in retaliation, was scourged by the anonymous paragraphists. Such criticism as this, familiar to the old Edinburgh Review or the London Quarterly, — to the reviews that had “murdered Keats,” and hung, drawn, and quartered Byron, and, later, Tennyson, — was unknown in America, and possessed a Heinesque causticity which its author, in later penitential years, acknowledged to be “overdone;” but it was startlingly fresh, incisive, and original. Poe proudly claimed that in the nineteen months during which he was connected with the Messenger as assistant and as editor its circulation increased from 700 to 5,000 — an increase due largely to the penetrating power and vivacity of his literary notices.

This large body of criticism, so epoch-making in its [page ix:] way, so thorough in its method, so pungent in its style, has up to the present edition been ignored by editors of Poe; and yet it was largely this that gained him his early reputation, and won the admiring commendation of such men as J. P. Kennedy, J. K. Paulding, Washington Irving, and Beverley Tucker, and that carried his name far and wide as the first and most eminent American critic of the day.

The time has now come when it seems just to Poe's fame that this interesting mass of anonymous work — especially that between December, 1835, and February, 1837 — should be unearthed and reprinted, not as the literary wild oats sown recklessly by a genius in his youth, but for its own interest and intrinsic value. What editor would ignore Goethe's “Götz” or Schiller's “Räuber,” Corneille's “Cid” or Milton's “Hymn,” because they bubble with the intense effervescence of youth and throw their immature sparkling foam in the eyes of the reader? Only the Poe specialist would know that of this immense body of critical work the reviews of Irving's “Astoria” and “Peter Snook” alone have been reprinted in their entirety, the rest having been neglected or printed in mutilated fragments or in excerpted “Marginalia.” But this mass of criticism, even when lavished on volumes that have long since sunk into oblivion, will amply repay study and perusal. Besides, the periodicals in which this side of Poe's early life lies entombed are scarce and inaccessible; it is therefore confidently believed that the editor's time in copying and in reproducing its product for publication here has not been thrown away. Everything that Poe said even at this early period is marked by a statuesque saliency, a clear-cut individualism, that make him the most un-American, [page x:] the most un-contemporaneous man of his time: unique, solitary, ungregarious, standing alone whether for good or for ill — a literary freak, an intellectual phenomenon, if you will, but as unlike every writer of his time as Shakspere or Cervantes was.

In these early critiques Poe lets himself all out and shows himself wonderfully mixed of human kindness, discrimination, and gall. In the highly interesting letter to “The Compiler” which we find below he makes it clear that out of ninety-four books reviewed by him between December, 1835, and September, 1836, only three are harshly condemned, seventy-nine are noticed in commendatory terms, and twelve are regarded with mingled praise and blame; surely no overwhelming show of harshness. It was especially for discrimination that some of the most eminent authors of the time praised these reviews. In January, 1836, J. K. Paulding wrote to White:

“Your Periodical is decidedly superior to any Periodical in the United States, and Mr. Poe is decidedly the best of all our young writers. I don’t know but that I might add all our old ones, with one or two exceptions, among which, I assure you, I don’t include myself.”

Again, in March, 1836, he wrote: “I hope Mr. Poe will pardon me if the interest I feel in his success should prompt me to take this occasion to suggest to him to apply his fine humor and his extensive acquirements to more familiar subjects of satire; to the faults and foibles of our own people, their peculiarities of habits and manners, and above all to the ridiculous affectations and extravagancies of the fashionable English Literature of the day, which we copy with such admirable success and servility. His quiz on Willis [page xi:] [‘Lionizing’] and the burlesque of ‘Blackwood’ [‘Loss of Breath’] were not only capital, but what is more were understood by all. For Satire to be relished it is necessary that it should be leveled at something with which readers are familiar.”

Judge Beverley Tucker wrote at the same time to White (January, 1836):

“I do not agree with the reading (or rather the writing and printing) public in admiring Mrs. Sigourney & Co., or any of our native poets except Halleck. In this I know I shall stand condemned. But I appeal from contemporaneous and reciprocal puffing to the impartial judgment of posterity. Let that pass. I only mention this to say that Mr. P.'s review of the writings of a trio of these ladies [Mrs. Sigourney, Miss Gould, and Mrs. Ellet, January, 1836], in your last number, is a specimen of criticism, which for niceness of discrimination, delicacy of expression, and all that shows familiarity with the art, may well compare with any I have seen.”

Another esteemed littérateur of the time, James E. Heath, who occasionally edited the Messenger, wrote:

“The cultivation of such high intellectual powers as you possess cannot fail to earn for you a solid reputation in the literary world. In the department of criticism especially, I know few who can claim to be your superior in this country. Your dissecting knife, if vigorously employed, would serve to rid us of much of that silly trash and sickly sentimentality with which puerile and conceited authors, and gain-seeking book-sellers are continually poisoning our intellectual food. I hope in relation to all such you will continue to wield your mace without ‘fear, favor, or affection.’ ” (September, 1839). [page xii:]

In insight, acumen, and brilliant edge indeed, Poe never surpassed some of these earlier criticisms, and his constant effort to be just, even in unfavorable judgments, such as those on Gilmore Simms’ “Partisan,” is obvious to the most unenlightened reader; as obvious as, later, his effort to bring out the mingled excellences and crudities of Elizabeth Barrett, his admiration for whom did not blind him to her glaring faults.

The mass of Poe's critical work in the Messenger, however, is so extensive that we shall have to content ourselves with selecting only the more important reviews, leaving out the long quotations. The student of Poe will thus have abundant opportunity at least of studying him in a neglected field, — that in which his early powers displayed themselves most vigorously and most uninterruptedly through nearly two years of phenomenal growth and development.

The following letter is most instructive as revealing to us a glimpse of the critic at his desk:


To the Editor of the Compiler:

DEAR SIR: In a late paragraph respecting the Southern Literary Messenger, you did injustice to that Magazine, and perhaps your words, if unanswered, may even do it an injury. As any such wrong is far from your thoughts you will, of course, allow the Editor of the Messenger the privilege of reply. The reputation of a young Journal, occupying a conspicuous post in the eye of the public, should be watched, by those who preside over its interest, with a jealous attention, and those interests defended when necessary and when possible. But it is not often possible. Custom debars a Magazine [page xiii:] from answering in its own pages (except in rare cases) contemporary misrepresentations and attacks. Against these it has seldom, therefore, any means of defence — the best of reasons why it should avail itself of the few, which, through courtesy, fall to its lot. I mean this as an apology for troubling you to-day.

(a) Your notice of the Messenger would generally be regarded as complimentary, especially as to myself. I would, however, prefer justice to compliment, and the good name of the Magazine to any personal consideration. The concluding sentence of your paragraph runs thus: “The criticisms are pithy and often highly judicious, but the editors must remember that it is almost as injurious to obtain a character for regular cutting and slashing as for indiscriminate laudation.” The italics are my own. I had supposed you aware of the fact that the Messenger had but one editor — it is not right that others should be saddled with demerits which belong only to myself.

(b) But this is not the point to which I especially object. You assume that the Messenger has obtained a character for regular “cutting and slashing,” or if you do not mean to assume this every one will suppose that you do — which, in effect, is the same. Were the assumption just I would be silent and set immediately about amending my editorial course. You are not sufficiently decided, I think, in saying that a career of “regular cutting and slashing is almost as bad as one of indiscriminate laudation.” It is infinitely worse. It is horrible. The laudation may proceed from — philanthropy, if you please, but the “indiscriminate cutting and slashing,” only from the vilest passions of our nature. But I wish briefly to examine two points — first, is the charge of “indiscriminate cutting and slashing” just, granting it adduced against the Messenger, and second, is such charge adduced at all? Since the commencement of my editorship in December last ninety-four books have been reviewed. In seventy-nine of these cases the commendation [page xiv:] has so largely predominated over the few sentences of censure that every reader would pronounce the notices highly laudatory. In seven instances, viz., in those of The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow, The Old World and the New, Spain Revisited, The Poems of Mrs. Sigourney, of Miss Gould, of Mrs. Ellet and of Halleck, praise slightly prevails. In five, viz., in those of Clinton Bradshaw, The Partisan, Elkswatawa, Lafitte, and the Poems of Drake, censure is greatly predominant; while the only reviews decidedly and harshly condemnatory are those of Norman Leslie, Paul Ulric, and Ups and Downs. The “Ups and Downs” alone is unexceptionably condemned. Of these facts you may satisfy yourself at any moment by reference. In such case the difficulty you will find, in classing these notices, as I have here done, according to the predominance of censure, or commendation, will afford you sufficient evidence that it cannot justly be called “indiscriminate.”

But this charge of indiscriminate “cutting and slashing” has never been adduced — except in four instances, while the rigid justice and impartiality of our Journal has been lauded even ad nauseam, in more than four times four hundred. You should not, therefore, have assumed that the Messenger had obtained a reputation for this “cutting and slashing” — for the asserting a thing to be famous is a well known method of rendering it so. The four instances to which I allude are the Newbern Spectator, to which thing I replied in July, the Commercial Advertiser, of Colonel Stone, whose Ups and Downs I had occasion (pardon me) to “use up,” the New York Mirror, whose Editor's Norman Leslie did not please me, and the Philadelphia Gazette, which, being conducted by one of the sub-editors of the Knickerbocker, thinks it is its duty to abuse all rival magazines.

(c) I have only to add that the inaccuracy of your expression in the words: “The August number of the Southern Literary Messenger has been well received by most of the editorial corps who have noticed it,” is of a mischievous [page xv:] tendency in regard to the Messenger. You have seen, I presume, no notices which have not been seen by myself — and you must be aware that there is not one, so far, which has not spoken in the highest terms of the August number. I cannot, however, bring myself to doubt that your remarks upon the whole were meant to do the Messenger a service and that you regard it with the most friendly feelings in the world.

The Editor of the Messenger.(1)

This hitherto unknown letter thus enables us to recognize infallibly Poe's anonymous literary work on the Messenger from December, 1835, to September, 1836, and to reprint, without fear of mistake, what has heretofore been accepted only conjecturally as his. The internal evidence afforded by his style indeed is almost infallible; still, as it was a style, like Macaulay's, easily imitable, — and set a “style” itself, — it is not impossible that one might have been mistaken in attributing certain articles to him. The “Compiler” letter now settles all this for the period indicated, and Poe's own note, in the number for January, 1837, authenticates for us one more month of contributions, leaving only September, October, November, and December of this year (1836) at all in doubt.

Fortunately, there can be no reasonable doubt as to these months, and not much for the months between [page xvi:] May and December, 1835, when Poe's sole editorship was formally announced.

The review work of the consecutive nine months (December, 1835, to September, 1836) is distributed as follows:

REVIEWS: 1835, Dec., 23. 1836, Jan., 9; Feb., 11; March, 5; April, 3; May, 7; June, 8; July, 9; August, 13 = 88 + 3 = 91; + 3 editorials = 94.

The heterogeneous character of the work is very remarkable. All the books that came in for review from anxious publishers eager to get a scratch of the pen from Poe were tumbled pêlemêle on the floor of the editorial sanctum: science, romance, poetry, travel, books on navigation and physiology, pamphlets, addresses, anniversary orations, text-books in Latin and Greek, translations from the French and German, German philosophy, New England poetry and transcendentalism, American law-books: all were swallowed up in the voracious hopper of the Messenger, and the taster-and-swallower-in-chief was Poe.

Poe's reviews abound in quotations from the books under consideration, of such length that they had generally to be omitted in the following reproductions. In cases, however, where they are intimately interwoven with the context they have been reproduced.

The peculiarities which distinguished him all his life were there, emerging at his very dawn: the curious verbal analysis, the insistence on verbal accuracy, the abhorrence of slovenliness, the worship of style as a fine art, the warm appreciation of elegance in phraseology, the connoisseurship in mere words, the mordant humor: Poe in esse as well as in posse was there; [page xvii:] and the world understood at once that it had to do with a unique and powerful personality. When Ste. Beuve began to write those marvellous Lundis which revolutionized criticism in France, when Matthew Arnold took up Homer and Heine and the Persian Passion Play, and presented their facets at luminous literary angles hitherto unseen, the world stopped and gave heed, just as it did in the thirties to the voice of Poe.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page vi:]

1.  Griswold, XXIX. [[xiii.]] [[The xxix page reference is for the Griswold edition as it was reformed after 1852. Harrison presumably did not have access to the earlier editions.]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of vii:]

1.  Professor Woodberry (Works VI., p. 324) asserts that Poe wrote the criticism on Bryant in the Messenger for January, 1835; but there is no evidence for this, nor for Poe's connection with the Messenger at this early date. Still we insert the review. — ED.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page xv:]

1.  N.B. The Compiler subjoined its reply and inserted the above letters (a), (b), and (c.) Editors (plural) was a typographical error.

B. B. M.

This important letter has been furnished us by Dr. B. B. Minor, who edited the Messenger in the forties. — ED.



The back of the final page, technically page xviii, although unnumbered, is blank.


[S:1 - JAH08, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Introduction)