Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of America and the American People,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XIII: Literary Criticism - part 06 (1902), pp. 13-16


[page 13, continued:]


[Broadway Journal, Nov. 22, 1845.]

WE cannot better preface the few words we have to say of this book than by the citation of a passage in Professor Turner’s introduction.

His opinions on the whole respecting the institutions, the past history, and the future prospects of this country, are in the highest degree favorable; and whenever he allows himself to find fault, which is but seldom, he does it with evident reluctance, and with the air of a friend whose admonitions are wholesome, not with the bitterness of an enemy. The comparisons too, which he makes between many of the American institutions and the corresponding institutions of Europe, will be found useful and instructive. One virtue of his will not be the less esteemed on account of its rarity among writers in this country; and that is, that he has at least endeavored to make himself well acquainted with what he has under taken to write about. He has also shown great and commendable carefulness in every instance, not to violate the privileges of a guest by exposing to the world the confidences of private and social intercourse, — a proceeding which some writers on both sides of the water might imitate with advantage. [page 14:]

Elsewhere the translator well observes that it is rather the subjectivity than the objectivity of the book that will claim the attention of readers in this country — that Americans will not resort to a work of this kind, written by a foreigner, and which treats of such a variety of delicate and different topics, to obtain minute information on matters of fact.

The Baron himself, with a genuine modesty, admits that he is not unaware of his incapacity for such detail. “Should my book reach America,” he says, ” I request my readers there not to forget that it is especially intended for Germany and that it can offer nothing new to the well-informed inhabitants of the United States.”

These considerations and admissions should be carefully borne in mind by every American who reads the book. Its commendable features are candor, evident desire for truth, freedom from prejudice, comprehensiveness, and masterly breadth of generalization.

Perhaps there are no points at which we have greater need of making allowance for the foreigner’s imperfect means of information in detail, than those which concern the state of our National Literature. Were we to say, in round terms, that Professor Von Raumer has set forth with accuracy not one fact in relation to American letters, we fear that we should not be very far from the truth. The German who is so rash as to estimate our condition by what he here reads, will find himself in what may be termed a high state of information.

“The greater American periodicals or critical reviews” says the Baron, among other things, “distinguish themselves by propriety, moderation, and dignity; they display an accurate knowledge of all [page 15:] sciences and often contain criticisms which are masterly both in form and substance.”

Of the “propriety” we are not prepared to speak — and the “dignity” will do — but the “moderation” (so far at least as concerns the Down-East Review) must have reference to the applause or attention bestowed upon those insignificant individuals who have the misfortune to reside out of the limits of Massachusetts.

“Authors of really able productions” continues the Baron, “are liberally rewarded in America.” Some one has informed the traveller, no doubt, that Mr. Prescott received six thousand dollars for “The Conquest of Mexico” — for this is the one brilliant point usually cited in defence of the liberality of American publishers. Had the Professor made farther inquiry he would have found that Mr. Prescott was engaged for many years at his work, and that he expended for the necessary books and other materials a large sum — the compensation thus afforded him, amounting in the end to little more than any common scavenger might have earned in the same period, upon our highways.

The most really curious portion, however, of the comments on American Literature, is to be found in the following passage:

The richest or at least the most prolific department of poetry is the lyric. But as in thousands of years there have been but one Pindar and one Horace, (although every Spring puts forth countless pleasing yet mostly perishable lyric blossoms,) it is performing a valuable service, when a man of taste and information makes a suitable, well assorted selection, and guides the friend of poetry in his ramble through those groves, from which he might [page 16:] otherwise be deterred by their immensity. Such service has been rendered by Mr. Griswold, in his Poets and Poetry of America.

We have heard it asserted that it was out of the power of any such book as that of Mr. Griswold to effect either good or evil — but we think that the evil is here sufficiently obvious. His book is the largest one of its kind. A distinguished foreigner very naturally supposes it the best. He is not in condition to consider or to comprehend the innumerable petty arts by which, in America, a dexterous quack may force even the most contemptible work into notoriety and consequent circulation. The foreigner’s opinions, and through him the opinions of his countrymen, are thus in danger of being based (at least for a time) upon a foundation, for which “frothy” is far too solid — far too respectable a term. If Dr. Griswold’s book is really to be received as a fair representation of our poetical literature, then are we in a very lamentable — or rather in a very ridiculous condition indeed.

Following such authority, Professor Von Raumer quotes in especial, “The Old Man’s Carousal” by Paulding! and a lyric (the name of which we forget) by the Right Reverend Bishop Doane!

We have been much surprised to find, in the Translator’s Preface, no acknowledgment of his indebtedness to those who aided him in his very difficult task — to Mr. Kirkland, for example, and to the accomplished Mrs. Ellett — who, between them, prepared nearly, if not quite, one half of the book. The omission, however, may either have been accidental or have arisen from some motives of publishing policy — motives which, we admit, are now and then exceedingly difficult to understand.





[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of America and the American People)