Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Laughton Osborn” from Literary America, 1848, manuscript


[page 75:]

Laughton Osborn.

Personally Mr Osborn is little known as an author, either to the public or in literary society; but he has made many sensations anonymously or with a nom de plume. I am not sure that he has published anything with his own name.

One of his earliest works — if not his earliest — was “The Adventures of Jeremy Levis by Himself,” in one volume, a medley of fact, fiction, satire, criticism, and novel philosophy — a dashing, reckless brochure, brimfull of talent and audacity. Of course, it was covertly admired by the few and vociferously condemned by all of the many who can be fairly said to have seen it at all.  It had no great circulation. There was something wrong, I fancy, in the mode of its issue.

“Jeremy Levis” was followed by “The Dream of Alla-Ad-Deen, from the Romance of ‘Anastasia’. [[,]] By [[by]] Charles Erskine White, D.D.” This is a thin pamphlet of thirty-two pages; each page containing about a hundred and forty words. Alla-Ad-Deen is the son of Aladdin of “wonderful lamp” memory, and the story is in the “Vision of Mirza” or “Rasselas” way. The design is to reconcile us with evil, on the ground that, comparatively, we are of little importance in the scale of creation. This scale the author himself assumes as infinite; and thus his argument proves too much: — for, if evil is to be regarded as unimportant because, comparatively, he is so, it must be regarded as unimportant by the angels for a similar reason — and so on in a never-ending ascent. In other words, the thing proved is the bullish proposition that evil is no evil at all. I do not find that “The Dream” attracted any attention.  It would have been more appropriately published in one of our magazines.

Next in order, I believe, came the “Confessions of a Poet by Himself.” This was in two volumes of the ordinary novel form, but printed very openly. It made much noise in the literary world, and no little curiosity was excited in regard to its author — who was generally supposed to be John Neal. For this supposition there were some grounds: — the whole tone and matter of the narrative bearing resemblance to those [page 76:] of “Errata” — especially in the points of boldness and vigor. The “Confessions”, however, surpassed any production of Mr Neal's in a certain air of cultivation — if not exactly of scholarship — which pervaded it, as well as in the management of its construction — a particular in which the author of “The Battle of Niagara” almost invariably fails. He is by no means noticeable for finish. His art is great and of a high character — but it is massive — not detailed. He seems to be either deficient in a sense of completness, or unstable in temperamen, so that he grows wearied with his work before getting it done. He begins well — vigorously — startlingly — proceeds by fits — much at random — now prosing, now gossiping, now running away with his subject, now exciting vivid interest; but his conclusions are sure to be hurried and indistinct; — so that the reader, perceiving a falling off where he expects a climax, is pained, and, closing the book with dissatisfaction, is in no mood to give the author credit for the vivid sensations which have been aroused during the process of perusal. Of all literary foibles the most fatal, perhaps, is that of the defective climax. Mr Neal has written nothing which, when considered as a whole, is at all comparable with the “Confessions of a Poet” — a book quite remarkable for their artistic unity. It is to be commended, also, on higher grounds. I do not think, indeed, that a better novel of its kind has been composed by an American. To be sure, it is not precisely the work to place in the hands of a lady; but its incidents are striking and original, its scenes of passion nervously wrought, and its philosophy, if not at all times tenable, at least admirable on the important scores of suggestiveness and audacity. In a word, it is that rare thing, a fiction of power without rudeness. Its spirit, in general, resembles that of “Miserimus.”

Partly on account of what most people would call its licentiousness — partly, also, on account of the prevalent idea that Mr Neal (who at that period was somewhat unpopular with the less magnanimous portion of the press) had written it, the novel in question was most unscrupulously misrepresented and abused. “The Commercial Advertiser”, of New-York, was, it appears, foremost in condemnation; and Mr Osborn [page 77:] [[...]] [[pages 77 and 78 and missing]]

[page 79:] [[...]] who read — thus in satirizing the people we satirize only ourselves, and can never be in condition to sympathize with the satire.

All this is more verisimilar than true. It is forgotten that no individual consider himself as one of the mass. Each person, in his own estimate, is the pivot on which all the rest of the world spins round. We may abuse the people by wholesale, and with a clear conscience so far as regards any compunction for offending any one from among the multitude of which that people is composed. Every one of the crowd will cry “encore! — give it to them, the vagabonds! — it serves them right.” It seems to me that, in America, we have refused to encourage satire — not because what we have had touches us too nearly — but because it has been too pointless to touch us at all. Its namby-pamby-ism has arisen, in part, from the general want, among our men of letters, of that minute polish — of that skill in details — which, in combination with natural sarcastic force, satire, more than [[any]] other form of literature, so imperatively demands. In part, also, we may attribute our failure to the colonial sin of imitation which I have already discussed. We content ourselves — not less supinely at this point than at all others — with doing what not only has been done before, but what, however well done, has yet been done ad nauseum. We should not be able to endure infinite repetitions of even absolute excellence — but what is “Mr Fingal” more than a faint echo from “Hudibras”? — and what, even, is this “Vision of Rubeta” more than an illimitable gilded swill-trough overflowing with Dunciad and water? Although we are not all Archilocuses, however, — although we have few pretensions to the ηχεηντες ιαβοι — although, in short, we are no satirists ourselves — there can be no question that we answer sufficiently well as subjects for satire.

“The Vision”, I repeat, is our best poem of its kind, and yet sadly ineffective. It is bold enough — if we keep out of mind its anonymous issue — and bitter enough, and witty enough — if we forget its pitiable punning on names — and long enough (Heaven knows!) and well constructed and decently versified; but it fails in the principal element of all satire, sarcasm, because the intention to be sarcastic (as in the “British Bards and Scotch Reviewers”, and as in every satire with which I am acquainted) is permitted to remake itself manifest. The malevolence appears. The author is never very severe, because he is at no time particularly cool. We laugh not [page 80:] so much at his victims as at himself for permitting them to put him into such a passion. And where a deeper sentiment than mirth is excited — where it is pity or contempt that we are made to feel — the feeling is too often reflected, in its object, from the villified to the villifier, with whom we sympathize in the discomfort of his animosity. Mr Osborn has not many superiors in downright invective — but this is the awkward left arm of the satiric Muse. That satire alone is worth talking about which appears to be the genial, good-humoured outpouring of irrepressible merriment.

“The Vision” was succeeded by “Arthur Carryl and Other Poems,” including an additional canto of the former work, and several happy although not always accurate or comprehensive imitations, in English, of the Greek metres. Mr Osborn, in these imitations, has had the good sense to confine himself to the reading flow of the ancient verse, without troubling us with attempts at adhering to imaginary scansions. “Arthur Carryl” is a fragment in the manner of “Don Juan” and is not particularly meritorious. It has, however, a truth-telling and discriminative preface, and its notes are well worthy perusal. In one of them, nevertheless, I am surprized to find so clear a thinker as Mr. O. falling into a gross by common error which I have exposed in “The Rationale of Verse” — the error of supposing an inaccurate line defensible, on the ground that, by arbitrary emphasis, existing in the author's brain alone, it may be read musically, or rhythmically — like the couplet about the “pease-porridge hot.” Since “Arthur Carryl” Mr. Osborn has published a valubable compendium on oil-painting — but I am not aware of anything else.

In personal character he is one of the most noticeable men — full of generosity, courage, honor — chivalrous in every respect — but, unhappily, carrying his ideas of chivalry, or rather of independence, to the point of Quixotism at least, if not of absolute insanity. He is one, about retaining whose friendship every generous person regrets the impossibilty. No doubt, he has been misapprehended, and therefore wronged, by the world — but he should not fail to bear in mind that the source of the wrong lies in his own idiosyncrasy — one unintelligible and therefore inappreciable by the mass of mankind. He is a member of a very old and influential — formerly a very wealthy, family in New-York. His accomplishments are many and unusual. As poet, painter, and musician he has succeeded nearly equally well — and absolutely succeeded as each. His scholarship is extensive; and in every thing he is thorough and accurate. His critical abilities are highly respectable — [page 81:] although he is apt to swear somewhat too roundly by Johnson and Pope.

He is about thirty-five years of age — well made — probaby five feet eleven inches in height — muscular; hair, eyes, and complexion rather light; fine teeth; would be very generally mistaken for an Englishman; the whole expression of the countenance manly, frank, and prepossessing in the highest degree.



Pages 75-76 and 79-80 of this manuscript are currently owned by the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. They are described by J. Moldenhauer, A Descriptive Catalog of Edgar Allan Poe Manuscripts in the Humanities Research Center Library, The University of Texas at Austin, 1977, items 24 and 25, pp. 33-37 (although that entry does not properly identify the manuscript as being part of “Literary America”).

A comment on the first page of the manuscript about Laughton Osborn appears the following note: “E. A. POE. Given me by W. M. Griswold, who received his father's papers. This was a leaf from printer's copy apparently for some reason not used in this form. H. E. S.” The manuscript was, therefore, given to Horace Elisha Scudder (1838-1902) by William M. Griswold, the son of Rufus Wilmot Griswold. The front page is numbered in large print 75, and the back 76.


[S:0 - LTAM, 1848] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc. - Laughton Osborn