Edgar Allan Poe

While we may know him as the father of the Detective Story, one of the pioneers of Science Fiction, and the master of Psychological Horror, the macabre, and the weird in his own works, Edgar Allan Poe was also a well-renowned literary critic for The Southern Literary Messenger whose editor, Thomas Willis White, hired Poe in 1835 as a writer and critic. He’d also go on to edit the paper for two years before White took over again. During his brief stint, he left in 1837, at the Messenger, Poe wrote 37 reviews covering various books, foreign and domestic, as well as periodicals. He also published several of his own works, including “Bernice”, “Morella”, and early installments of his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

As a critic, Poe garnered plenty of attention for his acerbic wit and bluntness when it came to examining the art of prose. He was unrelenting in his ability to dress a piece of work down and was nicknamed the “tomahawk man” for his efforts. He reviewed some of history’s literary elite, though he was less than kind to many of them. From the Library of America, here’s what Poe had to say about some of his contemporaries:

Charles Dickens: “The author possesses nearly every desirably quality in a writer of fiction, and has withal a thousand negative virtues.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “The accident of having been long secluded by ill health from the world has effected in her behalf…a happy audacity of thought and expression never before known in one of her sex.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne: “The style of Mr. Hawthorne is purity itself. His tone is singularly effective – wild, plaintive, thoughtful, and in full accordance with his themes. We have only to object that there is insufficient diversity in these themes.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson: “When I consider the true talent – the real force of Mr. Emerson, I am lost in amazement at finding in him little more than a respectful imitation of [Thomas] Carlyle .”

William Cullen Bryant: “As a versifier, we know of no writer, living or dead, who can be said greatly to surpass him.”

18PoePoe was also highly critical of American novelists and writers simply because their popularity stemmed from them writing only on the subject of America. Poe believed that writers should go outside of their immediate surroundings, taking in foreign philosophies and styles in order to better inform their work. Of James Fenimore Cooper, known to most as the author of Last of the Mohicans, and one such author Poe had little respect for, he had this to say of the novel Wyandotte:

“…the interest, as usual, has no reference to plot, of which, indeed, our novelist seems altogether regardless, or incapable, but depends, first, on the nature of the theme…It will be seen that there is nothing original in this story.”

He also found occasion to accuse his contemporaries of plagiarism, notably starting a war of words with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, beginning with his criticism of Longfellow’s collection of poems, The Waif:

Having fairly transcribed the two poems (about the respective dates of which we knew nothing) we have only to remark, as quietly as we can, that somebody is a thief. It is well said, however, by Leigh Hunt, that really beautiful thoughts are always sure to be spoiled in the stealing: — and if there is any spoiling in this case, it most assuredly is not upon the part of Mr. Hood.

We conclude our notes on the “Waif,” with the observation that, although full of beauties, it is infected with a moral taint — or is this a mere freak of our own fancy? We shall be pleased if it be so; — but there does appear, in this exquisite little volume, a very careful avoidance of all American poets who may be supposed especially to interfere with the claims of Mr. Longfellow. These men Mr. Longfellow can continuously imitate ( is that the word?) and yet never even incidentally commend.

Edgar Allan Poe was a man driven by his love and sanctity for the written word. He believed in ideas and stretching the boundaries of storytelling. Through his criticisms of others, he expounded on his own ideas about writing and purpose of fiction. It was not enough to write in order to please the eager masses at home. Writers had to find inspiration and ideas outside of their authorial realms so they could reshape and re-imagine. Poe was trying to elevate the art of prose in the same way that the best critics of film and television, books, the stage, art, and even comic books approach their respective mediums. We should critique not to complain, but to encourage those within the art form to aim higher and strive for better. To do any less is a waste of potential, not just for the creator but the art itself. Cooper may have written about the American frontier, but Poe altered the very fabric of reality.

Poe Quote

  1. Joseph Rose says:

    Who did the engraving-style image of Poe on this page (him holding the raven)? I need to know the source/artist.

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