Poe, Edgar Allan (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849
American short story writer, poet, critic, editor, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Poe's essays. See also, Edgar Allan Poe Criticism, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism, and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism.
Though Poe's fame rests primarily on his brilliant short stories, he is also a major figure in the field of literary criticism. His fictional inventiveness is matched by his theoretical innovations, which not only provided a justification for his creation of the genres of science fiction and the detective story, but also attempted to create a tradition of uniquely American literary criticism that would free the American literary world from its colonial dependence on England. Though the rigid standards demanded by Poe in his construction of a worthy national literature alienated many of his contemporaries, he is now recognized as an influential figure in the development of American as well as European literary traditions.
Born in Boston in 1809 to an English actress, Poe was left an orphan before the age of three. He was brought up by his foster parents, John and Frances Allan, in Richmond, Virginia. His early life was therefore spent as part of the southern gentry. He distinguished himself academically both at school and at the university, but his expectations to live the life of a southern gentleman were compromised by his deteriorating relationship with John Allan, which left him in a financially precarious position. In 1827 Poe left Richmond and went to Boston in an attempt to create an independent life for himself. He enlisted in the army and simultaneously published his first book of poetry, Tamerlane, and Other Poems, which did not earn him any literary recognition. After being honorably discharged from the army in 1829, he entered West Point with Allan's consent. But Allan's continued refusal to allow him sufficient funds to maintain himself, combined now with his refusal to allow Poe to resign from the Academy, forced Poe to gain a dismissal by deliberately violating regulations. Left once more to fend for himself, Poe went to New York and then to Baltimore, and tried to become a part of the successful literary circle centered in New England. However, though several of his short stories were published, he was unable to gain either literary recognition or financial security.
In 1835, a year after Allan's death, Poe moved back to Richmond and became the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. This marked the beginning of his career as a literary critic. For the next decade, though he continued to publish short stories and poetry, his chief occupation remained that of a journalist. However, this professional consistency did not ensure financial stability since literary journalism was not a well-paying field. Furthermore, Poe's strong critical opinions frequently generated conflict with magazine proprietors who wanted to retain editorial control over their publications. As a result, he was forced to move from magazine to magazine in search of a better income and more critical freedom. After being dismissed from the Messenger in 1837, he worked for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine from 1839 to 1840. He then moved to Graham's Magazine (1841-42), and finally to the Broadway Journal, where he worked as chief editor until early 1846, when the journal folded. Though he constantly dreamed of launching his own magazine, the closest he came to fulfilling this ambition was to become the proprietor of the Broadway Journal for a short time. He could not, however, make the magazine as successful as he wished—his capabilities as an editor were undercut by his limitations as a business manager.
Since Poe's critical output is largely in the form of journalistic essays prompted by specific events of literary publication, it is difficult to point to any single work as being central to his literary theory. As a book reviewer, Poe commented upon a wide range of literary works ranging from Longfellow's Ballads to Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop. At the same time, he also wrote purely theoretical pieces like "The Poetic Principle" and "The Philosophy of Composition." These two kinds of critical writings are closely interrelated, since the general literary principles developed by Poe in his theoretical essays provided the basis for his critical judgments in his book reviews. Poe thus functioned as a working critic who constantly tested his literary principles against the touchstone of actual literary productions.
Three of Poe's central critical tenets are unity, the creation of a total effect, and originality. Poe's concept of unity differs from the traditional Aristotelian idea of dramatic unity in terms of time, space, and action. For Poe, a unified literary work is one in which every detail, with respect to both style and content, directly contributes to the creation of the total effect of the piece. This emphasis on unity leads to a number of corollary literary principles—the rejection of any verbal ornamentation that merely display the writer's virtuosity without adding intrinsically to the total effect, the preference for shorter works like the lyric and the short story over the longer epic or novel, since the latter are too bulky to allow for such tight construction, and the importance of maintaining generic purity. The focus on unity also leads to Poe's characterization of the artistic process as a self-conscious act of almost mechanical construction; his "Philosophy of Composition" is, in fact, a methodical presentation of the steps involved in the construction of his poem "The Raven." According to Poe, only such careful manipulation of literary raw material can ensure the totality of effect that is the trademark of any good piece of literature.
For Poe, the primary aim of any literary work is to create a mood or an atmosphere that allows the reader to experience the "probable but impossible." Such an affective view of literature does not allow any scope for the utilitarian perspective that dominated the American literary scene during most of the nineteenth century. Poe's ideas on this subject are formulated in oppositional terms which often lead to extremist statements like his "heresy of the Didactic," wherein he denounces all literary works whose chief concerns are moral rather than aesthetic. This view should be distinguished, however, from the later ideas of Oscar Wilde and English aestheticism, since Poe did recognize the presence of moral truth at the core of the best literature. In his more mature and balanced criticism Poe is able to reconcile the moral and the affective aspects of literature and praises works wherein the former is carefully woven into the fabric of the overall literary effect.
Poe's attack on didacticism in literature forms a part of his reviews of Longfellow's poetry. These reviews also contain Poe's controversial views on artistic originality and plagiarism. Poe's eagerness to expose alleged cases of literary plagiarism has frequently led to accusations of psychological instability, and numerous Poe scholars have attempted to explain this obsession with reference to his personal life. Poe's extremely complex definition of originality makes it one of his most knotty critical concepts. However, in the context of his avowed desire to create a uniquely American literary tradition and his view of literature as a reflection of the unperceived "Ideal" rather than a mimetic reproduction of the natural world, Poe's concept of originality can be seen as an integral part of his overall theoretical perspective, rather than as evidence of a psychological aberration.
Contemporary reception of Poe as a literary critic is marked by controversy and ambiguity. While recognized as an astute editor whose perceptive reviews significantly increased the circulation of the Southern Literary Messenger, Poe also aroused strongly negative reactions through his harshly critical reviews that frequently included personal remarks and accusations of plagiarism. During his lifetime he achieved a degree of notoriety during the "Longfellow war," when his attacks on the unofficial poet laureate of America generated a tremendous controversy. Certain scholars perceive this conflict in terms of a North-South division and view Poe as the representative of a southern literary tradition fighting against the domination of the New England literary circle. While southern men of letters did eagerly claim Poe as their literary ancestor in the post-bellum period, such sectarian sentiments did not enable any careful analysis of Poe's critical writings. In the twentieth century there have been numerous attempts to re-evaluate Poe's position in the history of literary criticism. Most scholars see him as the American spokesperson for Romanticism and argue that his emphasis on originality and aesthetics, along with his open admiration for Shelley and Keats, clearly places him in the tradition of English Romanticism. Others, focusing on Poe's scientific predilections in Eureka and his very rational perception of literary production, view him as a successor to the Enlightenment. While Poe may not fit neatly into any preconceived category of literary criticism, and though scholars continue to debate the value of his theoretical contributions, he remains an important critical figure who has left an undeniable mark on American literary criticism.
"Letter to Mr. , in 1831." (criticism) 1831
Marginalia. (criticism) 1846
The Philosophy of Composition. (essay) 1846
"The Poetic Principle." (essay) 1848
Eureka: A Prose Poem (essay) 1848
The Literati: Some Honest Opinions about Authorial Merits and Demerits, with Occasional Works of Personality. (criticism) 1850
*This list includes Poe's nonfiction works. For a complete list of Poe's major writings, see .
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SOURCE: "Poe as a Literary Critic," in Poe as a Literary Critic, edited by N. Bryllion Fagin, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1946, pp. 1-15.
[The following essay is a contemporary unpublished critique of Poe as a literary critic which was found and published by Fagin in 1946. The essay condemns Poe as a petty, self-contradictory critic who had no literary standards and who used his book reviews to air his personal likes and dislikes.]
In the latter part of 1849 the citizens of Richmond, Virginia, saw passing to and fro in the street a notable-looking stranger whose personal appearance at once invited attention. He was a man a little under the medium height, slender, active, graceful in all his movements, and with quiet and scrupulously courteous manner. The face was a singular one. As he passed, you unconsciously turned round to look again at him. The complexion was pale, almost sallow. The brow was broad, rather than high, and edged by short dark hair circling around the temples which were strongly developed. The eyes were dark and piercing; the nose well shaped; the upper lip disappeared under a heavy black mustache which concealed the entire expression of the mouth. His dress was plain, neat, and in perfectly good taste.
This notable personage was the famous Edgar A. Poe, the author of "The Raven," of a wonderful series of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and of some of...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Selections from Poe's Literary Criticism, F. S. Crofts & Co., 1926, pp. vii-xix.
[In the following essay, Moore argues that Poe's main ambition was to be a magazine proprietor. He therefore examines Poe primarily as a journalist who was committed to the growth of the American magazine culture and, through it, the construction of an American literary criticism distinct from the English critical tradition.]
As soon as Fate allows I will have a magazine of my own, and will endeavor to kick up a dust.
—Poe to P. P. Cook, 1839.
That Poe was apparently first of all a journalist—neither a poet nor a writer of fiction—cannot well be doubted. Those of his contemporaries who knew him and left some record of their knowledge almost invariably owed their acquaintance with Poe to his journalistic activities of one sort or another. It is safest to say he was apparently first a journalist, for some of his biographers and students treat him as though he were primarily lover, or poet, or solitary dreamer. In examining the much-vexed treatments of Poe, it is necessary to proceed with some method. There are about Poe and his works books that may be called possible only, books that may be called probable, books that may be called actual. Woodberry's biography of Poe remains, after...
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SOURCE: "Poe as a Literary Critic," in Nation, Vol. 155, No. 18, October 13, 1942, pp. 452-3.
[Wilson attempts to rescue Poe's reputation as a literary critic by focusing on the latter's development of general critical principles that explain his specific criticisms of contemporary writers.]
Poe at the time of his death in 1849, had had the intention of publishing a book on "The Authors of America in Prose and Verse." He had already worked over to a considerable extent the material of his articles and reviews; and the collection of critical writing printed by Griswold after his death is something between a journalistic chronicle like Bernard Shaw's dramatic notices and a selected and concentrated volume like Eliot's "The Sacred Grove."
Poe as a critic has points of resemblance both with Eliot and with Shaw. He deals vigorously and boldly with books as they come into his hands day by day, as Shaw did with the plays of the season, and manages to be brilliant and arresting even about works of no interest; he constantly insists, as Eliot does, on attempting, in the practice of this journalism, to formulate general principles. His literary articles and lectures, in fact, surely constitute the most remarkable body of criticism ever produced in the United States.
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SOURCE: "From Poe to Valery," in To Criticize the Critic, by T. S. Eliot, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1948, pp. 33-4.
[One of the best-known and most influential poets of the twentieth century, Eliot is equally noted as a literary critic and theorist. In the following excerpt, he argues that Poe's essays on the art of poetry help to rationalize the latter's own poetic technique, but that they cannot be taken as general principles. For Eliot's critique of Poe as a poet and short-story writer, see .]
Imperfections in "The Raven" . . . may serve to explain why The Philosophy of Composition, the essay in which Poe professes to reveal his method in composing "The Raven"—has not been taken so seriously in England or America as in France. It is difficult for us to read that essay without reflecting, that if Poe plotted out his poem with such calculation, he might have taken a little more pains over it: the result hardly does credit to the method. Therefore we are likely to draw the conclusion that Poe in analysing his poem was practising either a hoax, or a piece of self-deception in setting down the way in which he wanted to think that he had written it. Hence the essay has not been taken so seriously as it deserves.
Poe's other essays in poetic aesthetic deserve consideration also. No poet, when he writes his own art poétique, should hope to do much more than...
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SOURCE: "Edgar Allan Poe," in The South in American Literature: 1607-1900, Duke University Press, 1954, pp. 528-50.
[In the following excerpt, Hubbell examines Poe's career as the book reviewer for the Southern Literary Messenger.]
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SOURCE: "Edgar Allan Poe," in Classic Americans: A Study of Eminent American Writers from Irving to Whitman, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1959, pp. 263-307.
[In the following essay, Canby argues that Poe's egomania combined with his interest in contemporary scientific thought can help to explain the uneven nature of his critical writings. While Poe was logical when delineating general literary principles, Canby maintains, his self-obsession made his critique of specific authors arbitrary and unreliable.]
To leave the society of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau for the Philadelphia, the New York, the Rich mond, of Poe is to pass from a quiet village of philosophic Greeks to an active, hustling present, from retirement out of space, and often out of time, to the more familiar world that lives in the moment. And to leave these men for Poe is to exchange elevation for intensity, and the study of man for the practice of art. There is not in the range of literature a wider dissimilarity than that which separates everything that Emerson and Thoreau were and could and wished to be, from this man Poe and his work.
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SOURCE: "Poe as Literary Theorist: A Reappraisal," in American Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, November, 1961, pp. 296-306.
[Looking back at Poe's critical writings from a mid-twentieth century perspective, Marks finds them a valuable resource despite Poe's occasional extremism in critical opinions. Mark asserts that Poe had sound critical principles with respect to the art of literary creation and the role of criticism.]
There is a double motive for a fresh assessment of Edgar Poe's criticism. Every generation finds it necessary to reappraise past writers, a kind of periodic stocktaking as appropriate to dead critics as to dead poets. Often this is true because aspects of a man's work are found to answer some current need or to articulate some newly emerged aspiration of the common psyche. The poetry of Donne and Blake and the criticism of Coleridge come readily to mind in this regard. My present concern, however, is less to argue that Poe's criticism has in fact taken on such renewed utility than to investigate the question of its general value, which I take to be the necessary prior step.
Aside from this, Poe invites reconsideration because of the longstanding uncertainty about his worth as a critic and especially because of the disparity between his reputation in France, where since Baudelaire he has been idolized, and his reputation in the English-speaking world, where frequently he...
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SOURCE: "Contemporary Opinion of Poe," in The Mind of Poe and Other Studies, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962, pp. 54-61.
[Tracing Poe's career through his editorship of various magazines and the opinions of his contemporaries, Campbell concludes that though Poe was condemned by his fellow writers for being unduly severe in his reviews, he was also appreciated for his critical astuteness.]
[It] was as critic . . . that Poe was best known to his contemporaries in America. By this I do not mean that his book-reviews and other critical papers were felt to exceed in importance his poems or his tales: the consensus of intelligent opinion would have given first place in the matter of actual worth to his tales. Nevertheless, it is clear from the contemporary references to Poe that it was as critic and book-reviewer that he was most widely known to his generation in America: the mention of his name brought to the minds of his fellow-Americans of the thirties and forties of last century the idea, first of all, of book-reviewer and editor, rather than of tale-writer or of poet.
It does not affect the validity of this assertion to add that Poe was chiefly known as a fearless and caustic critic, rather than as a just and discriminating critic. Indeed, we shall find, I think, in the boldness and the occasional severity of his critical notices the secret of much of his contemporary vogue; for then,...
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SOURCE: "Culmination of a Campaign," in Poe's Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu, Duke University Press, 1963, pp. 132-89.
[In a detailed analysis of the Poe-Longfellow literary war, Moss argues that Poe's evaluation of Longfellow's literary capabilities, though over-harsh at times, was ultimately accurate and based on carefully workedout critical principles.]
.. . I am but defending a set of principles which no honest man need be ashamed of defending, and for whose defence no honest man will consider an apology required.—Edgar A. Poe
Poe's encounters with Longfellow have aroused so much emotionalism in Poe and Longfellow partisans that to look at the evidence afresh and with detachment requires the utmost self-discipline. To forestall such emotionalism from prejudicing the evidence, let it be repeated here that our purpose is not so much to defend Poe as a critic but to understand him in that capacity; to consider this "battle" .. . in the context of his critical career and literary milieu; and, finally, to draw judgments from the evidence, whether those judgments happen to be favorable or unfavorable to Poe or, in this instance, to Longfellow. Thus, let it be acknowledged at once that in his notices of the Cambridge poet Poe was blunt and quarrelsome at times; that he made serious errors of judgment on...
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SOURCE: "Poe on Fiction," in Edgar Allan Poe as Literary Critic, University of Georgia Press, 1964, pp. 24-56.
[Using Poe's reviews of specific texts, Parks reveals their relationship with Poe's general theories concerning originality, unity, and totality of effect in a literary work. Parks argues that it is these general theoretical principles that led to Poe's emphasis on the short story, or "tale," as the ideal creation in prose. For a more general overview of Park's views on Poe, see .]
By 1831, when he was twenty-two years old, Poe had become very much interested in the writing of short stories. Clearly in those days in Baltimore he had read and analyzed many magazine tales and sketches; he wrote parodies of several of these types that may well be considered as indirect literary criticism. The most obvious example is "A Tale of Jerusalem," since it is a burlesque of part of a trashily sentimental religious novel; the most interesting example is "Metzengerstein," which started as an imitation of the Gothic romances but in the writing gathered such momentum that it became a powerful allegory, with evil leading to its own self-destruction. Five of these stories were published in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier in 1832; by 1833, when his story "Ms. Found in a Bottle" won the prize offered by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter, Poe had written six more and had collected the eleven (later...
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SOURCE: "Toward Standards," in Poe: Journalist and Critic, Louisiana State University Press, 1969, pp. 159-90.
[Jacobs traces the development of Poe's general literary standards through the book reviews that Poe wrote during his last eight months as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in 1836.]
A professional book reviewer for an American monthly magazine had little opportunity to practice philosophical criticism, for he had to hammer out notices of the subliterary material that piled up on his desk. Poe did attempt to examine this material by literary standards, however. In May of 1836 he reviewed a travel book, Spain Revisited, by a Lieutenant Slidell, and revealed his dislike for fulsome dedications and bad grammar. Poe considered himself an expert in matters of syntax and usage; and of all grammarians, he was one of the most prescriptive. The slightest ambiguity of reference or deviation into colloquialism provoked him into rewriting the passage to demonstrate correct English. His reconstructions, however, did not always go unchallenged. The editor of the Newbern (North Carolina) Spectator deplored the tone of his reviews in general, and his penchant for demolishing dedications and his hypercriticism of grammar in particular. Poe answered the charge at length, not only defending himself as a grammarian but also subjecting his critic to a personal attack: "We are at a...
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SOURCE: "Edgar Allan Poe, Poet-Critic," in Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by A. Robert Lee, Barnes & Noble, 1985, pp. 80-98.
[In the following essay, Von Hallberg argues that Poe should be studied as a poet-critic instead of an academic critic. As a poet-critic Poe's focus is on constructing principles of literary criticism that can carve out a unique place for American literature, rather than on tracing the general development of literary history in the larger European context.]
We are lamentably deficient not only in invention proper, but in that which is, more strictly, Art. What American, for instance, in penning a criticism, ever supposes himself called upon to present his readers with more than the exact stipulation of his title—to present them with a criticism and something beyond? Who thinks of making his critique a work of art in itself—independently of its critical opinions?
Who indeed? Surely not I, and few of my colleagues aspire even to scholarly elegance. But Poe did write criticism that can be spoken of as not high art, but art all the same. From professors like myself, the world does not want art, but from poets, even when they thump out reviews, something more has come to be expected. Poet-critics, for instance, have certainly been more amusing than professors; sometimes they have even seemed to joke...
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Adkins, Nelson F. "'Chapter on American Cribbage': Poe and Plagiarism." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America XVII (Third Quarter 1948): 169-210.
Discussion of Poe's views on plagiarism with special reference to the "little Longfellow war."
Alterton, Margaret. Origins of Poe's Critical Theory. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1965, 191 p.
Examines the influence of Poe's interest in and knowledge of law, scientific problems, and philosophic ideas on the development of his literary theories.
Campbell, Killis. The Mind of Poe and Other Studies. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962, 238 p.
Detailed analysis of Poe as a man of letters in the context of the critical reception by his contemporaries.
Hubbell, Jay B. "Poe and the Southern Literary Tradition." Texas Studies in Literature and Language XI, No. 2 (Summer 1960): 151-71.
Evaluates Poe's contribution to the creation of an American literary tradition with specific reference to his status as a southern writer.
Jacobs, Robert D. Poe: Journalist and Critic. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969, 464 p.
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