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 .
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,...
(The entire section is 2730 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 3469 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 2627 words.)
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 entire section is 686 words.)
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.]
(The entire section is 834 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 14294 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 3925 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1545 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 19043 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 10496 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 9700 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 6700 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 371 words.)