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.