Monday, March 19, 2012

The Colloquy of Edgar and Outis (Part Two)

Poe published the “conclusion” of his reply to “Outis” on March 29. “If Outis,” Poe began, “has his own private reasons for being disgusted with what he terms the ‘wholesale mangling of victims without rhyme or reason,’ there is not a man living, of common sense and common honesty, who has not better reason (if possible) to be disgusted with the insufferable cant and shameless representation practiced habitually by just such persons as Outis, with the view of decrying by sheer strength of lungs—of trampling down—of rioting down—of mobbing down any man with a soul that bids him come out from among the general corruption of our public press, and take his stand upon the open ground of rectitude and honor.”

He addressed, not just his shadowy challenger, but all the many detractors he had inspired during his stormy career when he wrote “not even an Outis can accuse me, with even a decent show of verisimilitude, of having ever descended, in the most condemnatory of my reviews, to that personal abuse which, upon one or two occasions, has indeed been leveled at myself, in the spasmodic endeavors of aggrieved authors to rebut what I have ventured to demonstrate.”

Again, Poe welcomed “Outis’s” responses as an opportunity to repeat and enlarge upon his reasons for labeling Longfellow’s poetry as heavily imitative. After offering lengthy side-by-side comparisons of Longfellow’s writings with poems written by others—most particularly the poems of one Edgar Allan Poe—he declared that Longfellow’s friends should be thanking him for his “great moderation in charging him with imitation alone.” If Poe had flatly accused him of “manifest and continuous plagiarism,” he would be merely echoing “the sentiment of every man of letters in the land beyond the immediate influence of the Longfellow coterie.”

He ended with a playful jab at Longfellow’s friend, “Boston Transcript” editor Cornelia Walter, who had taken to using her paper as a public anti-Edgar forum. He asked if it was “decorous or equitable” for Longfellow to instigate her against him, “advising and instructing her to pierce me to death with the needles of innumerable epigrams, rendered unnecessarily and therefore cruelly painful to my feelings by being first carefully deprived of the point?”

The next battlefield in the Longfellow War was a New York monthly called the “Aristidean.” The April edition carried a scathing assault on Longfellow disguised as a review of his poems. The anonymous article—which is presumed to have been partly or entirely written by Poe—described Longfellow as an overrated plagiarist who had achieved acclaim solely through the puffery of his Bostonian clique. The reviewer expressed his dismay that, in a recent lecture, Poe had proclaimed Longfellow’s “preeminence,” sighing that such a “crude” opinion obviously arose from “want of leisure or inclination to compare the works of the writer in question with the sources from which they were stolen.” The writer, however, expressed relief that “an unfortunate wight who called himself ‘Outis’ seems to have stirred up the critic to make the proper examination...”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Poe briefly noted the “Aristidean” article in the “Broadway Journal.” It is impossible not to picture a sly grin creeping over his face when he wrote of the review, “It is, perhaps, a little coarse, but we are not disposed to call it unjust; although there are in it some opinions which, by implication, are attributed to ourselves individually, and with which we cannot altogether coincide.”

Poe was clearly enjoying himself too much to let go of the topic easily. On April 5 the “Journal” carried a “postscript” to his replies to “Outis.” He assured readers that he did not feel “individually aggrieved” by his mysterious debate partner, who, he pointed out, had “praised me even more than he has blamed,” and he certainly never intended to suggest “moral delinquency” against Longfellow or anyone else.

He went so far as to offer a defense for Longfellow that he felt “Outis” had “unaccountably neglected”: His belief that “no true poet can be guilty of a meanness—that the converse of the proposition is a contradiction in terms.”

To explain the apparent thievery of Longfellow and his ilk, Poe offered a curious application of his belief in the “Universal Mind” (a belief found in “Eureka” and many of his other works) onto literary theory. “The poetic sentiment,” Poe mused, “implies…an abnormally keen appreciation of the beautiful, with a longing for its assimilation, or absorption, into the poetic identity. What the poet intensely admires, becomes thus, in very fact…a portion of his own intellect…and when the poet has written it and printed it, and on its account is charged with plagiarism, there will be no one in the world more entirely astounded than himself.” Poe believed “accidents of this character” were “in direct ration of the poetic sentiment…all literary history demonstrates that, for the most frequent and palpable plagiarisms, we must search the works of the most eminent poets.”

That is certainly a more novel defense than anything Lenore Hart ever dreamed up.

Thus concluded the “Little Longfellow War.” The entire episode has been quite a puzzle for Poe’s biographers. As so often happens in his history, his true motives and attitudes for initiating and prolonging the controversy have been vigorously debated. Was Poe offering serious and credible, if somewhat quirky, literary criticism? Was the entire “War” a publicity stunt? Was he simply going mad? And, finally, who was this “Outis” that inspired so many lengthy and passionate responses?

Lacking any direct proof on the issue, one is forced to rely on instinct and circumstantial evidence to come to any conclusion. Over the years, Poe scholars have attempted to identify various contemporary figures as his shadowy adversary, but none of the candidates has earned any sort of universal acceptance. George W. Eveleth (an enigmatic figure in his own right, who conducted an oddly revealing correspondence with Poe during the latter’s last few years,) was probably the first to openly surmise that “Outis” was none other than Edgar Allan Poe. Others have agreed with this assessment (most notably Burton R. Pollin, who believed “The Bird of the Dream” was also Poe’s handiwork.) I have come to agree that the most logical solution to the mystery of “Outis” is that this was indeed a case where—as Eveleth put it—Poe “defied himself.”

One of the main reasons for presuming that “Outis” was one of Poe’s more successful hoaxes is the fact that all of his contemporaries were evidently as puzzled by him as we are. If “Outis” was genuine, surely the writer himself or one of his friends would have stepped forward to take credit. There was no need for concealment—attacking Poe was one of the surest routes to popularity in most of the literary circles of the time. Longfellow himself—even though “Outis” claimed to be a friend of his—was genuinely in the dark about his defender’s identity. (It is surely worth noting that Longfellow’s grandson later concluded that “Outis” was indeed Poe.)

It is also indisputable that publicly arguing with himself was exactly the sort of thing Poe would do. In fact, it was exactly the sort of thing he had done, most colorfully in his unpublished essay “A Reviewer Reviewed.” Under the name of “Walter G. Bowen,” Poe launched a detailed, unmerciful attack on his own writings that reads exactly like something from the pen of “Outis” himself. Poe always took a playful delight in hiding behind multiple identities, and “Outis” was particularly useful to him, as his phantom foe offered “straw man” arguments that he could easily shoot down, as well as giving him a preplanned excuse to repeat and expand upon his literary criticism—a criticism that, however theatrical his presentation may have been, was essentially earnest and well-intentioned. In other words, “Outis” was too good to be true.

Also, “Outis” was far too cheerfully flattering towards Poe (“one of our finest poets”) to be any genuinely offended opponent. (“Write it rather EDGAR, a Poet, and then it is right to a T,” “Outis” wrote genially—his readers presumably unaware that Poe had composed and published this self-glorifying quip a few years before.)

Perhaps the most unwittingly ironic commentary on the “Outis” controversy came from Poe’s biographer Arthur H. Quinn. While assuming that Poe was not “Outis,” with an odd and uncharacteristic obtuseness he noted that Longfellow’s defender wrote “in a clever imitation of Poe’s manner,” and readily agreed that “Poe seized upon this letter of Outis as an opportunity to stage a discussion that would be good publicity for the “Broadway Journal,” of which he had just become an editor.”


The question of the identity of “Outis” is more important than most of Poe’s biographers seem to realize. If the writer was truly “nobody,” it would invalidate the claims that Poe was undergoing a mental collapse at the time—that he was hardly the pathetic wreck who was, in the words of Sidney P. Moss, “thoroughly embarrassed” and “driven to his wits’ end to vindicate himself.” Because most Poe scholars do not appreciate his sense of humor, they assume he did not have one at all. This is unfortunate, as his humor—whatever may be your opinion of it—was a vital part of both the man and his writings. If you never understand his laughter, you never will understand Poe. He took himself far less seriously than his biographers do.