For this year's Poe Birthday Tribute, I am reprinting two articles published around the time of the Poe Centenary. The first is "The Fame of Poe" by John Macy, which appeared in the "Atlantic Monthly" for December 1908. The second is "Poe and the Hall of Fame" by James Routh. It was published in the "Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia" for January 1911. I do not agree with everything said in these essays--far from it--but they do make some valid points, and generally stand as a good overview of how Poe was regarded a century after his birth. As I have mentioned before, I like to think of this blog as a place where old Poe articles go to die, so since they do not seem to have ever been reprinted anywhere, I'm giving them a new home.
Of course, to celebrate the anniversary of Poe's birth, the most appropriate thing to do is to read his works, rather than merely reading about them. That is the only way we can ever hope to understand the real man.
No man more truly than Poe illustrates our conception of a poet as one who treads the cluttered ways of circumstance with his head in the clouds. Many another impoverished dreamer has dwelt in his thoughts, apart from the world's events. And of nearly all artists it is true that their lives are written in their works, and that the rest of the story concerns another almost negligible personality. In the case of Poe the separation between spiritual affairs and temporal is unusually wide. His fragile verse is pitched above any landscape of fact; his tales contain only misty reflections of common experience; and the legendary personage which he has become is a creature inspired in other imaginations by his books, and not a faithful portrait of the human being who lived in America between 1809 and 1849. The contrast between his aspirations and his earthly conditions, between the figure of romance he would fain have been and the man in authentic records stripped of myth and controversy, is pitiful, almost violent.
This poet with a taste for palaces and Edens lived in sprawling cities that had not yet attempted magnificence. This bookish man, whom one images poring over quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, owned no wonderful library, not even such a "working" collection as a literary man is supposed to require, but feasted on the miscellaneous riches that fell now and then upon the arid desk of the hack reviewer. This inventor of grotesque plots had no extraordinary adventures, none certainly that make thrilling anecdote. Capable of Chesterfieldian grace of style, and adept in the old-fashioned southern flourish of manner, he left few "polite" letters, and those few are undistinguished. To follow Poe's course by the guide of literary landmarks is to undertake a desolate journey.
As his artistic self is apart from things, so it is apart from men. In his criticisms, it is true, he is found in open and somewhat controversial relations with the writers of his time and vicinity. As editor, he had dealings with the world of authors and journalists. But his acquaintance among the "Literati" includes no man of letters who is now well remembered, and implies no possibility of flashing exchange between his imagination and another as brilliant. He never met his intellectual equal in the flesh) except Lowell, whom he saw only once. Irving in Sunnyside was not nearer than Irving in Spain. Not a friend was qualified to counsel or encourage Poe in his work; not a neighbor in art was competent to inspire him. He was the flower of no group of writers, but stands alone, original, aloof, all but exotic.
The isolation of Poe from the best minds of his day is not well understood by those who have not a correct geographical conception of America in 1840. One of the most authoritative English reviews expressed surprise that a recent book on Boston omitted from the chapter devoted to litterateurs the name of Poe, who was born in Boston and was the finest of American poets. The intellectual life of the only Greater Boston that has produced literature was as remote from Poe as was Victorian London, and he was the only important critic in America who understood the relative magnitudes of those two centres of light. His caustic opinions about the Bostonians, which seem more discerning to us than they did to our New England fathers, are witness to his detachment from the only considerable movement in American literature of those dim provincial times.
Whatever influence contemporaneous thought exerted on Poe came from books and not from men, not from experience with the world. Though a few reflections of his contacts with life, such as the English school in "William Wilson," are to be made out in his stories, and though in some of his essays a momentary admiration or hostility of a personal nature slipped a magnifying lens beneath his critical eye, yet the finger of circumstance is seldom on his pages, the echoes of human encounter are not heard in his art.
The nature of Poe's disseverance from life is one of the strangest in the annals of unworldly men of books. He was not among those who, like Lamb, transfigure petty and dull experience, or those who combat suffering with blithe philosophies like Stevenson; he was not a willful hermit; nor was he among those invalids who, in constrained seclusion, have leisure for artistry and contemplation. He was a practical editor in busy offices. He no doubt thought of himself, Mr. Poe, as urbane and cosmopolitan. He had knocked about the world a little. For a while he was in the army. He was effective and at ease upon the lecture platform. He meditated rash adventures in foreign lands until he apparently came to believe that he had really met with them. At his best, he was reserved and well bred, aware of his intellectual superiority. Sometimes, perhaps when he was most cast down and hard driven, he met the world with a jaunty man-of-the-world swagger. After he left the Allans, he was on the outskirts of social groups, high or low. His love for elegant society unfitted him for vagabondage. His lack of worldly success, if no other limitation, forbade his entering for more than a visit the circles of comfort and good breeding. But no matter what his mood or what his circumstance, it did not affect the quality of his work or the nature of his subjects. When he wrote he dropped the rest of himself.
And, with respect to him, artistic biography may well follow his example, and documentary biography may confess its futility. No biographer thus far has succeeded in making very interesting the narrative portions of Poe's career. It is a bare chronicle of neutral circumstance, from which rises, the more wonderful, an achievement of highly-colored romance, poetry of perfect, unaccountable originality, and criticism the most penetrating that any American writer has attained.
Perhaps it is his criticism, an air of maturity and well-pondered knowledge of all the literatures of the Orient and the Occident, which makes it seem the more singular that he owed nothing to universities and scholarly circles. The Allans took him to England when he was six years old and put him in a school where he learned, it is fair to suppose, the rudiments of the classics and French. He went one term to the University of Virginia, and a few months to West Point. Though one institution was founded by Jefferson and the other by the United States government, it is no very cynical irreverence to withhold from them gratitude on Poe's behalf. The most significant record of his life at "the University " is that which shows him browsing idly in the library. His most profitable occupation at West Point was writing lampoons of the instructors and preparing the volume of verses for which he collected subscriptions from his fellow cadets. He was not at either institution long enough to receive whatever of culture and instruction it had to offer. He was self-taught. He read poetry when he was young, and began to write it. As a military cadet he had precocious and arrogant critical opinions. At twenty-four he appears with a neat manuscript roll of short stories under his arm, which cause the judges of a humdrum magazine contest to start awake.
From this time to the end he was a hard-working journalist and professional story-teller. He pursued his work through carking, persistent poverty, amid the distractions of inner restlessness and outward maladjustments. His poverty was not merited punishment for indolence or extravagance. He was industrious, entitled to better wage than he received. He was not an obscure genius, waiting for posterity to discover him, but was popular in his own day. His books, however, had no great sale, for his pieces appeared in the magazines, some of them more than once, and the demand for his work was thus satisfied with more profit to the magazine publishers than to the author.
He lived laborious days and he lived in frugal style. He spent no money on himself, but handed his earnings to his mother-in-law. Whatever else was sinful in the sprees which have been over-elaborated in the chronicles, their initial cost was not great. When he went into debt, the lust he hoped to gratify with the money was the insane desire to found a good magazine. His appetites were mainly intellectual. His wildest dissipation was the performance of mental acrobatics for the applause that he craved.
He spent weeks making good his challenge to the world to send him a cryptogram that he could not decipher. When he reviewed a book, he examined it to the last rhetorical minutia. Griswold's opinion, that "he was more remarkable as a dissector of sentences than as a commenter upon ideas," is a mean way of saying that he was given to patient scrutiny. Mrs. Browning put it more generously when she said that Poe had so evidently "read" her poems as to be a wonder among critics. Poe had a mania for curious, unusual information. His knowledge was so disparate and inaccurate that several critics in sixty years have discovered, with the aid of specialists* that he lacked the thoroughness which is now habitual with all who undertake to write books. But Poe's knowledge, such as it was, implies much reading. And much reading and much writing are impossible to an idle, dissipated man.
This clear-headed, fine-handed artist is present and accounted for at the author's desk. His hours off duly, abundantly and confusedly recorded, do not furnish essential matter for large books. If one enters without forewarning any life of Poe, one feels that a mystery is about to open. There seem to be clues to suppressed matters, suspicious lacunas. The lives are written, like some novels, with hintful rows of stars. A shadowy path promises to lead to a misty midregion of Weir. But Weir proves to be a place that Poe invented. He himself was the first foolish biographer of Poe. The real Poe (to take an invidious adjective from the titles of a modern kind of biography) is a simple, intelligible, and if one may dare to say it, a rather insignificant man. To make a hero or a villain of him is to write fiction.
The craving for story has been at work demanding and producing such fiction. The raw materials were made in America and shipped to France for psychological manufacture. The resulting figure is an irresponsible genius scribbling immortality under vinous inspiration, or turning neuropsychopathic rhymes. Before paranoia was discovered as a source of genius, wine received all the credit. But Poe could not write a line except when his head was clear and he was at the antipodes of hilarity. The warmth of Bohemia, boulevard mirth, however stimulating to the other mad bards of New York and Philadelphia, never fetched a song from him. He was a solemn, unconvivial, humorless man, who took no joy in his cups. If on occasion he found companions in riot, they were not cafe poets. Once, when the bottle was passing, and there were other poets present, he so far forgot himself as to say that he had written one poem that would live ("The Raven"), but this expression of pride does not seem unduly bacchanalian. One could wish that the delights of stein-on-the-table friendship had been his. He needed friends and the happier sort of relaxation. But what record is there of the New York wits and journalists visiting Fordham of an evening to indulge in book-talk and amicable liquor? The chaste dinners of the Saturday Club in Boston were ruddy festivals of mutual admiration beside anything that Poe knew.
The unromantic fact is that alcohol made Poe sick and he got no consolation from it. But before this fact was widely understood, long before there was talk of neuropsychology and hydrocephalus, when even starvation was not clearly reckoned with, it was known in America that Poe drank. This fact became involved with a tradition which has descended in direct line from Elizabethan puritanism to nineteenth-century America. According to this tradition, poets who do nothing but write poetry are frivolous persons inclined to frequent taverns. The New England poets, to be sure, were not revelers, but they were moral teachers as well as poets. The American, knowing them, saw Poe in contrast, as the Englishwoman in the theatre contrasted the ruin of Cleopatra with "the 'ome life of our own dear Queen." And Poe, always unfortunate, offers a confirmatory half-fact by beginning to die in a gutter in Baltimore — a fact about which Holmes, the physician, can make a not unkindly joke. Besides, what can be expected of a poet who is said- to have influenced French poets? We know what the French poets are, because they also wrote novels — or somebody with about the same name wrote them. Alas for Poe that, in addition to his other offences against respectability, he should have got a French reputation and become, not only a son of Marlowe, but a son of Villon and brother of Verlaine.**
And Poe, meanwhile, with these brilliant but somewhat defamatory reputations, lived, worked, and died in such intellectual solitude that Griswold could write immediately after his death that he left few friends. It is the unhappy truth. Those who promptly denied it, Graham and Willis, showed commendable good nature, but were both incapable of being Poe's friends in any warm sense. Whether they were at fault or Poe, the fact is that Poe distrusted one and was contemptuous of the other.
What writer besides Poe, whose life is copiously recorded and who lived to have his work known in three nations, has left no chronicles of notable friendships ? Think how the writers of England and France, with some exceptional outcasts, lived in circles of mutual admiration! Think how in America the New Englanders clustered together, how even the shy and reserved Hawthorne was rescued from a solitude that might have been morbid for the man and damaging to his work, by the consciousness that in Cambridge and Concord, in the rear of Fields's shop, were cultivated men who delighted to talk to him about his work, whose loyalty was gently critical and cherishing. Lafcadio Hearn — who has been compared to Poe —had friends whom he could not alienate by any freak of temper. And those friends encouraged him to self-expression in private letter and work of art.
Some such encouragement Poe received from J. P. Kennedy, a generous friend of young genius, and from the journalist, F. W. Thomas, whose admiration for Poe was affectionate and abiding. But among his intimates were few large natures, few sound judgments, to keep him up to his best. Long after his death, Poe was honored in Virginia as a local hero. The perfervid biography of him by Professor Harrison, of the University of Virginia, contrives to include all the great names and beautiful associations of the Old Dominion. But during his life Poe was not a favorite of the best families of Richmond. As well think of Burns as the child of cultivated Edinburgh, or of Whitman as the darling of Fifth Avenue. At the height of his career in New York, between the appearance of "The Raven" and the time when poverty and illness claimed him irrecoverably, Poe appears as a lion in gatherings of the literati. But, among them, his only affectionate friends were two or three women.
To the intellectual man who has no stalwart friends, who consumes his strength in a daily struggle against poverty and burns out his heart in vain pride, there remains another refuge, a home warmed with family loyalty, full of happy incentive to labor, able perhaps to cooperate with the genius of the household. Such refuge was not given to Poe. No man ever had a more cheerless place in which to set up his work-table. His wife was a child when he married her, and was still young when she died of lingering consumption. His aunt and mother-in-law, who no doubt did her best with the few dollars which "Eddie" put into her hands, was an ignorant woman and probably had no idea what the careful rolls of manuscript were about, beyond the fact that they sometimes fetched a bit of money. Poe would have been excusable if he had sought and found outside his home some womanly consolation of a finer intellectual quality than his wife and aunt were able to afford. His writings are graced with poetic feminine spirits that suggest vaguely the kind of soul with which he would have liked to commune. But he never found such a soul. He made several hysterical quests after swans, but they turned out geese, if not to him, certainly to the modern eye that chances to fall on their own memorials of the pursuit. None was of distinguished mind, and all were either innocent or prudent. If Poe, with his Gascon eloquence and compelling eye, rushed the fortress of propriety, nothing serious came of the adventure and nothing serious remains, — only trivial gossip, silly correspondence, and quite gratuitous defences. It is a Barmecide feast for hungry scandal.
What has just been written may seem a negative and deprecating comment on Poe's story. But it gives truly, I believe, the drab setting in which his work gleams. And by depressing the high false lights that have been hung about his head, we make more salient the virtue that was properly his, the proud independence of mind, the fixity of artistic purpose, the will which governed his imagination and kept it steadily at work in a poor chamber of life, creating beautiful things. However much or little we admire Poe's work, we must understand as a fact in biography that, from the first tales with which he emerged from obscurity to the half philosophical piece with which, the year before his death, he sought to capture the universe and astound its inhabitants, his writings are the product of an excellent brain actuated by the will to create. He was a finical craftsman, patient in revision. He did not sweep upward to the heights of eloquence with blind, undirected power. He calculated effects. His delicate instrument did not operate itself while the engineer was absent or asleep. Deliberate, mathematical, alert, he marshaled his talents; and when he failed, failed for lack of judgment, not for want of industry.
To labor for an artistic result with cool precision while hunger and disease are in the workshop; to revise, always with new excellence, an old poem which is to be republished for the third or fourth time in a cheap journal; to make a manuscript scrupulously perfect to please one's self, — for there is to be no extra loaf of bread as reward, the market is indifferent to the finer excellences, — this is the accomplishment of a man with ideals and the will to realize them. Let the most vigorous of us write in a cold garret and decide whether, on moral grounds, our persistent driving of our faculties entitles us to praise. Let us be so hungry that we can write home with enthusiasm about the good breakfast in a bad New York boarding-house; and after it is all over, let us imagine ourselves listening earthward from whatever limbo the moralists admit us to, and hearing a critic say that we have been untrue, not only to ourselves, but to our art. For so Dr. Goldwin Smith's ethical theory of art disposes of Poe, Poe who was never untrue to his art in his slenderest story, or lazy-minded in his least important criticism.
This confident man, who will measure the stars with equal assurance by the visions of poetry and the mathematics of astronomy, and set forth the whole truth of the universe in even, compact sentences such as no man can make by accident, lacks bedclothes to cover a dying wife — except the army overcoat which he had got at West Point sixteen years before. Says Trollope, the most self-possessed day-laborer in literature, "The doctor's vials and the ink-bottle held equal places in my mother's rooms. I have written many novels under many circumstances; but I doubt very much whether I could write one when my whole heart was by the bedside of a dying son. Her power of dividing herself into two parts, and keeping her intellect by itself, clear from the troubles of the world and fit for the duty it had to do, I never saw equalled. I do not think that the writing of a novel is the most difficult task which a man may be called upon to do; but it is a task that may be supposed to demand a spirit fairly at ease. The work of doing it with a troubled spirit killed Sir Walter Scott."
If Poe's work consisted of brilliant fragments, disconnected spurts of genius, the relation between his labors and his life as it is usually conceived would be easy to trace. His biography furnishes every reason why his work should be ill thought and confused; it does not sufficiently credit him with sturdy devotion to his task. That must be his merit as a man, and the ten volumes establish it. His tales may be "morbid," and his verses "very valueless." They required, to produce them, the sanest intelligence continuously applied. On Poe's uneventful and meagre life there has been built up an apocryphal character, the centre of controversies kept awhirl by as strange a combination of prejudices and non-literary interests as ever vexed an author's reputation. Some of the controversies he made himself and bequeathed to posterity, for he was a child of Hagar.***
But the rest have been imposed on him by a world that loves art for talk's sake. Since he was a Virginian by adoption and in feeling, he has been tossed about in a belated sectionalism. Southerners have scented a conspiracy in New England to deprive him of his dues, even to keep him out of the Hall of Fame because he was not a northerner. Englishmen and Frenchmen, far from the documents, have redeemed his reputation from the neglect and miscomprehension of the savage nation where he had the misfortune to be born. Only last year Mrs. Weiss's "Home Life of Poe" threatened to become an international issue. It was to certain British admirers of Poe the banal and slanderous voice of America against the greatest of American writers. As has been said, the very newest fashion in biography, the pathological, makes Poe a star case and further confuses the facts. Echoes of neuropathological criticism find their way to American Sunday papers which serve Poe up as a neurotic, with melancholy portraits and ravens spreading tenebrous wings above the columns of type.
If Poe's spirit has not forgotten that in its earthly progress it perpetrated hoaxes, courted Byronic fame, advertised itself as an infant prodigy, made up adventures in Greece and France which its earthly tenement did not experience, took sardonic delight in mystifying the public, it must see a kind of grim justice in the game the world is playing with its reputation. Nevertheless, it is unfitting that a man who did little worth remembering but write books, who lived in bleak alleys and dull places, should be haled up and down the main streets of gossip; that a poet who was, as one of his critics says, all head like a cherub, should have volumes written about his physical habits.
The reason for Poe's posthumous misfortune it is worth while to examine, for an understanding of it is necessary as an introduction to any of the lives of Poe, and it lies at the very heart of the institution of biography. We have seen that Poe was a friendless man. Griswold so affirmed just after Poe had left, amid shadowy circumstances, a life that was none too bright to the eye of the moralist nor clear to the eye of the world. And Griswold proved his assertion, for he was by his own declaration not Poe's friend, and yet he was the appointed biographer and editor of the collected works. There is no other relation so strange, so unfortunate, in literary history as this
Griswold was an editor and anthologist of no mean ability. Upon one of his collections of poetry — now an interesting museum of antiquity where archaeologists may study the literature of ancient America — Poe made acerbating, and no doubt discriminating, comments in a lecture. The report of the lecture angered Griswold. Poe's printed commentary is favorable, and we do not know just what he said in the lecture. He apologized to Griswold, for he was alert to the advantage of his own appearance in later clusters of literary lights which Griswold might assemble. Once, after an absence from his office in Graham's Magazine, he returned to find Griswold at his desk. He resigned immediately, so the story goes, in one of his costly outbursts of pride. Yet he thought Griswold was his friend. He borrowed money from him, and when, the year before his death, he left New York for Richmond he wrote to Griswold appointing him literary executor. Griswold's letter in which he accepted the office must have been friendly, for there is something like unwitting testimony on this point. When Poe read the letter in Richmond, a young girl, Susan Archer Weiss, was with him and noted that he was pleased.
After Poe's death Griswold published a severe but not untrue article in the Tribune, the famous article signed " Ludwig." Willis and Graham came to Poe's defense in good spirit. Griswold, rather piqued than chastened, prefixed to the third volume of Poe's work his memoir, since unnecessarily suppressed. And long afterward appeared his letter to Mrs. Whitman, written just after the Tribune article. In that letter he says, " I was not his friend, nor was he mine." Therein lies Griswold's perfidy, and not in the memoir itself. For when, coming from one of the later lives of Poe, one turns in a heat of indignation to Griswold, one finds nothing very bad and little that is untrue. Griswold merely emphasized the wrong things, and in so doing he became a monster among biographers. Through him, the Muse of Biography violated one of the important laws of her dominion. This law prescribes that the best of a man's life shall be told fully, and told first.
When a man dies, his letters and papers are put into the hands of one who loves and admires him, or who at least has no reluctance to celebrate him. The work of the first biographer is thrown to the world, where it undergoes scrutiny and correction. The mark of commentators in time turns it gray, but the original ground is white. The thousands of human stories together make a vast whiteness. In the midst of this background a black official portrait, even though the blackness be lines of fact, becomes a libel. The Devil's Advocate occupies the place where God's Advocate is expected to speak. If the champion tells a dark tale, people think the truth must be darker still, for does not the champion put the best possible face on his hero? Proper tone is impossible to restore. Injustice is done irrevocably. What the friend admits the world doubly affirms.
The life-story that grows brighter with time is very rare. Joan of Arc is metamorphosed from a witch to a saint. Machiavelli is proved after centuries to have been not very "machiavellian." Bacon, another upholder of legal autocracy, is seen at last to have been a just and generous man, and not the figure which rising Puritanism made of him at the moment of his death and its triumph. But these are restorations of characters that flourished before the age when official biographies are looked for within a year or two of a man's death. Of the recently dead we are not yet scientific enough to tell the whole truth. The rights of friendship are recognized, and its duties taken for granted. If its support is withdrawn the structure is awry. One has only to remember Henley's protest against Balfour's Stevenson, Purcell's life of Cardinal Manning, and Froude's Carlyle, to be reminded how strong is the obligation upon the friend, or the one holding the friend's office, not to emphasize the hero's blemishes.
Yet Henley said nothing against Stevenson except that Balfour's portrait was too sugary to be a true image of a man. Purcell only showed that Manning played politics, disliked Newman, and was anxious about what posterity should think of him. Froude, so far as we can discover, now that we no longer make Carlyle an object of that kind of hero worship which he thought was good for us, said nothing damaging at all. He only protested too much in his prefaces that he was doing the right thing to draw Carlyle as he was. Yet, as late as 1900, I heard an editor of Carlyle say that Froude had blackened the Master.
Such men as Carlyle and Stevenson and Manning settle back amid any biographic disturbance. They knock malicious or incompetent biographers off their feet, and burst the covers of little books. It is the poor fellow with an unheroic soul that the biographer can confine and distort. It is the man of a middling compound of virtue and sin who can be sent down for a half century of misrepresentation by the hand of a treacherous friend. Biography, especially when it deals with the artist who has no part in the quarrels of creeds and politics, is wont to bear its hero along "with his few faults shut up like dead flowerets." Griswold startles the peaceful traffic by turning and running against the current of convention.
Later biographers have not served Poe by falling foul of Griswold. For he had the facts and is an able prosecuting attorney. And much harm has been done, too, by emotional souls who, as Mark Twain says of Dowden's Shelley, " hang a fact in the sky and squirt rainbows at it." The error of Griswold, and of Poe's defenders, is an error of spirit, the delusion that Griswold's "charges" are momentous. After Griswold the story of Poe becomes a weaving and tangling of very small threads of fact. Every succeeding biographer has to take his cue from a powerful man who cannot be disregarded; and each biographer, in order as a faithful chronicler to do his part to straighten the story out, must put rubbish in his book. Even Mr. Woodberry, whose Life is incomparably the best, shows the constraint imposed on him by wearisome problems, and loses his accustomed vitality and his essential literary enthusiasm.****
It is too much to hope that the nebular Poe will be dispelled and the Poe of controversy be laid. Perhaps one should not hope for this, because it may be that, even as the Shakespeare myth is a necessary concomitant of the poet's greatness, the mythic Poe is a measure of his fame, and to attempt to destroy it may have the undesirable effect of seeming to belittle Poe. Nevertheless Poe's centennial year, falling in an age of grown-up judgments, affords a good occasion for the world to cease confounding his magnificent fame with petty inquisitions and rhetorical defenses. If sudden cessation is impossible, we can at least hope that more and more the trivialities of his life may recede, and the supreme triumph of his art stand forth unvexed and serene.
[Following are the footnotes to Macy's article.]
* A special student of one abstruse subject assures me that, in that subject, Poe is the only modern writer of general culture who knows what he is talking about. As this specialist has not yet published his researches, I will not say what the subject is.
** The biographer's province ma; extend far enough into literary criticism to note a curious confusion of literary judgments with biographic. Colonel Higginson, in bis Life of Longfellow, says that" Poe took captive the cultivated bat morbid taste of the French public." The words " but morbid " are not only a singular indictment of France, but a more singular indictment of America, for Foe took captive the American reading public before France heard of him. Let us deliver Poe's work, if we cannot deliver his life, from provincial controversy. But even his work, accepted, individual, indisputable, is troubled by another biographic question — his debt to one Chivers. Chivers could not write poetry. Poe could. The debt is evident.
*** As late as 1895. fifty years after the event, Thomas Dunn English, writing from the uncontroversial atmosphere of the House of Representatives to Griswold's son, shoved that he still regarded as alive a quarrel almost as comic as Whistler's quarrel with Ruskin, though far less witty.
****I am sorry that I cannot see the revised edition of Mr. Woodberry's Life of Poe before sending this paper to press. No one who has not labored through the Poe bibliography can appreciate how fine and sound is Mr. Woodberry's work of twenty-five years ago. No doubt the revision has resulted in an ultimately satisfactory life of Poe.
Poe has at last been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Like Chinese tea that has been boxed and marked according to quality as "First chop," "Second chop" and so on, Poe has been inspected and labeled, and may now be supposed to pass current as strictly "First chop." That this consummation has been so long delayed may be accounted one of the strangest phenomena of literary history. The explanation is still far from being wholly clear. It may be worth while, therefore, before turning away from so important an event, to look once more at the facts of Poe's posthumous fame, a fame that has encountered such perverse, and to the minds of his fellow alumni of Virginia, as it appears, such inexplicable hindrances.
The usual explanation of the antipathy that many undoubtedly feel towards Poe is that it is due to a series of actions executed by New England critics, actions which the milder defenders of Poe call prejudice, the more radical, conspiracy. As this theory has been repeatedly advanced, and is in many quarters implicitly accepted, it may be well to observe at the outset that it rests on foundations that are flimsy, if not wholly imaginary. Emerson called Poe "that jingle man." Are we to suppose that he was maliciously attacking Poe? The idea is exquisitely absurd. Nor was it likely that Emerson was merely repeating the ideas of others; his original independence of thought was not less vigorous than his honesty. Henry James referred to Poe's "very valueless verses." His phrase may have been tempted into extremes by the lure of alliteration: but Mr. James is not given to partisanship. Baudelaire, the French disciple of Poe, whose moral character was to Poe's as black is to light grey, inspired no prejudice in New England. Why should partisan prejudice be supposed to operate against the master when it does not attack the disciple? Most conclusive of all, though, is the fact that the same ballot that first excluded Poe from the Hall of Fame also excluded the New York novelist Cooper and the New England-New York poet Bryant, and included Lee! There was plainly no sectional prejudice at work. No, some other motive than sectional prejudice must be sought in explaining the opinions of the sturdy fellow countrymen of Longfellow, of Whittier, and of Hawthorne.
Let us then look for a moment at the facts. Upon inspecting the literature about Poe written since his death, two facts become at once plain: first, that, except in the writing of a small minority of New England critics, Poe's literature has always been accepted as of the highest rank; second, that his personal character was, about the time of his death, generally assigned to the lowest rank, and that the public at large, unsatisfied with the verdict, have been discussing the matter with increasing interest ever since. These facts can be well illustrated by figures. The number of editions of a writer's work or of a part of his work is a fair index to popularity. By way of adopting a standard by which to measure popularity, we may take Longfellow, the most popular American poet, and compare the frequency of Longfellow editions with the frequency of Poe editions. The result is given in a table:
1902-1905 inclusive.... Poe: 45 Longfellow: 68
1906-1909 inclusive...Poe: 39 Longfellow: 75
The greatest number of Longfellow editions for any year of the second period (25) appeared in 1906, in anticipation of the Longfellow centenary in 1907. The Poe centenary in 1909 seems to have had no influence upon the number of editions. Poe then in 1902 was almost as popular an author as Longfellow. Since then the editions of his works have decreased in number while the editions of Longfellow have increased. The decrease may perhaps be explained as due to other causes than a decreasing vogue; for one thing, Poe's works do not lend themselves to exploitation in picture books, as do Longfellow's. But it is plainly wrong to suppose that the recognition of Poe's work is just coming into its own.
The other fact, that the personal interest in Poe as a man is increasing, may be similarly illustrated. Here again we may take Longfellow for comparison. The following table gives the articles that have been printed in popular magazines about the two authors.
Before 1882... Poe: 25 Longfellow: 104
1882-1886 inclusive ...Poe: 21 Longfellow: 73
1887-1891 inclusive...Poe: 9 Longfellow: 10
1892-1896 inclusive...Poe: 18 Longfellow: 17
1897-1901 inclusive...Poe: 26 Longfellow: 12
1902-1906 inclusive...Poe: 25 Longfellow: 13
1907-Dec. 1, 1910...Poe: 60 Longfellow: 27
During the last of these periods, that from 1907 to the present, both the Poe and the Longfellow centenary celebrations occurred. Both show an increase in public interest for this period, but the increase is much greater in the case of Poe. The Longfellow centenary brought out twelve articles, the Poe thirty-six. These figures bear out the contention that Poe's writing is not more recognized to-day than heretofore, but that Poe the man is being more and more discussed, and that such discussion was increasing before the Hall of Fame controversy, beginning in 1900, stirred the whole matter up afresh.
The explanation of this phenomenon is not difficult, though in many details the matter is obscure. There has been, from the time when Poe sprang into fame to the present moment, a continuous and unrelenting discrimination made between the man and his work. The work has, with the exceptions mentioned, always been praised, the man violently attacked and as violently defended. During Poe's lifetime, he was highly praised. Tennyson called him the most original American genius, Victor Hugo the "'Prince of American literature." Lowell said that he might be "the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works" in America, if he did not sometimes mistake his phial of prussic acid for his inkstand. Even Griswold the notorious, repeating after Poe's death one of his short sketches of that author printed in the "Poets and Poetry of America." speaks of his "brilliant articles," says "His poems are constructed with wonderful ingenuity, and finished with consummate art," finds him one of the few magazine writers "who have any real skill in literary art." and quotes Willis concerning "The Raven:" "It is the most effective single example of fugitive poetry ever published in this country, and is unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative life." Can this be the Griswold we are taught to picture with horns and tail, the arch-fiend of the anti-Poe cult?
There have, it is true, been dissenters besides Emerson and James, who have esteemed Poe's writing but little. An anonymous reviewer of the Stedman and Woodberry edition, writing in the Atlantic Monthly for April, 1896, naively concludes that "Poe was far from being the literary mountebank he is generally pictured." John Macy, writing for the same magazine, December, 1908, attacks the French idea, presumably that of Barine and Lauvriere, that Poe was an "irresponsible genius scribbling immortality under vinous inspiration, or turning neuropsychopathic rhymes." Even Mr. Woodberry, the admirably impartial and sympathetic biographer of Poe, is doubtful about the moral effect of his writings. Baudelaire called Poe the martyr of a raw democracy; to which Mr. Woodberry replies [Atlantic Monthly, Dec, 1884] that a cult that flowered into the Fleurs du Mai must have had a foul root, and that he prefers raw democracy, even though the root in question be Poe. This illogical doctrine is repeated by Professor Barrett Wendell. Side by side, though, with Professor Wendell's treatment of Poe should be set his own remark, in finishing the "Book" in which he has discussed, among other writers, Irving, Cooper and Poe: "By the middle of the nineteenth century, in fact, the literary impulse of the Middle States [Irving, Cooper and Poe, understand] had proved abortive. For the serious literature of America we must revert to New England."(!) More significant is a recent opinion expressed in the Edinburgh Review [Jan., 1910]. In the palace of imaginative literature is one haunted room. Some shun it, others are attracted. But it has a spell for all. It is the antechamber to the unknown. And above the door is the name of Poe. "His works will not always be approved, but we believe that they will always be read."
These slightly or more markedly negative criticisms of Poe's writing are, however, exceptional. Moreover they are explainable. There is in Poe's work an alloy of melodrama, that pet vice of most great writers. This the average reader sees and readily understands, precisely as he understands the humor of George Ade's fables, or the morality of the "Psalm of Life," or the carefully emphasized sensations of the Sunday press. The finer qualities of Poe, the delicate satire, the heart-wringing pathos half hidden from a world he contemptuously despised, the exquisite workmanship, like that of a fine worker in mosaic, these and many other virtues are caviar to the general reader. And even by the reader of naturally good taste Poe is often misinterpreted and so made repulsive. Notice, for example, the illustrations by Mr. Frederick Coburn, contemplate the loathsome cadaver in a state of semi-putrefaction with the skin sunken and the black cat crouched upon its head: there you see the objection that many intelligent persons raise toPoe. That the "Black Cat" was a profound study of a mental state escapes such persons just as the fact fails to appear in the grossly carnal conception of Mr. Coburn. As has been observed, however, these objections are rare. For the most part Poe, as a writer, has been frankly admired.
As a man he has been regarded with different sentiments. Perhaps Poe was himself in some measure responsible for this. Drunkenness even Puritan New England might have forgiven; New England, at precisely this time, was raving over the philosophy of the opium fiend Coleridge. But most of the persons whom Poe attacked could not forgive being called charlatan. And that was what Poe called them. "As a literary people," he wrote, "we are one vast perambulating humbug." Again, "Chicanery is, with us, a far surer road than talent to distinction in letters." He then refers to bribery and blackmail between critics and publishers to puff literary reputations, indulges in a few such phrases as "unadulterated quackery," "blustering arrogance," "bare-faced plagiarism," and ends with a few direct allusions: "Mr. Bryant is not all a fool. Mr. Willis is not quite an ass. Mr. Longfellow will steal [plagiarize], but, perhaps, he cannot help it (for we have heard of such things) and then it must not be denied that nil tetigitquod non ornavit." Amusing? Of course, it is amusing; and doubtless in good part true. That is precisely what they could not forgive. That it was in part true is evidenced by Lowell's strictures upon the grossly inflated reputations of most writers of the day. The real trouble probably lay in the fact that Poe never met but one man who was intellectually his equal; that was Lowell, and he only saw Lowell once. Most of the others he despised and ridiculed, and they naturally hated him in return with deadly enmity. And many of them were in places of power or influence. That Poe went too far with his irresponsible satire in other ways cannot be denied. For example, on one occasion he promised to read a poem in Boston, failed to write it in time, palmed off on the audience "Al Araaf" written many years before, and then under the influence of the champagne supper that followed, confessed the whole thing. The audience was polite, but disgusted.
Poe's victims, though, had their revenge; they gratified to the full that lowest of human motives, the desire to "get even." Not only were all his foibles paraded forth and his virtues studiously ignored but the deliberately coined falsehoods set afloat have floated ever since, so that the mariner upon literary seas still encounters from time to time that strange and sinister flotsam and jetsam of scandal. And not only did Poe's enemies repeat these things, they taught their successors who never knew Poe to repeat them. The more Puritanic swallowed such statements with gusto, because they fell in with their predilections. For example, a writer in the Nation for March 25, 1875, writes, apparently in good faith: "He quarreled with every one who had a less indiscriminate admiration of him than Mr. Ingram has; was adopted by a wealthy man, whose money he wasted at wine and cards, and whose affections he alienated by all sorts of misconduct, and who finally forbade him his house. He attacked every literary man of eminence greater than his own with virulent and senseless abuse [this ineffable old donkey saw none of the wit or satire], and, though poor, had that sublime contempt for earning money which Mr. Ingram would call philosophic, perhaps, but which common-sense people in America call shiftlessness." There is the crux of the matter. He was shiftless; he was not a common-sense person. In addition to this defect there was a "Satanic" streak in Poe. While his Puritan contemporary Bryant was following Wordsworth, Poe was learning how to write by reading the "Satanic" Byron and Shelley. On the whole there was in him, his critics thought, something sinister. They also suspected him of being a hypocrite, and, like the virtuous people that Mark Twain mentions, gravely concluded that he was all the greater hypocrite for concealing the fact that he was one.
This view of Poe was easily carried abroad, and the Edinburgh Review, in April, 1858, expressed the conviction that he was "one of the most worthless persons of whom we have any record in the world of letters." He was, according to this writer, idle, improvident, drunken, dissipated, treacherous, and ungrateful; he, in fact, combined "all the floating vices which genius had hitherto shown itself capable of grasping." Again, "The lowest abyss of moral imbecility and disrepute was never attained until he came." But why quote more of such stuff. Suffice it to say that these views had little effect upon Europe, and that the British instinct for fair play was proof against such perversions. In France, it is true, as late as 1897, was heard an echo of this, in an article by Arvede Barine, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, July 15, 1897. Poe, he says, when publicly denounced for drunkenness, "lied with the maladroitness of the criminal who loses his head when he finds himself discovered." Frenchmen, however, know Poe's own writings as few know them; and both the man and his work are certain of honest criticism at their hands.
This, in general outline, is the history of Poe's posthumous career. With the death of the last of his personal enemies, the personal abuse has ceased; and the false traditions to which it gave rise are rapidly disappearing before the rising light of truth. Among the symptoms of this we have the recent acceptance of the poet by the Hall of Fame.
There is one other curious tradition of Poe which, though not directly connected with this subject, should perhaps not be passed over. In the article by Mr. Barine just mentioned, the vagueness of some of Poe's poetry is explained as due to alcoholism of the neuropsychopathic type. This view is repeated without dissent by M. Lauvriere in his book, "Edgar Poe." The vagueness is a feature of style learned from Shelley, whose usage Poe elsewhere follows. Moreover it was a conscious and intentional thing, as the poet explained in one of his letters. When he saw fit to be precise in his writing he surpassed in scientific accuracy of detail almost any writer of our language. Poe had enough of bona fide failings to answer for; but neuropsychopathic degeneration in his writing was not one of them. If this alcoholism was a pathological thing, it never, so far as can be determined, gave rise to any literary symptom.
At the present time Poe's fame seems secure. Though not evidenced by a great profusion of popular editions, the permanent respect he commands is evidenced by the continual reappearance of his work in standard forms, in large library editions, at least three of which have recently appeared in this country, in collections of standard literature designed for the class room, in the appearance of editions of a part or the whole of his works, copiously in England, Germany, and France, and less copiously in Sweden, in the Czechish country, in Italy, Denmark, Greece, South America, and Australia. In five representative collections of world literature in English, German, and Italian, Poe is the only author who appears in all five.
Abroad, curiously enough, they frequently do not regard Poe as exactly American. Mr. Esme Stuart, writing in the English review, Nineteenth Century for July, 1893, finds him half English. In France they had adopted his tales at least three years before his death, and even at that early date were quarreling in the law courts over the right to publish them. Baudelaire a year or two later discovered in Poe the embodiment of his own literary ideas, and thereafter devoted much of his life to translating his works. Even the sections of America, now that prejudice against the man has disappeared, are contending for his glory. Boston claims his birth-place, Baltimore his paternal family, Virginia the credit for such early training as he did not acquire in England; while New York, as his home at the height of his fame, confidently regards him as a New Yorker. Truly Poe is, to-day, all things to all men, despite the fact that during most of his life he was homeless and often friendless.
The other persons who were elected to the Hall of Fame at the last election were Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Phillips Brooks, William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft, Andrew Jackson, John Lothrop Motley, Roger Williams, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frances E. Willard. Among the electors with whom the choice rests are, as alumni of the University of Virginia will recall with interest, two Virginians, Edwin A. Alderman, President of the University, and Richard Heath Dabney, historian and Dean of the Graduate School of the University.