JF Ptak Science Books Post 1713 [Part of a series on the History of Memory]
Poe is not so remembered today by the general public as an essayist, and less so as his almost-forgotten career as a book reviewer and literary critic. Creator (perhaps) of the genres of science fiction and the detective form, a master of suspense, an agent of words, poet and short story writer, editor, yes; maker of taste and keeper of logical insight in literature, well, maybe not so much.
But the weight of it all is that Poe may have been America's greatest literary critic of the 19th century,--perhaps more than that. And it may have led to Poe being remembered for some not very savory things, some everlasting iconic and not-necessarily true I-cannot-tell-a-lie Poeisms that are known by the social mind. For example, a bad review may have bought him this obituary as a huge helping of pay-back:
"EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars..."--by "Ludwig","Death of Edgar A. Poe, New York Daily Tribune, October 9, 1849, page 2, columns 3-4. [Full text here.]
We'll get to the "anonymous" author in just a bit.
Poe was absolute acid if the work deserved it; but while dismembering the client Poe would always deliver a lesson wrapped around his titanium fist. For example, in this review of the now-forgotten William Ellery Channing, Poe writes, in the first paragraph, the following:
"In speaking of MR. WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING, who has just published a very neat little volume of poems, we feel the necessity of employing the indefinite rather than the definite article. He isa, and by no meansthe, William Ellery Channing. He is onlythe son of the great essayist deceased. He is just such a person, in despite of hisclarum et venerabile nomen, as Pindar would have designated by the significant term... It may be said in his favor that nobody ever heard of him. Like an honest woman, he has always succeeded in keeping himself from being made the subject of gossip. His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all. They are not precisely English — nor will we insult a great nation by calling them Kickapoo; perhaps they are Channingese. We may convey some general idea of them by two foreign terms not in common use — the Italian pavoneggiarsi, “to strut like a peacock,” and the German word for “sky-rocketing,”schwarmerei. They are more preposterous, in a word, than any poems except those of the author of “Sam Patch;” for we presume we are right (are we not?) in taking it for granted that the author of “Sam Patch” is the very worst of all the wretched poets that ever existed upon earth."
There's much more, though I think Mr. Channing would have dissolved before long. What happens is remarkable--Poe sets out his verdict in the opening paragraph, and then presents a very detailed, logical , lovely and devastating support to his claim, climbing over Tennyson/Carlyle/Bacon to get to his point. Poe was very careful--unfortunately for Mr. Channing--and when you get to the end of the review, after you get to the end of the wondering-why Poe has bothered with this at all, I think that you get to the point about the importance of mistakes. THe making-of-mistakes, of course, and how you get there. And back.
[Text: Edgar Allan Poe, "Griswold's American Poetry" (A), from The Boston Miscellany, II, November 1842, pp. 218-221. Full text http://www.eapoe.org/works/criticsm/channgb.htm]
Poe wrote many reviews, many as savage as the famous Channing piece. He also several times dealt with the work of Rufus Griswold (1815-1857), which may have brought Poe to his great post-mortem grief. Griswold considered himself a "competitor" of Poe's; and really, to some extent, he was. But I think it was a competition for employment, and perhaps a competition in a shared love interest, rather than a purely creative competition, because there it is certain that no competition existed. In his review of Griswold's American Poetry, Poe wrote a devastating *and* laudatory piece, questioning and praising the work.
Poe ends his (long) and essay so:
"We disagree then, with Mr. Griswold in many of his critical estimates; although in general, we are proud to find his decisions our own. He has omitted from the body of his book, some one or two whom we should have been tempted to introduce. On the other hand, he has scarcely made us amends by introducing some one or two dozen whom we should have treated with contempt. We might complain too of a prepossession, evidently unperceived by himself, for the writers of New England. We might hint also, that in two or three cases, he has rendered himself liable to the charge of personal partiality; it is often so very difficult a thing to keep separate in the mind's eye, our conceptions of the poetry of a friend, from our impressions of his good fellowship and our recollections of the flavor of his wine"
"But having said thus much in the way of fault-finding, we have said all. (bold mine) The book should be regarded as the most important addition which our literature has for many years received. It fills a void which should have been long ago supplied. It is written with judgment, with dignity and candor. Steering with a dexterity not to be sufficiently admired, between the Scylla of Prejudice on the one hand, and the Charybdis of Conscience on the other, Mr. Griswold in the "Poets and Poetry of America," has entitled himself to the thanks of his countrymen, while showing himself a man of taste, talent, and tact."
Full text here: http://www.eapoe.org/works/criticsm/bm42gr01.htm
Poe dealt with Griswold elsewhere, as well. But it seems as though it was Poe's questioning Griswold's judgments in the selections of poets to include (and enshrine) in his American Poetry--and as it turns out, in spite of it going into three printings in six months and for being an important book for a time, it was a book of the moment1, with critics just a decade or so later determining that the Griswold selections were more like a poetical graveyard than anything else. There was also an issue of a shared love (which is a point of debate for experts in the history of Poe), as well as a competition over the position of editor Graham's Magazine.2
But it was the duplicitous Griswold who favored revenge--he managed became Poe's lit executor, took control of his manuscripts and correspondence, and wrote the first biography of Poe, creating some of the all-time-standard rumors about Poe's drunkenness and drug-using and insanity and the like, much of which Griswold created out-of-hand and via forgery, all solely design to kill Poe over and in time. Griswold's work has been largely all uncovered at this time, but the damage has been done, and much of what Griswold wrote is still part of an iconic literary history of Poe.
As historian Perry Miller wrote, "Griswold was about as devious as they came in this era of deviousness; did not ample documentation prove that he actually existed, we might suppose him... one of the less plausible inventions of Charles Dickens"
Griswold came to his own end eight years after Poe, laid to rest in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he laid for seven years in a receiving tomb before placed in a grave--without a headstone. His library was sold, and generated a good-sized sum of $3000 for the construction of a memorial, but it never came off.
1. In a wiki article (here) we find these modern reviews of Griswold's work:
In more modern times, The Poets and Poetry of America has been nicknamed a "graveyard of poets" because its anthologized writers have since passed into obscurity to become, as literary historian Fred Lewis Pattee wrote, "dead... beyond all resurrection".Pattee also called the book a "collection of poetic trash" and "voluminous worthlessness".
2. Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor there; Poe's position lasted from February 1841 to April 1842 at an annual salary of $800; Griswold took over immediately in April '42 at a salary of $1000, but by that very September Graham offered the position back to Poe, who turned it down. Whatever gravitas the magazine had, it was given it by Poe.