Friday, June 12, 2020

The Literati by Edgar Allan Poe

Nothing if not critical
Given the macabre tales he wrote, and the rumors (some of them unfounded) of his alcoholic lifestyle and erratic behavior, it is easy to imagine Edgar Allan Poe as a deranged recluse shut up in a garret with no friend but his pen. On the contrary, however, Poe was a hard-working author and an active member of the literary community. In addition to his poetry and fiction, Poe penned many essays, articles, and reviews for literary journals. In 1846, for a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, Poe wrote a series of articles entitled “The Literati of New York City,” in which he profiled various men and women of letters, critiqued their work, and even described their physical appearance and personalities. In 1850 these profiles, along with other articles of literary criticism by Poe, were collected in The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, Volume III, under the collective title of The Literati. This volume is also included in the Delphi Classics ebook collection Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, published in 2011.

Of the roughly 75 writers critiqued by Poe, only a few still stand as household literary names today: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens. Habitual readers of classic lit will likely recognize several others, but most of Poe’s contemporaries have largely faded from memory. Probably about three-quarters of the authors Poe discusses are poets first and foremost, though Poe does cover some novelists and short story writers as well. His view of the New York world of letters is even broad enough to include journal editors, a physician who gives scientific lectures, and clergymen who write religious works. About a quarter of the authors are women, several of whom garner high praise from Poe. From his descriptions, Poe seems to have been acquainted with many of these figures, though he makes it hard to tell which may have been friends and which enemies.

The fact is, whether reviewing an ally or a foe, Poe could be a brutal critic. He frequently asserts that a critic is not obligated to point out the merits of a work of art or literature but is duty-bound to point out its faults. In other words, even if Poe likes your work, he’ll still harp on your shortcomings. Though he says Longfellow may be America’s greatest poet, Poe still considers him overrated and spends a large, tedious portion of the collection accusing Longfellow of plagiarism. Poe proclaims Richard Henry Horne’s epic poem Orion to be the greatest poem ever written, but only after having spent about 15 pages lambasting Horne’s grammar, rhyme, meter, and imagery. With fans like Poe, who needs enemies? The only writer who gets unequivocal praise is Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was still relatively unknown at the time, and Poe thought he was greatly underrated. Though a born Bostonian, Poe has little regard for his fellow Bay Staters, the Transcendentalists, whom he regards as the “merest nobodies, fatiguing even themselves.”

As a fan of 19th century literature, I was hoping Poe’s critical essays might turn me on to some lesser-known fiction writers. Since Poe focuses so much on poetry, however, that hope didn’t really pan out. The sheer quantity and length of these essays was more than I bargained for, but I still found them interesting and educational. The Literati really provides the reader with a glimpse of Poe’s idiosyncratic personality and venomous sense of humor, but most fans of Poe’s fiction would find these articles irrelevant to an appreciation of his stories. Those studying poetry, however, would do well to read Poe’s criticism, if for no other reason than to learn how not to write verse.

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