Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Presidents Day and Literature

A special (belated) Presidents Day edition of the Poe Calendar...

Edgar A. Poe did not have many run-ins with presidents — as you might imagine — and, for the most part, his fiction writing veered far away from politics. Even in his critical work and his editorials he rarely ventured into politics and, when he did, it had more to do with publishing law than anything else. Still, there are a couple of opportunities to connect Poe with Presidents.

One example actually connects to a presidential candidate. In the relatively-obscure 1839 story "The Man That Was Used Up," Poe satirizes the warrior-turned-hero image common in the 19th century (and today). He took aim specifically at General Winfield Scott, a general during the War of 1812. Under President Andrew Jackson, Scott also helped oversee the removal of some 4,000 members of the Cherokee Nation — now known as the infamous "Trail of Tears." "Old Fuss and Feathers," as he was called, was considered a hero and an indomitable force, despite being captured at one point and also receiving various injuries throughout his storied military career. In Poe's story, the famous hero, A. B. C. Smith, turns out to have been so broken apart over the years that he is, quite literally, "used up" and in need of assembly. Years later, in 1852 (after Poe's death), Winfield Scott would be a candidate for president under the Whig Party.

Poe almost had a run-in with a sitting president, too. In the early 1840s, Poe's very good friend Frederick Thomas pointed out how many people were getting great appointments to political jobs under John Tyler's new administration. Thomas was a close friend of Robert Tyler, the new president's son. He arranged for a meeting between Poe and Tyler, hoping that Poe could be procured a customhouse job in Philadelphia. Poe took the opportunity to voice that, conveniently, he had been a supporter of Whig politics (a statement that can't be backed up with sincere evidence). However, in preparing to meet Tyler, Poe nervously turned to drink — and missed the meeting.

However, politics and literature aren't so disparate. Here is a quick list of literary figures in the 19th century who were granted political appointments by certain presidents. Just to name a few:

*James Fenimore Cooper — United States Consul to France (1826), appointed by John Quincy Adams
*Washington Irving — Secretary to the American Legation in London (1829), appointed by Andrew Jackson, later Minister to Spain (1842), appointed by John Tyler
*Nathaniel Hawthorne — United States Consul to Liverpool (1853), appointed by Franklin Pierce (also spent several years at the Boston and Salem Customhouse, appointed by Massachusetts Democrats)
*James Russell Lowell — Minister to the Court of Spain (1877), appointed by Rutherford B. Hayes, later promoted to Minister to England (1880)

1 comment:

Ed said...

"Man That Was Used Up," a story I've always felt a strong connection to, because of course, "Pettit makes the best shoulders."