Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Insufferable trash... one of the most delightful books"

On May 17, 1845, The Town, a New York weekly, poked fun at Edgar A. Poe, who was in town working at the Broadway Journal. It featured a mock review, found "Astray from the office of the Broadway Journal" of the (fictitious) book The Adventures, Life and Opinions of John Smith. The Poe-like reviewer notes the work "a mass of insufferable trash, without one redeeming quality." Nevertheless, it is "one of the most delightful books... printed in a beautiful arabesque style by Wiley & Putnam."

The hilarious little stab at Poe was noting how his reviews always seem to fall in both positive and negative categories: even as he praises a writer, he still damns them. It is, of course, quite a true observation, and it's one of the many details I point out to folks who think Poe simply "hated" or "loved" certain other writers. The reality is, he always found ways to both praise and criticize nearly everyone. Such is the case with Rufus Griswold's The Poets and Poetry of America in 1842, which many categorize as a negative review outright — in fact, Poe loved the anthology and thought it a major turning point in American poetry, though he noted a few errors in judgment on the part of its editor. The same is also true for Poe's reviews of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which people seem to take for granted as "Poe hated Longfellow." Again, it's much more complicated.

But, before you think that Poe was being hypocritical or noncommittal, keep in mind the context here. The world of American literary criticism was slow to develop and, in a sense, Poe was moving against the grain. Writers like Margaret Fuller noted "the mutual admiration society" — a climate where reviewers praised to the point of absurdity, without any mark of sincerity. Such reviews, many felt, were detrimental to the advancement of American letters. At a time when Europeans were asking "Who reads an American book?", people like Poe (and Fuller) were trying to encourage writers to work harder and not just idly assume that their writing was good enough (clearly, it wasn't!).

I haven't found much information about The Town, but the Poe Log refers to it as a weekly magazine devoted to satirizing the New York literati. It's first mention of Poe seems to be in February 1845, when it notes Poe's plans to start a new magazine (presumably The Stylus, which was a dream never to come true). The writer noted Poe was "the most interesting and original of Magazine writers, and a fearless critic." When Poe became affiliated with the Evening Mirror that same month, The Town reported that they "rejoice at the fact" — especially because his style of criticism would relieve "much of the Miss Nancyism of [N. P.] Willis" and add "a more manly vigor" to the reviews. They nevertheless note their disagreement with Poe's review of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Poe had denied the poet's genius, suggesting he was instead merely a clever fellow. The Town suggested Poe "ought to hurry express haste to Washington and get out a patent right for his Discovery." The point is: Poe's negativity looked strange to people who were used to "puffing" (Griswold, by the way, once noted to James Thomas Fields that he "puffed," or gave empty praise to, all the books Fields published, regardless of quality).

By the way, the satire of Poe's criticism happens to use the name "John Smith" in the title of their fictitious book. "John Smith" is also a character in Poe's 1849 comedy story "X-ing a Paragrab" who eventually takes revenge on his newfound rival publisher.

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