Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hawthorne writes to Poe

From Salem, Massachusetts, the now well-known American author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to Edgar Poe about his book, Mosses from an Old Manse. In the letter, dated June 17, 1846, Hawthorne asked Poe if his publishers had already sent him a copy to review. He also noted his respect for Poe as a critic. As he wrote:
"I have read your occasional notices of my productions with great interest — not so much because your judgment was, upon the whole, favorable, as because it seemed to be given in earnest. I care for nothing but the truth, in regard to my writings, than a sugared falsehood."
"Sugared falsehoods" were something Poe tended to avoid by this time, certainly known as a "Tomahawk Man" since well before Hawthorne's letter was written.* Today, Poe is occasionally dismissed as a critic (in part for his caustic nature) but, clearly, at least Hawthorne respects him for this line of work.

Nevertheless, Hawthorne makes it clear that he prefers Poe as a fiction writer more than as a reviewer. "I admire you rather as a writer of Tales, than as a critic upon them," he wrote. "I might often — and often do — dissent from your opinions, in the latter capacity, but could never fail to recognize your force and originality, in the former." In 2009, that should ring like a pretty decent endorsement from a heavy hitter in American writing.

Poe did get his review copy of Mosses from an Old Manse and wrote a lengthy critique, which was published in Godey's Lady's Book in November 1847. He praised the writing, but worried about how New England culture was influencing the book's author. He warned Hawthorne particularly of the Transcendentalists. In his review, Poe wrote: "Let him mend his pen, get a bottle of visible ink, come out from the Old Manse, cut Mr. [Bronson] Alcott, [and] hang (if possible), the editor of 'The Dial.'" Interesting words, but Poe might not have realized that not only was The Dial already canceled, but also that Hawthorne was already out of the Old Manse. By this time, he was living once again in Salem while famously holding a government-appointed job at the custom house.

This letter from Hawthorne and Poe's review of Mosses from an Old Manse will both play a salient role in my upcoming lecture, Dark Romantics: Hawthorne and Poe. The talk is kindly hosted by The Wayside, Hawthorne's former home, today part of Minuteman National Park in Concord, Massachusetts. We will celebrate both Poe's bicentennial year and Hawthorne's birthday (a couple days off). The talk is free and takes place on the side lawn of The Wayside on July 2 at 6:30 p.m. The staff there is worried that neither Hawthorne nor Poe will draw a large crowd — let's prove them wrong!

*A recent discussion begs the question: When is the earliest reference to Poe and his "tomahawk"? We found as early as 1840, thanks to Poe's friend Thomas Holley Chivers.

1 comment:

Amateur Reader said...

The comity of these two is really admirable. It's easy to imagine them seeing each other as rivals, competing for the same ecological niche. But instead they took each other's artistry seriously.