Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Poe, puffs, and North Carolina

Poe's first job as a critic was in August 1835 when he was hired by the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe brought to the SLM a new style of criticism which distinctly broke away from the "puffs" that plagued American periodicals. In those days, critics were bribed or paid off to provide positive reviews by publishers or authors — or, in some cases, the system of puffing was so ingrained, no pay-off was needed. Poe, on the other hand, provided sincere reviews, whether laudatory or critical. Although, certainly, there are cases where Poe's personal bias influenced his judgment, he was going against the grain in providing a new type of literary criticism. He was a trailblazer, in some sense, and some have credited him as "the father of modern literary criticism."

Of course, one does not blaze a trail without making a few enemies.

On July 15, 1836 (surprisingly early in Poe's critical career), the Newbern Spectator, a periodical out of New Bern, North Carolina, suggested it was time for Poe to resign. His reviews were too caustic, too critical, too different. As the article said, "We think that Mr. Poe will soon see the necessity of resigning his chair, or of conforming to the rules of modern criticism. The Proprietor should look to this."

The irony here is clear, of course. Consider the climate, the "rules of modern criticism" to which Poe was being asked to conform: critic Rufus Griswold at one point wrote to publisher James T. Fields that he puffs books regardless of quality; he later received direct instructions from a minor publisher named T. B. Peterson for the positive review he expected (along with a request to destroy the letter once read); so many critics are patting authors on the backs that the term "mutual admiration society" is thrown around regularly by people like Margaret Fuller, Edwin Percy Whipple, and Oliver Wendell Holmes (the phrase is so prevalent, in fact, I'm having difficulty determining who said it first).

Poe, however, was not without supporters. Later that same July, the editor of the New York Weekly Magazine would respond positively to the Southern Literary Messenger. Others would continue to back Poe and even emulate his style throughout Poe's lifetime and beyond.

But, back to the Newbern Spectator. Poe acknowledged their comments and the Spectator responded, mentioning "the debt of gratitude which we owe its profound editor... having taken 'notice' of us in a manner so gentlemanlike and dignified, and so creditable to his own temper and erudition." Not to say, however, that they became supporters of Poe. Acknowledging the prevalence of "puffs," they question what Poe is doing. "It cannot permit a single voice to be raised against... errors without descending to scurrility and invective; thus showing conclusively the unfitness of its conductor for the task he has undertaken."

To each their own, I suppose. Personally, I wonder why a North Carolina publication has any interest at all in a Virginia newspaper.

1 comment:

Gina said...

I have an inkling of how he must have felt; almost every time I write a bad review, I get cries of "Why do you have to say awful things about it? It's only fiction!" Poor Poe. I've never felt so close to him as I did while reading this post!