Monday, September 7, 2009

Poe reviews Griswold

Rufus Griswold vs. Edgar Poe is probably the greatest, and most confusing, literary battle in the history of the written word in any language. It's unclear what was really going on, who was the instigator and, most importantly, why Griswold was so harsh to Poe when Poe was dead and unable to fight back. Many scholars trace all the animosity back to one little critical review in 1842.

While preparing what would become his most important work, Rufus Griswold turned to Edgar Poe, one of the most well-known literary critics of the day. Knowing that The Poets and Poetry of America, Griswold's landmark anthology, could use some publicity to sell well, he asked Poe for a review (odd, considering Poe was somewhat biased, considering he was one of the many poets included in the book). Griswold knew Poe was desperate and he offered money out of pocket for his review — and Poe caught on that Griswold intended this exchange of cash to be a bribe. "You need not trouble yourself about the publication of the review, should you decide upon writing it," Griswold cooed, "for I will attend to all that."

Poe, however, was not known for letting people get off easy in his reviews, thanks to his caustic, "tomahawk"-style criticism. Couple that with at least some jealousy at the upstart arbiter of American literary taste stepping into the position he coveted, Poe did the unthinkable (to Griswold): he wrote a lukewarm review. Neither heavily critical nor heavily laudatory, Poe's review of The Poets and Poetry of America was, quite simply, fair. He praised Griswold's ambitious effort, while scolding some of the specific selections. He disagreed with excessive space granted to poets like Charles Fenno Hoffman and Charles Sprague and lamented the exclusion of James Russell Lowell. Ultimately, however, he determined the book was "the most important addition which our literature has for many years received." And that's saying something.

Griswold, however, was unhappy with this result. He believed his bribe should have guaranteed a review of exclusive praise, not balanced by valid criticism. Griswold knew the puffing game well, having directly demanded positive reviews throughout his career (and agreeing to write just as many as requested by others), and believed Poe's positive review "might be of good consequence." Yet, this was not a good review which Poe handed him. Lest he be judged hypocritical, Griswold simply had to do what he promised, to "attend" to finding a publisher.

On September 7, 1842, Griswold wrote to his frequent correspondent, the Boston publisher James Thomas Fields. "Perhaps Poe's article will not affect the book at all," he theorized, "but I am rather pleased that it is to appear, lest Poe should think that I had prevented its publication." He did get it published, as promised... by burying it in a relatively-unknown newspaper called the Boston Miscellany.

Not that it mattered. Poe had already published a review of The Poets and Poetry of America in Graham's Magazine by then. It was one of his last pieces before he left his editorial role there. He was immediately replaced by Rufus Griswold himself. Comparisons between Griswold and Poe as editors of Graham's rolled in immediately and, much to Griswold's dismay, he was not the favored of the two. Animosity continued to build (almost exclusively on Griswold's side; even his friends found him untrustworthy, easily angered, and at least one fellow editor, John Sartain, said that he was blackmailed by Griswold on a regular basis to prevent bad notices of his own journal).

This feud culminated on October 9, 1849, when Griswold did the unthinkable. But, more on that another time.

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