Thursday, October 29, 2009

Autographs, cont'd

Continued from a very, very early post in Poe Calendar Blog history.

The October 29, 1841 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer reviewed Poe's recent chapter on "Autography" — an unusual work in which Poe analyzed the signatures of well-known literary figures and described the authors' personality based on them. The review called the chapter, "The most singular, and at the same time, the most interesting article" in Graham's Magazine that month. It also caused quite a stir, as some of the authors were not pleased by Poe's characterization.

Though Poe's attempts at "autography" date back to 1836, the review likely referred to a revival of the idea in the November 1841 issue of Graham's. If you're curious how they'd cause a stir, keep in mind that Poe is not a trained handwriting analyst. In fact, he's really just looking for an excuse to give his personal opinion on these people (and their writing, but not their handwriting). Here are a few entries from that issue:

The MS. of Mr. IRVING has little about it indicative of his genius. Certainly, no one could suspect from it any nice finish in the writer's compositions; nor is this nice finish to be found. The letters now before us vary remarkably in appearance; and those of late date are not nearly so well written as the more antique. Mr. Irving has travelled much, has seen many vicissitudes, and has been so thoroughly satiated with fame as to grow slovenly in the performance of his literary tasks. This slovenliness has affected his hand-writing. But even from his earlier MSS. there is little to be gleaned, except the ideas of simplicity and precision. It must be admitted, however, that this fact, in itself, is characteristic of the literary manner, which, however excellent, has no prominent or very remarkable features.

Mr. BRYANT'S MS. puts us entirely at fault. It is one of the most common-place clerk's hands which we ever encountered, and has no character about it beyond that of the day-book and ledger. He writes, in short, what mercantile men and professional penmen call a fair hand, but what artists would term an abominable one. Among its regular up and down strokes, waving lines and hair-lines, systematic taperings and flourishes, we look in vain for the force, polish, and decision of the poet. The picturesque, to be sure, is equally deficient in his chirography and in his poetical productions.

Mr. HALLECK'S hand is strikingly indicative of his genius. We see in it some force, more grace, and little of the picturesque. There is a great deal of freedom about it, and his MSS. seem to be written currente calamo, but without hurry. His flourishes, which are not many, look as if thoughtfully planned, and deliberately, yet firmly executed. His paper is very good, and of a blueish tint — his seal of red wax.

Mr. WILLIS, when writing carefully, would write a hand nearly resembling that of Mr. Halleck ; although no similarity is perceptible in the signatures. His usual chirography is dashing, free, and not ungraceful, but is sadly deficient in force and picturesqueness.

It has been the fate of this gentleman to be alternately condemned ad infinitum, and lauded ad nauseam — a fact which speaks much in his praise. We know of no American writer who has evinced greater versatility of talent ; that is to say, of high talent, often amounting to genius ; and we know of none who has more narrowly missed placing himself at the head of our letters.

The paper of Mr. Willis's epistles is always fine and glossy. At present, he employs a somewhat large seal, with a dove, or carrier-pigeon, at the top, the word "Glenmary" at bottom, and the initials "N. P. W." in the middle.

H. W. LONGFELLOW, (Professor of Moral Philosophy* at Harvard,) is entitled to the first place among the poets of America — certainly to the first place among those who have put themselves prominently forth as poets. His good qualities are all of the highest order, while his sins are chiefly those of affectation and imitation — an imitation sometimes verging upon downright theft.

His MS. is remarkably good, and is fairly exemplified in the signature. We see here plain indications of the force, vigor, and glowing richness of his literary style; the deliberate and steady finish of his compositions. The man who writes thus may not accomplish much, but what he does, will always be thoroughly done. The main beauty, or at least one great beauty of his poetry, is that of proportion ; another, is a freedom from extraneous embellishment. He oftener runs into affectation through his endeavors at simplicity than through any other cause. Now this rigid simplicity, and proportion are easily perceptible in the MS., which, altogether, is a very excellent one.

Mrs. HALE is well known for her masculine style of thought. This is clearly expressed in her chirography, which is far larger, heavier, and altogether bolder than that of her sex generally. It resembles in a great degree that of Professor Lieber, and is not easily deciphered.

Mr. COOPER'S MS. is very bad — unformed, with little of distinctive character about it, and varying greatly in different epistles. In most of those before us a steel pen has been employed, the lines are crooked, and the whole chirography has a constrained and school-boyish air. The paper is fine, and of a bluish tint. A wafer is always used. Without appearing ill-natured, we could scarcely draw any inferences from such a MS. Mr. Cooper has seen many vicissitudes, and it is probable that he has not always written thus. Whatever are his faults, his genius cannot be doubted.

Mrs. E. F. ELLET has published one or two books, exclusively of a volume of poems, but is chiefly known to the literary world by her numerous contributions to the Magazines. As a translator from the Italian, she has acquired an enviable reputation. Her hand, of which the signature above scarcely conveys a full idea, is clear, neat, forcible and legible; just such a hand as one would desire for copying MSS. of importance. We have observed that the writers of such epistles as those before us, are often known as translators, but seldom evince high originality or very eminent talent of any kind.
Poe was ultimately just taking part of the kind of literary gossip that was making the periodical industry thrive, be it in Philadelphia or New York, though the latter city really perfectly celebrity author gossip. For the rest of his "Chapters on Autography," visit the Poe Society of Baltimore.

*Actually, he was the Smith Professor of Modern Languages.


Anonymous said...

Oh my, is this the definitive work of "damning with faint praise"? Longfellow "is entitled to the first place among the poets of America — certainly to the first place among those who have put themselves prominently forth as poets." And poor old Cooper "is very bad — unformed, with little of distinctive character about it." Twain wrote a very funny critique about Cooper's work--I wonder if he had read what Poe had to say? Kit

Rob Velella said...

Isn't it great? In a previous post on this series, I referred to Poe's "left-handed compliments." How we can tell how good a poet Longfellow is by his autograph, I'll never know.

I'm not sure what Twain's response was to Poe. I don't have any reason to believe he was a fan - at least, I haven't seen evidence of it. If anyone wants to enlighten us, feel free.