Sunday, December 6, 2009

Poe vs. The Crazyites

Poe was already a household name when The Raven and Other Poems was published in 1845, mostly due to the title poem in that collection. On December 6, 1845, one very different periodical reviewed the book.

The Harbinger was the official publication of the experimental community at Brook Farm at West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Formed in 1841 by George Ripley and his wife Sophia, the working farm meant to put in practice the ideals of Transcendentalism. Every community member did their fair share of the work, but buy-in required a part-ownership of their joint-stock company. One of the founders, Nathaniel Hawthorne, left early on and asked for his money back. The Farm was dissolved about five years after its founding.

With their high ideals for perfect living, the Brook Farmers anticipated plenty of time to explore the Arts, culture, and other intellectual pursuits. The Harbinger was the outlet to show off their success. Critic John Sullivan Dwight reviewed The Raven and Other Poems in the December 6, 1845 issue. "Mr. Poe has earned some fame by various tales and poems, which of late has become notoriety through a certain blackguard warfare which he has been waging against the poets and newspaper critics of New England, and which it would be most charitable to impute to insanity." Ouch.

More to the point, he wrote: "We must confess that they [e.g. the poems] have a great deal of power, a great deal of beauty... originality, and dramatic effect. But they have more of effect, than of expression... There is a wild unearthliness, and unheavenliness, in the tone of all his pictures, a strange unreality in all his thoughts; they seem to stand shivering, begging admission to our hearts in vain, because they look not as if they came from the heart."

A few days later, December 13, Poe gave his opinions of The Harbinger in the magazine he owned, the Broadway Journal. He notes that he "sincerely respect[s]" the publication as "the most reputable organ of the Crazyites" (i.e. the Transcendentalists?). He dismisses them by noting the group is "conducted by an assemblage of well-read persons who mean no harm — and who, perhaps, can do less." Harmless as they are, Poe then dissects Dwight's review and ridicules his poor grammar. He concludes, "it shocks us to hear a set of respectable Crazyites talking in so disingenuous a manner." In the future, he hopes, they "will never have any opinion of us at all."

*Images: Brook Farm by Josiah Wolcott; its idealism is emphasized by the rainbow. From the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The other image is the front page of a November 1846 issue of The Harbinger; it continued publishing from New York for about a year after Brook Farm dissolved.

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