Thursday, November 8, 2007

Edgar Allan Poe, first literary Hatchet Man

Poe would have liked to be a famous poet, but he made his living as a magazine writer, especially as a book reviewer. He became known as the Tomahawk Man because of his vicious reviews. Here’s a sample, from a review of The History of the Navy of the United States of America by James Fenimore Cooper:

“A flashy succession of ill-conceived and miserably executed literary productions, each more silly than its predecessor, and wherein the only thing noticeable was the peevishness of the writer, the only thing amusing his self-conceit – had taught the public to suspect even a radical taint in the intellect, an absolute and irreparable moral leprosy, rendering it a question whether he ever would or could again accomplish any thing which should be worthy the attention of people not positively rabid.”

This is from a positive review!

I wish I had more of these excerpts handy. Except when he is correcting the writer’s grammar, Poe is pretty good. He was intentionally creating the modern book review, focused on the actual book, not the political party of the author or some theoretical aesthetic stance.

There’s a good passage in Lost Illusions about the old system, in Paris, at least, where Lucien writes (anonymously) influential good and bad reviews of the same book, without having read it.


  1. Poe's review made me laugh. It's so mean but so wonderful. If only reviewers wrote like that these days!

  2. You've given me an idea - sometime I'll do a week of Poe's Greatest Hatchet Man Hits.