Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Poe's Greatest Hatchet Hits - a fetid battener upon the garbage of thought

Commenter "comments i done left" asked a reasonable question about Poe's book reviews yesterday - is it all this good? Meaning, funny and vicious.

No. The Library of America edition of Essays and Reviews runs to almost 1,500 pages. I've read maybe 40% of it. I see (so far) three good reasons to read around in it.

First, as with any selection of magazine writing, the book gives a picture of the intellectual landscape that is unavailable in more standard literary histories. We get reviews of the Keats-derived Orion by R. H. Horne, the historical novels and essays of Edward Lytton Bulwer*, The Coming of the Mammoth by Henry B. Hirst, and The Swiss Heiress by Susan Rigby Morgan, as well as reviews of Longfellow, Cooper, Dickens, and, oddly, Poe. Neither I, nor you, nor anyone else wants to read that first list of books. But they were there, and Poe, savage or appreciative, is a good guide.

Second, Poe uses the reviews to address more serious issues of taste, form, and criticism. The purpose of poetry, the purpose of book reviewing, grammar and prosody, the art of the novel, the creation of a national literature. It would be an exaggeration to say that Poe was the only person in America taking these things seriously (see Emerson and Fuller over at The Dial**, for example) but not an enormous exaggeration.

And finally, gloriously, there's the hatchet. From a note on Michel Masson's Le Coeur d'une Jeune Fille:

"A corrupt and impious heart—a merely prurient fancy—a Saturnian brain in which invention has only the phosphorescent glimmer of rottenness. Worthless, body and soul. A foul reproach to the nation that engendered and endures him. A fetid battener upon the garbage of thought. No man. A beast. A pig. Less scrupulous than a carrion-crow, and not very much less filthy than a Wilmer." (p. 1337)

And Wilmer, a satirical poet, is actually a friend of Poe's!

Since I mentioned Bulwer, here is Poe the grammar cop, on Bulwer's Night and Morning:

"Our readers will of course examine the English of 'Night and Morning' for themselves. From the evidence of one or two sentences we cannot expect them to form a judgment in the premises. Dreading indeed the suspicion of unfairness, we had pencilled item after item for comment—but we have abandoned the task in despair. It would be an endless labor to proceed with examples. In fact it is folly to particularize where the blunders would be the rule, and the grammar the exception." (p. 157)

Poe on the comic novels of Henry Cockton:

"Yet, during perusal, there has been a tingling physico-mental exhilaration, somewhat like that induced by a cold bath, or a flesh-brush, or a gallop on horseback—a very delightful and very healthful matter in its way. But these things are not letters. 'Valentine Vox' and 'Charles O'Malley' are no more 'literature' than cat-gut is music. The visible and tangible tricks of a baboon belong not less to the belles-lettres than does 'Harry Lorrequer.' When this gentleman adorns his countenance with lamp-black, knocks over an apple-woman, or brings about a rent in his pantaloons, we laugh at him when bound up in a volume, just as we would laugh at his adventures if happening before our eyes in the street." (p. 177)

There's no shortage of books today to which very similar words could be applied. Yes, there's more of this. Much, much more.

* No idea why the Library of America, or Poe, or whoever, calls him Lytton Bulwer rather than Bulwer-Lytton.

** Poe, unlike the Dial writers, is interested in actual books, ugly or otherwise. The Dial is where the theorists lived. I know who I'd rather read.


  1. I've really been enjoying your posts on Poe's reviews.

    As for Bulwer-Lytton: he was born Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer and in 1844 became Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton. (Say it fast three times.)

    See the the Wikipedia entry.

  2. HA! Thanks for the thorough response. Despite its heftiness, this is something I feel like I should pick up and poke through - not a light, summer read, but something to have by the bed for those sleepless nights.
    So, erm, Poe reviews Poe? That's ballsy. What does he think of himself?
    I, also, have been enjoying these posts.

  3. Poe could be so delightfully snarky. I wish sometimes that we still had reviewers like him today. It'd be so much better than everyone sounding the same and only reviewing the books they like so they only have nice things to say.

  4. Thanks for the information on poor, maligned Bulwer-Lytton.

    As for Poe on Poe, good idea.

    As for snark, its not so much the positive or negative tone, is it, but the distinctiveness of the voice, and the acuteness of the judgments. But I think that's always been rare.