Thursday, February 26, 2009

Eliza, my dear - The Raven!

I mentioned Perry Miller's 1956 The Raven and the Whale (1956) yesterday. It's a marvelous account of the literary luminaries of New York City in the 1830s and 1840s. You might guess from the title that Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville are central figures in the book, but that's actually a trick.

This is really the story of sad sack Evert Augustus Duyckink, and smug blowhard Lewis Gaylord Clark, and nationalist monomaniac Cornelius Mathews, and lovelorn hack William Alfred Jones, all New York editors and authors. In other words, literary history's losers. They were big shots at the time, more or less, but their work is dead now. Readers of The Raven and the Whale will not add many books to their reading lists. These writers crossed paths, briefly, with Poe and Melville, and did have a real effect on the writing of those two geniuses, and perhaps on an obscure young Brooklynite named Walter Whitman, so that's part of the interest of the book.

But most of the fun of Miller's book, which is witty and well written, is that it is almost like an existentialist novel. These hapless third-raters strive and fail and strive some more. They do the best they can. Is it their problem that we don't care? Melville and Poe did the same thing, but now we care a lot about them.

I'll direct the interested reader to Prof. Myer's actual review of the book - that's where I read about it. As good as the book is, it's of specialized interest, so I can't exactly recommend it to anyone who is not already curious about the literature of the period. I'll excerpt a good bit about Poe's, let's say, complicated reception in New York, and then mention one more thing tomorrow:
"About this time the Doctor was giving a dinner when the doorbell rang; his guests, assuming him summoned by a patient, went one eating and drinking. Soon the Doctor returned with 'a pale, thin, and most grave-looking man, whose dark dress and solemn air' brought the hilarity to an abrupt stop; leading the apparition to his wife, Francis waved his hand helplessly and said, 'Eliza, my dear - The Raven!'" (134)


  1. Thanks for the link to Myers's blog post - it was great!

    I found "The Raven and the Whale" fascinating, not to mention essential in my understanding Poe. My specialties are on Poe's battles with Longfellow and Griswold which, out of context, make no sense at all. Now, however, seeing the literary world of New York as a battleground allows it to make sense. And I love Duyckinck and Mathews!

    "What's this? Mssrs. Mathews and Poe!
    You mustn't fling mud-balls at Longfellow so!"
    (From "A Fable for Critics" by James Russell Lowell)

  2. It really is a great book, good enough that I can imagine a reader who isn't that interested in the subject becoming interested in Poe, etc. I can also imagine a reader saying "Who are these people?" and giving up.

    Have you read any of Mathews' books? Big Abel and Little Manhattan is, says Miller, "incidentally a canvass of New York eating places." That, I would enjoy.