Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Poe's Hoaxes - this most despicable and cowardly practice

Let's see, how else did Poe spend his time, besides writing his own poems and tomahawking those of others? Coming up with hoaxes, of course.

I suppose "The Ballon-Hoax" is his most famous. Poe moved to New York City in 1844, and in lieu of a calling card he published, in the New York Sun, an account of the first successful transatlantic crossing, from England to America, no less, in a balloon. It was fitted with a propellor, see. In the newspaper, the story was not titled "The Balloon-Hoax" - might have given the game away, I wouldn't doubt. Readers become hysterical; there's a run on the paper; unveiled, Poe becomes (more) famous.*

He spent the next couple of years spreading chaos throughout American literature. The strangest episode (I don't understand it well, at least) was the "Longfellow War," when Poe accused Henry Longfellow of plagiarism while reviewing one of his books, and then stretched the controversy out for a couple of months. One way he kept it going was to write indignant protests, under assumed names, against his own review, which Poe could then demolish over the course of many issues of his own magazine.

Maybe scholarship has advanced on this subject, and we know that the reply was genuine. But see Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale (1956), p. 130 - Prof. Miller agrees with me. Poe's action is pure controversialism. Longfellow was, or was becoming, the most famous poet in America, too inviting a target to resist, regardless of whether, in other reviews, Poe dealt with Longfellow quite judiciously.

How amusing to read, soon before Poe's death in 1849:

"We need reform at this point of our Literary Morality: - very sorely, too, at another - the system of anonymous reviewing. Not one respectable word can be said in defence of this most unfair - this most despicable and cowardly practice." (LOA, 1448)

I wish the Library of America Essays and Reviews specified whether or not each article was anonymous. More than once, Poe's name suddenly appears within the piece, as when he reviewed his own stories ("he has perfectly succeeded in his perfect aim," etc). Poe would have been a master of the internet - the fake websites, the sock puppets, the faux hit-generating controversies. I can't say that I admire this side of Poe, exactly, but he certainly keeps my attention. And in fairness, Poe was also a debunker - see his 1836 article "Maelzel's Chess-Player," in which he reasons out the functioning of a supposed chess-playing robot. This was how Poe's imagination worked - always building and dismantling tricky machinery.

* An earlier hoax is "The Unparalled Adventure of One Hans Pfall" (1835), about a balloon trip to the moon(!). Unfortunately, Poe abandoned it without finishing it, because he was beaten to the punch by another author's moon hoax, involving man-bats seen through a telescope. See the "Richard Adams Locke" entry in "The Literati of New York City" (LOA, 1214-22) for the ridiculous details.

Update: See here for PoeCalendar Rob's illuminating summary of the Longfellow War.


  1. I love the hoax side of Poe - Daniel Hoffman referred to it as "HoaxiePoe".

    As far as the Longfellow War, I've dedicated the past several months to looking into it and trying to determine where it was coming from. I'll be lecturing on the Longfellow War, most notably at the Poe Bicentennial Conference in October. I'll post a tiny bit on my findings in my blog tomorrow, but it's very complicated!

  2. You remind me of a little problem I have here - I have not read Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe (etc, etc). I suspect that what I have been doing here is a watery, ill-informed version of Hoffman's task.

    But, pace Poe, at least I'm not plagiarizing, since I ain't read the book.

    I just requested it from the library, though. I clearly would enjoy it - thanks for reminding me.