Thursday, April 10, 2008

Poe's reviews - the faintest incentive to thought

I don't want to give the wrong idea about Poe the book reviewer. He viewed his brutal negative reviews as a necessary enterprise, as important as identifying what was good. He also did plenty of the latter.

Poe was an early enthusiast for Hawthorne - if Poe had been intellectually weaker, he might have seen Hawthorne as a competitor. The best poets of the day - Longfellow, Tennyson, Lowell, Bryant - received detailed, serious criticism from Poe.

Dickens was treated as a sort of magical force of nature, almost beyond criticism. At least one novel, Robert Bird's Sheppard Lee, has recently been returned to print by The New York Review of Books in part on the strength of Poe's recommendation. Sheppard Lee does sound pretty good.

A lot of this should be interesting to current-day readers interested in book reviewing and criticism. But it's not as much fun, I'll admit, as this:

"If ever, indeed, a novel were less than nothing, then that novel is 'Guy Fawkes.' To say a word about it in the way of serious criticism, would be to prove ourselves as great a blockhead as its author. Macte virtute, my dear sir—proceed and flourish. In the meantime we bid you a final farewell. Your next volume, which will have some such appellation as 'The Ghost of Cock-Lane,' we shall take the liberty of throwing unopened out of the window. Our pigs are not all of the description called learned, but they will have more leisure for its examination than we." (on Ainsworth's Guy Fawkes; or the Gunpowder Treason, p. 105)


"But the book is full to the brim of such absurdities, and it is useless to pursue the matter any farther. There is not a single page of Norman Leslie in which even a schoolboy would fail to detect at least two or three gross errors in Grammar, and some two or three most egregious sins against common-sense." (on Theodore Fay's Norman Leslie, p. 547)


"We look throughout his writings in vain for the slightest indication of originality—for the faintest incentive to thought. His plots, his language, his opinions are neither adapted nor intended for scrutiny." (p. 325) and "There are twenty young men of our acquaintance who make no pretension to literary ability, yet who could produce a better book in a week." (on Captain Marryat's Joseph Rushbrook, or the Poacher, p. 328)


  1. Reminds me of Schopenhauer on literature - he certainly didn't mince his words either. And I can't help admiring the passion behind the crotchety opinions, I assume Poe was as hard on himself - not in his funny reviews, I mean, but in the act of writing.

  2. Poe thought he was being as hard on himself - he thought he was doing things the way they ought to be done, particularly in his poetry.