Text: Milton C. Petersen, “Poe as ‘Magazinist’,” Poe Newsletter­, April 1969, Vol. II, No. 2, 2:39-40


[page 39, column 1:]

Poe as “Magazinist”

Michael Allen. Poe and the British Magazine Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. 

Poe was fond of referring to himself as a “magazinist,” and in his review-essay “Peter Snook” he called attention to the superiority of the “Magazine spirit” in France and England as compared with that in America (Works, ed. Harrison, XIV, 73). Michael Allen’s study of Poe and the British magazines is a book of responsible scholarship and criticism drawn from information about Poe and his models, which, though generally available, has usually been attended to with insufficient objectivity. Allen presents a more balanced view of Poe and of the mixed intentions that helped give his essays and short stories their shape and texture than we have been accustomed to. He recognizes the elements of truth in two opposing images of Poe: 1) the Israfel of Hervey Allen’s biography, a Baudelairian image which helped in “establishing the ‘greatness ’ of Poe . . . . as an isolated and brilliant victim of his artistic temperament, neo-European and aristocratic, essentially opposed to his bourgeois American Milieu of ‘money-making ’ journalism and democratic mediocrity” (p. 11); and 2) an image built up by American literary historians during the 1920s and 30s of Poe as a hard-working professional American journalist who could be identified (by [column 2:] H. S. Canby) “fairly and squarely with the milieu” of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Graham’s Magazine (p. 13).

While freely acknowledging an immense debt to the research of those who have emphasized Poe’s professional journalism, Allen would replace the two opposing images of Poe by the suggestion that we have here “a cultural situation irreducible to order or simplicity, a European tradition of journalism exaggerated and dislocated in Poe’s writing by the American reality, yet not assimilable to any established American cultural patterns” (p. 15).

Allen was led to this study of the British magazine tradition and its influence on Poe by his wish to consider the effects of Poe’s audience upon his writing. But audience studies, unless of our own or very recent times, run a risk of becoming highly speculative. In this first chapter Allen discusses the weaknesses of audience studies — and he does so with a delightful touch, which cannot be maintained later in the book when the materials he must deal with are more recalcitrant. He suggests that the relative lack of audience studies is largely due to the academic distrust of what Lennox Gray refers to as the “historical inferential method.” This method, Allen explains, is one in which the writer “speculates on the nature of the literary audience of a past age at least partly from the literature it is supposed to read” and “then reads back into the literature the kind of audience it was written for” (p. 4). Allen’s interest in audience takes a direction which not only avoids most of the weaknesses of audience assumptions but substitutes what is, at least for his purpose, even more significant. “I have tried to be sparing in the statements I have made about the actual audience, keeping them as broad and general as possible while I focus upon the particular writer and his idea of the audience” (p. 5).

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to distinguish between the influence of a writer’s idea of his audience and the effects of the actual audience. For example, some of the effects on Poe of the reading audience available in his time and place were his poverty and the conflicting states of mind it produced, but an important influence on his writing was his belief that in the American South, as in England, existed a sizable intellectual, as well as social, aristocracy. It was this belief, Allen convincingly demonstrates, which contributed to the fact that Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine — the initiator in the nineteenth century of an age of excellent British literary magazines and one of the most successful, if one is to judge by its British imitators — was for Poe an important source for the conventions that gave to good magazine literature its own generic character. For economic survival, such a magazine had to appeal, while still maintaining its quality, to the “many” as well as to the “few.” And Poe was not slow to see that Blackwood’s had learned to do so.

Especially interesting in Allen’s study is the revelation that the “Blackwood’s pattern” (by so designating this cluster of conventions, Allen does not intend to imply that its use is restricted to Blackwood’s, though certainly Blackwood’s appears to have developed the formula), accounts at least partially, as a deliberately acquired influence on Poe, for many of the characteristics of Poe’s writing customarily considered the products of his own idiosyncrasies. One of the most significant of the Blackwood’s conventions was the reliance on critical controversy to engage the reader’s attention, but even more it was the tone developed [page 40:] in Blackwood’s, a more personal and vituperative one than the tone of critical articles in The Edinburgh Review and The Quarterly Review. Perhaps the most outstanding example is the attack on “pimpled Hazlett” and other writers of the “Cockney School.” Even the mild-mannered Edward Lytton Bulwer gave in to the convention of engaging in “personalities” while he functioned as editor of The New Monthly Magazine.

Poe’s attacks, one finds, use much the same methods that were used in the British magazines: the authoritative “we” (in only three articles does he use it for editorial anonymity), the use of an insulting mistaken name, contemptuous references to physical appearance, and more in the manner of Bulwer than Blackwood’s, the assumption of an intellectual superiority; Poe also follows the practice of the British magazine controversialists by making use of regional antagonism. The point is, of course, that whatever Poe’s personal feeling may have been, however bitter he may actually have felt in some of his articles, he seems clearly to have been utilizing a convention that was well established in the British literary magazines where it was used as a device that appealed successfully to both the “many” and the “few.” It gave the reading audience something to feel superior about, and it opened the way to at least one kind of lively writing.

Allen discusses in edifying detail other conventions that, having proved successful in Blackwood’s and the other British literary magazines, were emulated by Poe: 1) the creation of a literary personality (”Christopher North,” for example, created by John Wilson of Blackwood’s) , in which the influence of Byron and Coleridge can be seen on the type of persona most popular in the British magazines (of course, recognition of the influence of both Byron and Coleridge on Poe’s persona is not new); 2) the “self-consciously learned pose,” which we find not only in Poe’s criticism and general articles but also in his fiction; 3) the exploitation of the hoax; 4) the burlesque and the horror tale as major fictional modes.

For years our concept of Poe as a person has been made to assimilate these conventions as if they sprang from an unwell psyche of the man himself — the sick genius (or poseur) who tried to force his recognition on the world with bitter attacks on the well-situated; who nourished his self-esteem with the perpetration of hoaxes; who, pondering over many a volume of forgotten lore, self-consciously displayed (or feigned) erudition and expertise in everything he wrote. If Allen’s study does not obliterate this simple portrait, it does complicate it. At the very least, certain biographical studies of Poe will need to be reassessed. More important, perhaps, Allen’s examination of the magazine context within which Poe worked makes a substantial contribution toward a reassessment of what Poe was up to in the essays and in the tales.

Although Allen has not concerned himself here with American magazines and their influence on Poe (an influence which can hardly be considered to be merely negative), he has given us, within the limits imposed, an objective and balanced study.

Milton C. Petersen, Washington State University


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]