Text: Burton R. Pollin, “Poe and His Contemporaries: A New Reference Work,” Poe Studies, June 1981, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 14:18-19


[page 18:]

Poe and His Contemporaries:
A New Reference Work

Joel Myerson, ed. Antebellum Writers in New York and the South. Volume III of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. x + 383 pp. $48.00.

All students of Edgar Allan Poe will find this volume of Dictionary of Literary Biography unusually interesting not only for its excellent sketch of Poe’s life and works but also for the rest of the sixty-seven accounts of authors in New York and the South, most of whose names are linked to Poe’s through his criticism, through friendship or correspondence, or through the journalistic or literary influence that he had upon them. In his reviews and his “Literati” or “Autography” papers Poe even provided some of the indispensable observations on several of these personalities. Perhaps the inspiration for the full set of five volumes came to Joel Myerson, the series editor, in part from the Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1855) issued by the Duyckinck brothers who are treated in this volume. It is the third in the series, the first being The American Renaissance in New England ( 1976 ), also edited by Myerson, and the second, Novelists since World War II. Apparently only the Philadelphia literary circle of the early nineteenth century will fail to receive up-to-date treatment in the DLB, for which highly competent and even renowned scholars have been writing.

The folio-size pages, with neat, large, readable print in two columns, offer a fine selection of illustrations interspersed throughout the text, showing portraits of the subjects and their close associates, buildings of importance in their lives (for example, Poe’s various homes), samples of autography usually in interesting manuscripts, and prominent illustrations of their works; a list of their major writings (for the fifteen “major figures”); a good bibliography of the best commentaries and critiques, as well as biographies; and a succinct statement of the nature and location of surviving papers of the subject. It is interesting that of the fifteen figures only George Washington Harris fails to have interconnections with Poe specified in the text. Many of the writers seem almost to have used Poe’s comments as a touchstone to assay the merit or significance of their subjects — a motif absent from the Dictionary of American Biography, with which it invites comparison.

Indeed, because the separate sketches are almost entirely paralleled by those in the DAB, one is prompted to question the need of this new, expensive reference tool. The answer is largely in its favor. First of all, the DAB began coming out in 1930, and the ensuing half-century has produced a great deal of illuminating information and insight into the lives and works of the authors included. Van Wyck Brooks’ early four-page sketch of Melville does not compare with the twenty-four pages by Hennig Cohen. [column 2:] nor does Stanley T. Williams’ five pages on Irving with Andrew B. Myers’ twenty-two. The DAB has two pages on Evert Duyckinck compared with Donald Yannella’s informative and lively eight. J. V. Ridgely has a splendid long article on Poe’s friend J. P. Kennedy. The subjects of shorter sketches also are handled with far more verve and knowledge, such as “C. F. Briggs” by Bette S. Weidman (who also writes on L. G. Clark) or “Anne C. Botta,” Poe’s admiring hostess, by Madeleine B. Stern (who also sketches Caroline H. Gilman, Anna Mowatt, and Susan B. Warner). Mr. Myerson himself writes two of the best articles — on Walt Whitman and Rufus W. Griswold, and especially noteworthy is the forty-nine-page article on Poe by G. R. Thompson, by contrast with the almost purely biographical sketch of nineteen pages by Hervey Allen in the DAB.

One general item of comparison, however, needs to be underscored, perhaps to the disadvantage of the DLB: there was no injunction against textual documentation in the older work, so that the student might trace the source of srimulating or dubious ideas or facts through a parenthetical reference. Apparently for the present sketches the writers have been enjoined not to locate their sources even though the appended bibliographies would make a quick reference system feasible. Hence the DAB gives the effect, often specious, of being the more authoritative series. Another demerit is the total absence of foreign accent marks, obscuring names, titles, and words through lack of umlauts, circumflexes, graves, and aigus. Hence Cooper’s novel must be spelled Wyandotte and the name of H. S. Legare, one of the subjects, varies markedly from his autograph under a portrait, while Poe’s careful although misplaced insertion of an umlaut in “maelstrom” is frustrated. Even English words derived from French, such as “charge d‘affaires” and “naivete” must be “misspelled.” These apparent errors are augmented by numerous misprints and blunders that surprisingly have been allowed to persist in the final text of this handsomely and sturdily bound volume: Praries (p. 37), Froissard (p. 73), benefitted (p. 82), Brittanica (p. 106), Felecia (p. 134), Volksmanchen (p. 174), nonpariel (p. 183), commerical (p. 185), misjuding (p. 239), Balitmore (p. 260), “convulsions” for “convulsives” (p. 264), irresistably (p. 263), Petrea (p. 269), philsophical (p. 271), Catterina (p. 270), embarassed (p. 274), and parodox (p. 294). It is to be hoped that in a second printing of so useful a book, these typographical errors will be eliminated.

Beyond the many pieces of peripheral and associative information useful to students of Poe, for them the central issue in evaluating the merit of this volume will be the quality of the forty-nine-page article on Poe, about oneeighth the total book and equivalent to a sizable monograph in itself. There is no need to question the expertise of G. R. Thompson, who here provides a rich and skillful assemblage of facts about Poe’s life and critical evaluations or “readings” of various of his works and his aesthetic opinions. As we might expect from the critic’s 1973 study Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales, there is a persistent stress on the irony of the circumstances of Poe’s life, as well as on the irony in his aims and attitudes; in this case, however, Thompson has detached such an emphasis [page 19:] from any particular source in European literary theory per se. This reader questioned the implication of the earlier study that Poe devoted himself to a vast propaganda effort for philosophizing fiction — the very didactic heresy that he inveighed against. Yet a sense of irony or whim or levity often emanates from Poe’s actions and from his seemingly serious endeavors, and Thompson’s emphasis here seems entirely justified and illuminating. The literary satires and burlesques of the first half of Poe’s writing career leave no doubt about his intentions. Some readers might still wonder whether there is only one valid inference about the later alternations in his productiveness, from the solemn to the humorous, and whether Poe’s “self-division” led him to an underlying and almost all-pervasive stress on the double in characters and in situations, but these views are well presented within the constrictions of “multum in parvo.” Mr. Thompson has certainly taken on a very large order — to present all the significant occurrences in Poe’s life, to give a sense of his development in a series of groupings of relatives and friends from infancy to tragic death, to trace his changing literary habits in poetry and in fiction, to show the development of his aesthetic theories, sometimes contradictory for the two major literary types, and to explicate Poe’s theories of art and of philosophy in conjunction with the shifts in his writing approaches and his experiences. Thompson has his own preferences in read‘ngs, but he aims to present the major interpretations of all the major poems and fictions with considerable objectivity. For some tastes he may veer too partially toward an “apocalyptic” motive for a few tales, toward “alchemical symbolism” in “The Gold-Bug,” and toward the inferential “confessional” in “Cask.” Others might question whether ehe early Folio Club tales could have satirized Transcendentalism before it had a publishing organ and currency outside of New England. But certainly Thompson conveys the rich variety of readings that differently oriented readers derive from the corpus of Poe’s works.

The article is not without minor flaws. We now know that Pym was never accepted as fact in England and was widely and well reviewed in both English-speaking lands. The loss of a line of type seems to be responsible for making “‘A Valentine” equal a “retitled Eldorado,” in the “April Flag.” Indeed it is to be hoped that in future printings, the weekly issue dates of the Flag of Our Union will be indicated to avoid a “bunching together” of separate publishings of Poe’s very late works. But none of these petty matters should obscure our recognition of a masterly job of merging critical interpretation, chronological narration, and a keenly felt sense of the interaction of Poe as writer and doer with a constantly changing environment. The pictures are carefully chosen, with a large number of facsimiles of Poe’s beautiful and varied autographs appositely used. At the end, there is a rich, up to date bibliography of editions, critical and biographical works, and other reference aids, sensibly sifted and functionally presented for students of Poe.

Burton R. Pollin, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, Emeritus


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1981]