Text: Edward J. Piacentino, “Two Critical Notices on Poe in Southern Punch,” Poe Studies, December 1985, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 18:21-22


[page 21, continued:]

Two Critical Notices on Poe in
Southern Punch

High Point College

In the fall of 1863, during the height of the Civil War, fourteen years after the death of Edgar Allan Poe, John W. Overall, the editor of and principal contributor to Southern Punch, wrote two brief laudatory appraisals of the author and his work in “An Hour Among the Southern Poets, ” Southern Punch, 1 (31 October 1863), 2; and in ‘‘Literary Shams,” Southern Punch, 2 (5 December 1863), 2. Overall’s journal, a weekly humorous magazine published from 15 August 1863 to early 1865 in Richmond, was self-consciously Confederate in its stance and selection of subject matter; it included, for example, appreciative assessments of such contemporary Southern writers as William Gilmore Simms, John Esten Cooke, Charles Gayarre, Alexander P. Meek, Paul Hamilton Hayne, Henry Timrod, Philip Pendleton Cooke, and Augusta Jane Evans. In his comments on Poe, Overall attempts to counter the slanderous appraisal of the writer charted by Poe’s literary executor, the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold; instead, he presents Poe as a Southern writer worthy to be included among the most notable geniuses of the literary world.

Overall evidently believed that by reading Poe Southerners could cultivate and thereby elevate their aesthetic sensibilities “to a high literary point,” learning in the process “that money-getting is not the mission of man upon earth” (“An Hour Among Southern Poets”). The primary purpose of Southern Punch was “to champion literature in a commercial society . . . [column 2:] to free the imagination from the strictures of the middle class puritan conscience” [William R. Linneman, ‘’Southern Punch: A Draught of Confederate Wit,” Southern Folklore Quarterly, 26 (June 1962), 135]. Championing Poe, attempting to transform his much-maligned literary reputation, was obviously part of Overall’s effort to further this high-minded objective. While Overall does not advance any particularly novel or perceptive insights about Poe the man or the literary artist, his appraisals suggest that in 1863 Poe was being unequivocably recognized as a bona fide Southern author, indeed one of the South’s most exalted literary lights.

To my knowledge, Overall’s two eulogistic assessments of Poe have never been reprinted, nor have they been previously cited in Poe bibliographies. The texts of these notices are quoted verbatim except for the deletion of two stanzas that Overall cites from “The Bells”; they have been transcribed from a microfilm copy of volumes one and two of Southern Punch generously provided by the Western Reserve Historical Society of Cleveland, Ohio.

An Hour Among the Southern Poets

Here is Edgar A. Poe, the brilliant literary genius that America has produced He lived only thirty-eight years [sic], and yet lived immeasurably longer than yon dull, money-loving octogenarian. This man dwelt, the greater part of his life, in the grand temple of Godlike thought, peopled with weird Titanic shapes and radiant creations of angelic beauty. He dreamed there of Lenore in her Aiden of happiness; he heard the melancholy Raven answer him from the bust of Pallas above his door; he lingered “down by the dim lake of Auber;” by the tomb of Ullalume [sic] — and, looking out from the window of the great Thought-temple, he caught the sound of bells, whose melody kept time to the beat of the poetic heart

With our finger upon this remarkable poem, “The Bells,” we unhesitatingly declare, that nothing in the whole range of literature equals its equisite [sic] word-music. It almost sings itself, so perfect is its rhythmical harmony. Listen to the sound of sleigh bells: [Overall quotes lines 1-14 of “The Bells,” following with minor punctuation changes the version that appeared in Sartain’s Union Magazine in November 1849 and Griswold’s 1850 collection of Poe’s Works. See Mabbott, ed., Works, I, 433, 435-439.]

When quickly and properly read, the imitation of sleigh bells is perfect. So wonderfully artistic is it that the reader, brought en rapport with the poet, hears the first low starting sound of the bells grow more and more distinct, when the sledge, flying over the snow, causes the little instruments to gallop through their tinkling gamut.

Here is a portion of his description of fire bells: [Overall quotes lines 36-56; however, the line, “And a resolute endeavor,” has been omitted, an error that can probably be attributed to the typesetter. The source is again probably Griswold.]

Is it any wonder that this adroit analyzer of sound could write the intricate police story of “The Murderers of [sic] the Rue Morgue,” which challenged the admiration of the Savans of Paris; and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,‘’ which deceived some of the first mind’ in Europe into the belief that it was a report of actual mesmeric phenomenon.

Poe laughed at the English prosodists. He scorned the time-honored yard-stick wherewith verse was measured as clerks measure satin for fine ladies. His “Rationale for [sic] Verse” gives the death blow to many an old-fashioned error, and revolutionized the public mind as to the structure of verse. “The poetic principle,” is, he says, “strictly and simply the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty,” The poetry of words he defines, “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty — its sole arbiter, Taste.‘’ [page 22:]

We put aside these bound remains of Poe, a man whose conversation was pronounced to be ‘’supra-mortal,” and whose literary labors to-day, translated, lie side by side with those of Goethe, Schiller, Kant, and the rest, in the libraries of the scholarly men on the banks of the White Elster.

The hyenas of literature have invaded the grave, and attempted to drag forth to popular detestation the illustrious dead. We have no sympathy for bad men. The grave does not sanctify errors and crimes. If it did, Nero, Caligula, and Judas Iscariot deserve canonization.

From the evidence before us, his enemies being judges, Poe may take rank among those men of genius who have been misunderstood. This has been the fate of the gifted since the days of Homer.

Literary Shams

There once dwelt in this country, a remarkable genius whom men called Edgar A. Poe. He lashed the shams in the world of letters, right and left [on Poe’s assaults on the literati, see Vincent Buranelli, Edgar Allan Poe (New Haven: College and University Press, 1961), pp. 115-22, 125; Sidney P. Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1963); and Edd Winfeld Parks, Edgar Allan Poe as Literary Critic (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1964), pp. 52, 61-62, 72-82].

Great, gifted, daring, and knowing well that idiosyncracy of the imposters which lead [sic] them to rush in, like fools, where angels fear to tread, he tied a whip-lash to his pen, and excoriated the shams until they shrieked with pain, and fled from the grand Temple of Genius.

For this good service to literature, he inherited the hatred of big bogus and little bogus in the world of letters. He kept on, however, in work of excoriation and expulsion, and the genius sham was intensely glad when death arrested his progress in Baltimore.

We require more lightning to clear the atmosphere; a few more Poes to use the whip-lash, for the race of shams increase rapidly.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]