Text: Burton R. Pollin, “September 1836 (Headnote),” The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. V: SLM (1997), pp. 273-277 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 273:]

September 1836

[column 1:]

In the time between the appearances of the August and September issues, the question of Poe’s performance as editor again became a topic for public debate. Writing to William Scott in New York on August 25, White acknowledged that he had granted Poe wide authority in decisions about the SLM’s contents: “Courtesy to Mr. Poe whom I employ to edit my paper makes it a matter of etiquette with me to submit all articles intended for the Messenger to his judgment and I abide by his dicta.” But if he expressed no qualms about Poe’s editorial capacities, he seemed concerned about his reputation as a critic, for he added: “I have heard there was reply to an attack made on Mr. Poe in the [New York] Transcript of July 7th either in the Enquirer or American. . . . Will you do me the favor to call at the office of the American (Enquirer also) and look over their files. If such a piece appeared I should like to see it very much” (Poe Log, p. 221).

In Richmond, too, White could observe further evidence of the increasing notoriety of his employee. On August 26, the Richmond Compiler commented on Poe’s censure of James S. French’s Elkswatawa and followed with a longer critique on August 30. Reviewing the August number of the SLM, it judged that “The criticisms are pithy and often highly judicious, but the editors must remember that it is almost as injurious to obtain a character for regular cutting and slashing as for indiscriminate laudation” (Poe Log, p. 222). Poe at once jumped to the defense in a long letter which the Compiler both printed and answered [column 2:] on September 2. Since it is the major self-review of his stewardship, it is here quoted in full. (The letters in parentheses in the text were added by the Compiler as keys to its response.)

In a late paragraph respecting the “Southern Literary Messenger,” you did injustice to that Magazine — and perhaps your words, if unanswered, may even do it an injury. As any such wrong is far from your thoughts, you will of course, allow the Editor of the Messenger the privilege of reply. The reputation of a young Journal, occupying a conspicuous post in the eye of the public, should be watched, by those who preside over its interests, with a jealous attention, and those interests defended when necessary and when possible. But it is not often possible. Custom debars a Magazine from answering in its own pages (except in rare cases,) contemporary misrepresentations and attacks. Against these it has seldom, therefore, any means of defence — the best of reasons why it should avail itself of the few which, through courtesy, may fall to its lot. I mean this as an apology for troubling you to-day. (a)

Your notice of the Messenger would generally be regarded as complimentary — especially so to myself. I would, however, prefer justice to a compliment, and the good name of the Magazine to any personal consideration. The concluding sentence of your paragraph runs thus: “The criticisms are pithy, and often highly judicious, but the editors must remember that it is almost as injurious to obtain a character for regular cutting and slashing, as for indiscriminate laudation.” The italics are my own. I had supposed you aware of the fact that the Messenger has but one editor — it is not [page 274:] right that others should be saddled with demerits belonging only to myself. (b) But this is not the point to which I especially object. You assume that the Messenger has obtained a character for regular “cutting and slashing;” or if you do not mean to assume this, every one will suppose that you do — which, in effect, is the same. Were the assumption just, I would be silent, and set immediately about amending my editorial course. You are not sufficiently decided, I think in saying that a career of “regular cutting and slashing is almost as bad as one of indiscriminate laudation.” It is infinitely worse — it is horrible. The laudation may proceed from — philanthropy, if you please; but the “indiscriminate cutting and slashing” only from the vilest passions of our nature. But I wish briefly to examine two pointsfirst, is the charge of indiscriminate “cutting and slashing” just, granting it adduced against the Messenger? — and, second, is such charge adduced at all? Since the commencement of my editorship in December last, 94 books have been reviewed. In 79 of these cases, the commendation has so largely predominated over the few sentences of censure, that every reader would pronounce the notices highly laudatory. In 7 instances, viz: in those of The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow, The Old World and the New, Spain Revisited, the Poems of Mrs. Sigourney, of Miss Gould, of Mrs. Ellett [Ellet], and of Halleck, praise slightly prevails. In 5, viz: in those of Clinton Bradshaw, The Partisan, Elkswatawa, Lafitte, and the Poems of Drake, censure is greatly predominant; while the only reviews decidedly and harshly condemnatory are those of Norman Leslie, Paul Ulric, and the Ups and Downs. — The “Ups and Downs” alone is unexceptionably condemned. Of these facts you may satisfy yourself at any moment by reference. In such case the difficulty you will find, in classing these notices, as I have here done, according to the predominance of censure or commendation, will afford you sufficient evidence that they cannot be called “indiscriminate.”

But this charge of indiscriminate “cutting and slashing” has never been adduced [column 2:] — except in 4 instances, while the rigid justice and impartiality of our Journal has been lauded even ad nauseam in more than four times four hundred. You should not therefore have assumed that the Messenger had obtained a reputation for this “cutting and slashing” — for the asserting a thing to be famous, is a well known method of rendering it so. The 4 instances to which I allude, are the Newbern Spectator, to which thing I replied in July — the Commercial Advertiser of Colonel Stone, whose Ups and Downs I had occasion (pardon me) to “use up” — the N. Y. Mirror, whose Editor’s Norman Leslie did not please me — and the Philadelphia Gazette, which, being conducted by one of the sub-editors of the Knickerbocker, thinks it its duty to abuse all rival Magazines.

I have only to add that the inaccuracy of your expression in the words-“The August No. of the Southern Literary Messenger has been well received by most of the Editorial corps who have noticed it,” is of a mischievous tendency in regard to the Messenger. You have seen, I presume, no notices which have not been seen by myself — and you must be aware that there is not one, so far, which has not spoken, in the highest terms, of the August number. I cannot, however, bring myself to doubt that your remarks, upon the whole, were meant to do the Messenger a service, and that you regard it with the most friendly feelings in the world. (c)

The appended response of the Compiler was prompt and tart, but entirely reasonable:

(a.) The idea that “injury” may accrue to the Messenger, from what we have said, may have arisen from the “jealous attention” above alluded to, but we doubt whether the public will concur in the opinion. At all events, we cannot appreciate that sort ofjealousy which deems it proper to defend “reputation” for such slight causes.

(b.) We should have thought a critical eye would have observed that this was a [page 275:] mere typographical error. We did not mean to assume that the editor had already obtained “a character for regular cutting and slashing.” We only warned him against that unenviable sort of reputation. He has chosen to transpose our words, and use the word “indiscriminate” instead of “regular,” which makes us say what we did not say. There is surely a vast difference in the import of the terms. “Regular” dissection might be just and proper, from the nature of the subjects reviewed, but “indiscriminate” would imply the indulgence of a savage propensity in all cases whatsoever. The enumeration, therefore, of the cases in which praise predominated, was scarcely necessary to a defence, because this defence is “adduced” against a charge which was never made by us. The admission that the reviews of three works were “harshly condemnatory,” is enough of itself to justify the warning which we had the temerity to utter, and the further avowal that Col. Stone’s “Ups and Downs,” was “unexceptionably condemned,” would sustain the idea that the laudation ad nauseam of the “rigid justice and impartiality” of the editor was not entirely merited. No perfectly dispassionate mind can assent to the proposition that the works thus “harshly” and “unexceptionably” condemned, deserved a total and unqualified reprobation. The thing is not reasonable.

(c.) We are not ready to admit the “inaccuracy” of this expression. A single exception is enough to justify the use of the word “most,” and that exception, if we remember aright, the Baltimore Chronicle [Poe Log: Neilson Poe?] furnished. We cannot therefore allow the “accuracy” of the intimation that our expression is of a “mischievous tendency in regard to the Messenger.”

We make no professions here as to the nature of our “feelings” for that journal. If these have not been rightly understood, it is not probable we can now make them palpable. One thing, however, we will venture to remark in “rigid justice,” and that is, that one so sensitive as the editor of the Messenger and so tolerant of a difference [column 2:] of opinion, may probably be led to reflect whether any provocation should induce the conductor of a grave literary work to censure harshly and “unexceptionably.” Those who wield a ready and satirical pen, very rarely consider, that the subjects of their witticisms have nerves as sensitive as their own; and the instance before us shows the necessity of learning patiently to bear as well as “rigidly” to inflict the lash of criticism. It is not probable we shall ever again disturb the current of laudation, even by a hint, having had another confirmation of the truth, that giving advice, even with the best of motives, is rather an unthankful business. (Texts from Poe Log, pp. 222-25)

In a second response to Poe’s public letter, remarkably printed only six days later in the New York Commercial Appeal, Colonel Stone accused the critic of his novel of exhibiting personal bias. Noting that he had leveled his own charge of cutting and slashing well before the book was published, he made the obvious inference: “[I]f personal feelings had any influence in the matter, it must have been the editor of the Messenger who was governed by them, in his review. . .” (Poe Log, p, 226).

Now long removed from such personal quarrels, we may try to assess the accuracy of Poe’s claims about his performance. He did not make the task easy. The first problem is how he arrived at his overall total, his estimate that “94 books have been reviewed.” J. A. Harrison took the statement to mean that Poe was laying personal claim to ninety-four reviews; by muddling the reckoning, he managed to come up with the desired number (8: xiii-xiv). Hull, by totting up only the items which he assigned to the canon, arrived at a figure of eighty-seven (pp. 151-54). In fact, a total close to Poe’s “94” may be achieved only by counting as “books” issues of journals and pamphlets. But we still [page 276:] do not know whether Poe thought his total reflected all the reviews published or only those that were his. Given this uncertainty, it seems reasonable simply to begin with the total number of titles listed in the captions which preceded the notices and to add up how many of these Poe reviewed. By the present editors’ count, there are exactly 100 titles; of these, as the notes show, seven were reviewed by others. With an admittedly debatable working figure of ninety-three, then, we may examine what percentages of unfavorable and favorable overall j udgments Poe was asserting.

Three notices he lists as “decidedly and harshly condemnatory” and five as those in which “censure is greatly predominant.” In seven more, he claims, “praise slightly prevails”; the judgment here is that their overall tone remains negative. To this total of fifteen, the present editors would add the notices of these six: Ingraham’s The South-West, Stickney’s The Poetry of Life, the work which he oddly calls Mahmoud (see the notes), Gallagher’s Erato, Gilman’s Life on the Lakes, and Willis’s Inklings of Adventure. Twenty-one of the ninety-three titles, then, receive essentially negative assessments — about 22.5 percent, or close to one in five. The remaining seventy-two (Poe claimed seventy-nine) are indeed treated neutrally or are those in which “commendation predominated.” Clearly Poe had reason to feel that, given these totals, he should be exonerated of the charge of undue severity. But in so concluding, he was underestimating the dominant tone of his highly personal style. His pose in the editor’s chair was that of an unassailable authority, of a man clearly superior in intellect, erudition, and taste. Even in a number of notices in which he acknowledged virtues, [column 2:] he had no hesitation in singling out grammatical lapses, incorrect allusions, faulty prosody, and other secondary faults which undermined praise. These were the sorts of judgments that readers and authors most often remembered. Not without cause had Colonel Stone dubbed Poe the “Zoilus of the Messenger” — comparing him to the ancient Greek critic who filled nine books with carping strictures on Homer. The Compiler made the crucial charge of mean-spiritedness: “[O]ne so sensitive as the editor of the Messenger . . . may probably be led to reflect whether any provocation should induce the conductor of a grave literary work to censure harshly and ‘unexceptionably.‘” Though Poe was ostensibly defending the reputation of White’s magazine for “rigid judgment and impartiality,” the owner would have had good reason to be dismayed by his editor’s admission to “harshly condemnatory” notices — no matter how relatively few there were.

There was no reference to this wrangle in the September SLM, which appeared shortly after the twenty-fourth. The number opened with the first American printing of Act I of Bulwer’s tragedy Cromwell and continued with an extract from Mrs. Hemans’s memoirs, a poem by Simms, and the usual heavy didactic articles. Perhaps because of Poe’s illness (see below), his own contributions were relatively few. In sum, they were:

1. Three editorial notes:

a. to Bulwer’s Cromwell: “* This tragedy is now in the press of Messieurs Saunders and Otley, (with whom Mr. Bulwer has made an exclusive arrangement for the issuing of his works simultaneously with their appearance in England,) and will be published forthwith. We are indebted to the attention [page 277:] of these gentlemen for Act I, in anticipation, copied from the original MS” (p. 605).

b. to “Memoirs of Mrs. Hemans”: “* From the Memoirs of Mrs. Hemans, by Chorley — now in the press of Messieurs Saunders and Otley, to whom we are indebted for some of the sheets” (p. 611).

c. at the very end of the issue: “The illness of both Publisher and Editor will, we hope, prove a sufficient apology for the delay in the issue of the present number, and for the omission of many promised notices of new books” (p. 668).

2. Under the heading “Editorial” (p. 658), a response to a letter to the editor. [column 2:] Both are reprinted and annotated below.

3. Three critical notices, reprinted and annotated below. These are accepted by the Poe Log (pp. 226-27), Mabbott (MS. Notes, Folder 1), and Hull (pp. 154-56), and there is nothing to suggest that they were not all his.

A brief article, “The Rainbow” (p. 622), was ascribed to Poe by David K. Jackson in an article in American Literature 5 (November 1933): 242. It is printed and annotated by Pollin (2: 440-41), who offers convincing evidence that it is not Poe’s work.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - BRP5S, 1997] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (B. R. Pollin) (September 1836 (Headnote))