Edgar Allan Poe: Review of Tales By Edgar A. Poe
[This unsigned review originally appeared in the Aristidean, in October, 1845. G. R. Thompson says it was "almost certainly" written by Poe himself.]
The great fault of American and British authors is imitation of the peculiarities of thought and diction of those who have gone before them. They tread on a beaten track because it is well trodden. They follow as disciples, instead of being teachers. Hence it is that they denounce all novelty as a culpable variation from standard rules, and think all originality to be incomprehensible. To produce something which has not been produced before, in their estimation, is equal to six, at least, of the seven deadly sins--perhaps, the unpardonable sin itself--and for this crime they think the author should atone here in the purgatory of false criticism, and hereafter by the hell of oblivion. The odor of originality in a new book is "a savor of death unto death" to their productions, unless it can be destroyed. So they cry aloud--"Strange! incomprehensible! what is it about?" even though its idea may be plainly developed as the sun at noon-day. Especially, we are sorry to say, does this prevail in this country. Hence it is, that we are chained down to a wheel, which ever monotonously revolves round a fixed center, progressing without progress.
Yet that we are beginning to emancipate ourselves from this thraldom, is seen in the book before us, and in the general appreciation of its merits, on both sides of the Atlantic. It has sold well: and the press has praised it, discriminately and yet with no stint. "The British Critic," and other English literary journals laud it most handsomely. Though, as a general rule, we do not care a fig for British criticism--conducted as it mostly is, we do prize a favorable review, when it is evidently wrung from the reviewer by a high admiration and a strong sense of justice--as in the case before us. And all this, as we have said, proves that we are escaping the shackles of imitation. There is just as much chance of originality at this day, as at any other--all the nonsense of the sophists to the contrary, notwithstanding. "There is nothing new under the sun," said SOLOMON. In the days of his many-wived majesty the proverb might apply--it is a dead saying now. The creative power of the mind is boundless. There is no end to the original combinations of words--nor need there be to the original combination of ideas.
The first tale in Mr. POE's book is called "The Gold Bug." If we mistake not, it was written in competition for a large premium, some years since--a premium which it obtained. It made a great noise when first issued, and was circulated to a greater extent than any American tale, before or since. The intent of the author was evidently to write a popular tale: money, and the finding of money being chosen as the most popular thesis. In this he endeavoured to carry out his idea of the perfection of the plot, which he defines as--that, in which nothing can be disarranged, or from which nothing can be removed, without ruin to the mass--as that, in which we are never able to determine whether any one point depends upon or sustains any one other. We pronounce that he has perfectly succeeded in his perfect aim. There is a marked peculiarity, by-the-by, in it, which is this. The bug, which gives title to the story, is used only in the way of mystification, having throughout a seeming and no real connection with the subject. Its purpose is to seduce the reader into the idea of supernatural machinery, and keeping him so mystified until the last moment. The ingenuity of the story cannot be surpassed. Perhaps it is the most ingeniuous story Mr. POE has written; but in the higher attributes--a great invention--an invention proper--it is not at all comparable to the "Tell-tale Heart"--and more especially to "Ligeia," the most extraordinary, of its kind, of his productions. The characters are well-drawn. The reflective qualities and steady purpose, founded on a laboriously obtained conviction of LEGRAND, is most faithfully depicted. The negro is a perfect picture. He is drawn accurately--no feature overshaded, or distorted. Most of such delineations are caricatures.
The materials of which the "Gold Bug" is constructed are, apparently, of the simplest kind. It is the mode of grouping them around the main idea, and their absolute necessity of each to the whole--note Mr. POE's definition of plot before given--in which the perfection of their use consists. The solution of the mystery is the most curious part of the whole, and for this, which is a splendid specimen of analysis, we refer the reader to the book.
"The Black Cat" is the next tale. In our last number we found fault with this, as a reproduction of the "Tell-tale Heart." On further examination, we think ourselves in error, somewhat. It is rather an amplification of one of its phases. The dénouement is a perfect printed tableau.
"Mesmeric Revelations," which comes next, has excited much discussion. A large number of the mesmerists, queerly enough, take it all for gospel. Some of the Swedenborgians, at PHILADELPHIA, wrote word to POE, that at first they doubted, but in the end became convinced, of its truth. This was excruciatingly and unsurpassably funny--in spite of the air of vraisemblance that pervades the article itself. It is evidently meant to be nothing more than the vehicle of the author's views concerning the DEITY, immateriality, spirit, &c., which he apparently believes to be true, in which belief he is joined by Professor BUSH. The matter is most rigorously condensed and simplified. It might easily have been spread over the pages of a large octavo.
"Lionizing," which PAULDING, and some others regard with great favor, has been overlooked, in general. It is an extravaganza, composed by rules--and the laws of extravaganza [are] as much and clearly defined as those of any other species of composition.
"The Fall of the House of Usher," was stolen by BENTLEY, who copied it in his "Miscellany," without crediting the source from whence he derived it. The thesis of this tale, is the revulsion of feeling consequent upon discovering that for a long period of time we have been mistaking sounds of agony, for those of mirth or indifference. It is an elaborate tale--surpassed only by "Ligeia," in our judgment. IRVING's view of it--and he speaks of it, in italics, as powerful, is correct. The dénouement, where the doors open, and the figure is found standing without the door, as USHER had foretold, is grand and impressive. It appears to be better liked than the rest of Mr. Poe's productions, among literary people--though with the mass, the "Gold-bug," and "Murders in the Rue Morgue," are more popular, because of their unbroken interest, novelty of the combination of ordinary incident, and faithful minuteness of detail. "The Haunted Palace," from which we stated in our late review of his poems, LONGFELLOW had stolen, all, that was worth stealing, of his "BELEAGUERED CITY," and which is here introduced with effect, was originally sent to O'SULLIVAN, of the "Democratic Review," and by him rejected, because "he found it impossible to comprehend it." In connection with the subject of rejections, there is a good thing concerning TUCKERMAN, which would show--if it needed to show the very palpable--his utter lack of discrimination, and his supreme self-esteem. When he edited the "Boston Miscellany," POE, under the impression that the work was still conducted by HALE, sent him "The Tell-tale Heart," a most extraordinary, and very original composition. Whereon Master TUCKERMAN, in noting its rejection, chose to say, through his publishers, that "if Mr. POE would condescend to be more quiet, he would be a valuable contributor to the press." POE rejoined, that TUCKERMAN was the King of the Quietists, and in three months would give a quietus to the "Miscellany." The author was mistaken in time--it only took two months to finish the work. LOWELL afterwards published the "Tell-tale Heart," in the "Pioneer."
"A Descent into the Maelstrom," is chiefly noted for the boldness of its subject--a subject never dreamed of before--and for the clearness of its descriptions.
"Monos and Una," is one of a series of post-mortem reveries. The style, we think, is good. Its philosophy is damnable; but this does not appear to have been a point with the author, whose purpose, doubtless, was novelty of effect--a novelty brought about by the tone of the colloquy. The reader feels as though he were listening to the talk of spirits. In the usual imaginary conversations--LANDOR's, for instance--he is permitted to see a tone of banter. He feels that the author is not in earnest. He understands that spirits have been invented for the purpose of introducing their supposed opinions.
"The man of the Crowd," is the last sketch in the work. It is peculiar and fantastic, but contains little worthy of special note, after what has been said of others.
The three tales before the last, are "Murders in the Rue Morgue"--"Mystery of Marie Roget"--and "The Purloined Letter." They are all of the same class--a class peculiar to Mr. POE. They are inductive--tales of ratiocination--of profound and searching analysis. "The Mystery of Marie Roget"--although in this, the author appears to have been hampered by facts--reveals the whole secret of their mode of construction. It is true that there the facts were before him--so that it is not fully a parallel--but the rationale of the process is revealed by it. The author, as in the case of "Murders in the Rue Morgue," the first written, begins by imagining a deed committed by such a creature, or in such a manner, as would most effectually mislead inquiry. Then he applies analysis to the investigation.
There is much made of nothing in "The Purloined Letter,"--the story of which is simple; but the reasoning is remarkably clear, and directed solely to the required end. It first appeared in the "Gift," and was thence copied into CHAMBERS' "Edinburgh Journal," as a most notable production. We like it less than the others, of the same class. It has not their continuous and absorbing interest.
"The Mystery of Marie Roger" has a local, independent of any other, interest. Every one, at all familiar with the internal history of NEW YORK, for the last few years, will remember the murder of MARY ROGERS, the cigar-girl. The deed baffled all attempts of the police to discover the time and mode of its commission, and the identity of the offenders. To this day, with the exception of the light afforded by the tale of Mr. POE, in which the faculty of analysis is applied to the facts, the whole matter is shrouded in complete mystery. We think, he has proven, very conclusively, that which he attempts. At all events, he has dissipated in our mind, all belief that the murder was perpetrated by more than one.
The incidents in the "Murder in the Rue Morgue" are purely imaginary. Like all the rest, it is written backwards.
We have thus noticed the entire collection--and have only to say, by way of close, that the collection embraces by no means the best of Mr. POE 's productions that we have seen; or rather is not totally so good, as might have been made, though containing some of the best.
The style of Mr. POE is clear and forcible. There is often a minuteness of detail; but on examination it will always be found that this minuteness was necessary to the development of the plot, the effect, or the incidents. His style may be called, strictly, an earnest one. And this earnestness is one of its greatest charms. A writer must have the fullest belief in his statements, or must simulate that belief perfectly, to produce an absorbing interest in the mind of his reader. That power of simulation can only be possessed by a man of high genius. It is the result of a peculiar combination of the mental faculties. It produces earnestness, minute, not profuse detail, and fidelity of description. It is possessed by Mr.POE, in its full perfection.
The evident and most prominent aim of Mr. POE is originality, either of idea, or the combination of ideas. He appears to think it a crime to write unless he has something novel to write about, or some novel way of writing about an old thing. He rejects every word not having a tendency to develop the effect. Most writers get their subjects first, and write to develop it. The first inquiry of Mr. POE is for a novel effect--then for a subject; that is, a new arrangement of circumstance, or a new application of tone, by which the effect shall be developed. And he evidently holds whatever tends to the furtherance of the effect, to be legitimate material. Thus it is that he has produced works of the most notable character, and elevated the mere "tale," in this country, over the larger "novel"--conventionally so termed.