In October 1845, a short-lived New York magazine called the Aristidean published a review of Edgar Allan Poe’s story collection Tales. The article spouted praise like a dancing fountain. Poe’s detective story “The Gold-Bug” “perfectly succeeded in his perfect aim.” “The Fall of the House of Usher” was “grand and impressive.” “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was marked by “profound and searching analysis.”
And, overall, Poe wielded the kind of literary power that “can only be possessed by a man of high genius,” according to the anonymous reviewer—who was almost certainly Edgar Allan Poe himself.
Poe’s reputation as a major American writer is unassailable. He invented the modern detective story, successfully transported the gothic tale across the Atlantic, and wrote classic dark poems like “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” and “The Bells.” But, during Poe’s lifetime, such high points were intermittent, hard-fought, and rarely financial successes. More often, Poe made his living by toiling at now-forgotten magazines like the Southern Literary Messenger, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, and Graham’s Magazine.
This struggle to make art amid his struggles—he was an orphan, an alcoholic, an academic bust at the University of Virginia and West Point, and often on the run from creditors—is the crux of the American Masters documentary Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, which airs on PBS October 30. Through dramatic readings of Poe’s work and a moody performance of Poe himself by Denis O’Hare, the film captures an author scrabbling for a place in the literary world. His gloom, the film suggests, became a kind of asset for Poe, providing a tone for his stories and poetry as well as a means of attack against the “puffing” of American authors that defined much literary criticism at the time.
Poe churned out reams of puff-free reviews—the Library of America’s collection of his reviews and essays fills nearly 1,500 dense pages. Few outside of Poe scholarship circles bother reading them now, though; in a discipline that’s had its share of so-called takedown artists, Poe was an especially unlovable literary critic. He occasionally celebrated authors he admired, such as Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But, from 1835 until his death in 1849, the typical Poe book review sloshed with invective.
Tackling a collection of poems by William W. Lord in 1845, Poe opined that “the only remarkable things about Mr. Lord’s compositions are their remarkable conceit, ignorance, impudence, platitude, stupidity, and bombast.” He opened his review of Susan Rigby Morgan’s 1836 novel, The Swiss Heiress, by proclaiming that it “should be read by all who have nothing better to do.” The prose of Theodore S. Fay’s 1835 novel, Norman Leslie, was “unworthy of a school-boy.” A year later, Poe doomed Morris Mattson’s novel Paul Ulric by pushing Fay under the bus yet again, writing, “When we called Norman Leslie the silliest book in the world we had certainly never seen Paul Ulric.”
Such candor did Poe’s career no favors. Fay was the editor of the New York Mirror, where Poe would later go begging for a job in 1844, landing only a low-level copyediting gig. Three years earlier Poe had declared H. T. Tuckerman, editor of the Boston Miscellany, an “insufferably tedious and dull writer,” a statement that haunted Poe a year later when he submitted “The Tell-Tale Heart” to Tuckerman for publication. “If Mr. Poe would condescend to furnish more quiet articles,” Tuckerman wrote in his icy rejection letter, “he would be a most desirable correspondent.” Upon Poe’s death, critic Rufus Griswold wrote an obituary for the New York Tribune of surprising meanness. Griswold claimed that Poe “had few or no friends” and that “few will be grieved” by his passing—perhaps an act of revenge for Poe’s own cruelties toward Griswold as a rival critic. Poe once dismissed him as a “toady” destined to “sink into oblivion.”
For some writers, such salvos might be a badge of honor of a sort, examples of a nervy truth-teller unafraid to call out bad books and overrated writers. No doubt, Poe was moved to puncture what he saw as the overinflated literary egos of the East Coast. He spent years writing harsh sketches of them for a series called “The Literati of New York City”—a supremely bad move for a writer hoping to make a living there. The twist, though, is that as a critic Poe often treated ethics as disposably as we do coffee filters. That self-dealing rave review is just one example. Poe plagiarized multiple times early in his career (most notably in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and “Usher”), but still spent much of 1845 leveling plagiarism accusations against Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poe delivered his attacks under his own name, but also anonymously, and through an imaginary interlocutor named “Outis.” But for all of Poe’s bluster, evidence of Longfellow’s thievery was thin, and the poet, wisely, didn’t respond. “Poe’s Longfellow war,” said publisher Charles Briggs, who’d hired Poe at the Broadway Journal, “is all on one side.”
Poe’s obscurity as a critic is the reward of the hatchet-job man, some might say—conducting ill-tempered attacks on writers is an ugly and karmically inadvisable practice. (Just ask the ones who’ve been stung by a negative review.) But if the proper fate of the so-called hatchet job is to be banished to the memory hole, why are there so many enduring examples of the form? To highlight just a handful: In 1865, Henry James declared Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps “an offense against art.” In 1895, Mark Twain savaged James Fenimore Cooper, stating that his work “has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality.” In 1959, Norman Mailer swung at his contemporaries in an essay titled “Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room,” aiming at the likes of J. D. Salinger (“the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school”) and Jack Kerouac (“pretentious as a rich whore, as sentimental as a lollypop”). Dale Peck opened his 2002 review of a Rick Moody book by writing, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” It went downhill from there.
Such pieces come quickly to mind to critics like myself, because the truth is—and it was a truth often lost on Poe—the critic who’s accused of flinging hatchets is usually wielding a scalpel. The critic’s job, in one regard, is to bring a sense of order to a chaotic literary world. Thousands of books are published every year, and somebody must do the job of sifting, sorting, and judging them with authority but without an agenda. That task has democratized in recent years, as readers on sites like Amazon and Goodreads hasten to champion a book or one-star it into the ether. But the old-fashioned critic has stuck around: A front-page rave on the cover of the New York Times Book Review can vault a book into the cultural conversation, and the literary prizes that critics are often called upon to judge can elevate a writer’s reputation or cement it.
But it doesn’t follow that a negative review is the opposite of a rave, at least from the perspective of that literary ordering; it’s simply an inverted way of accomplishing the same task. That is, so long as it’s done well, and to a purpose. Mailer’s pronunciamentos in “Talent in the Room” were indisputably condescending and macho; absurdly, he found no women writers worth his attention. But there was no mistaking that he was tub-thumping for an American literature that took risks and emphasized hard realities underneath America’s postwar largesse. Twain’s takedown of Cooper, in both its content and form, was a pleading for American fiction to find its sense of humor and lose its clichéd ideas about wilderness writing, or writing in general. James disapproved of a poet who aspired to national stature via what James saw as Whitman’s narcissism; Peck resented a writer so seduced by metaphor that it smothered intellectual precision.
And Poe—what mission stoked the fire of his negative reviews? Had he lived to read it, Poe might have appreciated Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1959 attack on the timidity of book reviews at the time: “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns,” she wrote. But the urge to fearlessly criticize is not the same thing as having strong ideas about what makes for good literature, and the frustrating thing about reading Poe’s criticism is how often it is a closed circuit, concerned only with itself. The idea that a review might be a launchpad for broader statements was foreign if not offensive to him. “Criticism is not, we think, an essay, nor a sermon, nor an oration, nor a chapter in history, nor a philosophical speculation, nor a prose-poem, nor an art novel, nor a dialogue,” he wrote in 1843. “In fact, it can be nothing in the world but—a criticism.”
A number of his reviews open with a complaint that American writers were overly praised so as to distinguish them from the British colonizers from whose rule they had been free for only a few decades. Poe bemoaned “the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American.” But thoughts about what would make for a distinct American literature didn’t flow from Poe’s busy pen. In the context of his reviews, such statements were usually throat-clearing before what he saw as the matter at hand: nit-picking about meter and rhyme in poetry, plot points in fiction, and word choice and grammar in both. Critics make arguments; Poe registered complaints. An extended 1837 essay on William Cullen Bryant’s poetry finds Poe counting syllables and fussing over whether he might have better used the word “tomb” instead of “womb.” Poe’s own assessment of James Fenimore Cooper in 1843 turned literary criticism into a variant of an autopsy, assessing the sentence structure of one page of the book’s preface, line by tediously palpated line. Where Twain was witty, Poe was charmless. Where other critics might look for themes and innovations in poetry, Poe assigned himself the job of America’s toughest spondee cop.
Poe, in private, may have had a sense that this approach to criticism was fruitless. In an unfinished essay titled “A Reviewer Reviewed,” one Walter G. Bowen, a pseudonym for Poe, critiqued Poe’s reviewing style. “[His reviews] seem to me bitter in the extreme, captious, fault-finding, and unnecessarily severe,” he wrote. “Real, honest, heartfelt praise is a thing not to be looked for in a criticism by Mr. Poe.” Poe never finished the essay: It was found in a trunk among his possessions after his death. Perhaps a completed version would have revealed this display of self-loathing as just a performance, yet another example of Poe's piercing sarcasm. Yet it’s hard not to think of Poe’s classic story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where the narrator’s urge to suppress the evidence of a violent past wars with his urge to confess it.