Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe

Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe

Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe

Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe

Excerpt

The details of Poe's life are well known and need not be retold in an account of his criticism. Unfortunately, it has become conventional to think of him as a lonely genius and to forget that he was an active man of letters, a man involved both socially and professionally in the affairs of his time. Actually he was a literary jack-of-all-trades, beginning as a poet, becoming a reviewer, a short-story writer, a novelist, an essayist, a critic, and finally—in Eureka—a philosopher. In appraising his criticism, it is important to bear in mind that during the years between 1835 and his death in 1849, the years in which he was formulating and expounding his critical theories, he was making his living as an editor and writer for American magazines. He did not live in romantic isolation but in a noisy journalistic world, and both the content and style of his criticism are better understood when placed in the publishing milieu from which they emerged.

In 1835 when Poe became assistant editor and reviewer for the Southern Literary Messenger, many American magazines were attempting to model their criticism after that in their English counterparts. The reviews and critical essays in Blackwood's and the Westminster Review, done by men like Jeffrey and Macaulay, set the standards for the best American writers, and the requirements for a good reviewer were more rigorous than might be thought: he was expected to be well educated and "cultured" in the nineteenth-century sense; he had to know both foreign and English literature; and it helped if he was something of a professional writer himself. The literary public expected essays which were well written and which embodied a distinctive literary or political point of view. Poe did not have to read the great English reviews to find models of what a reviewer should be, since the United States had influential men of letters who met the prescription—George Beverley Tucker and John P. Kennedy in Richmond ; Evert Duyckinck and Henry Clay in New York; William . . .

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