The Poe Mystery Case

The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays

edited by Eric W. Carlson
Michigan, 320 pp., $7.50

Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays

edited by Robert Regan
Prentice-Hall, 192 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe; drawing by David Levine

Poe’s is the shakiest of all large American reputations, and yet, if I remember rightly a statement of Malcolm Cowley’s, there have been more studies of him than of any other native writer. There is, as Whitman said, an “indescribable magnetism” about Poe’s much romanticized life, and that would be part of the explanation. It is also true that Poe is an important point in any brief for Southern letters, that his supposed morbidity has attracted many diagnosticians of psychic and cultural sickness, and that some critics have been annoyed into writing about Poe by a desire to comprehend or explain away his high standing abroad. Finally, and on the whole recently, a number of people have attempted direct literary analysis of Poe, moved by a sense that there is more to him than obsession, mystification, and—as Yeats put it of “The Pit and the Pendulum”—“an appeal to the nerves by tawdry physical affrightments.”

In any event, the books keep coming. Floyd Stovall, a veteran critic and scholar of Poe, has recently edited a hand-somely made edition of the complete poems.1 Dwight Macdonald’s Poems of Edgar Allan Poe is a selection of thirty-four poems, augmented by a number of pieces (such as “Silence,” “Shadow,” and “Eleonora”) which may reasonably be considered prose poems; to this Macdonald appends certain of Poe’s critical essays and pensées.2 Eric W. Carlson’s The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe offers a fascinating variety of reactions to Poe—critical, epistolary, biographical, and poetic—extending from 1829 to the present. Some of the material included, such as Griswold’s nasty memoir, D. H. Lawrence’s essay on Poe’s “vampirism,” and Mallarmé’s great sonnet, will be familiar to many; less known are G. B. Shaw’s centenary rave of 1909, or Dostoevsky’s notice of 1861, in which he praises Poe’s “marvelous acumen and amazing realism” in the depiction of “inner states.” (It is interesting that this last piece, published in Dostoevsky’s magazine Wremia five years before Crime and Punishment, stood as introduction to three stories by Poe, two of which—“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat”—are accounts of murder, conscience, and confession.) Robert Regan’s Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays begins with one of the less inferential chapters of Joseph Wood Krutch’s Freudian study (1926) and contains eleven other essays, largely from the Fifties and Sixties. These are well-chosen and varied in attack. There is some overlapping between the Regan and Carlson volumes, but both are worth having.

NINETEENTH-CENTURY WRITING about Poe, as represented in Carlson’s collection, is on many grounds intriguing. But in relation to Poe’s substance it is vexingly general, as compared both with today’s more practice criticism and with Poe’s own practice in such analytic essays as his review of Drake and Halleck. Since Margaret Fuller is who she is, we are attentive when she credits Poe’s tales with “penetration into the causes of things,” and asserts that “where…

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