American literary Canon, Circles, Discourse, Edgar Allen Poe, Emerson’s ‘Moral Sentiment’ and Poe’s ‘Poetic Sentiment’ A Reconsideration, Essay, Estimating Emerson: An Anthology of Criticism from Carlyle to Cavell, Geocentric Universe, Gerald M. Garmon, Literary Rivalry, Literature, Man the Reformer, Orson Welles, Politics, Public perception, R.W. Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance, South Park, Teaching Literature Pedagogy, The American Scholar, Writers, Writing
Poe was many things, but critic is not the first word that comes to mind. I feel ashamed admitting this, but often the word drunk comes before the title of Writer to me, but that’s probably because I’m a cynic. My nastiness aside Poe remains a fierce American writer who continually is able to contribute to the zeitgeist of American letters even if it’s just wannabe hipsters getting tattoos of The Raven on their shoulder. Writers like Stephen King, Joe Hill, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz have attributed inspiration to the man, and even writers outside the mainstream horror genre have been, in some manner or another, touched by the man’s aesthetic and powerful writing. This semester alone a friend of mine made his major GIS project the work of Poe, with an emphasis on the notion of horror as an alternative philosophy that explores the unspoken idea of life without man. Poe in his time accomplished a marvelous level of depth and literary craft that was, unfortunately, largely ignored or else berated.
That and girls didn’t invite to their birthday parties which was really unfair.
The reason for this may be the aesthetic the man pursued in his creative and poetic works. Premature burials, black cats, ravens, death, madness, murder, homicidal orangutans, and the end of man are all topics that tend to get you blacklisted from parties, as well as the upper establishment of literary society. Gerald M. Garmon in his essay “Emerson’s ‘Moral Sentiment’ and Poe’s ‘Poetic Sentiment’ A Reconsideration”* tackles this subject directly. He begins:
Emerson once referred to Poe derisively as the “jingle man,” and it is widely known that Emerson and the other moralists of the later nineteenth century were generally disposed to view Poe as a man of dissipation, if not of active evil. Whitman, for example, took issue with almost all of Poe’s principles, both artistic and what he thought moral. He found Poe “almost without the first sign of moral principle, or of the concrete or its heroisms, or the simpler affections of the heart.” While he acknowledged Poe’s “intense faculty for the technical and abstract beauty,” Whitman judged him finally to belong “among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat.” It is, of course, understandable that nineteenth-century Americans, like their English Victorian counterparts, should have dismissed Poe’s art because they thought it immoral or amoral. Poe’s art was viewed in the light of what they believed, largely erroneously, his wicked life to have been. Griswold’s early biography depicted Poe as an instrument of “demon rum” and a disciple of the devil. It was not until late in that century that John Ingram’s more authoritative and generous biography began to redeem some of Poe’s reputation into respectability. It was largely due to a sullied reputation that Poe was scorned as an “unfit” writer and, therefore, no more than a minor literary figure.*
I came upon this essay a few months ago while I was taking a summer course over the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass. Along with numerous essays and speeches written by these men we were to also read numerous critical analyses of their works, and in some cases, commentary by their contemporaries. For Emerson this involved reading from a dense tome (713 pages in all) called Estimating Emerson: An Anthology of Criticism from Carlyle to Cavell. This book remains in my collection for after reading some of the names of contributors I recognized how important this tome was: Harold Bloom, Cornell, West, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and of course Edgar Allen Poe.
It was the Poe reading that remains greatest impact on me for his essay R. W. Wilson was a page in total that was published under “An Appendix of Autographs” in Graham’s magazine in 1842. The essay is three paragraphs and totally unlike anything one regularly reads in English classes:
Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson belongs to a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whateer—the mystics for mysticism sake. Quintilian mentions a pedant who taught obscurity and who once said to a pupil “this is excellent, for I do not understand it myself.” How the good man would have chuckled over Mr. E! His present role seems to be out-Carlyleing Carlyle. Lycophan Tenebrosus is a fool to him. The best answer to his twaddle is cui bono?—a very little Latin phrase very generally translated and misunderstood—cui bono?—to whom is it a benefit? If not to Mr. Emerson individually, then surely to no man living.
His love of the obscure does not prevent him, nevertheless, from the composition of occasional poems in which beauty is apparent by flashes. Several of his effusions appeared in the “Western Messenger”—more in the “Dial” of which he is the Soul—or the sun—or the shadow. We remember the “Sphynx,” the “Problem,” the “Snow Storm,” and some fine old fashioned verses entitled “Oh fair and stately maid whose eye.”
His MS. Is bad, sprawling, illegible and irregular—although sufficiently bold. This later trait may be, and no doubt is, only a portion of his general affectation. (45)
I distinctly remember finishing this three paragraph essay and trying to catch my breath as I was laughing to the point I couldn’t actually breath.
It wasn’t that I agreed with Poe, I did a little but not completely, it was the fact that I had never read such a vicious onslaught of a revered American writer by another. Growing up in grade school most of us are taught to look at authors as if they were some kind of perfect god, a wellspring of values, morals, and lessons blessed to them by some arcane source. Likewise we’re taught nothing about the relationships between authors and the role that literary rivalry can play in creation. It’s likely no student is ever going to read R.W. Wilson in grade school which is unfortunate because its essays like this that would probably get students more involved or interested in reading.
Then again so would pasting little Playboys in the books, but there’s a reason I got kicked out of that particular PTA meeting.
R.W. Wilson was included in the readings because my professor wanted us to understand Emerson and Douglas as writers participating in the larger discussions taking place in America at that time, both artistic as well as politically. Poe and Emerson existed and operated in the mid to later half of the 19th century (1800s) and so much of the art from that time period is wrapped up in the political upheavals of the Civil War, Abolitionist movements, and general bedlam that was the political atmosphere of that time. Poe’s criticism however if you look at it, is more centered in artistic discussion and that in itself becomes a kind of political statement. The reason for this is largely because Emerson’s body of work tended to avoid detailed political nuance. As a writer he was far more concerned with the national character of America at that time and in essays like The American Scholar, Man the Reformer, Politics, and Self Reliance the reader is able to see his effort to generate a new working identity for American citizens.
It’s in his essay Circles however that Poe’s argument assumes a bit of validity. The essay is Emerson’s effort to understand the human condition and the human mind and so he creates an imagery that all of mankind’s thoughts and ambitions are circles moving through space. He says:
The Eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. (403)
He concludes the first paragraph saying:
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (403).
These two sections, the reader may object, are perfectly reasonable and actually profound philosophically, how could anyone say that Emerson is a pedant exploring ideas in the clouds? Poe is either being a spiteful prick, or else he simply cannot understand Emerson’s ideas.
The conflict with this position is that it is based on the initial paragraph of Circles and does not take into account the later passages. Circles is perhaps one of the most philosophically profound essays written, not just by an American, but by any philosopher period. Reading it for the first time I experienced that lovely moment every human being who observes some medium art does: that moment when another person has so perfectly explained an idea or feeling in your head but you lacked the words, or training, or ability to accurately express it. Since I was kid I had observed the circle as a wondrous shape, and when I grew up and studied history I would learn that numerous theologians shared a similar sentiment. In a geocentric model of the universe the earth is the center of everything and the Sun and planets revolve around it in perfect circles because the circle is the holiest of geometric shapes. Unlike triangles, trapezoids, pentagons, or squares, a circle has no true beginning or end. The quality of god was attributed to the circle, because like him it had no beginning or end, it was perfect in both space and time. Any observer is likely to note how important the circle as an object is, for it is the shape of sun, the wheel, and the human pupil and retina.
Emerson’s Circles is an attempt to put such ideas into an argument thus transforming the circle as something more than just a polygon. He’s attempting to turn the circle into a natural force pushing the actions of men:
Conversation is a game of circles. In conversation we pluck up the termini which bound the common of silence on every side. The parties are not to be judged by the spirit they partake and even express under this Pentecost. To-morrow they will have receded from this high-water mark. To-morrow you shall find them stooping under the old pack-saddles. Yet let us enjoy the cloven flame whilst it glows on our walls. When each new speaker strikes a new light, emancipates us from the oppression of the last speaker, to oppress us with the greatness and exclusiveness of his own thought, then yields us to another redeemer, we seem to recover our rights, to become men. O, what truths profound and executable only in ages and orbs are supposed in the announcement of every truth! (408)
These are all lovely ideas but I’m moving too far away from Poe which was my original intent. R.W. Emerson is an essay that, had I not taken the Emerson/Douglass Course, I would have never read and that bothers me because it is a side of literary criticism that is too often lacking in pedagogy. Authors become ideal figures producing brilliant works, and while they do deserve credit where credit is due, there is a conflict with removing them from the proper context of their public discourse. Artists in reality often form rivalries and bitter scorned relationships and if you don’t believe me do some research into the Faulkner/Hemingway relationship.
Poe’s article is more concerned with Emerson’s poetry, but by placing it alongside Emerson’s Circles the reader can see these two men as more than the cartoon images they tend to become in the classroom. Poe has become a morbid black soul with his birds rather than a fierce intellect exploring emotions and aesthetics that are philosophically profound in their own right. He’s also recently been portrayed rather brilliantly on South Park as a wannabe-goth-poser-whiner-douche. Emerson has become the writer, much like Shakespeare, who people cherry-pick their quotes from in order to sound intelligent or witty leaving the man’s work far behind the kitsch pulp of convocation speeches. As far as I know Emerson has yet to appear on South Park. I may just be being a cynical asshole here but R.W. Emerson goes a long way in showing students Poe’s, as well as Emerson’s, humanity. They become men with entirely different artistic concerns and desires.
When Emerson expresses the following sentiment Poe’s argument seems more and more pressingly relevant:
Our moods do not believe in each other. To-day I am full of thoughts, and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall. (406)
There is beauty in Emerson and darkness in Poe, but these differences are ultimately empty and moot unless they are placed aside one another. Artists and writers are not isolated creatures writing in their ivory towers, well okay some are but R.W. Wilson is a great opportunity to explore the idea of public discourse as well as artistic community and the lasting impact it has upon our culture. Emerson in his time became one of the most important voices in America as he, along with Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville, helped shape the idea of an American aesthetic free from European identity. Poe, while achieving some success overseas, was largely written off as a grotesque oddity and ended his life as an alcoholic while Emerson, his contester, wound up debilitated by dementia.
These two men however remain beacons of American literary brilliance. Through their writing they forever altered American letters and our creative landscape is now permanently blessed by their contributions. R.W. Emerson reflects a more heated and spiteful demonstration of criticism from one author to another, but it does offer up the chance to see Poe practicing for the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts which, spoiler alert, he also wasn’t invited to. Something about Orson Welles always eating his food whenever it was his turn to tell the jokes or something.
I’ve included a link to Garmon’s article below in case the reader in interested:
I’ve also found Emerson’s Circles in their entirely. All the passage cited here come originally from The Library America Edition of Emerson’s Essays and Lectures but the reader can find the entire essay below:
While doing research I found an article on The New Yorker about Poe. I’ve included a link below in case the reader is interested.