January 11, 2010

Hoffman, Griswold, and 'The Poets and Poetry of America'

In a letter dated January 11, 1841, Charles Fenno Hoffman wrote to Rufus Wilmot Griswold about his personal biography. Griswold was preparing his important anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, a book which solidified its compiler as an influential arbiter of taste in American poetry, an advocate for "nationalism," and someone easily swayed by personal opinion. The book, published in 1842, collected over 80 poets in 476 pages. Each poet was introduced by a short biographical sketch.

Hoffman clarified to Griswold that, while editing his journal the American Monthly, he simultaneously contributed to the New Yorker, the Mirror, and "other journals, in all of which, among a variety of subjects, [I] wrote zealously in favor of international copyright." In the letter, Hoffman apologized for sounding egotistical. Griswold used much of Hoffman's wording in the final version of his biography.

When The Poets and Poetry of America was published, in fact, Griswold granted Hoffman more space than any other writer — a total of 45 poems (compared to three by Edgar Poe, 11 by Nathaniel Parker Willis, and 14 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). Hoffman's space allotment was double — yes, double — that of any other poet.

Which begs the question: Who the hell is Charles Fenno Hoffman?!?

Hoffman was a New York City-born author and poet. One-legged after an amputation at age 11, Hoffman helped establish the Knickerbocker Magazine (in honor of Washington Irving) in 1833. He published a couple travel books and a novel which fictionalized the so-called "Kentucky Tragedy." He published several volumes of poetry before going insane and being hospitalized in 1849. He spent 35 years in various insane asylums before dying in one in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1884.

Hoffman was never popular as a poet, even within his own New York sphere. Griswold admitted that he allowed his personal friendship with Hoffman to influence his over-representation in the book. In fact, Griswold's selections made for the staunchest criticism for The Poets and Poetry of America (which sold out three editions in six months). Modern scholars note the book is nothing more than "a graveyard of poets" because writers like the insane, one-legged Hoffman are now virtually unknown.


  1. I think I want it more because it is a "graveyard for poets." How fascinating. Do you know where we can read some of his poetry?


    1. Check Biblio.com online. They have several copies and reasonably priced.

  2. Isn't it great?! Some really are just awful; some have a glimmer of hope. You can see the whole book on Google books (there are many, many editions from the 19th century - all are public domain). The real thing is fairly easy to find too; I own two copies myself.


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