May 18, 2011

Dana: whether you are man or devil

BE IT REMEMBERED, That on the eighteenth day of May, in the forty-fifth year of the independence of the United States of America, WILEY & HALSTED, of the said district, have deposited in this office the title of a book, the right whereof they claim as proprietors, in the words following, to wit:
The Idle Man.

So read the fine print behind the title page of The Idle Man, a periodical copyrighted by Richard Henry Dana on May 18, 1821. The Massachusetts-born poet and critic (son of Francis Dana, a delegate to the Constitutional Congress and signer of the Articles of Confederation) was the sole author for the magazine. Dana founded it after leaving the North American Review, a conservative journal which he helped create but found it did not suit his critical tastes. In fact, Dana was a bit of a radical. For one, he dared suggest that Shakespeare was a better writer than Alexander Pope and promoted Romanticism at a time when others did not. By 1850, however, Dana's views were not only popular but standard. As he noted: "Much that was once held to be presumptuous novelty... [became] little better than commonplace."

The Idle Man lasted only one volume — long enough for Dana to publish Paul Felton, today considered the first Gothic novel in the United States (Dana's son later became more famous for his own prose writings). In the book, the title character is drawn to the woods near his new home after his marriage. Those woods soon threaten to destroy his sanity after he meets a mysterious boy there:

"Who and what are you?" cried he. "Come out and let me see whether you are man or devil." And out crawled a miserable boy, that seemed shrunk up with fear and famine. "Speak, and tell me who you are, and what you do here," said Paul. The poor fellow's jaws moved and quivered, but he did not utter a sound. His spare frame shook, and his knees knocked against each other, as in an ague fit. Paul looked at him for a moment... "What possess you? Why do you shudder so, and look so pale? Do you take the shadows of the trees for devils?"

"Don't speak of them. They'll be on me if you talk of them here," whispered the boy eagerly. Drops of sweat stood on his brow from the agony of terror he was in. As Paul looked at the lad, he felt something like fear creeping over him.

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