August 21, 2011

Lowell and Poe: lacking in character

James Russell Lowell and Edgar Allan Poe had been friends and colleagues; both were poets, prose writers, critics, and editors. As Poe became more daring in his role as a literary critic, however, he alienated more and more people, most often because of his frequent accusations of a lack in originality. Lowell wrote to his friend (and a former business partner of Poe) named Charles Frederick Briggs on August 21, 1845:

Poe, I am afraid, is wholly lacking in that element of manhood which, for want of a better name, we call character. It is something quite distinct from genius—though all great geniuses are endowed with it... I have made Poe my enemy by doing him a service. In the last Broadway Journal he has accused me of plagiarism, and misquoted [William] Wordsworth to sustain his charge... Poe wishes to kick down the ladder by which he rose. He is welcome.

The Broadway Journal, which Lowell alludes to, was a newspaper founded by Briggs with John Bisco. The two brought in Poe within its first year as a one-third owner of the publication. Poe was enlisted specifically because of his reputation and ability to draw attention. Briggs, however, soon left his project when he saw how caustic Poe had become in his reviews. Bisco left soon after, leaving the Broadway Journal in debt and solely in the control of Poe. He did the best he could, but the journal folded within another year.

Lowell became part of the New England literary elite despite early difficulties in his career, and was happy to remove his connection to Poe. Lowell had published Poe's famous story "The Tell-Tale Heart," for example. Only a few months before this letter, in fact, instead of criticizing Poe's lack of character, Lowell had offered this view of him:

Mr. Poe has that indescribable something which men have agreed to call genius. No man could ever tell us precisely what it is, and yet there is none who is not inevitably aware of its presence and its power... It is not for us to assign him his definite rank among contemporary authors, but we may be allowed to say that we know of none who has displayed more varied and striking abilities... Mr. Poe is at once the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America. It may be that we should qualify our remark a little, and say that he might be, rather than that he always is, for he seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand." 

The above quote was published in Graham's Magazine, February 1845.


  1. Sounds like Lowell here, writing to Briggs, having made it into the upper echelons of society, is busy at work "removing his connection" to Poe with these statements. "Kicking the ladder out from under Poe", I think, would be a more accurate assessment than Lowell's own of what he is doing in this instance.

  2. Lowell was also upset that Poe had taken jabs at his friend, neighbor, and colleague Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Certainly, that's a major part of this. The reality is that, though Poe had quickly gained a reputation in 1845 for "The Raven," he inadvertently kicked his own ladder out when he started attacking one of the most genteel beloved poets of the generation within months.


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