Page images
PDF
EPUB

ENTERED, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1850, by

J. S. REDFIELD, in the Clerk's Office of the District Court, for the Southern District

of New York.

OF CRITICISM-PUBLIC AND PRIVATE.

[In 1846, Mr. Poe published in The Lady's Book a series of six articles, enti

tled “ The Literati of New-York City,” in which he professed to give * some honest opinions at random respecting their autorial merits, with occasional words of personality.” The series was introduced by the fol. lowing paragraphs, and the personal sketches were given in the order in which they are here reprinted, from “George Bush” to “ Richard Adams Locke." The other notices of American and foreign writers, were contributed by Mr. Poe to various journals, chiefly in the last four or five years of his life.]

In a criticism on Bryant I was at some pains in pointing out the distinction between the popular“ opinion” of the merits of cotemporary authors, and that held and expressed of them in private literary society. The former species of “ opinion” can be called “opinion” only by courtesy. It is the public's own, just as we consider a book our own when we have bought it. In general, this opinion is adopted from the journals of the day, and I have endeavored to show that the cases are rare indeed in which these journals express any other sentiment about books than such as may be attributed directly or indirectly to the authors of the books. The most “popular,” the most “successful" writers among us, (for a brief period, at least,) are, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, persons of mere address, perseverance, effrontery--in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks. These people easily succeed in boring editors (whose attention is too often entirely engrossed by politics or other “ business” matter) into the admission of favorable notices written or caused to be written by interested parties—or, at least, into the admission of some notice where, under ordinary circumstances, no notice would be given at all. In this way ephemeral “reputations” are manufactured, which, for the most part, serve all the purposes de signed—that is to say, the putting money into the purse of the quack and the quack's publisher; for there never was a quack who could be brought to comprehend the value of mere fame. Now, men of genius will not resort to these manæuvres, because genius involves in its very essence a scorn of chicanery; and thus for a time the quacks always get the advantage of them, both in respect to pecuniary profit and what appears to be public esteem.

There is another point of view, too. Your literary quacks court, in especial, the personal acquaintance of those “connected with the press.” Now these latter, even when penning a voluntary, that is to say, an uninstigated notice of the book of an acquaintance, feel as if writing not so much for the eye of the public as for the eye of the acquaintance, and the notice is fashioned accordingly. The bad points of the work are slurred over, and the good ones brought out into the best light, all this through a feeling akin to that which makes it unpleasant to speak ill of one to one's face. In the case of men of genius, editors, as a general rule, have no such delicacy-for the simple reason that, as a general rule, they have no acquaintance with these men of genius, a class proverbial for shunning society.

But the very editors who hesitate at saying in print an ill word of an author personally known, are usually the most frank in speaking about him privately. In literary society, they seem bent upon avenging the wrongs self-inflicted upon their own consciences. Here, accordingly, the quack is treated as he deserveseven a little more harshly than he deserves—by way of striking a balance. True merit, on the same principle, is apt to be slightly overrated; but, upon the whole, there is a close approximation to absolute honesty of opinion; and this honesty is farther secured by the mere trouble to which it puts one in conversation to model one's countenance to a falsehood. We place on paper without hesitation a tissue of flatteries, to which in society we could not give utterance, for our lives, without either blushing or laughing outright.

For these reasons there exists a very remarkable discrepancy between the apparent public opinion of any given author's merits, and the opinion which is expressed of him orally by those who

« PreviousContinue »