The Literati of New York Part I by Edgar Allan Poe
The Literati of New York City Part I
The Literati of New York City Part II
The Literati of New York City Part III
The Literati of New York City Part IV
The Literati of New York City Part V
The Literati of New York City Part VI
THE LITERATI OF NEW YORK CITY. — NO. I.
SOME HONEST OPINIONS AT RANDOM RESPECTING THEIR AUTORIAL MERITS, WITH OCCASIONAL WORDS OF PERSONALITY.
BY EDGAR A. POE.
May 1846 — Godey’s Lady’s Book
IN a criticism on Bryant published in the last number of this magazine, 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 endeavoured 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 favourable 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 designed — 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 manœuvres, 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 deserves — even 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 are best qualified to judge. For example, Mr. Hawthorne, the author of “Twice-Told Tales,” is scarcely recognised by the press or by the public, and when noticed at all, is noticed merely to be damned by faint praise. Now, my own opinion of him is, that although his walk is limited and he is fairly to be charged with mannerism, treating all subjects in a similar tone of dreamy innuendo, yet in this walk he evinces extraordinary genius, having no rival either in America or elsewhere — and this opinion I have never heard gainsaid by any one literary person in the country. That this opinion, however, is a spoken and not a written one, is referable to the facts, first, that Mr. Hawthorne is a poor man, and, second, that he is not an ubiquitous quack.
Again, of Mr. Longfellow, who, although little quacky per se, has, through his social and literary position as a man of property and a professor at Harvard, a whole legion of active quacks at his control — of him what is the apparent popular opinion? Of course, that he is a poetical phenomenon, as entirely without fault as is the luxurious paper upon which his poems are invariably borne to the public eye. In private society he is regarded with one voice as a poet of far more than usual ability, a skillful artist and a well-read man, but as less remarkable in either capacity than as a determined imitator and a dexterous adapter of the ideas of other people. For years I have conversed with no literary person who did not entertain precisely these ideas of Professor L.; and, in fact, on all literary topics there is in society a seemingly wonderful coincidence of opinion. The author accustomed to seclusion, and mingling for the first time with those who have been associated with him only through their works, is astonished and delighted at finding common to all whom he meets conclusions which he had blindly fancied were attained by himself alone and in opposition to the judgment of mankind.
In the series of papers which I now propose, my design is, in giving my own unbiased opinion of the literati (male and female) of New York, to give at the same time, very closely if not with absolute accuracy, that of conversational society in literary circles. It must be expected, of course, that, in innumerable particulars, I shall differ from the voice, that is to say, from what appears to be the voice of the public — but this is a matter of no consequence whatever.
New York literature may be taken as a fair representation of that of the country at large. The city itself is the focus of American letters. Its authors include, perhaps, one-fourth of all in America, and the influence they exert on their brethren, if seemingly silent, is not the less extensive and decisive. As I shall have to speak of many individuals, my limits will not permit me to speak of them otherwise than in brief; but this brevity will be merely consistent with the design, which is that of simple opinion, with little of either argument or detail. With one or two exceptions I am well acquainted with every author to be introduced, and I shall avail myself of the acquaintance to convey, generally, some idea of the personal appearance of all who, in this regard, would be likely to interest the readers of the magazine. As any precise order or arrangement seems unnecessary and may be inconvenient, I shall maintain none. It will be understood that, without reference to supposed merit or demerit, each individual is introduced absolutely at random.
The Reverend George Bush is Professor of Hebrew in the University of New York, and has long been distinguished for the extent and variety of his attainments in oriental literature; indeed, as an oriental linguist it is probable that he has no equal among us. He has published a great deal, and his books have always the good fortune to attract attention throughout the civilized world. His “Treatise on the Millennium” is, perhaps, that of his earlier compositions by which he is most extensively as well as most favourably known. Of late days he has created a singular commotion in the realm of theology by his “Anastasis, or the Doctrine of the Resurrection: in which it is shown that the Doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body is not sanctioned by Reason or Revelation.” This work has been zealously attacked, and as zealously defended by the professor and his friends. There can be no doubt that, up to this period, the Bushites have had the best of the battle. The “Anastasis” is lucidly, succinctly, vigorously and logically written, and proves, in my opinion, everything that it attempts — provided we admit the imaginary axioms from which it starts; and this is as much as can be well said of any theological disquisition under the sun. It might be hinted, too, in reference as well to Professor Bush as to his opponents, “que la plupart del sectes ont raison dans une bonne partie de ce qu’elles avancent, mais non pas en ce qu’elles nient.” A subsequent work on “The Soul,” by the author of “Anastasis,” has made nearly as much noise as the “Anastasis” itself.
Taylor, who wrote so ingeniously “The Natural History of Enthusiasm,” might have derived many a valuable hint from the study of Professor Bush. No man is more ardent in his theories; and these latter are neither few nor commonplace. He is a Mesmerist and a Swedenborgian — has lately been engaged in editing Swedenborg’s works, publishing them in numbers. He converses with fervour, and often with eloquence. Very probably he will establish an independent church.
He is one of the most amiable men in the world, universally respected and beloved. His frank, unpretending simplicity of demeanour, is especially winning.
In person, he is tall, nearly six feet, and spare, with large bones. His countenance expresses rather benevolence and profound earnestness than high intelligence. The eyes are piercing; the other features, in general, massive. The forehead, phrenologically, indicates causality and comparison, with deficient ideality — the organization which induces strict logicality from insufficient premises. He walks with a slouching gait and with an air of abstraction. His dress is exceedingly plain. In respect to the arrangement about his study, he has many of the Magliabechian habits. He is, perhaps, fifty-five years of age, and seems to enjoy good health.
GEORGE H. COLTON.
Mr. Colton is noted as the author of “Tecumseh,” and as the originator and editor of “The American Review,” a Whig magazine of the higher (that is to say, of the five dollar) class. I must not be understood as meaning any disrespect to the work. It is, in my opinion, by far the best of its order in this country, and is supported in the way of contribution by many of the very noblest intellects. Mr. Colton, if in nothing else, has shown himself a man of genius in his successful establishment of the magazine within so brief a period. It is now commencing its second year, and I can say, from my own personal knowledge, that its circulation exceeds two thousand — it is probably about two thousand five hundred. So marked and immediate a success has never been attained by any of our five dollar magazines, with the exception of “The Southern Literary Messenger,” which, in the course of nineteen months, (subsequent to the seventh from its commencement,) attained a circulation of rather more than five thousand.
I cannot conscientiously call Mr. Colton a good editor, although I think that he will finally be so. He improves wonderfully with experience. His present defects are timidity and a lurking taint of partiality, amounting to positive prejudice (in the vulgar sense) for the literature of the Puritans. I do not think, however, that he is at all aware of such prepossession. His taste is rather unexceptionable than positively good. He has not, perhaps, sufficient fire within himself to appreciate it in others. Nevertheless, he endeavours to do so, and in this endeavour is not inapt to take opinions at secondhand — to adopt, I mean, the opinions of others. He is nervous, and a very trifling difficulty disconcerts him, without getting the better of a sort of dogged perseverance, which will make a thoroughly successful man of him in the end. He is (classically) well educated.
As a poet he has done better things than “Tecumseh,” in whose length he has committed a radical and irreparable error, sufficient in itself to destroy a far better book. Some portions of it are truly poetical; very many portions belong to a high order of eloquence; it is invariably well versified, and has no glaring defects, but, upon the whole, is insufferably tedious. Some of the author’s shorter compositions, published anonymously in his magazine, have afforded indications even of genius.
Mr. Colton is marked in his personal appearance. He is probably not more than thirty, but an air of constant thought (with a pair of spectacles) causes him to seem somewhat older. He is about five feet eight or nine in height, and fairly proportioned — neither stout nor thin. His forehead is quite intellectual. His mouth has a peculiar expression difficult to describe. Hair light and generally in disorder. He converses fluently and, upon the whole, well, but grandiloquently, and with a tone half tragical [[,]] half pulpital.
In character he is in the highest degree estimable, a most sincere, high-minded and altogether honourable man. He is unmarried.
N. P. WILLIS.
Whatever may be thought of Mr. Willis’s talents, there can be no doubt about the fact that, both as an author and as a man, he has made a good deal of noise in the world — at least for an American. His literary life, in especial, has been one continual émeute; but then his literary character is modified or impelled in a very remarkable degree by his personal one. His success (for in point of fame, if of nothing else, he has certainly been successful) is to be attributed, one-third to his mental ability and two-thirds to his physical temperament — the latter goading him into the accomplishment of what the former merely gave him the means of accomplishing.
At a very early age Mr Willis seems to have arrived at an understanding that, in a republic such as ours, the mere man of letters must ever be a cipher, and endeavoured, accordingly, to unite the éclat of the littérateur with that of the man of fashion or of society. He “pushed himself,” went much into the world, made friends with the gentler sex, “delivered” poetical addresses, wrote “scriptural” poems, traveled, sought the intimacy of noted women, and got into quarrels with notorious men. All these things served his purpose — if, indeed, I am right in supposing that he had any purpose at all. It is quite probable that, as before hinted, he acted only in accordance with his physical temperament; but be this as it may, his personal greatly advanced, if it did not altogether establish his literary fame. I have often carefully considered whether, without the physique of which I speak, there is that in the absolute morale of Mr. Willis which would have earned him reputation as a man of letters, and my conclusion is, that he could not have failed to become noted in some degree under almost any circumstances, but that about two-thirds (as above stated) of his appreciation by the public should be attributed to those adventures which grew immediately out of his animal constitution.
He received what is usually regarded as a “good education” — that is to say, he graduated at college; but his education, in the path he pursued, was worth to him, on account of his extraordinary savoir faire, fully twice as much as would have been its value in any common case. No man’s knowledge is more available, no man has exhibited greater tact in the seemingly casual display of his wares. With him, at least, a little learning is no dangerous thing. He possessed at one time, I believe, the average quantum of American collegiate lore — “a little Latin and less Greek,” a smattering of physical and metaphysical science, and (I should judge) a very little of the mathematics — but all this must be considered as mere guess on my part. Mr. Willis speaks French with some fluency, and Italian not quite so well.
Within the ordinary range of belles lettres authorship, he has evinced much versatility. If called on to designate him by any general literary title, I might term him a magazinist — for his compositions have invariably the species of effect, with the brevity which the magazine demands. We may view him as a paragraphist, an essayist, or rather “sketcher,” a tale writer and a poet.
In the first capacity he fails. His points, however good when deliberately wrought, are too recherchés to be put hurriedly before the public eye. Mr. W. has by no means the readiness which the editing a newspaper demands. He composes (as did Addison, and as do many of the most brilliant and seemingly dashing writers of the present day,) with great labour and frequent erasure and interlineation. His MSS., in this regard, present a very singular appearance, and indicate the vacillation which is, perhaps, the leading trait of his character. A newspaper, too, in its longer articles — its “leaders” — very frequently demands argumentation, and here Mr. W. is remarkably out of his element. His exuberant fancy leads him over hedge and ditch — anywhere from the main road; and, besides, he is far too readily self-dispossessed. With time at command, however, his great tact stands him instead of all argumentative power, and enables him to overthrow an antagonist without permitting the latter to see how he is overthrown. A fine example of this “management” is to be found in Mr. W.’s reply to a very inconsiderate attack upon his social standing made by one of the editors of the New York “Courier and Inquirer.” I have always regarded this reply as the highest evidence of its author’s ability as a masterpiece of ingenuity, if not of absolute genius. The skill of the whole lay in this — that, without troubling himself to refute the charges themselves brought against him by Mr. Raymond, he put forth his strength in rendering them null, to all intents and purposes, by obliterating, incidentally and without letting his design be perceived, all the impression these charges were calculated to convey. But this reply can be called a newspaper article only on the ground of its having appeared in a newspaper.
As a writer of “sketches,” properly so called, Mr. Willis is unequaled. Sketches — especially of society — are his forte, and they are so for no other reason than that they afford him the best opportunity of introducing the personal Willis — or, more distinctly, because this species of composition is most susceptible of impression from his personal character. The degagé tone of this kind of writing, too, best admits and encourages that fancy which Mr. W. possesses in the most extraordinary degree; it is in fancy that he reigns supreme: this, more than any one other quality, and, indeed, more than all his other literary qualities combined, has made him what he is.* It is this which gives him the originality, the freshness, the point, the piquancy, which appear to be the immediate, but which are, in fact, the mediate sources of his popularity.
In tales (written with deliberation for the magazines), he has shown greater constructiveness than I should have given him credit for had I not read his compositions of this order — for in this faculty all his other works indicate a singular deficiency. The chief charm even of these tales, however, is still referable to fancy.
As a poet, Mr. Willis is not entitled, I think, to so high a rank as he may justly claim through his prose; and this for the reason that, although fancy is not inconsistent with any of the demands of those classes of prose compositions which he has attempted, and, indeed, is a vital element of most of them, still it is at war (as will be understood from what I have said in the foot note) with that purity and perfection of beauty which are the soul of the poem proper. I wish to be understood as saying this generally of our author’s poems. In some instances, seeming to feel the truth of my proposition, (that fancy should have no place in the loftier poesy,) he has denied it a place, as in “Melanie” and his Scriptural pieces; but, unfortunately, he has been unable to supply the void with the true imagination, and these poems consequently are deficient in vigour, in stamen. The Scriptural pieces are quite “correct,” as the French have it, and are much admired by a certain set of readers, who judge of a poem, not by its effect on themselves, but by the effect which they imagine it might have upon themselves were they not unhappily soulless, and by the effect which they take it for granted it does have upon others. It cannot be denied, however, that these pieces are, in general, tame, or indebted for what force they possess to the Scriptural passages of which they are merely paraphrastic. I quote what, in my own opinion and in that of nearly all my friends, is really the truest poem ever written by Mr. Willis.
“The shadows lay along Broadway,
‘Twas near the twilight tide,
And slowly there a lady fair
Was walking in her pride —
Alone walked she, yet viewlessly
Walked spirits at her side.
“Peace charmed the street beneath her feet,
And honour charmed the air,
And all astir looked kind on her
And called her good as fair —
For all God ever gave to her
She kept with chary care.
“She kept with care her beauties rare
From lovers warm and true,
For her heart was cold to all but gold,
And the rich came not to woo.
Ah, honoured well are charms to sell
When priests the selling do!
“Now, walking there was one more fair —
A slight girl, lily-pale,
And she had unseen company
To make the spirit quail —
‘Twixt want and scorn she walked forlorn,
And nothing could avail.
“No mercy now can clear her brow
For this world’s peace to pray —
For, as love’s wild prayer dissolved in air,
Her woman’s heart gave way;
And the sin forgiven by Christ in heaven,
By man is cursed alway.”
There is about this little poem (evidently written in haste and through impulse) a true imagination. Its grace, dignity and pathos are impressive, and there is more in it of earnestness, of soul, than in anything I have seen from the pen of its author. His compositions, in general, have a taint of worldliness, of insincerity. The identical rhyme in the last stanza is very noticeable, and the whole finale is feeble. It would be improved by making the last two lines precede the first two of the stanza.
In classifying Mr. W.’s writings I did not think it worth while to speak of him as a dramatist, because, although he has written plays, what they have of merit is altogether in their character of poem. Of his “Bianca Visconti” I have little to say; — it deserved to fail, and did, although it abounded in eloquent passages. “Tortesa” abounded in the same, but had a great many dramatic points well calculated to tell with a conventional audience. Its characters, with the exception of Tomaso, a drunken buffoon, had no character at all, and the plot was a tissue of absurdities, inconsequences and inconsistencies; yet I cannot help thinking it, upon the whole, the best play ever written by an American.
Mr. Willis has made very few attempts at criticism, and those few (chiefly newspaper articles) have not impressed me with a high idea of his analytic abilities, although with a very high idea of his taste and discrimination.
His style proper may be called extravagant, bizarre, pointed, epigrammatic without being antithetical, (this is very rarely the case,) but, through all its whimsicalities, graceful, classic and accurate. He is very seldom to be caught tripping in the minor morals. His English is correct; his most outrageous imagery is, at all events, unmixed.
Mr. Willis’s career has naturally made him enemies among the envious host of dunces whom he has outstripped in the race for fame; and these his personal manner (a little tinctured with reserve, brusquerie, or even haughtiness) is by no means adapted to conciliate. He has innumerable warm friends, however, and is himself a warm friend. He is impulsive, generous, bold, impetuous, vacillating, irregularly energetic — apt to be hurried into error, but incapable of deliberate wrong.
He is yet young, and, without being handsome, in the ordinary sense, is a remarkably well-looking man. In height he is, perhaps, five feet eleven, and justly proportioned. His figure is put in the best light by the ease and assured grace of his carriage. His whole person and personal demeanour bear about them the traces of “good society.” His face is somewhat too full, or rather heavy, in its lower portions. Neither his nose nor his forehead can be defended; the latter would puzzle phrenology. His eyes are a dull bluish gray, and small. His hair is of a rich brown, curling naturally and luxuriantly. His mouth is well cut; the teeth fine; the expression of the smile intellectual and winning. He converses little, well rather than fluently, and in a subdued tone. The portrait of him published about three years ago in “Graham’s Magazine,” conveys by no means so true an idea of the man as does the sketch (by Lawrence) inserted as frontispiece to a late collection of his poems. He is a widower, and has one child, a daughter.
WILLIAM M. GILLESPIE.
Mr. William M. Gillespie aided Mr. Park Benjamin, I believe, some years ago, in the editorial conduct of “The New World,” and has been otherwise connected with the periodical press of New York. He is more favourably known, however, as the author of a neat volume entitled “Rome as Seen by a New Yorker” — a good title to a good book. The endeavour to convey Rome only by those impressions which would naturally be made upon an American, gives the work a certain air of originality — the rarest of all qualities in descriptions of the Eternal City. The style is pure and sparkling, although occasionally flippant and dilletantesque.
The love of remark is much in the usual way — selon les règles — never very exceptionable, and never very profound.
Mr. Gillespie is not unaccomplished, converses readily on many topics, has some knowledge of Italian, French, and, I believe, of the classical tongues, with such proficiency in the mathematics as has obtained for him a professorship of civil engineering at Union College, Schenectady.
In character he has much general amiability, is warm-hearted, excitable, nervous. His address is somewhat awkward, but “insinuating” from its warmth and vivacity. Speaks continuously and rapidly, with a lisp which, at times, is by no means unpleasing; is fidgety, and never knows how to sit or to stand, or what to do with his hands and feet, or his hat. In the street [[he]] walks irregularly, mutters to himself, and, in general, appears in a state of profound abstraction.
In person he is about five feet seven inches high, neither stout nor thin, angularly proportioned; eyes large and dark hazel, hair dark and curling, an illformed nose, fine teeth, and a smile of peculiar sweetness; nothing remarkable about the forehead. The general expression of the countenance when in repose is rather unprepossessing, but animation very much alters its character. He is probably thirty years of age — unmarried.
CHARLES F. BRIGGS.
Mr. Briggs is better known as Harry Franco, a nom de plume assumed since the publication, in the “Knickerbocker” of his series of papers called “Adventures of Harry Franco.” He also wrote for the “Knickerbocker” some articles entitled “The Haunted Merchant,” and from time to time subsequently has been a contributor to that journal. The two productions just mentioned have some merit. They depend for their effect upon the relation in a straightforward manner, just as one would talk, of the most commonplace events — a kind of writing which, to ordinary and especially to indolent intellects, has a very observable charm. To cultivated or to active minds it is in an equal degree distasteful, even when claiming the merit of originality. Mr. Briggs’s manner, however, is an obvious imitation of Smollett, and, as usual with imitation, produces an unfavourable impression upon those conversant with the original. It is a common failing, also, with imitators, to out-Herod Herod in aping the peculiarities of the model, and too frequently the faults are more pertinaciously exaggerated than the merits. Thus, the author of “Harry Franco” carries the simplicity of Smollett to insipidity, and his picturesque low-life is made to degenerate into sheer vulgarity. A fair idea of the general tone of the work may be gathered from the following passage: —
“ ’Come, colonel,’ said the gentleman, slapping me on the shoulder, ‘what’ll you take?’
“ ’Nothing, I thank you,’ I replied; ‘I have taken enough already.’
“ ’What! don’t you liquorate?’
“I shook my head, for I did not exactly understand him.
“ ’Don’t drink, hey?’
“ ’Sometimes,’ I answered.
“ ’What! temperance man? — signed a pledge?’
“ ’No, I have not signed a pledge not to drink.’
“ ’Then you shall take a horn — so come along.’
“And so saying he dragged me up to the bar.
“ ’Now, what’ll you take — julep, sling, cocktail or sherry cobbler?’
“ ’Anything you choose,’ I replied, for I had not the most remote idea what the drinks were composed of which he enumerated.
“ ’Then give us a couple of cocktails, barkeeper,’ said the gentleman; ‘and let us have them as quick as you damn please, for I am as thirsty as the great desert of Sahara which old Judah Paddock traveled over.’ ”
If Mr. Briggs has a forte, it is a Flemish fidelity that omits nothing, whether agreeable or disagreeable; but I cannot call this forte a virtue. He has also some humour, but nothing of an original character. Occasionally he has written good things. A magazine article called “Dobbs and his Cantelope” was quite easy and clever in its way; but the way is necessarily a small one. Now and then he has attempted criticism, of which, as might be expected, he made a farce. The silliest thing of this kind ever penned, perhaps, was an elaborate attack of his on Thomas Babington Macaulay, published in “The Democratic Review;” — the force of folly could no farther go. Mr. Briggs has never composed in his life three consecutive sentences of grammatical English. He is grossly uneducated.
In connection with Mr. John Bisco he was the originator of the late “Broadway Journal” — my editorial association with that work not having commenced until the sixth or seventh number, although I wrote for it occasionally from the first. Among the principal papers contributed by Mr. B. were those discussing the paintings at the last exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts in New York. I may be permitted to say that there was scarcely a point in his whole series of criticisms on this subject at which I did not radically disagree with him. Whatever taste he has in art is, like his taste in letters, Flemish.
Mr. Briggs’s personal appearance is not prepossessing. He is about five feet six inches in height, somewhat slightly framed, with a sharp, thin face, narrow and low forehead, pert-looking nose, mouth rather pleasant in expression, eyes not so good, gray and small, although occasionally brilliant. In dress he is apt to affect the artist, priding himself especially upon his personal acquaintance with artists and his general connoisseurship. He is a member of the Art Union. He walks with a quick, nervous step. His address is quite good, frank and insinuating. His conversation has now and then the merit of humour, but he has a perfect mania for contradiction, and it is impossible to utter an uninterrupted sentence in his hearing. He has much warmth of feeling, and is not a person to be disliked, although very apt to irritate and annoy. Two of his most marked characteristics are vacillation of purpose and a passion for being mysterious. His most intimate friends seem to know nothing of his movements, and it is folly to expect from him a direct answer about anything. He has, apparently, traveled; pretends to a knowledge of French (of which he is profoundly ignorant); has been engaged in an infinite variety of employments, and now, I believe, occupies a lawyer’s office in Nassau street. He is married, goes little into society, and seems about forty years of age.
Mr. William Kirkland — husband of the author of “A New Home” — has written much for the magazines, but has made no collection of his works. A series of “Letters from Abroad” have been among his most popular compositions. He was in Europe for some time, and is well acquainted with the French language and literature, as also with the German. He aided Dr. Turner in the late translation of Von Raumer’s “America,” published by the Langleys. One of his best magazine papers appeared in “The Columbian” — a review of the London Foreign Quarterly for April, 1844. The arrogance, ignorance and self-glorification of the Quarterly, with its gross injustice towards everything un-British, were severely and palpably exposed, and its narrow malignity shown to be especially mal-à-propos in a journal exclusively devoted to foreign concerns, and therefore presumably imbued with something of a cosmopolitan spirit. An article on “English and American Monthlies” in Godey’s Magazine, and one entitled “Our English Visitors,” in “The Columbian,” have also been extensively read and admired. A valuable essay on “The Tyranny of Public Opinion in the United States,” (published in “The Columbian” for December, 1845) demonstrates the truth of Jefferson’s assertion, that in this country, which has set the world an example of physical liberty, the inquisition of popular sentiment overrules in practice the freedom asserted in theory by the laws. “The West, the Paradise of the Poor,” and “The United States’ Census for 1830,” the former in “The Democratic Review,” the latter in “Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine,” with sundry essays in the daily papers, complete the list of Mr. Kirkland’s works. It will be seen that he has written little, but that little is entitled to respect, for its simplicity and the evidence which it affords of scholarship and diligent research. Whatever Mr. Kirkland does is done carefully. He is occasionally very caustic, but seldom without cause. His style is vigorous, precise, and, notwithstanding his foreign acquirements, free from idiomatic peculiarities.
Mr. Kirkland is beloved by all who know him; in character mild, unassuming, benevolent, yet not without becoming energy at times; in person rather short and slight; features indistinctive; converses well and zealously, although his hearing is defective.
JOHN W. FRANCIS.
Doctor Francis, although by no means a littérateur, cannot well be omitted in an account of the New York literati. In his capacity of physician and medical lecturer he is far too well known to need comment. He was the pupil, friend and partner of Hossack — the pupil of Abernethy — connected in some manner with everything that has been well said or done medicinally in America. As a medical essayist he has always commanded the highest respect and attention. Among the points he has made at various times, I may mention his Anatomy of Drunkenness, his views of the Asiatic Cholera, his analysis of the Avon waters of the state, his establishment of the comparative immunity of the constitution from a second attack of yellow fever, and his pathological propositions on the changes wrought in the system by specific poisons through their assimilation — propositions remarkably sustained and enforced by recent discoveries of Liebig.
In unprofessional letters Doctor Francis has also accomplished much, although necessarily in a discursive manner. His biography of Chancellor Livingston, his Horticultural Discourse, his Discourse at the opening of the new hall of the New York Lyceum of Natural History, are (each in its way) models of fine writing, just sufficiently toned down by an indomitable common sense. I had nearly forgotten to mention his admirable sketch of the personal associations of Bishop Berkeley, of Newport.
Doctor Francis is one of the old spirits of the New York Historical Society. His philanthropy, his active, untiring beneficence will forever render his name a household word among the truly Christian of heart. His professional services and his purse are always at the command of the needy; few of our wealthiest men have ever contributed to the relief of distress so bountifully — none certainly with greater readiness or with warmer sympathy.
His person and manner are richly peculiar. He is short and stout, probably five feet five in height, limbs of great muscularity and strength, the whole frame indicating prodigious vitality and energy — the latter is, in fact, the leading trait in his character. His head is large, massive — the features in keeping; complexion dark florid; eyes piercingly bright; mouth exceedingly mobile and expressive; hair gray, and worn in matted locks about the neck and shoulders — eyebrows to correspond, jagged and ponderous. His age is about fifty-eight. His general appearance is such as to arrest attention.
His address is the most genial that can be conceived, its bonhommie irresistible. He speaks in a loud, clear, hearty tone, dogmatically, with his head thrown back and his chest out; never waits for an introduction to anybody; slaps a perfect stranger on the back and cells him “Doctor” or “Learned Theban;” pats every lady on the head and (if she be pretty and petite) designates her by some such title as “My Pocket Edition of the Lives of the Saints.” His conversation proper is a sort of Roman punch made up of tragedy, comedy, and the broadest of all possible farce. He has a natural, felicitous flow of talk, always overswelling its boundaries and sweeping everything before it right and left. He is very earnest, intense, emphatic; thumps the table with his first [fist]; shocks the nerves of the ladies. His forte, after all, is humour, the richest conceivable — a compound of Swift, Rabelais, and the clown in the pantomime. He is married.
The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 197, running to the bottom of page 198:
* As, by metaphysicians and in ordinary discourse, the word fancy is used with very little determinateness of meaning, I may be pardoned for repeating here what I have elsewhere said on this topic. I shall thus be saved much misapprehension in regard to the term—one which will necessarily be often employed in the course of this series.
“Fancy,” says the author of “Aids to Reflection,” (who aided reflection to much better purpose in his “Genevieve”) — “fancy combines — imagination creates.” This was intended and has been received as a distinction, but it is a distinction without a difference — without a difference even of degree. The fancy as nearly creates as the imagination, and neither at all. Novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations. (The mind of man can imagine nothing which does not really exist; if it could, it would create not only ideally but substantially, as do the thoughts of God. It may be said, “We imagine a griffin, yet a griffin does not exist.” Not the griffin, certainly, but its component parts. It is no more than a collation of known limbs, features, qualities. Thus with all which claims to be new, which appears to be a creation of the intellect — all is re-soluble into the old. The wildest effort of the mind cannot stand the test of this analysis.
Imagination, fancy, fantasy and humour, have in common the elements combination and novelty. The imagination is the artist of the four. From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects such only as are harmonious; the result, of course, is beauty itself — using the word in its most extended sense and as inclusive of the sublime. The pure imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined; the compound, as a general rule, partaking in character of sublimity or beauty in the ratio of the respective sublimity or beauty of the things combined, which are themselves still to be considered as atomic — that is to say, as previous combinations. But, as often analogously happens in physical chemistry, so not unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements will result in a something that shall have nothing of the quality of one of them — or even nothing of the qualities of either. The range of imagination is thus unlimited. Its materials extend throughout the universe. Even out of deformities it fabricates that beauty which is at once its sole object and its inevitable test But, in general, the richness of the matters combined, the facility of discovering combinable novelties worth combining, and the absolute “chemical combination” of the completed mass, are the particulars to be regarded in our estimate of imagination. It is this thorough harmony of an imaginative work which so often causes it to be undervalued by the undiscriminating, through the character of obviousness which is superinduced. We are apt to find ourselves asking why it is that these combinations have never been imagined before.
Now, when this question does not occur, when the harmony of the combination is comparatively neglected, and when, in addition to the element of novelty, there is introduced the sub-element of unexpectedness — when, for example, matters are brought into combination which not only have never been combined, but whose combination strikes us as a difficulty happily overcome, the result then appertains to the fancy, and is, to the majority of mankind, more grateful than the purely harmonious one — although, absolutely, it is less beautiful (or grand) for the reason that it is less harmonious.
Carrying its errors into excess — for, however enticing, they are errors still, or nature lies — fancy is at length found infringing upon the province of fantasy. The votaries of this latter delight not only in novelty and unexpectedness of combination, but in the avoidance of proportion. The result is, therefore, abnormal, and, to a healthy mind, affords less of pleasure through its novelty than of pain through its incoherence. When, proceeding a step farther, however, fancy seeks not merely disproportionate but incongruous or antagonistic elements, the effect is rendered more pleasurable by its greater positiveness; there is a merry effort of truth to shake from her that which is no property of hers, and we laugh outright in recognizing humour. The four faculties in question seem to me all of their class; but when either fancy or humour is expressed to gain an end, is pointed at a purpose — whenever either becomes objective in place of subjective, then it becomes, also, pure wit or sarcasm, just as the purpose is benevolent or malevolent.
The Literati of New York by Edgar Allan Poe
The Literati of New York City Part I
The Literati of New York City Part II
The Literati of New York City Part III
The Literati of New York City Part IV
The Literati of New York City Part V
The Literati of New York City Part VI