Reference > Cambridge History > Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I > Poe > Character
  Later Misfortunes Poe as Critic  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XIV. Poe.

§ 10. Character.

As to Poe’s character and personality the most divergent views have been expressed. According to Griswold, whom he chose as his literary executor, Poe was a “naturally unamiable character,” arrogant, “irascible, envious,” without “moral susceptibility” or sense of gratitude, and exhibiting “scarcely any virtue in either his life or his writings.” According to the Richmond editor, John M. Daniel, who saw him frequently during the summer of 1849, he was sour of nature, capricious, selfish, a misanthrope, possessing “little moral sense.” In the view of Lowell’s friend, C. F. Briggs, with whom he was associated for several months in 1845 as co-editor of the Broadway Journal, he was “badly made up,” a “characterless character,” and “utterly deficient of high motive.” And Horace Greeley was disturbed lest Mrs. Whitman should marry him, giving it as his opinion that such a union would be a “terrible conjunction.” To N. P. Willis, on the other hand, who perhaps knew him better than any other outside of his immediate family during his last half-dozen years, there appeared, during several months of close association with him in 1844–1845, “but one presentment of the man,—a quiet, patient, industrious, and most gentlemanly person, commanding the utmost respect and good feeling by his unvarying deportment and ability”; and in subsequent years he saw, so he declares, nothing of the arrogance, vanity, and depravity of heart “that were commonly attributed to him.” And George R. Graham, editor of the magazine that bore his name, testifies that, when he knew him best (in the first half of the forties), “he had the docility and kind-heartedness of a child,” and that “no man was more quickly touched by a kindness, none more prompt to make return for an injury,” and, further, that he was “the soul of honour in all his transactions.” Kennedy notes that he was “irregular, eccentric, and querulous,” but adds—as if in set rejoinder to Griswold’s charge that he was incapable of gratitude for service done—that “he always remembered my kindness with gratitude.” As time has passed and we have come to know more about Poe’s life, it has become more and more evident that the view of his character held by Griswold and those who sided with him was unduly harsh, 5  though it remains clear, nevertheless, that Poe was not without regrettable traits and serious weaknesses. It is plain, first of all, that he was abnormally proud and sensitive and impulsive; it is equally plain that he was thoroughly undignified and ungenerous in his attacks on certain of his contemporaries who had aroused his envy or incurred his dislike. We have already noted that he was not invariably accurate of statement, especially in matters pertaining peculiarly to himself; we know, too, that he was an incessant borrower, and that he neglected in some instances to make good his borrowings at the appointed time,—though there is no conclusive evidence of dishonesty of intent on his part. And all the world knows that he sometimes drank to excess. But it is also clear—contrary to the popular assumption—that Poe was not a confirmed inebriate: the volume and the quality of his writings sufficiently demonstrate this; and it is not to be denied that he made repeated and manful efforts to shake off the tyranny of drink. Nor can we read his letters—in which we see the true Poe more plainly than elsewhere—without being convinced that he also possessed amiable traits and noble impulses. In any estimate of his character, moreover, it is but just to take into account—as, indeed, most of his recent biographers have done—the influences exerted on his character by heredity and by his early environment 6 ; and it should also be borne in mind that he suffered during most of his later career from serious physical infirmities. 7    14

Note 5. It is due to Griswold, however, to say that his account of Poe’s life, though inaccurate at many points and jaundiced throughout, is more to be relied on than is now commonly assumed. For exposing most of Griswold’s inaccuracies we are indebted to Poe’s English biographer, the late John H. Ingram. [ back ]
Note 6. His father before him was highly impulsive and was over-fond of drink, and his foster-father was not only given to wine-bibbing but was an arch-hypocrite besides. [ back ]
Note 7. The clash of opinion with respect to Poe’s character appears to be due mainly, as Willis suggested, to the fact that most of the contemporary judgments adverse to him were based on his conduct during his spells of inebriation, at which times (as he pathetically admitted more than once) he was largely irresponsible. Most of these estimates, too, are based, naturally, on the poet’s later years, after both body and mind had become enfeebled. Poe himself urged, in partial explanation of his irregularities in his later years, the plea of insanity; and there is reason to believe that he was at one time addicted to the use of opium. [ back ]

  Later Misfortunes Poe as Critic  
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