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

§ 13. Tales

Poe’s tales, which exceed in number his fully authenticated poems, have been held by some of the most judicious of his critics to constitute his chief claim to our attention. There are those who will not subscribe to this view, but it is plain that he was the most important figure in the history of the short story during his half-century. Hawthorne alone may be thought of as vying with him for this distinction; but although the New Englander is infinitely Poe’s superior in some respects—as in the creation of character and in wholesomeness and sanity—he must yield place to him in the creation of incident, in the construction of plot, and in the depicting of an intensely vivid situation. Whether or not we allow Poe the distinction of having invented the short story will depend on our interpretation of terms; but at least he invented the detective story, and more than any other he gave to the short story its vogue in America.

Like his poems, his tales are notably unequal. Some of his earlier efforts—especially his satirical and humorous extravaganzas, as Lionizing and Bon-Bon—are properly to be characterized as rubbish; and he was capable in his later years of descending to such inferior work as The Sphinx, Mellonta Tauta, and X-ing a Paragrab. One feels, indeed, that Lowell’s famous characterization of him:

  • Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge,
  • applies with entire justice to him as a maker of short stories. The best of his narrative work is to be found in his analytical tales, as The Gold Bug or The Descent into the Maelstrom, in certain stories in which he combines his analytical gift with the imaginative and inventive gift, as The Cask of Amontillado and William Wilson, or in certain studies of the pure imagination, as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death. In all of these he displays a skill of construction and of condensation surpassed by few if any other workers in his field. In some—as in The Masque of the Red Death, or in Eleonora, or in his landscape studies—he shows himself a master of English style; and in two of his briefer studies—Shadow and Silence—he approaches the eloquence and splendour of De Quincey.

    His main limitations as a writer of the short story are to be found in the feebleness and flimsiness of his poorer work; in his all but complete lack of healthy humour; in his incapacity to create or to depict character; in his morbidness of mood and grotesqueness of situation. He suffers also in comparison with other leading short-story writers of America and England in consequence of his disdain of the ethical in art (though neither his tales nor his poems are entirely lacking in ethical value); he suffers, again, in comparison with certain present-day masters of the short story in consequence of his lack of variety in theme and form; and he was never expert in the management of dialogue.

    By reason of his fondness for the terrible and for the outré, he is to be classed with the Gothic romancers: he makes constant use of Gothic machinery, of apparitions, cataleptic attacks, premature burial, and life after death. In several of his stories—as also in his long poems, Tamerlane and Al Aaraaf—he follows in the steps of the Orientalists. On the other hand, in some of his tales of incident he achieves a realism and a minuteness of detail that betray unmistakably the influence of Defoe. And it is easy to demonstrate an indebtedness to divers of his contemporaries, as James and Bulwer and Disraeli and Macaulay. It has been proved also that he knew the German romancer, E. T. A. Hoffmann, if not in the original, at least in translation, and that he caught his manner and appropriated his themes. For the rest, he drew for his materials largely on the magazines and newspapers of his day, finding in a famous newspaper sensation of the forties the suggestion of his Mystery of Marie Rogêt (as he had found in another sensation, of the twenties, the plot of his Politian), and taking advantage of certain contemporary fads in his myth-making about mesmerism, ballooning, premature burial, and the like; and he boldly pilfered from government reports, scientific treatises, and works of reference such material as he found serviceable in some of his tales of adventure. Hence his originality may be said to consist rather in combination and adaptation than in more obviously inventive exercises of the fancy.

    Poe’s influence has been far-reaching. As poet, he has had many imitators both in his own country and abroad, but especially in France and England. As romancer he has probably wielded a larger influence than any English writer since Scott. And as critic it is doubtful whether any other of his countrymen has contributed so much toward keeping the balance right between art-for-art’s-sake and didacticism. His fame abroad is admittedly larger than that of any other American writer, and his vogue has been steadily growing among his own people.