Kevin Jackson in Prospect:
American literature came of age in the 19th century, and quite soon produced a remarkable crop of masters. Hawthorne and Melville; Emerson and Thoreau; Longfellow and Whitman; Twain… and very much the odd man out, Poe. Though many of them met with neglect and incomprehension in their lifetimes (Melville’s almost complete lapse into obscurity throughout his later life is the most notorious tale), their posthumous reputations have proved pretty sturdy. Yet one could reasonably argue that none of them has had such a far-reaching and protean influence as Poe—and not just the murky waters of mass culture, but also amid the loftier, more rarefied heights of elite culture.
This dual triumph is all the more improbable when you reflect that, by most standards, Poe was not a very good writer. The historian and critic Owen Dudley Edwards once drew up a list of routine accusations. Poe, he noted, was guilty of “endless self-indulgence, wallowing in atmosphere, incessant lecturing, ruthless discourse on whatever took the writer’s fancy, longueurs, trivialisations, telegraphing of punch-lines, loss of plot in effect, loss of effect in plot… In sum, what Poe lacked above all was a sense of his reader.”
Aldous Huxley pronounced Poe “vulgar,” with a show-off manner he likened to wearing a gaudy ring on every finger. Kingsley Amis admitted to enjoying some of the screen adaptations from the short stories, but thought Poe an execrable stylist. George Orwell acknowledged Poe’s acuity in the depiction of deranged characters but summed him up as “at worst… not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense.” So: a poseur, a poetaster, a borderline lunatic? There is surely some justice in these dismissals. One might go so far as to say that Poe is the worst writer ever to have had any claim to greatness.