American Contrasts: Poe and Emerson

PjimageCrispin Sartwell at The Millions:

It’s hard to imagine two more different temperaments than those of Edgar Allan Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson, contemporaries who, even in their own lifetimes, were conceived in opposite terms: darkness and light, illness and health, extreme depression and unbridled optimism, self-destruction and self-affirmation. Emerson was thought to be an emblem of America the Symbol: America the new birth of freedom, the unlimited frontier of possibility. But Poe’s surreal, claustrophobic, and weirdly rationalistic American Gothic, his world of vice, madness, and murder somehow put into motion by dark applications of reason, depicts an America that is no less real than Emerson’s, though also no more real.

Poe was a well-known literary critic, but not so well-known that Emerson — the most famous and beloved American literary figure of his day — couldn’t afford to ignore him. He did take enough time out to dismiss Poe — no doubt on the basis of “The Raven” — as a “jingle man.” Like many of the literary lights of the time, he probably regarded Poe as tasteless. For his part, Poe regarded Emerson, with “reverence,” as extremely tasteful, and boring in his tastefulness: “It is Taste on her death-bed — Taste kicking in articulo mortis.” Poe portrayed himself as an enemy of the Transcendentalists at least to the extent of often sneering at them. He called Emerson “over-rated” and remarked on the lack of basic logic and rationality in his philosophy.

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