Edgar Allan Poe vigorously denounced the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy. He had no sympathy with abstract political notions such as those which had produced liberal republican theory in America and elsewhere. Like Edmund Burke, Poe was highly suspicious of the “well-constructed Republic.”
The opinion has been often stated that Edgar Allan Poe was bizarre and amoral; that he was a lover of morbid beauty only; that he was unrelated to worldly circumstances-aloof from the affairs of the world; that his epitaph might well be: “Out of space-out of time.”
But it is dangerous to attempt to separate any historical figure from his setting. No individual can ever be understood fully until the subtle influences of his formal education, his reading, his associates, and his time and country (with his heredity) are traced and synthesized. Too much has been said, perhaps, about Poe’s “detachment” from his environment and too little about his background—his heritage from Europe and the influences of his early life in Virginia. Elizabeth Arnold, Poe’s mother, was born in England in 1787 and was brought to this country when she was a girl of nine. “In speaking of my mother,” Poe wrote years later to Beverley Tucker of Virginia, “you have touched a string to which my heart fully responds.” Judging from his spirited defense of Elizabeth Poe, it appears that Poe never became unmindful of his immediate English origins on the maternal side.
Poe’s ancestry on his father’s side was Scotch-Irish and has been traced through County Cavon to Ayrshire, Scotland. The fact that Poe’s Presbyterian Scottish ancestors dwelled for a time in the north of Ireland has caused even so good a scholar as Arthur Hobson Quinn to engage in surprising speculation about an “Irish strain” in Poe and about a “Celtic” trait of perverseness which he had “discovered” in the Poe family.
There are questions as to how much of the pre-Teutonic Celtic stock survives in the Scottish lowlands, questions about the extent of Anglo-Saxon and Danish incursions there. And so Professor Quinn’s theory about an “Irish” perverseness is truly an idea fetched from afar. In evaluating Poe’s ethnic heritage it is enough to say that his forbears were English and Scottish and, quite likely, predominantly Anglo-Saxon, the strain which, as Poe himself wrote, animated the American heart.
Poe, unlike other great American writers of his time, spent a considerable portion of his childhood in Britain. In 1815, John Allan set out for England, accompanied by his wife, Frances Allan; his sister-in-law, “Aunt Nancy” Valentine; and his six-year-old foster son, Edgar Poe. For a time Edgar attended the small London school of Miss Dubourg (a name which subsequently was to appear in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) and later, for a period of three years from 1817 to 1820, was sent to a better school, the Manor House at Stoke Newington near London. Here Poe, in addition to being affected profoundly by the atmosphere of England, studied French, Latin, history and literature. The Manor House School, with its “Dr.” Bransby, Poe later was to transplant bodily to the semi-autobiographical tale “William Wilson” (1840).
Poe saw a good deal of Scotland, too, on first arriving in Britain and may have attended school in Irvine for a time. It would be difficult to estimate the impact of these formative years in Britain upon the youthful Poe.
Poe’s foster father, John Allan, was himself born and bred in Irvine, Ayrshire, and was a member of the class of English and Scottish merchants of Richmond, Virginia-to which city he had emigrated as a youth around 1795. Scottish merchants represented a very considerable element in the commercial life of Richmond in those years, and many of them, to a considerable extent, maintained themselves aloof from the life of the city. The Scottish influences of Allan and his associates and friends could not have been lost upon Poe.
The Richmond which Poe knew was (more than Philadelphia or New York) aristocratic and English. Virginia society, Poe himself noted, had been as “absolutely aristocratical as any in Europe.” This is not to imply the existence of any chasmal gulf separating the American and British minds, respectively, in the first half of the nineteenth century; but it was in Virginia, probably, that the least divergence was to be discerned.
“I am a Virginian,” declared Poe; and “the distinguishing features of Virginian character at present-features of a marked nature—not elsewhere to be met with in America-and evidently akin to that chivalry which denoted the Cavalier—can be in no manner so well accounted for as by considering them the debris of a devoted loyalty.” Poe’s Virginia background may or may not have rendered him typically American, but it seems reasonable to think that it fostered in him a Virginian Anglo-American attitude as opposed to an Anglophobic Americanism so common at that time in New England.
When Poe was just seventeen, his name was entered in the matriculation books of the new University of Virginia. This period of ten months, between St. Valentine’s Day and Christmas, 1826, which Poe spent at the University, marks the end of his formative youth. The general direction which his genius was to follow had been fairly established.
It may be that Poe was embittered by his forced withdrawal from the University. During his life he never returned there, and, though there are oblique references to Charlottesville in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” and in The Journal of Julius Rodman, no other allusions to the University are to be found in his written work.
The concern of the Pounder to advance republican ideals and republican politics among the students of the University was not notably effectual with one student at least: Poe was not receptive to Jeffersonian liberalism. But many of the impressions which Poe received at Charlottesville, both within and without the lecture rooms, must have remained with him. The young admirer of classic grandeur, we know, was impressed by the graceful Rotunda. About Poe at Virginia, Philip Alexander Bruce writes as follows:
Profound must have been the appeal to his subtle aesthetic sense even in youth as he looked at all those classic buildings on some night when the rays of a full moon had softened and blended the separate details of roof and entablature, cornice, and, pillar. It may well have been that, at such an hour and in such a spot, the most celebrated expression in the entire body of his writings was suggested to him by so extraordinary an interfusion of Nature’s beauty with the beauty of art in one of its loveliest forms.
Though fully a third of Poe’s critical reviews deal with American authors, almost two-thirds of the reviews treat British or European books. Only about half of Poe’s tales have reference to contemporary matters, and only a small number of these reflect the American scene. Three times as many of the tales have designated European settings as have American settings.
The success of Poe in translation indicates his possession of a universal point of view. The recognition which he has received in France, Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain and Britain has no parallel among other American writers. Poe has become a world-author, and this fact depends very largely upon the universality of his appeal. “Poe is my spiritual and literary father,” asserted the Spaniard Vicente Blasco Ibanez. Baudelaire prayed to Poe as a literary saint. The Germans regard him as the foremost American writer. The Russians began translating him in the 1830s even before he was known in America.
Poe’s first great champion and biographer was the Englishman Ingram. So strong was Poe’s affinity with the life of Europe that legend has carried him there in spite of reality, and it is with some ineffectuality that his biographers explain that he at no time visited Ireland, Greece, France or Russia.
As a critic, Poe often expressed national sentiments. He urged Americans to build their own literature, to avoid a blind adulation of, or slavish imitation of, Europeans simply because they were Europeans. But at the same time, Poe warned against literary chauvanism, which tended to overpraise every dull American writer simply because he happened to be American. Poe’s detached and objective attitude could become, and often did become, highly critical of American society and American ideals. In discussing American taste, he wrote:
“We have no aristocracy of blood, and having therefore as a natural, and indeed as an inevitable thing, fashioned for ourselves an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth has here to take the place and perform the office of the heraldic display in monarchical countries. By a transition readily understood, and which might have been as readily foreseen, we have been brought to merge in simple show our notions of taste itself.”
All this, Poe added, is an “evil growing out of our republican institutions.” In “Some Words with a Mummy,” in “Mellonta Tauta” and in other tales, Poe vigorously denounced the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy. He had no sympathy with abstract political notions such as those which, after Locke, had produced liberal republican theory in America and elsewhere. Though lacking the scope and political understanding of Burke, Poe was, like Burke, highly suspicious of the “well-constructed Republic.” In “Mellonta Tauta,” we learn that the “ancient Amriccans”
started with the queerest idea conceivable, viz; that all men are born free and equal-this in the very teeth of the laws of gradation so visibly impressed upon all things both in the moral and physical universe. Every man “voted,” as they called it-that is to say, meddled with public affairs-until, at length, it was discovered that what is everybody’s business is nobody’s, and that the “Republic” (as the absurd thing was called) was without a government at all. It is related, however, that the first circumstance which disturbed, very particularly, the self-complacency of the philosophers who constructed this “Republic,” was the startling discovery that universal suffrage gave opportunity for fraudulent schemes….A little reflection upon this discovery sufficed to render evident the consequences, which were that rascality must predominate— in a word, that a republican government could never be anything but a rascally one. While the philosophers, however, were busied in blushing at their stupidity in not having foreseen these inevitable evils, and intent upon the invention of new theories, the matter was put to an abrupt issue by a fellow of the name of Mob, who took everything into his own hands and set up a despotism…. As for republicanism, no analogy could be found for it upon the face of the earth—unless we except the case of the “prairie dogs,” an exception which seems to demonstrate, if anything, that democracy is a very admirable form of government—for dogs.
In a review of 1836 Poe referred to the “bigoted lover of abstract Democracy” and appealed to Americans to divert their minds “from that perpetual and unhealthy excitement about the forms and machinery” of government to a greater care of the results of government-“the happiness of a people.”
Indeed, Poe seems much more the Southerner than the Yankee American, and it is not hard to guess which path he would have chosen had he lived into the 1860’s. One may be very sure that Edgar Poe, though born, almost by accident, in Boston, would have proved one of the Confederacy’s most eloquent and committed partisans. In reviewing the various factors which we may believe shaped Poe’s youthful mind, we would expect to find in Poe, and in re-examining his opinions we do find, a cosmopolitan rather than a parochial outlook. And yet, at the same time, we know Poe was serious when he proclaimed, “I am a Virginian!” We may be justified in looking upon the general influences of his formative years as contributing factors in the development of strong inclinations to Europe, Britain and the American South, rather than to the American Union.
Republished with gracious permission of The Abbeville Institute. The essay was originally published in the First Quarter 1991 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.
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The featured image is a drawing made from an 1848 daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, known as “Ultima Thule.” It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.