Edgar Allan Poe and Literary Criticism

...his harsher reviews created enemies and earned him the nickname 'the man with the tomahawk'

Edgar Allan Poe first came to the attention of the literary world as a magazine editor and critic. He wrote nearly one thousand essays, reviews, articles, columns, and critical notices that appeared in magazines, newspapers, and annuals. Poe was among the first to propose setting standards by which to judge literary works, and created his own vision of what constituted good literature by studying writers that ranged from Plato and Aristotle to Milton and Coleridge. His influential theory of “unity of effect” states that the author of a short story should construct a tale to fit one overall purpose or effect.

Poe believed his role as a critic included exposing poor writing and demanding that American writers meet higher standards. His critical reviews often included a detailed technical examination of the work at hand, and his observations ranged from pointing out grammatical errors to exposing illogical reasoning.

The witty fashion in which Poe delivered his critiques helped increase the circulation of the magazines for which he worked, while his harsher reviews created enemies and earned him the nickname “the man with the tomahawk.” The following is a sample from the opening paragraph of Poe’s review of a book by George B. Cheever:

“He is much better known, however, as the editor of ‘The Commonplace Book of American Poetry,’ a work which has at least the merit of not belying its title, and is exceedingly commonplace.”

Among Poe's ideas of literary criticism was the belief that a work should be reviewed for its own worth, and that non-literary criteria like a writer's background or social status should be irrelevant. Over a century later, literary critics such as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and R.P. Blackmur adopted the same approach.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site

Last updated: October 12, 2017