was Poe racist?

greenspun.com : LUSENET : The Work of Edgar Allan Poe : One Thread

I am writing my midterm paper on racism issues in the work of Meliville, Poe, Whitman, and Emerson. Does anyone know if Poe is considered to be racist or against the concept of his time?

-- Anonymous, March 16, 2002


Evidence suggests normal attiudes(many horrible but not uncommon by today's standards). Lincoln was pprobably as "racist" as Poe. Like many southerners he accepted the inferiorirty(hint of dark evil symbolism in Pym novel, caricature of black servant Jupiter in "The Gold-Bug" Poe was kind of crude with stock ethnic jokes and characters). He negotiated the sale of an inherited slave for Mrs. Clemm. Few remarks really. Defenders say some articles attacking the abolitionists and defending slavery were not his, but he was one to defend the South(whose weaknesses he would acknowledge otherwise) against the Boston crowd. As a poor man who never owned slaves this was not much of an issue for him. He shared a lot of the democratic, anti-monarchical, independent progressive ideals of the westerner. His real problem naturally was with authority and the rule of the mediocre rich. Certainly not an abolitionist or great social philosopher! "The Man in the Crowd" shows some other type of social commentary dealing with growing urban modernity. I have seen articles or texts on this topic on both side that suggest there is evidence of real interest here, just typical attitudes, including one crude remark about Jews, also stereotypical and common. On the other hand there is Melville, murky picture for a northerner writing poetry for his side. "Benito Cereno" seems to fictionally demonize the Amistad mutinous slaves like the cook chief mutineer in Pym. In fact are any of these guys really non-racist? Just curious.

-- Anonymous, March 16, 2002


I have sent you a response not significantly dissimilar to the views expressed by Mr. Murphy. Much too long for this board, it does contain a little more specificity regarding Poe's sale of Maria Clemm's slave and his "review" of James K Paulding's work on Slavery in the United States. There is a question for you at the conclusion intended to be rhetorical but, now, I find I would be interested in your response should you feel so inclined.

Thank you,

-- Anonymous, March 16, 2002

Since Poe is NOT the author of the infamous Drayton-Paulding review, it cannot be used to establish his attitudes towards slavery. Harrison is mistaken in including it in his collection of Poe's works. The argument against it is virtually conclusive and may be seen at:


-- Anonymous, March 17, 2002

Oh, and you should look for Terance Whalen's book on Poe and the Masses which contains a very thorough evaluation of the subject in a chapter called "Average Racism."

-- Anonymous, March 17, 2002

Curiously, the apparently adamant position of Mr. Private in relation to the long debated attribution of this April 1836 review/commentary on the books written by James K Paulding and William Drayton, appears somewhat weakened by the assertion that the paper by Mr. Joseph V. Ridgley is "virtually conclusive". I am compelled to ask, by definition, can one be both "virtual" and simultaneously, "conclusive"? Would not the former, at a minimum, disengage the rigidity of the latter.

Long familiar with Ridgley's paper and, more recently, the excellent book by Terence Whalen, I lean heavily towards agreement that Edgar Allan Poe is, in all probability, not the author of the celebrated Paulding/Drayton review. Be that as it may, in spite of the long and heated debates over the issue, the current position held remains "doubtful", as opposed to the preferred "rejected".

Regardless, the review, whether famous or infamous, doubtful or "virtually conclusive" is an interesting look back to the views of the period, whether by Poe or by his contemporaries. My particular interest in this period relative to Poe has much less to do with his condemnatory assignment to the 1936 term "racist" than it does to a reasonable and equitable treatment of Poe regardless of his views. The applicability of this term to Poe may appear warranted by 21st century values but, in and of itself, seems superfluous in light of the other condemnations he has endured such as drunkard, drug-addict, necrophiliac, devil and demon.

Nothing would please me more than to have it definitively established that Mr. Poe was vacuously devoid of any opinion that would warrant the label of bigot or racist. If fact, I personally prefer to imagine that his enviable intellect and his idealistic nature would preclude any form of bias and prejudice. Yet, I, like most, am condemned to this "earthly lot" and to the inevitable conclusion that Mr. Poe was, by any measure, quite human. Which begs the question....

Are the literary contributions from a brilliant mind less precious to us here in the 21st century as a result of the author's views in the context of the early 19th century?

Best Regards,

-- Anonymous, March 17, 2002

"Virtually" was intended to qualify "conclusive." Almost no historical argument is absolutely conclusive, and in this case some interpretation is required to connect the crucial letter with the review itself. There has indeed been quite a bit of debate about the Paulding-Drayton review, but those who currently wish to saddle Poe with it (such as the utterly absurd Joan Dayan) have been forced to resort to some pretty pathetic arguments, and may be reasonably dismissed. Unfortunately, on the larger question of what was Poe's true position on the issue of Slavery, no one can be sure.

-- Anonymous, March 18, 2002

Although always a dangerous thing to intervene in any debate about Poe and race, here goes...

It strikes me that the question over the authorship of the Paulding Review is something of a red herring. Too much emphasis has been placed on this one document both by those who wish to link Poe with pro-slavery views and by those who wish to dissociate him from such opinions. This is not to deny that problems around Poe's authorship or non-authorship of any piece of writing is not important for the bibliographer or biographer, but it seems common to assume that the whole issue of Poe and race will be proved (or go away) as soon as attribution can be established for the Paulding Review.

This is, of course, as untrue as it is unfruitful. It is not so important to ask what Poe may or may not have privately thought about slavery but to ask what roles (if any) his literature played in either pro- or anti- slavery arguments. Was the contemporary reader likely to have their racist opinions (a) challenged, (b) confirmed, or (c) unchanged in either direction?

I have my own view on this (which owes something to Whalen's flawed but fascinating theory of 'average racism'), which is that the answer is (a), (b) and (c). It all depends on the reader, and arises from the deliberately ambiguous nature of Poe's use of allegory. A style of writing which was to come to the fore with Melville and Hawthorne.

However, as one critic (Edward Said) has argued in a different context, if literature has rarely been responsible for oppression it is still troubling to see how little it has tried to contribute in a positive direction against oppression. Non-intervention is, to many extents, still a support for the status quo.

Anyway, 'nuff said. Just thought I'd try and take the debate away from the Paulding Review and on to Poe's work itself.

p.s. If anyone is interested in discussing the representation of Jupiter in 'The Gold Bug', I'd be more than happy to contribute to a debate.

-- Anonymous, March 19, 2002

Fuck ya he was racist..didnt he start the KKK? oh wait that was me! bwahjahah!

-- Anonymous, March 20, 2002


It appears an apology may be in order and I wish to assure you of my proper intent regarding my prior comment. As much as I regret the construal of my comment as of a critical nature, I am doubly troubled that you felt the need to explain. You needn't have and I regret that others may perceive any significant variance in our respective views. I merely saw an occasion for a tongue in cheek response, intended as good natured banter. I trust you will forgive my carelessness. One would think that, by my age, one would have learned to be extra cautious in textual discourse where face or physical signals are no help and attitude and demeanor are sometimes difficult to convey by the written word.

Incidentally, my daughter went straight to the point when she admonished me for my error, "Geeez, Dad, can you blame the guy? You left off the smiley face, for God's sake." Ahhh... humility... we all need a spoonful now and again.

Best Regards,

-- Anonymous, March 20, 2002


At the risk of another error, I would, very respectfully, argue that the preceding posts are less a debate than merely the shaking out of considered opinions. : )

Of course, your contention that a final conclusive resolution to the true authorship of the Paulding/Drayton review will somehow also resolve the entire question of Poe's personal view of race or slavery is essentially correct. However, I would also suggest that this single document is not all that is being considered, as you correctly allude to in the closing of your remarks. Poe's characterization of Jupiter (in my opinion) is not substantially dissimilar and, in many instances, comparatively mild to those depictions by contemporary authors, including, perhaps, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Curiously, his depiction of Jupiter in "The Gold Bug" is not grossly disproportionate to the characters built in a visual context in Alex Haley’s "Roots". Clearly, multiple inferences may be drawn from these characterizations about each author but it appears to me that any clue as to an inherent bias in any particular individual who puts pen to paper for the purpose of creating fiction, if judged by us at all, should be judged in the absence of our own bias and personal agenda. I question whether humans truly possess this capacity. Portrayal of many of today's minorities in books, films, television and even news programs suggest we have a long way to go. Perhaps, one day, we will discover an inherited genetic trigger for this predisposition for prejudice as well. : )

I submit that Poe's depiction of Jupiter in the tale "The Gold Bug" was intended, at least primarily, to introduce and represent a supporting character in a tale of mystery that a 19th century public would recognize, understand and appreciate as instinctively natural to the story and consistent with his principles of the short story form. No more and, no less. I further submit that had Poe given Jupiter a distinctive Cajun/French accent, a familiar Southern drawl or even the articulated speech of a Churchill or a Kennedy, Jupiter's role may have been much less appreciated.

The significance of Poe's personal views are important, if for no other reason than the consequence of our judgment of those views. Perhaps, for the very reasons you go on to mention. What does it say of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, probably the single most powerful instrument of individual liberty ever to grace the face of this planet. How do we, in the 21st century, judge Jefferson for this remarkable and enduring document, knowing that he owned and maintained slaves? How can an intelligent and profoundly gifted man reconcile the fundamental principles extolled in this document with the enslavement of another human being. We do so by understanding the man in the context of his period. Poe deserves no less. We need not condemn nor excuse them, but we cannot dismiss them.

The celebrity of this man has continued unabated for more than 150 years and his unique contributions to American Literature are still being taught in our schools. Whether taught well or poorly is difficult to grasp but based on the prevailing perceptions apparent in questions to this forum by students possessed of malleable minds, I remain concerned. I do not mean to suggest that the weight of the world or that social or political paradigm shifts will occur as a result of Poe's personal opinions on race. What I do mean, however, is that what ever influence may be construed from reading his tales (or poems for that matter) should be taught within the proper context.

The applicability of Edward Said's remarks may be appropriate to his Orientalism and the global relationship between today's East and West. But, generally, I find very few parallels that fit neatly with the American experience. Space, time and my own laziness does not permit multiple examples but, relative to the period, Harriet Beecher Stowe's most famous works, "Uncle Tom's Cabin", 1852 and "Dred", 1856 went a long way to expose the negatives of oppression and energize the abolitionist. Abraham Lincoln, himself, upon meeting her is said to have commented, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!" It also occurs to me that the very diversity of our country may be, perhaps, our greatest security against oppression. For every soul prepared to preach radical racist ideals through the written word, there is a soul with contrasting views ready to scream his opposition in text.

Judge Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, Southern jurist, radical secessionist, anti-abolitionist and convicted co-conspirator in the murder of Abraham Lincoln is the current "suspect" and most likely author of the Paulding/Drayton review. I was once asked by one of the aforementioned malleable minds if it was true that Edgar Allan Poe was a racist as evidenced by his association with Judge Tucker. I was aghast that this student had identified such a nebulous association with a famous author and as a result, my initial answer was rather feeble. I determined to answer it more fully by further pointing out that Poe died some sixteen years before Lincoln was assassinated by Booth and that the tenuous connection did not necessarily support this view one way or the other and that it was very unlikely. The student's apparent disappointment then made it clear that he had not connected Tucker to his study of Poe and his work, but rather Poe to his study of Tucker and his ideals. Such are the curiosities that boggle the mind.

Personally, I would be interested in your views on Jupiter's characterization by Poe.

Best Regards,

-- Anonymous, March 20, 2002

Tis> No apology was necessary (and a smiley really wouldn't have made much difference). I was merely clarifying for the sake of anyone else who might stumble here and read it. The attribution of the Drayton-Paulding review is one of the few reasonably certain things about the larger debate of Poe and slavery. (The removal of this review has been hotly debated precisely because it is seen by both sides as a sort of smoking gun.)

On that larger issue, I was intentionally trying not to take a position on the issue, since I think it cannot be confidently resolved and I do not see the value of the endless, and ultimately pointless, discussions which have been expended upon it. (Both sides are more often absorbed with agendas that have little to do with Poe or his works anyway, except as vehicles or attention getters.) Poe himself seems never to have published a specific statement on the issue, and I do not think that we can divine one. The difficulty of weeding out mere hints of Poe's position suggests to me that the whole question is of no great significance to his works, and perhaps literally academic.

-- Anonymous, March 21, 2002

Poe was definitely racist, as were many white writers at the time. Kenneth Silverman, in his book Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never- ending Remembrance, writes, "Although in no way consumed with racial hatred, he considered blacks less than human [. . .] therefore 'utterly incompetent to feel the moral galling of [their] chains'" (207). Silverman also writes in the book, "Poe opposed abolition, and identified with slaveholding interests in the South, whom [sic] he felt Northern writers misrepresented" (207). Thus, in full response to the question, Poe was racist but not against the general Southern concept of his time. Furthermore, the depth of his writing can be taken on many levels, which has made him such a popular author all the way up to the present time.

-- Anonymous, July 17, 2004

I don't doubt that he was, most americans were racists, at that time.

سنی اسلام

-- Anonymous, July 18, 2004

Well, I came seeking an answer to this question and found many veiwpoints and much evidence, as a black person I have been told that Poe was racist, but was loathe to believe because I so enjoy his work, "The Raven" being my favourite. Poe's racism was the racism of many many people of that time, that is not to say it was right, just that it was largly accepted. Personally I don not belive this takes away from his works in any way, but intstead adds depth and insight into writers of that time period.

-- Anonymous, September 03, 2004

I think its easy to confuse the question of whether Poe was a racist with the question of whether he supported slavery. It strikes me that Poe supported slavery not on moral grounds, but due to general practical fears: that abolishing slavery would threaten the Union, that abolishing slavery would create social anarchy in the Southern states. In GB, Jupiter is perhaps a more sympathetic character than his master. Although superstitous (afraid of the bug) and ignorant (cannot tell left from right), the first half of the story which is dominated by Jupiter's view (that his master is crazy) is more exciting than the second half, which is dominated by Legrands cold, rational, detailed discriptions of codebreaking. Indeed the codebreaking section sabotages the story, and is in effect an anti- climax. Poe may be racist in associating the black man with superstition, but such superstition could be a result of ignorance - a lack of education - rather than inherent, racial causes. In any case, I think both Poe and the reader prefer Jupiter's superstition to Legrand's logic.

-- Anonymous, September 27, 2004

Moderation questions? read the FAQ