Literary Miscellanea: Edgar Allan Poe On Prose Tales

4624490Edgar Allan Poe was impressed by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales. He tried on many occasions to defend Hawthorne’s storytelling in Graham’s Magazine. Although he wrote at least three articles for the journal, Poe was never given enough space to say what he wanted to say. Still, his reviews of Twice-Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne are valuable to us because in them he expounds briefly on poetry and short story writing. My reflections for this post are based on a review he wrote for Graham’s Magazine in May 1862. The parts of the review I would like to highlight begin with the line “But it is of his tales that we desire principally to speak” and ends (three paragraphs later) with “The true critic will but demand that the design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable.” A link to the article is included at the end of this post. 

Edgar Allan Poe prefers short stories (or ‘tales’, as he calls them) to novels because the former can be read in one sitting while the latter must be read in multiple sittings. While reading a novel, the reader is frequently interrupted by other and more pressing duties. Good tales, like poems, are neither too long nor too short. They are long enough that the reader feels satisfied by the development and conclusion of the story but short enough that the reader is at all times fully engaged with the narrative. Poe doesn’t share my love for epic poems. He writes, “All high excitements are necessarily transient. Thus a long poem is a paradox. And, without unity of impression, the deepest effects cannot be brought about. Epics were the Spring of an imperfect sense of Art, and their reign is no more.” 

But although poems and tales are brief compositions, Poe prefers tales. The purpose of writing prose tales is often to explore the Truth. They can also explore passion and horror with greater poignancy than poetry.  “[W]hile the rhythm of [poetry] is an essential aid in the development of the poem’s highest idea – the idea of the Beautiful – the artificialities of this rhythm are an inseparable bar to the development of all points of thought or expression which have their basis in Truth.”

I have always wondered why Edgar Allan Poe only wrote one novel in his lifetime. Today’s article has given me an answer to my question. A few weeks ago, I shared with you an essay written by C.S. Lewis on children’s storytelling. In that essay, he explained that an author should write a children’s book if a children’s book is the best medium to tell the story. Poe mostly wrote prose tales because that medium suited the dark subject matter of his stories.

If you have read any of the Twice-Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, you may want to read the rest of the review. Here it is.

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3 thoughts on “Literary Miscellanea: Edgar Allan Poe On Prose Tales

  1. Thanks for sharing and reflecting on Poe’s thoughts! It’s interesting to think about the different motivations for writing in short or long forms, or in prose vs. poetry. I like the quote from C.S. Lewis that one should write a children’s book if that is the medium best suited to the story. What helpful advice! That takes away much of the confusion about reasons for writing in one form or genre or another.

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