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Valéry, Poe and the Question of Genetic Criticism in America Jane Blevins-Le Bigot IN A 1996 ISSUE OF YALE FRENCH STUDIES devoted to rough drafts, Laurent Jenny asks whether or not it is possible to conceive of a "science of origins" in literature, not in die Darwinian sense of the term, but rather in the sense Valéry intended it—as the study of literary creation rendered scientific by precise methods. ' This article poses a related question concerning the origins of this approach to literature. Is it possible for Valéry 's ideas, exemplified in large part by genetic criticism, to flourish in a country where the notion of a rough draft has far different connotations from those in France, and where the writings of Edgar Allan Poe concerning the conceptual bases of the genetic process, highlighting for genetic critics the importance of manuscripts, are thought by many to be little more than pretentious literary hackwork? The seeds of contention and ridicule In 1845 Edgar Allan Poe, looking back on his career as a writer and critic, most of which had been played out in the public arena of literary magazine editorship and occasional daily journalism, decided to pen an essay on the art of writing. The resulting text, The Philosophy of Composition, was something of a miscellany of what he had written daily for several years in his numerous articles and columns. He went on to write other texts on this same theme, and even spent time lecturing on how to produce the successful short story, poem and novel. But this essay fast acquired the status of personal manifesto, and the poem The Raven, whose composition he attempts to explain in the text, is, in effect, exemplary of the processes upon which he theorizes. If the poem is closely attuned to Poe's characteristically lilting rhythm and jingling rhymes, the prefatory essay is redolent of the impetuous confidence and flare that made Poe both loved and hated in his time. Never one to cater to more transcendental tastes, Poe states plainly in his essay that the writer should produce his works always with an eye to please. And The Raven, he claims, does precisely that. The Philosophy of Composition describes step by step how such a poem came into existence. American and English critics were not pleased and did not find The Raven, nor the proposed way of composing it, particularly desirable or praiseworthy. The poem itself seemed full of forced rhymes and strange, if not entirely unintentional, comic effects.2 In fact 68 Summer 2001 Blevins-Le Bigot most writers were not even amused and spent much time in the years that followed deriding Poe for what they considered was a mercenary and lowbrow philosophy of literary inventiveness, in which the writer is all but encouraged to deceive his readers with the equivalent of a bag of magic tricks that produces an effect of depth where there is none.3 It was almost as if Poe had blundered at a conspicuously inappropriate moment, and had become an insufferable, somewhat ridiculous and in any case ostracized guest at the interminable dinner party known as American criticism . Far from being hailed as an innovator as a result of his views, Poe was seen as a charlatan, someone who "studied the tastes of his age with the skills and methods of a yellow journalist."4 To add insult to injury, Poe, it seemed, was achieving fame abroad—the French esteemed and admired him, which of course did nothing for his reputation in his own country. If anything, it hardened attitudes against Poe, to the point that France's enduring admiration for the inventor of horror fiction surprised and bothered American and English critics for a long time. Aldous Huxley, thoroughly disconcerted to find an otherwise discerning Paul Valéry so impressed by the author of The Raven, did his best to dissuade his French friend from thinking that Poe was really intelligent and gifted.5 Valéry ignored Huxley, however, as did most of his countrymen , and after a century of French persistence esteem for Poe in this irritatingly refined nation aroused enough perplexity to warrant a book on...


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