America's Greatest Writer On The Nature Of Fanaticism

Edgar Allan Poe's Insight On Fanaticism

Edgar Allan Poe was America's most innovative writer. Some of his best known pieces were short stories that showed him to be a true master at capturing various aspects of human obsession. Here Poe offers an interesting and unique insight into the mind of the ideological fanatic. It came in a review of the poet James Russell Lowell's satiric poem, "A Fable for the Critics," published in the Southern Literary Messenger, in March, 1849.

"Although ill-temper has evidently engendered this 'Fable,' it is by no means a satire throughout. Much of it is devoted to panegyric--but our readers would be quite puzzled to know the grounds of the author's laudations, in many cases, unless made acquainted with a fact which we think it as well they should be informed of at once. Mr. Lowell is one of the most rabid of the Abolition fanatics; and no Southerner who does not wish to be insulted, and at the same time revolted by a bigotry the most obstinately blind and deaf, should ever touch a volume by this author.* His fanaticism about slavery is a mere local outbreak of the same innate wrong-headedness which, if he owned slaves, would manifest itself in atrocious ill-treatment of them, with murder of any abolitionist who should endeavor to set them free. A fanatic of Mr. L's species, is simply a fanatic for the sake of fanaticism, and must be a fanatic in whatever circumstances you place him.

"His prejudices on the topic of slavery break out every where in his present book. Mr. L has not the common honesty to speak well, even in a literary sense, of any man who is not a ranting abolitionist. With the exception of Mr. Poe, (who has written some commendatory criticisms on his poems,) no Southerner is mentioned at all in this 'Fable.' It is a fashion among Mr. Lowell's set to affect a belief that there is no such thing as Southern Literature. Northerners--people who have really nothing to speak of as men of letters,--are cited by the dozen and lauded by this candid critic without stint, while Legare, Simms, Longstreet, and others of equal note are passed by in contemptuous silence. Mr. L. cannot carry his frail honesty of opinion even so far South as New York. All whom he praises are Bostonians. Other writers are barbarians and satirized accordingly--if mentioned at all."
*Poe's footnote, at this point quotes a truly vicious passage from Lowell's satiric poem, which makes an outrageous and uncalled for accusation against half of the Founding Fathers. We have not reproduced it, because it is tangential to our point and purpose.

Note: You will find excellent selections from two of the Southern writers (Simms & Longstreet), whom Poe cites as being passed over by Lowell, at this Web Site's Literary Corner.

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Poe was actually born in Boston but, although he respected Lowell as a poet and had actually worked with him on at least one serious literary magazine venture, he repeatedly deplored both the narrow parochialism of Lowell and other New England writers, as well as their clear bigotry in the stereotypes they applied towards people living in the Southern States. For another example of Poe's insight into the mind of the fanatic, he confronted Professor Longfellow (the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) in an 1845 critique of the latter's volume entitled "Poems on Slavery," with such comments as--

"No doubt, it is a very commendable and very comfortable thing, in the Professor, to sit at ease in his library chair, and write verses instructing the southerners how to give up their all with a good grace, and abusing them if they will not; but we have a singular curiosity to know how much of his own, under a change of circumstances, the Professor himself would be willing to surrender. Advice of this character looks well only in the mouth of those who have entitled themselves to give it, by setting an example of the self-sacrifice.

"The fourth is 'The Slave in the Dismal Swamp.' This is a shameless medley of the grossest misrepresentation. When did Professor Longfellow ever know a slave to be hunted with bloodhounds in the DISMAL SWAMP? Because he has heard that runaway slaves are so treated in CUBA, he has certainly no right to change the locality, and by insinuating a falsehood in lieu of a fact, charge his countrymen with barbarity. What makes the matter worse, he is one of those who insist upon truth as one of the elements of poetry."

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It is interesting that America's mid-Twentieth Century "blue collar philosopher," Eric Hoffer, writing over a century later in his book The True Believer (1951), reached substantially the same conclusion as had Poe with respect to the compulsive aspect of fanaticism:

"The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources--out of his rejected self--but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Though his single-minded dedication is a holding on for dear life, he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. And he is ready to sacrifice his life to demonstrate to himself and others that such indeed is his role. He sacrifices his life to prove his worth.

"It goes without saying that the fanatic is convinced that the cause he holds on to is monolithic and eternal--a rock of ages. Still, his sense of security is derived from his passionate attachment and not from the excellence of his cause. The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. Often, indeed, it is his need for passionate attachment which turns every cause he embraces into a holy cause.

"The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached."

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The reader is also directed to our essay on the "Compulsion For Uniformity" and others, linked below.

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