College of Liberal Arts

Department of English


Richard Fusco
"Poe's 'Life' and Hawthorne's 'Death': Literary Debate"

This essay reconstructs how in 1842 Poe employed "Life in Death" (later retitled "The Oval Portrait") to challenge Hawthorne's characterization of an artist in "The Prophetic Pictures." Through an analysis of the circumstances surrounding the abbreviated first version of Poe's famous review of Twice-Told Tales, I suggest that he asserted a critical "unity of effect" by publishing the review and "Life in Death" in the same issue of Graham's, allowing careful readers to fathom the nuances in his philosophcal quarrel with Hawthorne. While finding much to admire and much with which to identify in the intellectual abilities possessed by Hawthorne's unnamed painter, Poe questioned this character's moral misgivings about using such powers to control his environment. In effect, Hawthorne's attack on the painter's ego had an unintended victim--Poe's own self-conception as an artist. Consequently, Poe hastily but deliberately composed "Life in Death" to counterattack what he saw as Hawthorne's most significant aesthetic weakness--the impotency created by an artist's fears about his own art. In the Poe tale, this rebuke manifests itself in an ethereal artist who paints the life out of his subject. In contrast, with the capacities intrinsic to a ratiocinative being, Poe strove to control his world in a manner symbolically similar to that of his own fictional detective Dupin, who manipulates Paris to achieve conceptual goals.






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