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Op-Ed

The Tell-Tale Lack of Heart

July 2, 2021

Any sober critic of our politics today must feel the misery endured six generations ago by Edgar Allan Poe. Not just because our national delirium would drive a sober man to drink, but because it is difficult to make acute observations upon a gaggle of liars and morons.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

Any sober critic of our politics today must feel the misery endured six generations ago by Edgar Allan Poe. Not just because our national delirium would drive a sober man to drink, but because it is difficult to make acute observations upon a gaggle of liars and morons.

(Art by Carlos Ayala)

A bit of history: Edgar Poe rose to fame as an editor and literary critic before he achieved greater renown as a poet and teller of tales. His critical essays and reviews occupy 1,150 pages — three volumes of 10 — in G.P. Putnam’s 1902 edition of his Complete Works.

And whose literary works did it fall upon poor Eddie to review? Here, chosen consecutively from Vol. VIII, are 12 authors: William Gillespie, Charles Briggs, William Kirkland, John Francis, Anna Cora Mowatt, George Cheever, Charles Anthon, Ralph Hoyt, Gulian Verplanck, Freeman Hunt, Piero Maroncelli and Laughton Osborn. Heard of them? Neither have I.

Poe (1809-1849) insisted, in the pages of the magazines he edited, that the United States had produced few authors of merit. And who can deny it? Of the nearly 100 authors Poe reviewed, seven are known to us today: Longfellow, Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, Elizabeth Barrett (later Browning), Dickens, Hawthorne and James Russell Lowell.

Now, when it comes to literary immortality (which Mark Twain defined as a book that lasts for 30 years), seven out of 100 is not a bad score. Should 7% of U.S. authors in print today still be on the shelves in the year 2051, it would be remarkable. The true score is likely to be less than one-thousandth of that: not even 0.007%. But note that Poe picked out for praise virtually all of his contemporaries whose work has survived.

Also let it be noted that in every review he wrote of these literary mountebanks, Poe selected a few lines — if only two — for praise. Even as he concluded, more than once, that the rest of the pages should be “thrown to the pigs.”

This brings us to today: to the problem of writing sensible commentary about a Congress dominated, on one side, by lickspittles and liars, and on the other side by cowards, willing to let a Quisling from West Virginia keep our country strangled in the hands of a minority of nonentities no more competent than the nonentities thrust upon Mr. Poe.

Now, these parallels are not exact. If an author writes a bad book, and it is published, with rare exceptions the bad book will do no lasting harm. But if politicians write bad laws, and judges approve them, great harm can and has been done.

I hesitate to name the chief idiots garnering news in Congress today, because I do not wish to excite the lewd spasms these preening popinjays derive from seeing their names in print and their faces on TV, with arrant disregard for the weal of the morons who elected them.

The moron from Georgia. The idiot from Colorado. The child molester from Florida. The constipated senator from Kentucky, to whom constipation is not an affliction, but his great, national cause. The power-hungry, groveling senators and governors from Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Missouri and Arizona, who all claim to be possessed of remarkable insights into … something. But truly, nothing beyond themselves.

Despite these mini-men’s and -women’s fever dreams, they will not live in history, unless in ignominy, any more than Gulian Verplanck, Piero Maroncelli and Laughton Osborn did. They’re impostors. And if they appealed to the voters of their states so successfully that they attained elective office, well, what does that say about the United States today?

Mr. Poe summed up U.S. politics today in reviewing a book puffed by other critics as “a very remarkable volume of poems,” by William W. Lord. “The fact is,” Poe wrote, “the only remarkable things [here] are their remarkable conceit, ignorance, impudence, platitude, stupidity, and bombast.”

Ahh, Eddie, we miss you.

Happy Fourth of July.

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