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[64] with the chief Romantic poets of the age immediately preceding his own; while as editor and magazinist he kept in close touch with contemporary literature. On the other hand, he was prone to exaggerate technical blemishes and to underestimate ethical and philosophical significance. And his taste was not always impeccable. By his contemporaries he was thought of as inexcusably harsh in his criticisms: by one of them he is dubbed the ‘tomahawk man,’ by another the ‘broad-axe man’; and Lowell remarks, in his sketch of him, that he seemed ‘sometimes to mistake his phial of prussicacid for his inkstand.’ What is more to his discredit, he stooped now and then to log-rolling both on his own account and on behalf of his friends, and his unfavourable judgments appear to have been actuated in some instances by animus and jealousy. But most of his critical judgments have been sustained by time. And despite the arrogance charged against him by Griswold and others, it is to be set down to his credit that he ungrudgingly conceded to Longfellow and Lowell the primacy among the American poets of his time and that he generously proclaimed Hawthorne to be without a peer in his peculiar field. His chief hobbies as critic were originality—and, per contra, imitation and plagiarism—‘unity or totality of effect,’ consistency and ‘keeping,’ verisimilitude, ‘the heresy of the didactic,’ provinciality, metrical imperfections of whatever sort, and verbal inaccuracies and infelicities; some of which hobbies—as plagiarism—he rode over-hard. But his influence in an age when wholesale adulation was the rule, and when art counted for but little, was naturally wholesome.

Among the best known of his critical dicta is his characterization of the short story in his notice of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842). Probably no other passage in American literary criticism has been quoted so often as the following extract from this review:

A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived

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James Russell Lowell (2)
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