Edgar Allan Poe was born January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, was a talented actress from an English theatrical family. Because Poe’s father, David Poe, Jr., a traveling actor of Irish descent, was neither talented nor responsible, the family suffered financially. After apparently separating from David Poe, Elizabeth died in Richmond, Virginia, in 1811. The young Edgar, though not legally adopted, was taken in by a wealthy Scottish tobacco exporter, John Allan, from whom Poe took his middle name.
For most of his early life, Poe lived in Richmond with the Allans, with the exception of a five-year period between 1815 and 1820 which he spent in England, where he attended Manor House School, near London. Back in America, he attended an academy until 1826, when he entered the University of Virginia. He withdrew less than a year later, however, because of various debts, many of them from gambling; Poe did not have the money to pay, and his foster-father refused to help. After quarreling with Allan about these debts, Poe left for Boston in the spring of 1827; shortly thereafter, perhaps because he was short of money, he enrolled in the United States Army under the name “Edgar A. Perry.”
In the summer of 1827, Poe’s first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, published under the anonym “A Bostonian,” appeared, but it was little noticed by the reading public or by the critics. In January, 1829, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant major and was honorably discharged at his own request three months later. In December, 1829, Poe’s second book, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, was published, and it was well received by the critics. Shortly thereafter, Poe entered West Point Military Academy, possibly as a way to get into his foster-father’s good graces.
After less than a year in school, Poe was discharged from West Point by court-martial for neglecting his military duties. Most biographers agree that Poe deliberately provoked his discharge because he had tired of West Point. Others suggest that he could not stay because John Allan refused to pay Poe’s bills any longer, although he would not permit Poe to resign. After West Point, Poe went to New York, where, with the help of some money raised by his West Point friends, he published Poems by Edgar A. Poe, Second Edition. After moving to Baltimore, where he lived at the home of his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, Poe entered five short stories in a contest sponsored by the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. Although he did not win the prize, the newspaper published all five of his pieces. In June, 1833, he entered another contest sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter and this time won the prize of fifty dollars for his story “Ms. Found in a Bottle.” From this point until his death in 1849, Poe was very much involved in the world of American magazine publishing.
During the next two years, Poe continued writing stories and trying to get them published. Even with the help of a new and influential friend, John Pendleton Kennedy, a lawyer and writer, he was mostly unsuccessful. Poe’s financial situation became even more desperate when, in 1834, John Allan died and left Poe out of his will. Kennedy finally persuaded the Southern Literary Messenger to publish several of Poe’s stories and to offer Poe the job of editor, a position which he kept from 1835 to 1837. During this time, Poe published stories and poems in the Messenger, but it was with his extensive publication of criticism that he began to make his mark in American letters.
Although much of Poe’s early criticism is routine review work, he began in his reviews to consider the basic nature of poetry and short fiction and to develop theoretical analyses of these two genres, drawing upon the criticism of A. W. Schlegel, in Germany, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in England. Poe’s most important contribution to criticism is his discussion of the distinctive generic characteristics of short fiction, in a famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837). Poe makes such a convincing case for the organic unity of short fiction, argues so strongly for its dependence on a unified effect, and so clearly shows how the form is more closely allied to the poem than to the novel that his ideas have influenced literary critics ever since.
In 1836, Poe married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, a decision which, because of her age and relationship to Poe, has made him the subject of much adverse criticism and psychological speculation. In 1837, after disagreements with the owner of the Messenger, Poe moved to New York to look for editorial work. There he completed the writing of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), his only long fiction, a novella-length metaphysical adventure. Unable to find work in New York, Poe moved to Philadelphia and published his first important short story, a Platonic romance titled “Ligeia.” In 1839, he joined the editorial staff of Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine, where he published two of his greatest stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson.”
In 1840, Poe left Burton’s and tried, unsuccessfully, to establish his own literary magazine. He did, however, publish a collection of his stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), as well as become an editor of Graham’s Magazine, where he published his first tale of ratiocination, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In this landmark story, he created the famous detective Auguste Dupin, the forerunner of Sherlock Holmes and thus of countless other private detectives in literature and film. A biographical sketch published at that time described Poe as short, slender, and well-proportioned, with a fair complexion, gray eyes, black hair, and an extremely broad forehead.
In 1842, Poe left Graham’s to try once again to establish his own literary magazine, but not before publishing two important pieces of criticism: a long review of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in which he established his definition of poetry as being the “Rhythmical Creation of Beauty,” and his review of Hawthorne, in which he defined the short tale as the creation of a unified effect. Between 1842 and 1844, after Poe moved to New York to join the editorial staff of the New York Mirror, he published many of his most important stories, including “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Black Cat,” and two more ratiocinative stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Gold Bug.” It was with the publication of his most famous poem, “The Raven,” in 1845, however, that he finally achieved popular success.
Poe left the New York Mirror to join a new weekly periodical, the Broadway Journal, in February of 1845, where he continued the literary war against Longfellow begun in a review written for the Mirror. The series of accusations, attacks, and counterattacks that ensued damaged Poe’s reputation as a critic at the very point in his career when he had established his critical genius. Poe’s collection of stories, Tales, was published in July, 1845, to good reviews. Soon after, Poe became the sole editor and then proprietor of the Broadway Journal. In November, he published his collection, The Raven and Other Poems.
The year 1846 marked the beginning of Poe’s decline. In January, the Broadway Journal ceased publication, and soon after, Poe was involved in both a personal scandal with two female literary admirers and a bitter battle with the literary establishment. Moreover, Poe’s wife was quite ill, a fact which necessitated Poe’s moving his family some thirteen miles outside the city to a rural cottage at Fordham. When Virginia died on January 30, 1847, Poe collapsed. Although he never fully recovered from this series of assaults on his already nervous condition, in the following year he published what he considered to be the capstone of his career, Eureka: A Prose Poem, which he presented as an examination of the origin of all things.
In the summer of 1849, Poe left for Richmond, Virginia, in the hope, once more, of starting a literary magazine. On September 24, he delivered a lecture, “The Poetic Principle,” at Richmond, in what was to be his last public appearance. From that time until he was found semiconscious on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, little is known of his activities. He never recovered, and he died on Sunday morning, October 7, in Washington College Hospital.
Edgar Allan Poe is important in the history of American literature and American culture in two significant ways. First, he developed short fiction as a genre that was to have a major impact on American literature and publishing throughout the nineteenth century. His stories and criticism have been models and guides for writers in this characteristically American genre up to the present time. No one interested in the short-story form can afford to ignore his ideas or his fiction. Poe was influential in making American literature more philosophical and metaphysical than it had been before.
Second, and perhaps most important, Poe helped to make periodical publishing more important in American literary culture. American writers in the mid-nineteenth century were often discouraged by the easy accessibility of British novels. Lack of copyright laws made the works of the great English writers readily available at low cost. Thus, American writers could not compete in this genre. Periodical publishing, and the short story as the favored genre of this medium, was the United States’ way of fighting back. Poe was an important figure in this battle to make the United States a literary force in world culture.
The problem with Poe, however, is that he is too often thought of as the author of some vivid yet insignificant horror stories. Moreover, Poe’s personality is often erroneously maligned: He has been called a drunk, a drug-addict, a hack, a sex pervert, and an exploiter. As a result of these errors, myths, and oversimplifications, it is often difficult for readers to take his works seriously. The truth is, however, that Edgar Allan Poe, both in his criticism and in his dark, metaphysically mysterious stories, helped create a literature that made America a cultural force not to be ignored.
Allen, Hervey. Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe. 2 vols. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1926. Reprint. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1956. A romantic narrative of Poe’s life, valuable for the information drawn from letters between Poe and John Allan.
Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977. A somewhat sketchy study of Poe’s fiction, poetry, and criticism, but still a good introduction to his work.
Carlson, Eric W., ed. The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Criticism Since 1829. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966. A valuable collection of some of the most influential critical remarks about Poe by artists, writers, and critics.
Hoffman, Daniel. PoePoePoePoePoePoePoe. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1972. An idiosyncratic and highly personal account of one critic’s fascination with Poe that echoes the fascination of countless readers. Often Freudian and sometimes farfetched, the book provides stimulating reading and suggestive criticism.
Jacobs, Robert D. Poe: Journalist and Critic. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969. An extensive study of Poe’s career as editor, reviewer, and critic. Shows how Poe’s critical ideas derived from and influenced periodical publishing in the mid-nineteenth century.
Moss, Sidney P. Poe’s Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1963. A well-researched study of Poe’s controversial battles with Longfellow and the many literary cliques of nineteenth century American publishing.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1941. Reprint. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1969. Although this book is somewhat outdated in its critical analysis of Poe’s works, it is the best and most complete biography, informed by Quinn’s knowledge of Poe’s literary milieu and his extensive research into Poe’s correspondence.
Quinn, Patrick F. The French Face of Edgar Poe. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1957. Ironically, Poe’s fiction, poetry, and criticism had more influence on French literature in the nineteenth century than on American literature. Quinn’s book explains why.