Poe, Edgar Allan (Literary Masters)
While the enormous popularity of Edgar Allan Poe's famous short stories and poems continues to highlight his creative brilliance, Poe's renown as the master of horror, the father of the detective story, and the voice of "The Raven" is something of a mixed blessing. Today, Poe is known, read, and appreciated on the basis of a comparatively narrow body of work, roughly a dozen tales and half as many poems. For the novice reader, these favored texts offer easy (but still challenging) access to Poe's most exemplary writing, entry into his uniquely terrifying world, and intriguing connections to facets of their author's tragically disordered life. The total effect of all this is compelling, and Poe himself would certainly approve. He wrote for the masses, using his learned artistry to reach the common people of his day and to then elevate their minds while intensifying their emotional reactions. Poe was not averse to the commercial sensationalism either: he wrote several "hoaxes" as news and later capitalized on his personal notoriety for bookings on the lecture/recital circuit. Along with Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Poe ranks among the foremost literary stars in the firmament of popular American culture. A century and half after his death, Poe is instantly identifiable, stands without rival, and remains (with effort) immensely enjoyable. In his normal frame of mind, at least, Poe would have been deeply amused by the widespread adulation and fame he has enjoyed in posterity.
The rub is that we may be tempted to stop here and neglect the breadth and the depth of Poe's contributions to Western Literature. Poe, in fact, wrote nearly seventy short works of fiction. He is duly credited with creating the detective story genre and with transforming the Gothic mystery tale of the Romantic Period into the modern horror or murder stories centered in the outlying regions of human mind and experience. But he also wrote several comic and satirical pieces, literary parodies, sketches, and experimental stories, including "A Descent into the Maelstrom," and his novella, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. His most famous poems—"The Raven," "Ulalume," "The Bells," "The City in the Sea"—were enormously influential. These famous verses were behind a powerful wave of enthusiasm for Poe that arose among the leading writers of Europe during his own lifetime, spread thereafter around the world, and was sustained through the "discovery" of existential "human condition" themes in his short stories generations later. But Poe also wrote three volumes of poetry during the first period of his literary career (1827-1831) that deserve our attention, as does his metaphysical Eureka: A Prose Poem and his verse drama, Politian. In terms of the hidden breadth of his accomplishments, during most of his career, Poe labored as an editor of literary journals and reviewer of fiction, verse, and non-fiction books. Among the latter, Poe wrote reviews on books of such diverse fields as medicine, natural history, archeology, philology, and economics.
As for Poe's criticism of fiction and verse, there is an intersection with the often-overlooked depth of his work. Poe developed a theory of composition that he applied to both his short stories and his poems. Its most basic principle was that insofar as short fiction and poetry were concerned, the writer should aim at creating a single and total psychological/spiritual effect upon the reader. The theme or plot of the piece is always subordinate to the author's calculated construction of a single, intense mood in the reader's or listener's mind, be it melancholy, suspense, or horror. There are no extra elements in Poe, no subplots, no minor characters, and no digressions except those that show the madness of deranged first-person ("I") narrators. Ultimately, Poe took writing to be a moral task that worked not through teaching lessons, but in simultaneously stimulating his readers' mental, emotional, and spiritual faculties through texts of absolute integrity. Poe, moreover, judged others by these same standards. By doing so, he is establishing the rules and methods common to New Criticism, the leading school of literary analysis in the twentieth century with its insistence that the text must be interpreted as a self-contained unit apart from the critic's opinions of its author or the suitability of its themes.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809. His mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, was an actress who had attained some prominence as a leading lady. His father, David Poe, Jr., had pursued a somewhat less successful career on the stage, punctuated by alcoholic binges. Although the precise dates and other details are unclear, Poe's father apparently abandoned his family around the time of Edgar's second birthday. We do know that his mother took Edgar, his brother, William Henry, and sister, Rosalie, with her to Richmond, Virginia, sometime in 1811 and that she died there in December of that same year. Edgar was separated from his siblings and placed in the care of a childless couple, John and Frances Allan.
John Allan was an English/Scottish merchant who kept a tight hold on the family's purse strings but who also recognized the value of education. In 1815, he took his wife and "stepson" (Edgar was never legally adopted by the Allans) to England on an extended business trip. In England, Edgar spent his early childhood at prestigious boarding academies, including the Manor House School of Doctor Bransby at Stoke Newington. Evidently, he was an excellent student: in 1819, John Allan wrote to his friend William Galt that "Edgar is in the Country at school, he is a very fine boy & a good scholar." It was while he was in England that young Edgar first became acquainted with the Gothic literature that was popular in Europe at the...
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The Influence of Poe’s Life on his Work
Edgar Allan Poe is considered the father of both the horror genre and the detective novel. His stories of murder, revenge, and paranoia are still popular more than 150 years after his premature (and mysterious) death. Many readers wonder where he came up with the ideas for his stories and what type of a man would write such horrifying tales.
Poe's life was interesting. Born in 1809, his parents were actors, but he and his brother and sister were orphaned when Poe was two years old. Poe was sent to foster parents in Richmond, Virginia, named John and Frances (Fanny) Allan. This is where the "Allan" in Edgar Allan Poe comes from, but the Allans also affected Poe's writing.
John Allan was of Scottish descent, hard working and thrifty. He was a tobacco trader and very successful financially. He and Poe clashed throughout most of Poe's life. Allan had not attended college, believing work was more important, and so when Poe went to the University of Virginia in 1826, Allan did not provide enough for Poe to live on, or so Poe believed. He then resorted to gambling, raking up large debts that he couldn't pay and Allan refused to pay. Allan also urged Poe not to publish his poems. The argument between Poe and Allan was so great that Poe left the Allan home, feeling Allan had held him back. They briefly reconciled after Fanny's death, but they quarreled again, and Poe was not named in Allan's will.
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The Debate Over Poe’s Use of Alcohol and Drugs
The characteristic themes in Poe’s work are those “of horror, terror, strange fantasies and psychological abnormalities.”1 A myth has developed, over the years, which attributes these themes to the writer’s drinking and drug-taking. Before any comment can be made about the influences of drugs and alcohol on Poe’s work, the facts should be reduced to their proper proportion.
Poe was not a heavy daily drinker and was abstemious for long periods of time. He drank in times of emotional turmoil, when excitement or crises overtook him. In his own words he drank not for pleasure but to escape from “torturing memories … insupportable loneliness … a dread of some strange impending doom.”2 His terrors drove him to seek comfort in drink; it was not drinking or drug-taking that brought on the terrors.
Reports of Poe’s addiction to opium have been grossly exaggerated in the past. There is little proof to support the view of Poe as a drug addict. Indeed, it would seem that he knew very little about the potency or physiological effects of laudanum, which contained opium, for once he unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide using it.
The reality is that Poe had a low resistance to alcohol and a physiological disorder from which he suffered that made him highly susceptible to stimulants. The very evidence of his productivity in terms of literary output contradicts the theory...
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Poe at Work
- Short Story Samples of Poe's Stylistic and Thematic Gifts
- Poe's Masterful Use of the Doppelganger
- Poe's Contribution to Detective Fiction
- Stylistic and Thematic Techniques in Poe’s Poetry
Short Story Samples of Poe's Stylistic and Thematic Gifts
Edgar Allan Poe’s popular short stories “Ligeia,” "The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” serve as fine samples of his stylistic and thematic gifts. Although Poe’s stories vary in their intensity, ideas, and characters, these particularly share his unique gifts of description, first-person narrative, and detail. His mastery of language, setting, and fascination with the workings of the human mind and psyche are reflected in this particular group. Surprisingly, Poe uses fairly simple plot lines. This element of style is often hidden by his layers of description and complicated vocabulary. For instance, in his important and widely-taught story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe embellishes the fairly simple plot with the dense description of the house and grounds and the feature-by-feature description of Roderick Usher and his ailments so that the reader becomes convinced of the story’s complexity. Poe...
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During his life, Poe was a prolific writer, who often published work, revised it, and then republished it under a different title. Though his works were widely published in America during his lifetime, he remained relatively unknown as a literary figure until the printing of his poem "The Raven" in 1844. Poe historians feel that his lack of fame may have been due to the misfortune of his trying to establish a literary career in America during the mid-1800s. J. R. Hammond writes that if Poe had been in England, he not only would have been paid more for his work with various publications but would have most likely enjoyed increased popularity of his works in the favorable English literary climate. (Hammond, pp. 17-24)
Besides the other tragic aspects of Poe's life, perhaps the most unhappy was the unwitting selection of Rufus W. Griswold to be Poe’s literary executor. Griswold, in fact, hated and was envious of Poe. Soon after Poe's death, Griswold printed several defamations of Poe's character and work and neglected to print the author's works as he had collected. Not until the 1940s did historians begin to make efforts to repair Poe's posthumous reputation through scholarly study. In the 1850s, the French poet Baudelaire began to translate some of Poe's works, which helped to ease some of the stigma on his reputation.
Although Poe was a prolific writer and apparently well liked by his colleagues and employers at...
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Poe on Poe
Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense.... Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms:—waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity—her disproportion—her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious—in a word, to Beauty.
Poe began his editorial career with the Messenger in 1835. His contribution established the paper as the major critical journal of the South, and his stories soon became popular throughout the country. His role as America's first great critic, having no connection to British criticism or publishers in the U.S., is often overlooked. "The Poetic Principle" is Poe's best critical writing, composed in 1848 as a lecture. With an uncanny talent for analysis, especially in his detective stories, Poe was naturally adept at literary criticism.
In "The Poetic Principle," Poe explicates the creative process of writing poetry by defining the mind in terms of three operative parts: Intellect, having to do with the pursuit of Truth; Taste for the Beautiful; and a Moral Sense of Duty, which involves Conscience and...
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Frequently Asked Questions About Poe
Was Poe insane?
Poe was never admitted to a sanatorium, nor did he ever seek professional help for a mental problem. There is, therefore, no clinical evidence that he suffered from any type of madness. But even if he had doubts about his own sanity, he would have been rational enough to avoid treatment. In his day, lunatics were usually placed in prison-like asylums for keeps. The narrators of several of Poe's stories are mad psychopaths, and he had uncanny insights into the workings of the murderer's mind, including some ideas that were later validated by criminal psychologists. But simply because he wrote about supernaturally horrible acts from the perspective of deluded narrators does not prove Poe himself was mad.
He did suffer a large number of personal tragedies, including traumas stemming from the deaths of three "mother figures" in his life and, later, the death of his young wife. He was clearly depressed by these losses. Romantic and financial setbacks contributed to Poe's general instability. He was given to argumentative outbursts, suicidal thoughts (and one suspect attempt), and alcoholic binges. On the whole, Poe was probably not so insane at any time in his life as to necessitate institutionalization under current standards.
Was Poe an alcoholic?
The evidence of Poe's alcoholism is explicit and conclusive. Poe's biological father reportedly died from...
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