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 time.
When Allan returned to Richmond in 1820, Edgar continued his education at private schools, studying Latin, verse, and oratory. He was also an athletic youth, a superior swimmer, and marksman. But he was not popular. He was taunted by his peers as the son of actors (a disreputable profession) who occupied an odd status in the Allan household as an unadopted stepson. Poe received support and encouragement from the mother of a classmate, Jane Stith Stanard, but she died of a brain tumor when he was fifteen years old. More so than Elizabeth Poe or Mrs. Allan, he looked upon this woman as his idealized mother, and her untimely death was the apparent cause of his first extended period of psychological depression, during which he often visited her grave. Around this time, John Allan's trading firm suffered a series of financial setbacks, the company itself was dissolved, and Poe's stepfather took to extramarital affairs and to the bottle.
In 1825, however, John Allan inherited a large sum of money, and this abrupt reversal of fortune enabled him to enroll Edgar at the University of Virginia. Shortly before his departure for college, Poe began to court a fifteen-year-old woman named Sarah Elmira Royster. Whether the two were engaged before he left for college is unclear; that he was serious about his intention to marry Sarah is fairly certain. Poe entered the University of Virginia in 1826 at the age of seventeen, concentrating on classical and modern languages. But he found it difficult to maintain a gentleman's life style on the relatively meager allowance that John Allan furnished to him. He took to gambling and compiled debts of honor amounting to some $2,000, an enormous sum in the 1820s. John Allan refused to pay these debts; Poe left school and returned to Richmond, where he worked for a time in Allan's counting house. When he tried to renew his courtship of Sarah Royster, her parents first told him that she was abroad; he eventually learned that his first fiancée had become engaged to another young man.
Alienated from his stepfather and rejected by Sarah's family, the headstrong Poe set out on his own, moving first to Baltimore in March 1827 and then back to the city of his birth, Boston, where he took the first of several pseudonyms, calling himself Henri Le Rennet. It was in Boston that Poe wrote the first poems that would eventually bear his real name. Without a regular source of income, Poe joined the army at the age of eighteen, enlisting under the fictitious name of Edgar A. Perry. He was initially assigned to duty with coastal artillery at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor and later transferred to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island outside the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. With his keen mind and still-sturdy body, Poe did well in the military, rising to the rank of sergeant major during his two-year stint. While he was stationed at Fort Independence, Poe prevailed upon a local publisher to print his first volume of verses, Tamerlane and Other Poems in 1827 under the name of Edgar Perry. To these, he would eventually add six new poems for a volume that would be published in Baltimore under his real name at the end of 1829. By then, however, tragedy struck Poe's life once more. In February 1829, Poe's stepmother, Frances Allen, died, the third mother figure in his life to suffer an untimely death.Alienated from his stepfather and rejected by Sarah's family, the headstrong Poe set out on his own, moving first to Baltimore in March 1827 and then back to the city of his birth, Boston, where he took the first of several pseudonyms, calling himself Henri Le Rennet. It was in Boston that Poe wrote the first poems that would eventually bear his real name. Without a regular source of income, Poe joined the army at the age of eighteen, enlisting under the fictitious name of Edgar A. Perry. He was initially assigned to duty with coastal artillery at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor and later transferred to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island outside the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. With his keen mind and still-sturdy body, Poe did well in the military, rising to the rank of sergeant major during his two-year stint. While he was stationed at Fort Independence, Poe prevailed upon a local publisher to print his first volume of verses, Tamerlane and Other Poems. By a Bostonian, in 1827 under the name of Edgar Perry. To these, he would eventually add six new poems for a volume that would be published in Baltimore under his real name at the end of 1829. By then, however, tragedy struck Poe's life once more. In February 1829, Poe's stepmother, Frances Allen, died, the third mother figure in his life to suffer an untimely death.
The death of Frances Allan set the stage for reconciliation between Poe and John Allan. According to some accounts, it was through Allan's influence that Poe received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He did enter West Point in July 1830, but a few months later, he learned that John Allan had...
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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.
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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...
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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...
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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)...
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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...
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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...
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