Edgar Allan Poe Essay - Poe, Edgar Allan (Short Story Criticism)

Poe, Edgar Allan (Short Story Criticism)


Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849

American short story writer, novelist, poet, critic, and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Poe's short fiction works. See also The Raven Criticism, The Cask of Amontillado Criticism, The Tell-Tale Heart Criticism, The Fall of the House of Usher Criticism, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism, Edgar Allan Poe Contemporary Literary Criticism, and Edgar Allan Poe Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism.

Poe's stature as a major figure in world literature is primarily based on his ingenious and profound short stories and his critical theories, which established a highly influential rationale for the short form in both poetry and fiction. Regarded in literary histories and handbooks as the architect of the modern short story, Poe is also deemed to be the originator of such genres as the detective story, the horror tale, and the science fiction story. In his work, Poe demonstrated a brilliant command of technique as well as an inspired and original imagination.

Biographical Information

Poe's father and mother were professional actors who at the time of his birth were members of a repertory company in Boston. Before Poe was three years old both of his parents had died, and he was raised in the home of John Allan, a prosperous exporter from Richmond, Virginia. In 1815 Allan took his wife and foster son, whom he never formally adopted, to visit Scotland and England, where they lived for the next five years. While in England, Poe spent two years at the school he later described in the story “William Wilson.” Returning with his foster parents to Richmond in 1820, Poe attended the best schools available and began to write poetry. At the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Poe distinguished himself academically, but as a result of bad debts and inadequate financial support from Allan, he was forced to leave after less than a year. This discord with his foster father deepened on Poe's return to Richmond in 1827, and soon afterward Poe left for Boston, where he enlisted in the army and published his first poetry collection, Tamerlane, and Other Poems: By a Bostonian (1827). The book went unnoticed by readers and reviewers, and a second collection was only slightly more conspicuous when it appeared in 1829. That same year Poe was honorable discharged from the army, having attained the rank of regimental sergeant major, and, after further conflict with Allan, he entered West Point. However, because Allan would neither provide his foster son with sufficient funds to maintain himself as a cadet nor give the consent necessary to resign from the academy, Poe gained a dismissal by ignoring his duties and violating regulations. He subsequently went to New York, where his book Poems, By Edgar A. Poe was published in 1831, and then to Baltimore, where he lived at the home of his aunt, Mrs. Clemm. Over the next few years Poe's first stories appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, and his “MS. Found in a Bottle” won a cash prize for best story in the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. In 1835 Poe returned to Richmond to become editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, bringing with him his aunt and his cousin Virginia, whom he married in 1836. The Southern Literary Messenger was the first of several magazines Poe would direct over the next ten years and through which he rose to prominence as one of the leading men of letters in America. While Poe's writings gained attention in the late 1830s and 1840s, the profits from his work remained meager, and he was forced to move several times in order to secure employment that he hoped would improve his situation, editing periodicals in Philadelphia and New York. After his wife's death from tuberculosis in 1847, Poe became involved in a number of romances. As he was preparing to marry Elmira Shelton, Poe, for reasons unknown, arrived in Baltimore in late September of 1849. On October 3, he was discovered in a state of semi-consciousness; Poe died on October 7 without regaining the necessary lucidity to explain what had happened during the last days of his life.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Poe's best-known works exhibit a psychological intensity. These stories—which include “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”—are often told by a first-person narrator, and through this voice Poe probes the workings of a character's psyche. This technique foreshadows the psychological explorations of Fedor Dostoevsky and the school of psychological realism. In his Gothic tales, Poe also employed an essentially symbolic, almost allegorical method which gives such works as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “Ligeia” an enigmatic quality that accounts for their enduring critical and popular interest and also links them with the symbolical works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The influence of Poe's tales may be seen in the work of later writers, including Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft, who belong to a distinct tradition of horror literature initiated by Poe—the weird tale. In addition to his achievement as architect of the modern horror tale, Poe is also credited with parenting two other popular genres: science fiction and the detective story. In such works as “The Unparalleled Adventure of Hans Pfaall” and “Von Kempelen and His Discovery,” Poe took advantage of the fascination for science and technology that emerged in the early nineteenth century to produce speculative and fantastic narratives that anticipate a type of literature that did not become widely practiced until the twentieth century. Similarly, Poe's three tales of ratiocination—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”—are all recognized as the models that established the major characters and literary conventions of detective fiction, specifically the amateur sleuth who solves a crime that has confounded the authorities and whose feats of deductive reasoning are documented by an admiring associate. Just as Poe influenced many succeeding authors and is regarded as an ancestor of such major literary movements as symbolism and surrealism, he was also influenced by earlier literary figures and movements. In his use of the demonic and the grotesque, Poe evidenced the impact of the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann and the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, while the despair and melancholy in much of Poe's writing reflects an affinity with the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. It was Poe's particular genius that in his own work he gave consummate artistic form both to his personal obsessions and those of previous literary generations, while simultaneously creating new forms that would provide a means of expression for future artists.

Critical Reception

While his works were not conspicuously acclaimed during his lifetime, Poe did earn due respect as a gifted fiction writer, poet, and man of letters, and occasionally he achieved a measure of popular success. After his death, however, the history of his critical reception becomes one of dramatically uneven judgments and interpretations. This state of affairs was initiated by Poe's one-time friend and literary executor R. W. Griswold, who attributed the depravity and psychological aberrations of many of the characters in Poe's fiction to Poe himself. In retrospect, Griswold's vilifications seem ultimately to have elicited as much sympathy as censure with respect to Poe and his work, leading subsequent biographers of the late nineteenth century to defend Poe's name. It was not until the 1941 biography by A. H. Quinn that a balanced view was provided of Poe, his work, and the relationship between the author's life and his imagination. Nevertheless, the identification of Poe with the murderers and madmen of his works survived and flourished in the twentieth century, most prominently in the form of psychoanalytical studies. Added to the controversy over the sanity, or at best the maturity of Poe, was the question of the value of Poe's works as serious literature. At the forefront of Poe's detractors were such eminent figures as Henry James, Aldous Huxley, and T. S. Eliot, who dismissed Poe's works as juvenile, vulgar, and artistically debased; in contrast, these same works have been judged to be of the highest literary merit by such writers as Bernard Shaw and William Carlos Williams. Complementing Poe's erratic reputation among English and American critics is the more stable, and generally more elevated opinion of critics elsewhere in the world, particularly in France. In fact, numerous studies have been written tracing the influence of the American author on the international literary scene, especially in Russia, Japan, Scandinavia, and Latin America. Today, Poe is recognized as one of the foremost progenitors of modern literature, both in its popular forms, such as horror and detective fiction, and in its more complex and self-conscious forms, which represent the essential artistic manner of the twentieth century. In contrast to earlier critics who viewed the man and his works as one, criticism of the past twenty-five years has developed a view of Poe as a detached artist who was more concerned with displaying his virtuosity than with expressing his soul, and who maintained an ironic rather than an autobiographical relationship to his writings. Although various critics such as Yvor Winters wished to remove Poe from literary history, his works remain integral to any conception of modernism in world literature.

Principal Works

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket (short novel) 1838

Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. 2 vols. 1840

Prose Romances: The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Man That Was Used Up 1843

Tales 1845

Works of Edgar Allan Poe, With Notices of His Life and Genius. 4 vols. (edited by N. P. Willis, J. R. Lowell, and Rufus Wilmot Griswold) 1850-56

The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 10 vols. (edited by Edmund C. Stedman and George E. Woodbury) 1894-95

The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 17 vols. (edited by James A. Harrison) 1902


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Julia Stern (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Stern, Julia. “Double Talk: The Rhetoric of The Whisper in Poe's ‘William Wilson.’” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 40, no. 3 (September 1994): 185-218.

[In the following essay, Stern probes Poe's use and subversion of melodramatic conventions in the story “William Wilson.”]

For Edgar Allan Poe, the melodramatic mode is a logical literary form in which to articulate ethical conflict, a form in which the utterly polarized terms of good and evil clash in a highly personalized encounter.1 Typically, as in “William Wilson,” Poe's doppelganger tale of 1839, melodrama shapes the manner and the matter of the story and inflects a...

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Barbara Cantalupo (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Cantalupo, Barbara. “The Lynx in Poe's ‘Silence.’” Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism 27, nos. 1-2 (June-December 1994): 1-4.

[In the following essay, Cantalupo discusses the symbolic significance of the lynx in “Silence—A Fable.”]

Poe chose the lynx as the final image in his tale “Silence—A Fable.” Quite simply, the lynx functions as a symbolic figure: it supersedes the Demon narrator and has the “last word”—the silence of its lynx-eye stare—effectively drawing the “moral” of the fable into its purview, not the Demon's.1 The lynx figures significantly in Benjamin Fisher's argument that “Silence” be read not as parody...

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Paula Kot (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Kot, Paula. “Painful Erasures: Excising the Wild Eye from ‘The Oval Portrait.’” Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism 28, nos. 1-2 (June-December 1995): 1-6.

[In the following essay, Kot considers the function of the dying woman in “The Oval Portrait.”]

In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe does more than declare the poetical nature of dying women. He also takes the public behind the scenes to watch the writer at work. Though writers “prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy,” Poe details the “cautious selections and rejections—… the painful erasures and interpolations” that a writer makes.1 Poe...

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William Crisman (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Crisman, William. “Poe's Dupin as Professional, The Dupin Stories as Serial Text.” Studies in American Fiction 23, no. 2 (autumn 1995): 215-29.

[In the following essay, Crisman investigates the character Dupin's status as a professional detective.]

The reader of Poe's Dupin stories is caught between two contrary models of Dupin's professional status. On the one hand, Susan Beegel considers it “obvious” that Dupin is the “prototypical amateur detective” and thus by definition not a professional at all. Indeed, on a different level of theoretical discourse, Jacques Lacan experiences Dupin's interest in fees as a “clash with the rest” of “The...

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Shawn Rosenheim (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Rosenheim, Shawn. “Detective Fiction, Psychoanalysis, and the Analytic Sublime.” In The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman, pp. 153-76. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Rosenheim explores the nature and function of analysis and psychoanalysis in Poe's detective stories.]

“We have gone so far as to combine the ideas of an agility astounding, a strength superhuman, a ferocity brutal, a butchery without motive, a grotesquerie in horror absolutely alien from humanity, and a voice foreign in tone to the ears of men of many nations, and devoid of...

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David Leverenz (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Leverenz, David. “Poe and Gentry Virginia.” In The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman, pp. 210-36. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Leverenz situates Poe within the Southern literary tradition.]

Allen Tate's remarkable 1949 essay, “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe,” defines Poe as southern not only for his high sense of a writer's calling but because Poe understood better than anyone else that the modern world was going straight to hell, or to the bourgeois, commodifying North. For Tate, a culture not controlled by leisured gentlemen means Dante's Inferno, which Poe...

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John Bryant (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Bryant, John. “Poe's Ape of UnReason: Humor, Ritual, and Culture.” Nineteenth Century Literature 51, no. 1 (June 1996): 16-52.

[In the following essay, Bryant traces Poe's literary relationship to humor through short fiction and contrasts it with Herman Melville's comic attitude in The Confidence-Man.]

Poe's humor: the rubric seems to deny reality. To be sure, the writer knew how to use laughter throughout all of the varied genres of his canon: there is the hoaxing in “A Loss of Breath” and “Hans Pfaal,” the reduction to absurdity of penny-dreadful writing in “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” the satire of village life in “The Devil in the...

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Jerome DeNuccio (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: DeNuccio, Jerome. “History, Narrative, and Authority: Poe's ‘Metzengerstein.’” College Literature 24, no. 2 (June 1997): 71-81.

[In the following essay, DeNuccio examines the narrative authority in Poe's story “Metzengerstein.”]

It is perhaps fitting that in “Metzengerstein,” his first published tale,1 Poe explores the authority a writer wields over his narrative. What makes the tale interesting, however, is the strategy Poe employs: he uses a writing character's loss of authority to affirm his own. Poe's strategy hinges on the dual metempsychosis that occurs in the tale. On the surface, of course, the tale strongly implies...

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Merrill Cole (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Cole, Merrill. “The Purloined Mirror.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 8, no. 2 (October 1997): 135-51.

[In the following essay, Cole investigates the sexual and gender role of the mirror and mirroring in Poe's fiction, specifically focusing on the tale “The Assignation.”]

Does the mirror tell the truth? Does it consolidate a fiction that becomes the truth for the viewer? A mirage of unwavering identity, an unreachable oasis which fixes in permanence the hazy limits of sexuality and gender? Does it reveal not only who is the prettiest, but also who best fits an ideal, heterosexual model? How then would the mirror position the queer viewer? In...

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Daniel J. Philippon (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Philippon, Daniel J. “Poe in the Ragged Mountains: Environmental History and Romantic Aesthetics.” Southern Literary Journal 30, no. 2 (spring 1998): 1-16.

[In the following essay, Philippon considers whether Poe based his story “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” on the extant Ragged Mountains in Virginia and that “the discrepancy between the actual Ragged Mountains and the fanciful landscape his protagonist envisions is crucial to a complete understanding of the story.”]

A later work, written at the same time as some of his best-known tales of horror and ratiocination—such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,” “The Black Cat,”...

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Judith E. Pike (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Pike, Judith E. “Poe and the Revenge of the Exquisite Corpse.” Studies in American Fiction 26, no. 2 (autumn 1998): 171-92.

[In the following essay, Pike analyzes Poe's preoccupation with death and the “fetishism of the exquisite corpse” during the nineteenth century.]

Although Poe's debt to the Gothic genre is documented in his tales with numerous references to Gothic texts and occult literature, Poe's “architecture of death”1 is not merely a case of belated romanticism.2 The resurgence of the Gothic architectures of death in Poe should instead be read as a literary response to cultural attempts to raze those very structures...

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Terence Whalen (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Whalen, Terence. “Culture of Surfaces.” In Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America, pp. 225-48. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Whalen traces the development of Poe's detective fiction.]

Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains. … I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic....

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Further Reading


Allen, Thomas Michael. “Out of the Fold: Difference in American Literary History.” Arizona Quarterly 55, no. 3 (autumn 1999): 135-50.

Evaluates the influence of Poe on the work of literary critic Barbara Johnson.

Brand, Dana. “Rear-View Mirror: Hitchcock, Poe, and the Flaneur in America.” In Hitchcock's America, edited by Jonathan Freedman and Richard Millington, pp. 123-34. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Assesses Poe's influence on the renowned filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. “Risky Resemblances: On Repetition, Mourning, and Representation.” In...

(The entire section is 630 words.)