During his short literary career, Edgar Allan Poe produced a large quantity of writing, most of which was not collected in book form during his lifetime. He published one novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), and several volumes of poetry, the most famous of which is The Raven and Other Poems (1845). Poe earned his living mainly as a writer and as an editor of magazines. For magazines, he wrote reviews, occasional essays, meditations, literary criticism, and a variety of different kinds of journalism, as well as poetry and short fiction.
During his life, Edgar Allan Poe was a figure of controversy and so became reasonably well known in literary circles. Two of his works were recognized with prizes: “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” and “The Gold-Bug.” “The Raven,” his most famous poem, created a sensation when it was published and became something of a best-seller. After his death, Poe’s reputation grew steadily—though in the United States opinion remained divided—until by the middle of the twentieth century he had clear status as an author of worldwide importance. Poe’s achievements may be measured in terms of what he has contributed to literature and of how his work influenced later culture.
Poe was accomplished in fiction, poetry, and criticism, setting standards in all three that distinguish him from most of his American contemporaries. In fiction, he is credited with inventing the conventions of the classical detective story, beginning the modern genre of science fiction, and turning the conventions of gothic fiction to the uses of high art in stories such as “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He was also an accomplished humorist and satirist. In poetry, he produced a body of work that is respected throughout the world and a few poems that have endured as classics, notably “The Raven,” as well as several poems that, in part because of their sheer verbal beauty, have persistently appealed to the popular imagination, such as “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee.” In criticism, Poe is among the first to advocate and demonstrate methods of textual criticism that came into their own in the twentieth century, notably in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he analyzed with remarkable objectivity the process by which “The Raven” was built in order to produce a specified effect in its readers.
Poe’s influence on later culture was pervasive. Nearly every important American writer after Poe shows signs of influence, especially when working in the gothic mode or with grotesque humor. The French, Italians, and writers in Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas acknowledge and demonstrate their debts to Poe in technique and vision. Only to begin to explore Poe’s influence on twentieth century music and film would be a major undertaking. In terms of his world reputation, Poe stands with William Faulkner and perhaps T. S. Eliot as one of the most influential authors of the United States.
Although Edgar Allan Poe’s career was relatively short, he was the leading figure in the mid-nineteenth century transformation of the legendary tale into the form now known as the short story. Experimenting with many different styles and genres—the gothic tale, science fiction, occult fantasies, satire—Poe gained great recognition in the early 1840’s for his creation of a genre that has grown in popularity ever since—the tale of ratiocination, or detective story, which features an amateur sleuth who by his superior deductive abilities outsmarts criminals and outclasses the police.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” the first works in the Dupin series, created a small sensation in the United States when they were first published. Following fast on these works was “The Gold Bug,” which, although not featuring Dupin, focused on analytical detection; it was so popular that it was immediately reprinted three times. “The Purloined Letter,” the third and final story in the Dupin series, has been the subject of much critical analysis.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote several major essays of literary criticism, in addition to numerous book reviews for magazines. Especially important are his reviews of Nathaniel Hawthorne, containing Poe’s theory of short fiction, and his reviews of the works of English and American poets, which explain much of his theory of the poetic imagination. Poe’s philosophical speculations are found in his book-length Eureka: A Prose Poem and in his “Marginalia.” In the former, he attempts no less than a complete theory of God and the universe. Although he was untrained in science, some of his ideas about the nature of space and time clearly anticipate significant discoveries in twentieth century theoretical physics. He was one of the founders of the short story, and today’s “category fiction” owes two of its most popular and enduring types to Poe: the detective story and the Gothic horror story. He also wrote a verse drama, Politian (pb. 1835-1836), and a novella, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838).
Edgar Allan Poe is regarded as an important and influential figure in American literature. He established basic principles for analyzing poetry that have subsequently been modified but never abandoned. Before Poe, American critics saw their job as protecting the public from European decadence and revolutionary ideas. Poe maintained that the critic should rather protect readers from bad poetry and remind poets to live up to their potential. He was also among the first to introduce theoretical considerations into book reviewing. He believed that the critic must judge poetry by a definite body of standards rather than by the vague and impressionistic criteria so often resorted to by his contemporaries. He pioneered in insisting that a poem is an aesthetic object and that its existence can be justified solely on aesthetic grounds. He was also concerned with making poetry accessible to a wide public, something that often irritated his fellow reviewers.
Poe was one of the first American poets to be famous in his own lifetime, and has remained, with Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, one of America’s three best-known poets. His command of the entire range of technical devices available to the poet, especially of sound effects, remains unsurpassed. While his subject matter is narrow and sometimes idiosyncratic, he has written some of the finest lyrics and descriptive poems in the language. Poe’s poetry was never completely ignored in nineteenth century America, but it was in France after 1850 that he was most admired. His theory and practice had an enormous influence on French—and later on British and American—poetry, particularly on the Symbolist movement of the later nineteenth century. The Symbolists admired Poe’s conception of ideal beauty, his use of atmosphere, his command of the musical qualities of language, and his notion of the poem as a rationally constructed work. Perhaps most important, he influenced the Symbolists, and through them much of twentieth century poetry, with his insistence that art is an appropriate instrument for dealing with the subjective and the transcendent in human life. The list of great artists who acknowledged him as an important influence on their work would have to include the poets T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Charles Baudelaire; the dramatists August Strindberg and George Bernard Shaw; and the composers Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Serge Prokofiev, Alban Berg, and Igor Stravinsky.
“The Philosophy of Composition” purports to explain the process of Edgar Allan Poe’s construction of “The Raven.” What thematic or imagistic elements in the poem does this essay entirely fail to account for?
How does Poe’s deliberately vague description of the House of Usher contribute to the effect of the story?
Is Yvor Winters’s criticism of “Ulalume” unfair?
For what famous detectives in fiction did Poe’s Auguste Dupin establish the precedent?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of a critical theory that emphasizes inducing or accommodating the reader?
For Poe, what is the relationship between art and reality?