The Purloined Letter eText - eText

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What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?

A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.

Poe's stories and poems are remarkable, not only for an unusual anxiety about life, a preoccupation with loss, an all-consuming terror, and a unique perspective on death, but also for their rich mixture of beauty, the sensual, and the supernatural. Many readers wonder whether Poe's odd perspectives were the result of his unconventional lifestyle, but the debate over whether drugs or alcohol fueled his imagination and caused his death is inconclusive.

Most modern critics recognize the emotional difficulties that Poe experienced in his life, but they also doubt that binge drinking and opium use were the inspirations for his fascination with the macabre. It is just as likely that Poe's series of wrenching losses contributed to a lifelong struggle with depression. His mother and two other women who served as mother figures to him, died prematurely. His wife was ill for years before she succumbed to tuberculosis, and a fiancée rejected him.

It is obvious that an artist as sensitive as Poe would reflect this pain in his writings. In addition, it is well known that he revised his work painstakingly. The hours that Poe spent revising his work also belie any claim that his work was the product of something other than his own innate genius and craftsmanship.

Poet, storyteller, respected literary critic—Poe was and still remains one of the defining contributors to American literature. It is our hope that this collection will not only afford you the opportunity to revisit some of your favorite Poe writings, but also give you the chance to experience a side of his genius that, perhaps, you never knew existed.

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809. Both his mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, and his father, David Poe, Jr., were employed as actors in the Boston Theatre. After his father abandoned the family and his mother's death a year later, Poe was taken in by Mr. and Mrs. John Allan, but they never adopted him. While they lived in England, Poe and his stepfather began to argue fiercely and frequently. Mrs. Allan died, John remarried, and he and Poe became even further estranged

In 1826, Poe began attending the University of Virginia, but was expelled later that year. He attended West Point for a short time; while there, he accumulated some gambling debts. John Allan would not help pay them and Poe left the Academy. He went to Boston in 1827 and, finding that he could not support himself, enlisted in the United States Army under the name Edgar A. Perry. After two years, he was released and moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where his maternal relatives lived. During this period, newspapers and literary magazines began to be published Poe's work. Tamerlaine and Other Poems appeared in 1827 and Al Aaraaf in 1829. His Manuscript Found in a Bottle won a literary contest in 1833.

Three years later, however, his life would change drastically. In May of 1836, he married his 14-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, who convinced Poe to settle in Philadelphia, where he obtained regular employment as an editor. In 1844, Poe moved to New York City, taking a job as editor for another literary magazine, The Evening Mirror. His most famous and popular poem, The Raven, was published in this magazine; through this one poem, Poe finally achieved his well-deserved reputation as a great writer. In January of 1847, however, after a long illness, Virginia died of tuberculosis. Poe's grief, combined with the stress caused by years of caring for his invalid wife, caused him to collapse emotionally after her death; it is believed that this loss accelerated his drinking problem.

Yet two years later, in 1849, he moved back to Richmond and planned to wed Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, a woman Poe had been engaged to marry earlier in life. (John Allan had forced Poe to abandon any thoughts of marrying her because of a lack of money.) Poe and Shelton, both now having lost a spouse, renewed their relationship. They would, however, not marry due to Poe's untimely death, the circumstances of which remain a mystery, even today.

He had left Richmond for Baltimore on September 27, 1849, and was found unconscious in a gutter there on October 3rd. Poe had collected approximately $1,500 for subscriptions to his literary magazine, The Stylus, but no money was found with him, leading to the speculation that he might have been robbed. He was taken to a hospital where he regained consciousness a few times, but Poe was never coherent enough to explain what had happened to him. Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849.

One doctor reported to the newspapers that Poe died from a “congestion of the brain.” Poe was known to have a tendency toward binge drinking; this, along with the subject matter of his stories and poems, caused many contemporaries to speculate that alcohol or drugs played a role in his death, but the truth may never be known. Some modern critics speculate that he might have been an undiagnosed diabetic. Other theories include the possibility of a brain lesion. One historian theorizes that Poe was kidnapped, given alcohol, beaten, and forced to vote time and again for sheriff; this was called “cooping” and was a practice in Baltimore elections at the time. The possibility also exists that Poe encountered a spurned lover, who wounded him in the neck. What is certain, however, is that Edgar Allan Poe left behind an enduring legacy of work that will long outlive the circumstances of his death.