It is a mistake, made by many teachers and critics, to dismiss Poe as a hack writer of horror tales, a sort of nineteenth century Stephen King, who has nothing of importance to say and who says it in a popularized, best-seller fashion. While it is true that Poe’s stories were written in conventional forms that he thought would make them popular with the general reading public, his genius transformed the gothic pot-boiler into a probing exploration of the romantic imagination and the isolated human psyche.
The central theme in all of Poe’s works is the concept of unity, an idea that he explored in most of his works—from his simplest stories to his ambitious philosophic poem Eureka. For Poe, aesthetic and philosophic truth is determined not by measuring a work’s correspondence to external reality but by its own internal consistency. As he says in Eureka, “A thing is consistent in the relation of its truth—true in the ratio of its consistency. A perfect consistency, I repeat, can be nothing but an absolute truth.” Based on this conviction, Poe believed that the function of language was not to mirror external reality but to create a self-contained realm of reality that corresponds only to the basic human desire for total unity. In such metaphysical fantasies as “Mesmeric Revelation,” Poe asserted that the highest form of existence was what he called “unparticled matter,” by which he meant mind, spirit, and ultimately...
(The entire section is 552 words.)
Although Edgar Allan Poe is among the most widely read of all American writers, he has not always been taken seriously by critics. T. S. Eliot once said that Poe had the intellect of a “gifted young person before puberty,” and the great novelist Henry James remarked that an “enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” Whereas it is true that Poe has often been more admired by adolescents than by adults, Poe may have influenced more young people to become writers and teachers of writing than any other American author. Jorge Luis Borges, the South American master of Magical Realism, and John Barth, America’s best-known practitioner of fabulism, are only two of the many writers who have admitted as much.
Recent literary studies have finally begun to justify what loyal readers of Poe have always believed—that Poe understood the nature of narrative better than any other nineteenth century writer. His stories, once dismissed as simple gothic thrillers, are now being analyzed for their self-conscious manipulation of narrative devices and their darkly existential view of reality. Poe, plagued during his life by debts, tragedy, and depression, is finally being recognized as a master of fictional technique and his works as the precursors of modern existential vision.