illustrated portrait of American author of gothic fiction Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

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How do darker writers like Edgar Allan Poe represent American culture?

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Edgar Allan Poe’s works may be considered representative of American culture in the way they question the norms that supposedly characterize the American way of life. While many of his stories are considered to belong to the Gothic or horror genre, his contribution to American fiction has more to do with the development of psychologically complex, deviant, and sometimes unbalanced characters. They often go to extremes—such as sealing their enemies into a wine cellar, as in "The Cask of Amontillado." However, these characters' difficulties in coping with everyday life are characteristics with which readers can identify.

Poe personally experienced many challenges growing up in America and England, including the necessity of living with another family because his father could not support him and his mother had died. He failed to finish college or graduate from the military academy, West Point. His work as an editor and literary critic sharpened his perceptions of American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who probed some unpleasant facets of American life and the psyches of characters who have difficulty adapting to it. While Poe had a gift for creating vivid atmosphere and fascinating psychological portraits, he also focused on the technical aspect of writing; his carefully crafted stories can make the reader believe in the fantastic scenarios he creates.

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