illustrated portrait of American author of gothic fiction Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

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Did Transcendentalism influence Edgar Allan Poe's writing?

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The transcendentalist literary movement was not likely to have influenced Poe's work. His work bears little resemblance to the writing of transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Poe belonged, rather, to the Dark Romanticism school of literature; his work was published toward the end of the Romantic era. Other writers within this Dark Romanticism movement were Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

While transcendental writers valued being at one with nature and asceticism, Poe's work was much more macabre in tone. Poe's dark sense of humor often came out in stories like "The Cask of Amontillado." His work often had themes of death, murder, anxiety, and despair. Transcendentalism sought to inspire and uplift through a natural lifestyle. Meanwhile, Poe's writing was interested in telling spooky tales, not prescriptive teachings.

Poe's work was very influential to future movements like modernism and existentialism. One might even refer to his work as a kind of pre-existentialism. With his weird stories, alienated characters, and chaotic plot lines, it is not hard to see why.

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Transcendentalism only affected Poe's writing insomuch as he wanted to be different from the Transcendentalists. He strongly disliked Boston, the city of his birth, and he was dismissed by writers associated with Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously called Poe "a jingle man," belittling Poe's poetic accomplishments by implying that they were no better than a rhyming advertisement.

Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau often looked outward, to Nature, to humanity, to God. Poe, however, preferred to turn his attention inward. He writes these darkly introspective stories that cut right to the quick, that get our hearts beating faster. He writes about how we are affected by the knowledge of our own mortality and the darkness within us that can find its way out. The Transcendentalists were more concerned with the light within, because it is what connects us to the goodness in the world around us. Poe seemed to find this somewhat ridiculous and Pollyanna-ish, and his stories, on the other hand, are characterized by the opposite—by the places to which we might be pushed when we are tested by our darkest impulses.

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Transcendentalism affected Edgar Allan Poe’s literature because he abhorred it. Poe’s writing, considered part of the American Romantic period, was Dark Romantic. He wrote of evil and macabre subjects that included suffering and death, while the Transcendentalists wrote of spirituality and communing with the natural world. One of Poe’s tenets for writing was that a piece of literature is meant to be read in one sitting; therefore he wrote mostly poetry, prose, and essays. In one of his short stories, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” Poe shows his disapproval of Transcendentalism and its followers’ belief in spirituality. He mentions the movement in this short story and has the main character stand before the devil even as he states his disbelief in evil. In short, Poe had no tolerance for the beliefs of Transcendentalism, as demonstrated in his deep, dark literary work.

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