Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Poe is best known as the author of numerous spine-tingling stories of horror and suspense. He should also be remembered, however, as the author who helped to establish and develop America’s one real contribution to the world of literature—the short-story form. Poe was the first writer to recognize that the short story was a different kind of fiction than the novel and the first to insist that, for a story to have a powerful effect on the reader, every single detail in the story should contribute to that effect. His stories and criticism have been models and guides for writers in this characteristically American genre up to the present time. No one who is interested in the short-story form can afford to ignore his ideas or his fiction.

Poe was influential in making American literature more philosophical and metaphysical than it had been heretofore, especially in terms of the dark Romanticism of Germany rather than the sometimes sentimentalized romanticism of New England Transcendentalists. Poe also helped to make periodical publishing more important in American literary culture. American writing in the mid-nineteenth century was often discouraged by the easy accessibility of English novels. Lack of copyright laws made the works of the great English writers cheaply available; thus, American writers could not compete in this genre. Periodical publishing, and the short story as the favored genre of this medium, was America’s way of fighting back. Poe was an important figure in this battle to make the United States a literary force in world culture.

Although much of his early criticism is routine review work, he began in his reviews to consider the basic nature of poetry and short fiction and to develop theoretical analyses of these two genres, drawing upon both the German criticism of A. W. Schlegel and the English criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Poe’s most important contribution to criticism is his discussion of the particular generic characteristics of short fiction in his famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837). Poe makes such a convincing case for the organic unity of short fiction, argues so strongly for its dependence on a unified effect, and so clearly shows how it is more closely aligned to the poem than to the novel, that his ideas on the short tale have influenced short-story writers and literary critics ever since.

In his theories of the short story, Poe argues that, whereas in long works one may be pleased with particular passages, in short pieces the pleasure results from the perception of the oneness, the uniqueness, and the overall unity of the piece. Poe emphasizes that by “plot” he means pattern and design, not simply the temporal progression of events. It is pattern that makes the separate elements of the work meaningful, not mere realistic cause and effect. Moreover, Poe insists that only when the reader has an awareness of the “end” of the work—that is, its overall purpose—will seemingly trivial elements of the story become meaningful in its total pattern.

Poe is too often judged as being simply the author of some horror stories that many people remember vividly from their adolescent days but that few adult readers take very seriously. Moreover, Poe is often judged on the basis of errors and misunderstandings about his personality. He has been called an alcoholic, a drug addict, a hack, and a sex pervert. As a result of these errors, myths, and oversimplifications, serious readers are often reluctant to look closely at his work. There is little doubt that Poe, however, both in his criticism and in his dark, metaphysically mysterious stories, helped create a literature that made American writing a serious cultural force.

The Fall of the House of Usher

First published: 1839 (collected in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1902)

Type of work: Short story

A young nobleman, haunted by a family curse, buries his twin sister alive after she falls into a cataleptic trance.

(The entire section is 5,534 words.)