Edgar Allan Poe Poe, Edgar Allan (Literary Masters)

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Introduction

(Literary Masters)

While the enormous popularity of Edgar Allan Poe's famous short stories and poems continues to highlight his creative brilliance, Poe's renown as the master of horror, the father of the detective story, and the voice of "The Raven" is something of a mixed blessing. Today, Poe is known, read, and appreciated on the basis of a comparatively narrow body of work, roughly a dozen tales and half as many poems. For the novice reader, these favored texts offer easy (but still challenging) access to Poe's most exemplary writing, entry into his uniquely terrifying world, and intriguing connections to facets of their author's tragically disordered life. The total effect of all this is compelling, and Poe himself would certainly approve. He wrote for the masses, using his learned artistry to reach the common people of his day and to then elevate their minds while intensifying their emotional reactions. Poe was not averse to the commercial sensationalism either: he wrote several "hoaxes" as news and later capitalized on his personal notoriety for bookings on the lecture/recital circuit. Along with Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Poe ranks among the foremost literary stars in the firmament of popular American culture. A century and half after his death, Poe is instantly identifiable, stands without rival, and remains (with effort) immensely enjoyable. In his normal frame of mind, at least, Poe would have been deeply amused by the widespread adulation and fame he has enjoyed in posterity.

The rub is that we may be tempted to stop here and neglect the breadth and the depth of Poe's contributions to Western Literature. Poe, in fact, wrote nearly seventy short works of fiction. He is duly credited with creating the detective story genre and with transforming the Gothic mystery tale of the Romantic Period into the modern horror or murder stories centered in the outlying regions of human mind and experience. But he also wrote several comic and satirical pieces, literary parodies, sketches, and experimental stories, including "A Descent into the Maelstrom," and his novella, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. His most famous poems—"The Raven," "Ulalume," "The Bells," "The City in the Sea"—were enormously influential. These famous verses were behind a powerful wave of enthusiasm for Poe that arose among the leading writers of Europe during his own lifetime, spread thereafter around the world, and was sustained through the "discovery" of existential "human condition" themes in his short stories generations later. But Poe also wrote three volumes of poetry during the first period of his literary career (1827-1831) that deserve our attention, as does his metaphysical Eureka: A Prose Poem and his verse drama, Politian. In terms of the hidden breadth of his accomplishments, during most of his career, Poe labored as an editor of literary journals and reviewer of fiction, verse, and non-fiction books. Among the latter, Poe wrote reviews on books of such diverse fields as medicine, natural history, archeology, philology, and economics.

As for Poe's criticism of fiction and verse, there is an intersection with the often-overlooked depth of his work. Poe developed a theory of composition that he applied to both his short stories and his poems. Its most basic principle was that insofar as short fiction and poetry were concerned, the writer should aim at creating a single and total psychological/spiritual effect upon the reader. The theme or plot of the piece is always subordinate to the author's calculated construction of a single, intense mood in the reader's or listener's mind, be it melancholy, suspense, or horror. There are no extra elements in Poe, no subplots, no minor characters, and no digressions except those that show the madness of deranged first-person ("I") narrators. Ultimately, Poe took writing to be a moral task that worked not through teaching lessons, but in simultaneously stimulating his readers' mental, emotional, and spiritual faculties...

(The entire section is 23,223 words.)