Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849
American short story writer, poet, critic, editor, novelist, and essayist.
Though Poe's fame rests primarily on his brilliant short stories, he is also a major figure in the field of literary criticism. His fictional inventiveness is matched by his theoretical innovations, which not only provided a justification for his creation of the genres of science fiction and the detective story, but also attempted to create a tradition of uniquely American literary criticism that would free the American literary world from its colonial dependence on England. Though the rigid standards demanded by Poe in his construction of a worthy national literature alienated many of his contemporaries, he is now recognized as an influential figure in the development of American as well as European literary traditions.
Born in Boston in 1809 to an English actress, Poe was left an orphan before the age of three. He was brought up by his foster parents, John and Frances Allan, in Richmond, Virginia. His early life was therefore spent as part of the southern gentry. He distinguished himself academically both at school and at the university, but his expectations to live the life of a southern gentleman were compromised by his deteriorating relationship with John Allan, which left him in a financially precarious position. In 1827 Poe left Richmond and went to Boston in an attempt to create an independent life for himself. He enlisted in the army and simultaneously published his first book of poetry, Tamerlane, and Other Poems, which did not earn him any literary recognition. After being honorably discharged from the army in 1829, he entered West Point with Allan's consent. But Allan's continued refusal to allow him sufficient funds to maintain himself, combined now with his refusal to allow Poe to resign from the Academy, forced Poe to gain a dismissal by deliberately violating regulations. Left once more to fend for himself, Poe went to New York and then to Baltimore, and tried to become a part of the successful literary circle centered in New England. However, though several of his short stories were published, he was unable to gain either literary recognition or financial security.
In 1835, a year after Allan's death, Poe moved back to Richmond and became the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. This marked the beginning of his career as a literary critic. For the next decade, though he continued to publish short stories and poetry, his chief occupation remained that of a journalist. However, this professional consistency did not ensure financial stability since literary journalism was not a well-paying field. Furthermore, Poe's strong critical opinions frequently generated conflict with magazine proprietors who wanted to retain editorial control over their publications. As a result, he was forced to move from magazine to magazine in search of a better income and more critical freedom. After being dismissed from the Messenger in 1837, he worked for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine from 1839 to 1840. He then moved to Graham's Magazine (1841-42), and finally to the Broadway Journal, where he worked as chief editor until early 1846, when the journal folded. Though he constantly dreamed of launching his own magazine, the closest he came to fulfilling this ambition was to become the proprietor of the Broadway Journal for a short time. He could not, however, make the magazine as successful as he wished—his capabilities as an editor were undercut by his limitations as a business manager.
Since Poe's critical output is largely in the form of journalistic essays prompted by specific events of literary publication, it is difficult to point to any single work as being central to his literary theory. As a book reviewer, Poe commented upon a...
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