Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849
American short story writer, novelist, poet, critic, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Poe's short fiction works. See also The Raven Criticism, The Cask of Amontillado Criticism, The Tell-Tale Heart Criticism, The Fall of the House of Usher Criticism, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism, Edgar Allan Poe Contemporary Literary Criticism, and Edgar Allan Poe Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism.
Poe's stature as a major figure in world literature is primarily based on his ingenious and profound short stories and his critical theories, which established a highly influential rationale for the short form in both poetry and fiction. Regarded in literary histories and handbooks as the architect of the modern short story, Poe is also deemed to be the originator of such genres as the detective story, the horror tale, and the science fiction story. In his work, Poe demonstrated a brilliant command of technique as well as an inspired and original imagination.
Poe's father and mother were professional actors who at the time of his birth were members of a repertory company in Boston. Before Poe was three years old both of his parents had died, and he was raised in the home of John Allan, a prosperous exporter from Richmond, Virginia. In 1815 Allan took his wife and foster son, whom he never formally adopted, to visit Scotland and England, where they lived for the next five years. While in England, Poe spent two years at the school he later described in the story “William Wilson.” Returning with his foster parents to Richmond in 1820, Poe attended the best schools available and began to write poetry. At the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Poe distinguished himself academically, but as a result of bad debts and inadequate financial support from Allan, he was forced to leave after less than a year. This discord with his foster father deepened on Poe's return to Richmond in 1827, and soon afterward Poe left for Boston, where he enlisted in the army and published his first poetry collection, Tamerlane, and Other Poems: By a Bostonian (1827). The book went unnoticed by readers and reviewers, and a second collection was only slightly more conspicuous when it appeared in 1829. That same year Poe was honorable discharged from the army, having attained the rank of regimental sergeant major, and, after further conflict with Allan, he entered West Point. However, because Allan would neither provide his foster son with sufficient funds to maintain himself as a cadet nor give the consent necessary to resign from the academy, Poe gained a dismissal by ignoring his duties and violating regulations. He subsequently went to New York, where his book Poems, By Edgar A. Poe was published in 1831, and then to Baltimore, where he lived at the home of his aunt, Mrs. Clemm. Over the next few years Poe's first stories appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, and his “MS. Found in a Bottle” won a cash prize for best story in the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. In 1835 Poe returned to Richmond to become editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, bringing with him his aunt and his cousin Virginia, whom he married in 1836. The Southern Literary Messenger was the first of several magazines Poe would direct over the next ten years and through which he rose to prominence as one of the leading men of letters in America. While Poe's writings gained attention in the late 1830s and 1840s, the profits from his work remained meager, and he was forced to move several times in order to secure employment that he hoped would improve his situation, editing periodicals in Philadelphia and New York. After his wife's death from tuberculosis in 1847, Poe became involved in a number of romances. As he was preparing to marry Elmira Shelton, Poe, for reasons unknown, arrived in Baltimore in late September of 1849. On October 3, he was discovered in a state of semi-consciousness; Poe died on October 7 without regaining the necessary lucidity to explain what had happened during the last days of his life.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Poe's best-known works exhibit a psychological intensity. These stories—which include “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”—are often told by a first-person narrator, and through this voice Poe probes the workings of a character's psyche. This technique foreshadows the psychological explorations of Fedor Dostoevsky and the school of psychological realism. In his Gothic tales, Poe also employed an essentially symbolic, almost allegorical method which gives such works as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “Ligeia” an enigmatic quality that accounts for their enduring critical and popular interest and also links them with the symbolical works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The influence of Poe's tales may be seen in the work of later writers, including Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft, who belong to a distinct tradition of horror literature initiated by Poe—the weird tale. In addition to his achievement as architect of the modern horror tale, Poe is also credited with parenting two other popular genres: science fiction and the detective story. In such works as “The Unparalleled Adventure of Hans Pfaall” and “Von Kempelen and His Discovery,” Poe took advantage of the fascination for science and technology that emerged in the early nineteenth century to produce speculative and fantastic narratives that anticipate a type of literature that did not become widely practiced until the twentieth century. Similarly, Poe's three tales of ratiocination—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”—are all recognized as the models that established the major characters and literary conventions of detective fiction, specifically the amateur sleuth who solves a crime that has confounded the authorities and whose feats of deductive reasoning are documented by an admiring associate. Just as Poe influenced many succeeding authors and is regarded as an ancestor of such major literary movements as symbolism and surrealism, he was also influenced by earlier literary figures and movements. In his use of the demonic and the grotesque, Poe evidenced the impact of the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann and the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, while the despair and melancholy in much of Poe's writing reflects an affinity with the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. It was Poe's particular genius that in his own work he gave consummate artistic form both to his personal obsessions and those of previous literary generations, while simultaneously creating new forms that would provide a means of expression for future artists.
While his works were not conspicuously acclaimed during his lifetime, Poe did earn due respect as a gifted fiction writer, poet, and man of letters, and occasionally he achieved a measure of popular success. After his death, however, the history of his critical reception becomes one of dramatically uneven judgments and interpretations. This state of affairs was initiated by Poe's one-time friend and literary executor R. W. Griswold, who attributed the depravity and psychological aberrations of many of the characters in Poe's fiction to Poe himself. In retrospect, Griswold's vilifications seem ultimately to have elicited as much sympathy as censure with respect to Poe and his work, leading subsequent biographers of the late nineteenth century to defend Poe's name. It was not until the 1941 biography by A. H. Quinn that a balanced view was provided of Poe, his work, and the relationship between the author's life and his imagination. Nevertheless, the identification of Poe with the murderers and madmen of his works survived and flourished in the twentieth century, most prominently in the form of psychoanalytical studies. Added to the controversy over the sanity, or at best the maturity of Poe, was the question of the value of Poe's works as serious literature. At the forefront of Poe's detractors were such eminent figures as Henry James, Aldous Huxley, and T. S. Eliot, who dismissed Poe's works as juvenile, vulgar, and artistically debased; in contrast, these same works have been judged to be of the highest literary merit by such writers as Bernard Shaw and William Carlos Williams. Complementing Poe's erratic reputation among English and American critics is the more stable, and generally more elevated opinion of critics elsewhere in the world, particularly in France. In fact, numerous studies have been written tracing the influence of the American author on the international literary scene, especially in Russia, Japan, Scandinavia, and Latin America. Today, Poe is recognized as one of the foremost progenitors of modern literature, both in its popular forms, such as horror and detective fiction, and in its more complex and self-conscious forms, which represent the essential artistic manner of the twentieth century. In contrast to earlier critics who viewed the man and his works as one, criticism of the past twenty-five years has developed a view of Poe as a detached artist who was more concerned with displaying his virtuosity than with expressing his soul, and who maintained an ironic rather than an autobiographical relationship to his writings. Although various critics such as Yvor Winters wished to remove Poe from literary history, his works remain integral to any conception of modernism in world literature.