illustration of a dark, menacing cracked house with large, red eyes looking through the windows

The Fall of the House of Usher

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Critical Overview

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While Poe's works were not widely acclaimed during his lifetime, he did earn respect as a gifted fiction writer and poet, especially after the publication of his poem "The Raven." After his death, however, the history of his critical reception becomes one of dramatically uneven judgements and interpretations. This was, in part, the fault of Poe's one-time friend and literary executor R. W. Griswold, who, in an obituary notice bearing the byline ''Ludwig," attributed the depravity and psychological peculiarities of many of the characters in Poe's fiction to Poe himself. In retrospect, Griswold's insults seem to have elicited as much sympathy as censure, leading subsequent biographers of the late nineteenth century to defend, sometimes avidly, Poe's name.

It was not until the 1941 biography by A. H. Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Autobiography, 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 notably in the form of psychoanalytical studies by such critics as Marie Bonaparte and Joseph Wood Krutch. Added to the controversy over Poe's sanity was the question of the value of Poe's works as serious literature. Among Poe's detractors were such eminent literary 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 were judged to be of the highest literary merit by such writers as George Bernard Shaw and William Carlos Williams. Complementing Poe's erratic reputation among American and English critics was the generally more elevated opinion of critics elsewhere in the world, particularly in France. Following the extensive translations and commentaries of French poet Charles Baudelaire in the 1850s, Poe's works were received with high esteem by French writers, especially those associated with the late nineteenth-century symbolist movement, who admired Poe's transcendent aspirations as a poet. In other countries, Poe enjoyed similar regard, and numerous studies have been written tracing the influence of the American author on international literature.

Today, Poe is regarded 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, such as poetry and criticism. In contrast to earlier critics who viewed the man and his works as one, recent criticism has developed a view of Poe as a detached artist who was more concerned with displaying his writing talents than with expressing his feelings. While at one time critics wished to remove Poe from literary history, his works remain integral to any conception of modernism in world literature.

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Critical Discussion


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