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The Purloined Letter

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Critical Overview

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Poe's stories have not always been criticized for their literary merit alone. As Roger Asselineau notes in his entry on Poe for American Writers, "the most contradictory judgments have been passed on Edgar Allan Poe's character and works." Asselineau remarks that even Poe's chosen executor, the Reverend Rufus Griswold, "branded him a perverse neurotic, a drunkard and drug addict." On many occasions, this negative sentiment about Poe's vices tainted the author's literary reputation.

Of course, not everybody thought Poe's writing was degenerate. In 1845, the year "The Purloined Letter" was reprinted in Tales of Edgar A. Poe, reviewer George Colton noted of this story and the other tales of ratiocination that "the difference between acumen and cunning, calculation and analysis, are admirably illustrated in these tales." In fact, favorable response to "The Purloined Letter" was widespread. As Eric W. Carlson notes in his entry for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the story was "immediately popular," and "it was among his first translated into French."

The popularity of the story was still evident three decades later. In 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson noted that, "if anyone wishes to be excited, let him read...the three stories about C. Auguste Dupin, the philosophical detective." On a similar note, a year later, Edmund Clarence Stedman noted in Scribner's Monthly that Poe's "strength is unquestionable in those clever pieces of ratiocination."

In the twentieth century, the reviews of the story were still largely positive, and many critics, like Vincent Buranelli, noted Poe's role as the father of the detective story, saying that he was "the only American ever to invent a form of literature." Buranelli notes that Poe "also perfected it," and says that "The Purloined Letter" is one of two detective stories—the other being Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"—that "may be the best ever written."

While "The Purloined Letter" was more consistently well-liked than many of Poe's other works, not everything about the story was approved. G. R. Thompson notes that Dupin' s "role ... is complex and suspect," and that he is set up as "a godlike omniscience, with the narrator and the reader playing the role of the dull-witted dupes." Furthermore, Thompson notes that "Dupin and D— ... are moral doubles, each having a talent for duplicity and malice," and that "Dupin's interest in the case is morally dubious."

In spite of the criticism, with detective stories like "The Purloined Letter," Poe helped to influence many later mystery writers, a fact that is emphasized today by the existence of The Edgar, an annual award presented by the Mystery Writers of America to the best writers of detective stories.

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