Historical Context

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Literature in the 19th Century

Poe wrote at a time when the United States was experiencing rapid economical and geographical expansion. During the mid-nineteenth century, the most popular authors in the growing United States were those who wrote adventure fiction. American nautical explorations (particularly of the Pacific region) and westward expansion captured the imagination of the public. Such Poe stories as ‘‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’’ and ‘‘The Gold Bug’’ reflect the public’s fascination with adventures at home and abroad. Poe’s America was a vibrant and self-assured young nation with a firm belief in its manifest destiny. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which outlined the moral struggles of an expanding country, was a moral tale that pitted the white man against Native Americans. Herman Melville was a favorite with readers, with his novels of sea-faring life, which often paled in comparison to the adventures of his own youth. Long, action-oriented novels such as these were a primary form of entertainment for many people. Washington Irving who lived and wrote in the emerging metropolis of New York City, began to catalogue some of the arising American folklore in his tales and stories, although he frequently traveled in Europe to gather material for his writing and followed a traditional British format in his prose. Novels in this era typically imitated British literature until new themes arose from authors who were distinctly American. Poe was one of the first to create a distinctly American literature. In his short stories, particularly, he sought to fashion tales of terror based on mood and language. He also helped popularize the short story form, and soon many magazines were being published that provided their audiences with new stories every month. The magazines became an important part of popular life, and Poe published many stories in them, though few brought him solid popularity. Through his short stories, especially ‘‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ Poe became one of the first practitioners of the detective story, in which a mystery is presented that must be solved by an observant inspector, whose viewpoint is also that of the reader’s.

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Psychological Elements of Poe’s Fiction

Historians note that Poe’s writings emphasizing the dark side of humanity and nature challenged the optimistic and confident spirit of the American people during the nineteenth century. Scientific progress and rational thought were revolutionizing industry and agriculture. For example, such nineteenth-century creations as steamships expanded commerce, while steel plows and the McCormick reapers increased agricultural production manyfold. Poe, like other writers of his time, was influenced by the exaggerated emotions and sombre moods of Romanticism but he differs from his contemporaries in a number of ways. While Poe does not reject rational science (his ‘‘tales of ratiocination’’ herald the triumph of the superior rational mind), he undermines the faith in rationality in some of his stories. ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ tells of a man who ironically (and perhaps also paradoxically) strongly believes in the need for making methodical and calculated decisions but is eventually overcome by inexplicable psychological forces that stem from his irrational, unstable nature. Thus, while Poe’s works display a strong interest in rational science, his writings also explore the psychologically unfathomable aspects of the human condition and the inexplicable elements of the universe.

Poe differs from writers of his time in one other significant way. ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is an example of how his writing produces a psychological effect. While his contemporaries generally regarded a story’s moral or ideological position as paramount, Poe believed that the aim of literature is...

(The entire section contains 1033 words.)

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading