Whether you were introduced to Edgar Allan Poe through his short stories or his poems, a mention of his name is enough to conjure up a sense of eeriness. This early American writer has been credited with inventing the detective story, pioneering science fiction and, of course, revolutionizing dark fiction. He is so admired that he is the subject of three museums – The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia; The Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum in Baltimore; and the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia. Many fans of the writer also enjoy visiting his grave at Westminster Hall & Burying Ground in Baltimore.
Along with his long-lasting literary popularity, Poe was equally known for his literary criticism. And if his career as a writer now seems inevitable, no one would have suspected it at the beginning.
Poe's Early Life
Born in Boston to traveling actors in 1809, Poe had become an orphan by the age of 3. Scottish immigrant and tobacco merchant John Allan and his wife Francis brought Poe to Richmond and raised him as their foster child. His new father expected that Poe would become a businessman like he was, but the boy had other aspirations.
Poe left home to study at the University of Virginia in 1826 without much support from Allan, who provided him with a meager allowance. In an attempt to increase his income, Poe began gambling, which led him to debt rather than prosperity. Allan refused to cover his losses, and Poe dropped out of university.
The relationship with his father strained, Poe joined the U.S. Army, later entering the United States Military Academy at West Point. By that time, he had determined that he would become a writer and published his first book, "Tamerlane and Other Poems," pieces largely inspired by Lord Byron. His time at West Point was cut short when he was expelled, probably not for drinking, fighting or nudity, as rumors have had it, but for offenses like skipping class and chapel.
Perhaps the end of his military career was for the best. Poe always knew he was meant to be a writer. And he was right.
Poe the Writer and Critic
After West Point, Poe returned to Baltimore, got left out of Allan's will when he died and began publishing his short stories. Acquiring an editorial position with the magazine Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Poe added literary criticism to his skill set. His reviews were known for their critical and exacting nature, earning him the nickname "Tomahawk Man."
But if critics are sometimes accused of operating from a perspective of arrogance, not having done the work themselves, Poe was different, says Paul Voss, associate professor of English at Georgia State University. He was different because he was a writer himself. Indeed, Poe felt it was his duty to bring American writers up to higher standards, according to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site.
"He was on the leading edge of what it meant to be a professional writer," says Voss. "He was a craftsman. He put in the time." When Poe was writing, American literature was still in its infancy. Poe's contemporaries included Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, while Mark Twain was just a teenager when Poe died. As a writer and magazine editor, Poe campaigned to improve the profession, pushing for better pay and copyright laws.
At the age of 27, he married 13-year-old Virginia Clemm, his first cousin. He continued writing, moved to New York City and Philadelphia, and struggled financially. His situation improved in 1845 when his poem "The Raven" made him a household name. But two years later, in 1847, Virginia died of tuberculosis, and Poe would soon follow her to the grave.
If "The Raven" is Poe's best-known work and the one that catapulted him to fame, his short story "The Cask of Amontillado" tops the list as the favorite of many of his fans. It happens to be Voss's favorite. He says it provides an ideal story for teaching the literary technique of irony, and it's what he brought with him last time he snuck into Westminster to visit Poe's grave after hours.
"The Cask of Amontillado" is a tale of revenge for an undefined "thousand injuries" achieved in the most horrific way. The irony starts with the name of the antagonist, Fortunato, whom the reader discovers to be unlucky in the extreme. Like many of Poe's works, it is a story that situates him as one of the best-known Gothic horror writers.
Similarly gruesome tales include "The Tell-Tale Heart," another story with a murderous narrator, "The Masque of the Red Death," about a plague and a prince who ignores it to his peril, and "The Fall of the House of Usher," a classic Gothic tale set in a spooky house during a bad storm.
In addition to "The Raven," Poe penned numerous poems, such as "The Bells," in which the word "tintinnabulation" offers the ultimate in onomatopoeia. "The Bells" was published posthumously, and so was "Annabel Lee," an emotional recounting of the narrator's love and loss of a beautiful woman.
Set on a whaler, Poe's only complete novel "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" features a mutiny and "atrocious butchery" as the ship sails for the South Seas. Six installments of his serial novel "The Journal of Julius Rodman" were published in the Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine while Poe was an editor, but after he left the publication, he stopped writing it. Mystery lovers will flip for Poe's Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, who predated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes by more than half a century.
Ready to dip your toe in Poe's greatest hits? Start with select works on The Poe Museum website – they are available in full for free online, as are his other works, now in the public domain. "That's the best way to get to know an author," says Voss.
Poe's Mysterious Death
Following Virginia's death, Poe is reported to have increased his alcohol consumption, but by the summer of 1849, he had become re-engaged to his ex-fiancée, Sarah Elmira Royster. But the two were not destined to marry. Stopping in Baltimore while traveling, Poe disappeared for five days. He was spotted near a pub, possibly drunk, wearing strange clothing that was not his. In and out of consciousness, a few mornings later, he died in the hospital at the age of 40.
Many theories have been suggested about his death, ranging from alcohol poisoning to epilepsy to tuberculosis. But according to History, another theory posits that Poe fell victim to corrupt politicians in Baltimore who attacked men, drugged and disguised them, and took them to vote repeatedly at various polling places and then left them for dead.
Originally buried in an unmarked grave in an inauspicious location at Westminster, Poe was moved thanks to Baltimore school children, who raised enough money with their 1875 "Pennies for Poe" project to earn him a monument and place at the front of the cemetery. He lies near Virginia and her mother Maria Poe Clemm, among heroes from the American Revolution and War of 1812, welcoming admirers like Voss. For decades the Poe Toaster visited each year on Poe's birthday, Jan. 19.
Outside of inspiring lovers of the macabre, Poe's work has had a lasting effect on the literature and popular writing that followed him. The Guardian lists Arthur Conan Doyle, Peter Straub, Jules Verne and Jorge Luis Borges among those who were influenced by the 19th-century writer and states that he "signals the beginning of what would become a great Anglo-American literary dialogue." The master of celluloid suspense, none other than Alfred Hitchcock, has been quoted as stating, "It's because I liked Edgar Allan Poe's stories so much that I began to make suspense films."
But he was more than a writer, according to Voss. Poe held the belief that there was no human puzzle that the human mind can make that the human mind cannot then solve. He tried to test that theory in "The Purloined Letter" by looking at the operation of intellect and rationality. His was a rational approach even to something as carnal and visceral as revenge.
"He was kind of an original thinker," says Voss. Perhaps we have not caught up with him yet. "His gloomy and eerie stories still continue to fascinate."
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