Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, and died on October 7, 1849. In his stormy forty years, which included a marriage to his cousin, fights with other writers, and legendary drinking binges, Poe lived in all the important literary centers of the northeastern United States: Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. He was a magazine editor, a poet, a short story writer, a critic, and a lecturer. He introduced the British horror story, or the Gothic genre, to American literature, along with the detective story, science fiction, and literary criticism. Poe became a key figure in the nineteenth-century flourishing of American letters and literature. Famed twentieth--century literary critic F.O. Matthiessen named this period the American Renaissance. He argued that nineteenth-century American writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman crafted a distinctly American literature that attempts to escape from the long shadow of the British literary tradition. Matthiessen paid little attention to Edgar Allan Poe. Although he long had a reputation in Europe as one of America’s most original writers, only in the latter half of the -twentieth century has Poe been viewed as a crucial contributor to the American Renaissance.
The often tragic circumstances of Poe’s life haunt his writings. His father disappeared not long after the child’s birth, and, at the age of three, Poe watched his mother die of tuberculosis. Poe then went to live with John and Frances Allan, wealthy theatergoers who knew his parents, both actors, from the Richmond, Virginia, stage. Like Poe’s mother, Frances Allan was chronically ill, and Poe experienced her sickness much as he did his mother’s. His relationship with John Allan, who was loving but moody, generous but demanding, was emotionally turbulent. With Allan’s financial help, Poe attended school in England and then enrolled at the University of Virginia in 1826, but he was forced to leave after two semesters. Although Poe blamed Allan’s stinginess, his own gambling debts played a large role in his fiscal woes. A tendency to cast blame on others, without admitting his own faults, characterized Poe’s relationship with many people, most significantly Allan. Poe struggled with a view of Allan as a false father, generous enough to take him in at age three, but never dedicated enough to adopt him as a true son. There are echoes of Poe’s upbringing in his works, as sick mothers and guilty fathers appear in many of his tales.
After leaving the University of Virginia, Poe spent some time in the military before he used his contacts in Richmond and Baltimore to enter the magazine industry. With little experience, Poe relied on his characteristic bravado to convince Thomas Willis White, then head of the fledgling Southern Literary Messenger, to take him on as an editor in 1835. This position gave him a forum for his early tales, including “Berenice” and “Morella.” The Messenger also established Poe as a leading and controversial literary critic, who often attacked his New England counterparts—especially poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—in the genteel pages of the magazine. Poe ultimately fell out of favor with White, but his literary criticism made him a popular speaker on the lecture circuit. Poe never realized his most ambitious dream—the launch of his own magazine, the Stylus. Until his death, he believed that the New England literary establishment had stolen his glory and had prevented the Stylus from being published.
His name has since become synonymous with macabre tales like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but Poe assumed a variety of literary personas during his career. The Messenger—as well as Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and Graham’s—established Poe as one of America’s first popular literary critics. He advanced his theories in popular essays, including “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), “The Rationale of Verse” (1848), and “The Poetic Principle.” In “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe explained how he had crafted “The Raven,” the 1845 poem that made him nationally famous. In the pages of these magazines, Poe also introduced of a new form of short fiction—the detective story—in tales featuring the Parisian crime solver C. Auguste Dupin. The detective story follows naturally from Poe’s interest in puzzles, word games, and secret codes, which he loved to present and decode in the pages of the Messenger to dazzle his readers. The word “detective” did not exist in English at the time that Poe was writing, but the genre has become a fundamental mode of twentieth-century literature and film. Dupin and his techniques of psychological inquiry have informed countless sleuths, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.
Gothic literature, a genre that rose with Romanticism in Britain in the late eighteenth century, explores the dark side of human experience—death, alienation, nightmares, ghosts, and haunted landscapes. Poe brought the Gothic to America. American Gothic literature dramatizes a culture plagued by poverty and slavery through characters afflicted with various forms of insanity and melancholy. Poe, America’s foremost southern writer before William Faulkner, generated a Gothic ethos from his own experiences in Virginia and other slaveholding territories, and the black and white imagery in his stories reflects a growing national anxiety over the issue of slavery.
In the spectrum of American literature, the Gothic remains in the shadow of the dominant genre of the American Renaissance—the Romance. Popularized by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Romantic literature, like Gothic literature, relies on haunting and mysterious narratives that blur the boundary between the real and the fantastic. Poe’s embrace of the Gothic with its graphic violence and disturbing scenarios places him outside the ultimately conservative and traditional resolutions of Romantic novels such as Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851).
In Romances like the novels of Hawthorne, conflicts occur among characters within the context of society and are resolved in accordance with society’s rules. Poe’s Gothic tales are brief flashes of chaos that flare up within lonely narrators living at the fringes of society. Poe’s longest work, the 1838 novel Arthur Gordon Pym, described in diary form a series of episodes on a journey to Antarctica. A series of bizarre incidents and exotic discoveries at sea, Pym lacks the cohesive elements of plot or quest that tie together most novels and epics and is widely considered an artistic failure. Poe’s style and concerns never found their best expression in longer forms, but his short stories are considered masterpieces worldwide. The Poe’s Gothic is a potent brew, best served in small doses.
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