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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Poe’s Short Stories!