Although not originally well received, Edgar Allan Poe, became one of the most influential literary writers in American history. As a child, he wrote numerous poems, many which were later published. As a young adult he focused much of his attention on short fiction. He was credited with creating the detective story and known for his psychological and often violent thrillers. He is also known for his macabre themes and for having a fascination with death. Literary students should recognize these characteristics associated with Poe’s writings were shaped by many tragedies in his life, such as abandonment of his father, untimely death’s of his mother, brother, wife, and other loved one’s, and the problems he faced with his adoptive father.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to New York where his father, David Poe, resumed his acting career. David soon quit acting and abandoned his family. He died a short time later (Harrison 22). Soon afterward, Edgar’s mother, Elizabeth, became ill and died (Nilsson). A young woman named Frances (also known as Fanny) and her husband, John Allan, took in Edgar. Soon thereafter, John, a tobacco trader, moved the family to England. There, Edgar began his first formal education. In 1820, when the tobacco market in London collapsed, the Allan’s returned to New York (Benfey; Nilsson).
Edgar continued his education, excelling in Latin and French. During this time he was also in search of a maternal figure. Although fond of Fanny Allan, her poor health limited her ability to fulfill a motherly role. Edgar found a substitute in Mrs. Jane Stanard, a mother of one of his classmate’s. Unfortunately, she died a year later at age thirty-one (Nilsson). After her death, John Allan described Edgar as “sulky and ill tempered to all the family” (qtd. in Thompson). Mr. Allan felt insulted by Edgar’s behavior, especially when considering all he had done for Edgar. This was the beginning of the deterioration of the relationship between Edgar and John Allan that would provide conflict in Edgar’s life for many years to follow (Thompson).
In 1826, Edgar attended the University of Virginia. He was an outstanding student and excelled in various languages, debating, writing, and athletics. At age sixteen he fell in love with and became engaged to a girl named Elmira Royster. While away at college, he wrote her frequently but her father intercepted the letters (Thompson). Edgar was upset when he did not receive any replies. In addition to this disappointment, life at the school was chaotic and dangerous (Benfey). There were fights with students throwing bricks and bottles at professors and problems with students gambling. Edgar described one situation in a letter to John Allan in which he stated that one student was struck on the head with a large stone and in response he pulled a pistol. On another occasion he wrote about a student that bit another student, which Edgar described as, “it is likely that pieces of flesh as large as my hand will be obliged to be cut out” (Carlson).
While away at school, Poe obtained large gambling debts and blamed John Allan for not providing proper financial support. When, Poe returned to Richmond during a school break, Allan reportedly broke off Poe’s engagement to Elmira (Carlson). He (Allan) then sent Edgar to work at his company instead of sending him back to school (Thompson). In 1827, Edgar and John Allan’s relationship completely fell apart. Poe wrote, “I’ve heard you say. . . that you have no affection for me” (qtd. in Nilsson). Edgar moved out and while “on the streets” developed a problem with alcohol. Before long he obtained employment with a small newspaper and provided the printer with some of his early manuscripts. This resulted in a booklet entitled, “Tamerlane and Other Poems.” The main poem is a story about a warrior who returns home to find his childhood love has died and all his dreams gone. The writing was clearly influenced by Poe’s own plight in life and his failed relationship with Elmira Royster (Nilsson).
Shortly thereafter, Poe lied about his age and used a fictitious name to enter the United States Army. In 1829, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major, the highest rank for a noncommissioned officer (Thompson). Meanwhile, Fanny Allan became seriously ill and died. Edgar arrived home after her burial. Feeling guilty for leaving Fanny, he wrote, “I have had a fearful warning and have hardly ever known before what distress was” (qtd. in Nilsson). After Fanny died, John Allan decided to forgive Edgar for their past problems and support his decision to leave the army to get into West Point Military Academy (Nilsson).
In April 1829, Edgar left the army, returned to Richmond, Virginia, and waited to be accepted as a cadet at West Point. During this time, John Allan became impatient and accused Edgar of being lazy. Their relationship became worse when Edgar requested financial assistance. As he waited for admittance, Edgar returned to Baltimore and continued writing poetry. There, a company named Hatch and Dunning printed his writing “Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems.” This literature centers on the ideas associated with the concept of life after death and ideal love, an obvious reflection on Poe’s relationships with loved ones. In 1830, Edgar finally entered West Point.
He climbed to the top rankings in his class. However, John Allan remarried a much younger woman and sent Edgar a letter stating he had no interest in further contact with him. This resulted in Edgar’s desire to leave West Point. When Allan did not assist Edgar with his plans to leave the academy, Edgar began to get into trouble. By January 1831, he had committed enough offenses that he was court-martialed and dismissed from the military. He left West Point in February and traveled to New York City before eventually returning to Baltimore (Thompson; Nilsson).
While in Baltimore, he met many of his biological relatives for the first time. He also became very close with his brother, Henry. Unfortunately, Henry died six months later due to alcohol poisoning. After his brother’s death, Edgar began to write seriously again. Hoping to earn more money, he changed from writing poetry to writing fiction. He wrote his first published story, “The Dream,” which encompassed much of Edgar’s past and was thought to have been inspired by his brother’s death (Nilsson). In this writing, the narrator dreams that a person he killed has come back though an opening in the sky. As the terrifying character approaches, the narrator awakes.
He also wrote a Gothic tale, “Metzengerstein,” about a feud between a count and a baron. The count eventually is burned in a fire and transforms into a horse. The baron captures the horse and when a fire breaks out in the baron’s castle the horse carries him into the fire. As the smoke rises upward, a figure of a horse becomes visible (“Poe’s Tales” 213-221). Next, Poe published four short stories all concerning the subject of surviving death. In one story, “A Decided Loss” (later titled “Loss of Breath”), the narrator, “lost his breath, got his skull crushed, was hanged, had his ears cut off by a coroner, gets cut up” and is still alive although repeatedly killed (Nilsson).
Edgar continued to have financial problems and in 1833 he moved in with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and his cousin Virginia (Thompson). In 1834, John Allan died. Although Allan was worth about three-quarters of a million dollars, Edgar received nothing (Nilsson). After Allan’s death, Edgar moved to Richmond and began work for Thomas Willis White’s new magazine, The Southern Literary Messenger. Edgar had fallen in love with Virginia and planned to have her and Maria reside with him in Richmond (Nilsson).
Maria, however, intended for her and Virginia to move in with another relative, Neilson Poe (Thompson). Neilson had offered to remove them from the poverty they experienced with Edgar. Edgar was upset and threatened suicide if they left. He was devastated by the prospect of losing Virginia. After they left, Poe quit his job and returned to Baltimore. In September, he and Virginia obtained a marriage license and may have been privately married (Nilsson). Poe returned to work for White, and brought Virginia and Maria back to Richmond with him (Thompson).
Poe advised White on articles, proofread for the magazine, and wrote some short stories. During this time his writings centered on gothic fiction. His writings were strongly influenced by, “German romantic writers who gave the English Gothicism their own twists and, disregarding probability, greatly exaggerated elements of the horrible and the supernatural” (Nilsson). Poe was especially fond of the kind of personal narration called “tale of sensation” where “the persons are usually solitary victims of a life-threatening predicament, about to be executed, or about to have a fatal accident” (Nilsson). One of his stories, “Loss of Breath,” clearly demonstrates these characteristics.
Poe took over the official position as editor for the Messenger and turned the magazine into a popular and well-respected regional journal. In 1836, Poe was officially married to Virginia. Although steadily employed, after the marriage Poe continued to incur debts. In the fall of 1836, his editorial qualities began to suffer. Alcohol abuse was suspected and White removed Poe as editor. Poe soon completely left the Messenger and moved briefly to New York before settling in Philadelphia. (Nilsson; Thompson).
After almost three years of free-lance writing, Poe accepted a job as assistant editor for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. There, he wrote ninety-eight book-reviews and produced large number of articles on other topics. He also wrote, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of his famous gothic horror stories. This is a complex story about a bother and sister (twins) from a cursed family who share a soul with the decaying mansion they reside in. Poe includes the idea of moral decay by hinting at incest, burial alive, and a return from the grave in this thriller about the forces of life and death (“Poe’s Tales” 128-144). He also wrote about “William Wilson,” a man that kills himself but does not die (“Poe’s Tales” 3-21). In June 1840, Poe left the magazine due to low pay and a desire to start his own magazine.
Poe was unsuccessful with his own magazine and eventually accepted a position for $800 a year working for George Rex Graham who purchased Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and renamed it Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine. Poe conducted proofreading, wrote reviews, and sometimes engaged in editorial work. He also did some writing but was better known as a critic than as a poet during this period. In the April 1841 issue of Graham’s, Poe published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
Nothing similar to this work had ever been published and it has been credited as the first modern detective story. In fact, this work influenced the evolution of stories and the future of movies ever since it was published. An example of how Poe’s stories influenced future writers include the use of private detectives in contrast to police detectives, the narrator whom is not the main detective in the story, and the analytic process of crime solving techniques. Poe’s work helped increase the circulation of Graham’s from 5500 to 40,000. Though he was successful, he became bored with his position and resigned in July 1842 (Nilsson).
Meanwhile, Virginia became very ill with tuberculosis. Her illness hit Poe hard and he did everything possible to help ease her suffering. The influence of her illness can be seen in his writings of this time. Poe wrote “Life in Death” and “The Masque of the Red Death” while taking care of Virginia (Nilsson). “Life in Death” is about a painter and his sick wife. Ironically, as the painter completes his portrayal of his wife, she dies. “The Masque of the Red Death” is about a prince trying to save his diseased country from the figure called “The Red Death” (“Poe’s Tales” 201-207). This story was derived from Poe’s knowledge of both the bubonic plague and the Philadelphia cholera epidemic. As Virginia’s condition grew worse, Poe suffered and again turned to heavy alcohol consumption.
During this time Poe published a few revisions of older poems as well as a few new ones. He also published “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a tale of a man tortured by the Spanish Inquisition (“Poe’s Tales” 221-234). He also worked on his crime and detection stories which include “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “The Mystery of Marie Roget” is the first true detective story to try to solve a crime. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a tale about the murder of an elderly man whose heart continues to beat as police question the narrator. The beating heart eventually drives the narrator to his confess his crime (“Poe’s Tales” 289-293).
In “The Black Cat,” the narrator kills a cat but it keeps coming back to life. While again attempting to kill the cat, he slices his wife’s head in two with a cleaver. He hides her corpse in a wall but the cat’s howls lead the police to the location of the body (“Poe’s Tales” 518-527). In November 1846, Poe published one of his best short stories, “The Cask of Amontillado.” This short story is similar to Poe’s other crime fiction however there is no confession by the perpetrator. The narrator completes his revenge by capitalizing on his opponent’s prideful nature and lures him into a catacomb where he is sealed inside. The narrator hints at a feeling of guilt but since the story is told as a reflection of the past, it is clear that no one else knows of the crime (“Poe’s Tales” 207-213).
In January 1847, Virginia finally died from complications of tuberculosis. Although he was devastated, Poe continued to write and lecture. He also reportedly found romantic relationships with several women, including the former Sarah Elmira Royster, his first love who since had been married. On October 7th, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found unconscious on a street in Baltimore. He died three days later in a local hospital (Nilsson; Thompson). His death has been attributed to alcoholism, however some researchers at the University Maryland Medical Center suspect he might have died from rabies (Shea).
Edgar Allan Poe faced numerous obstacles during the course of his life. Although raised by a family with some wealth, Poe was always in a state of financial crisis. Among the relatives and friends of the Allan’s, Poe was an outsider and maintained a low socio-economic status. In addition, his losses include almost all the people who ever demonstrated any kind of love for him. An analysis of his writings reflects the psychological trauma that he obtained throughout his life. Although these problems kept Poe from immediate success, they had a profound effect on his style and the subject matter of his published works, which eventually made many of his writings popular in and out of the classroom today.
Benfey, Christopher. “Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance.” The New Republic 24 Feb. 1992.
Carlson, Eric W. “Edgar Allan Poe.” Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 74 “American Short-Story Writers Before 1880.” 1988 pp. 303-322. The Gale Group Harrison, James A. Life of Edgar Allan Poe New York: Haskell, 1970.
Nilsson, Christoffer. Qrisse’s Edgar Allan Poe Pages 1996-1998. 29 Nov. 1999 Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. London: Dent, 1963 Shea, Christopher. “Researcher Says Rabies, Not Alcoholism, May Have Killed Poe” Chronicle of Higher Education Sept. 1996. 2 Dec. 1999 Thompson, G.R. “Edgar Allan Poe.” Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 3. “Antebellum Writers in New York and the South.” 1979. pp. 249-297. The Gale Group Note: In addition, the following source was indirectly used: “Edgar Allan Poe.” Encarta 1999. CD-ROM. Redmond: Microsoft,1993-1998