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Biography of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)


Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most celebrated of all American authors. Heavily influenced by the German Romantic Ironists, Poe made his primary mark in Gothic fiction, especially through the tales of the macabre for which he is now so famous. Although he wished to be remembered as a poet, "it is, to use the words of a recent critic, as the arch-priest of the Gothic horror tale that we remember Edgar Allan Poe" (G.R. Thompson, Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1). He is one of the few indisputably great writers of the short story, alongside Guy de Maupassant. Besides redefining that form as a vehicle for literary art, Poe also invented the modern detective genre and wrote highly influential literary criticism.

Born on January 19, 1809, to David Poe, Jr., and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins--both of whom died before their son was three--young Edgar went to live in Richmond, VA, with John Allan, a tradesman. (Whence his middle name.) Also orphaned were his older brother William Henry and his half-sister Rosalie. Edgar enrolled in the University of Virginia but was prevented from returning due to hefty gambling debts. He enlisted in the U.S. Army until Allan secured his discharge.

Prior to enlisting, Poe had published a volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems. After his army time and while a student at West Point, he published a second volume: Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems. Physically weak and older than most of his classmates, Poe felt out of place at the school, and he devoted much of his time to studying the Romantic poets, in particular Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. He played pranks involving bloody ganders posing as decapitated heads, and he finally got himself dismissed in 1831. He promptly followed up his previous publications with a third set of poems.

In 1832 five of Poe's short stories were published in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. They were exclusively comic, satiric tales. Around this time, Poe discovered opium, soon to become a prominent feature of his life. In 1833, his tale of dread, "MS Found in a Bottle," won a prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. The oeuvre of horror fiction which was to define Poe among future generations thus began--and so, perhaps not coincidentally, did his lifelong dependency on drugs and alcohol.

Returning to Richmond in 1835, Poe began writing for the Southern Literary Messenger. He quickly began to garner a reputation with vitriolic reviews, essays on the theory of literature and literary criticism, and, of course, his short stories. One of his most famous reviews was a pan of Theodore S. Fay's novel Norman Leslie, with criticism so devastating it helped earn Poe the nickname "tomahawk man." Later in the year, Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm (not yet fourteen at the time) and became an editor of the Messenger. In 1837 he resigned from the Messenger, which he had helped transform into one of the country's leading journals, and in the same year he released more poems and short stories, including "Ligeia," which he considered his finest tale. In July 1838, Harper's published his novel Arthur Gordon Pym.

In 1839, Poe became an associate editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in Philadelphia, for which he wrote "The Fall of the House of Usher" that year. In 1840 he published a collection of his short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Discharged from his job due to quarrels with William Burton, he served as editor of Graham's Magazine until 1842. Hard times followed and, barely managing to scrounge together car fare for his family, Poe moved to New York in 1844 to work for the Evening Mirror.

1845 finally saw Poe crowned as a literary sensation in his country, with the publication of his hugely popular poem "The Raven." Tragedy, however, was just around the corner. In 1847, Virginia succumbed to tuberculosis, leading Poe to seek refuge in increased drinking. His violent mood swings became common as drugs and alcohol wore away at his body and mind.

In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found unconscious (or barely conscious) in a Baltimore street and was taken to a nearby hospital. There he died on Sunday, October 7.

 

AUTHOR NOTE (1809–1849)

 

POE is the earliest master of the short-story who was conscious of its possibilities and of its limitations. Whatever perfection may have been achieved before him was almost accidental; but he knew what he was doing and how he meant to do it. His short-stories vary greatly in theme and in manner, ranging from the ingenious but somewhat mechanical detective tale to the imaginative altitude of “Ligeia” and the “Masque of the Red Death.” Perhaps no one of them better reveals his sheer power, his command over form, his mastery of verbal music, his ability to suggest far more than he ventures to put into words, than the “Fall of the House of Usher,” which was written in 1839, and which he included in his “Tales of the Grotesque and of the Arabesque,” published at the end of that year.

  

STORY NOTE

 

In none of his short-stories has Poe been more successful than in this in centering the interest of the reader upon a single theme and in giving to his narrative the unity of impression that he aimed at. He achieves this partly by his rigid exclusion of any suggestion, of any word even, which does not help to complete his picture,—which does not lend its own vague detail to the vision he wished to evoke. From the first note to the last, all is in keeping; there is a consummate harmony of tone. What he had determined to do that he did; by the aid of a thousand artifices of phrasing he accomplished an implacable directness. Attention may be called to the fact that this is rather a story of atmosphere, of a special destiny, than of character or incident, and that therefore Poe begins by description and continues with description, to which he keeps incident and character subordinate.

 

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