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The Life and Writings of Edgar Allan Poe

Updated on December 20, 2012
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe | Source

"Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” --Edgar Allan Poe


In 1809, David and Elizabeth (a young couple living in Boston) bore a son they named Edgar Allan Poe, who would grow up to face catastrophe and strife beginning at the age of two (NEA Readers Guide, 235). After Poe was abandoned by his father and left to grieve his mother's death, he was sent to live with a wealthy merchant named John Allan (235). John gave Poe his middle name and sheltered him until he went to college (235). Money proved to be a problem for Poe throughout his entire adult life. When he could not afford to pay for his second year of college at the University of Virginia he enlisted in the army for a full-term but his rambunctious behavior cost him officer training (236). He was expelled from his training after failing to obey the rules and rarely making an appearance in class. He was sent to live with his aunt, Maria Clemm and his cousin Virginia Clemm whom he would end up marrying (236).

Throughout Poe's marriage to Virginia he was working as the editor of the magazine, "Southern Literary Messenger" but he left the magazine due to a low salary that could not support him and the sickly Virginia (238). His first success was the publishing of his collection of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque but even after its publication he did not recieve adequate money. Virginia was facing numerous health ailments which led Poe to binge drink regularly (238).

Two years after Poe published The Raven, one of his greatest poems by far, Virginia died of Tuberculosis (239). Her death sent Poe into a deep depression from which he would never fully recover. His life took a devastating turn when he was found at Gunner's Hall, a tavern in Baltimore, confused and disheveled. He died four days after being admitted at Washington College Hospital of unknown causes (241). During the lives of many great literary geniuses there appears to be a period of darkness and mystery in which the person becomes reclusive and nothing is known about the events of their lives. Poe's period of obscurity lasted from 1827 to 1833, around the time of his army enlistment, holding virtually no records regarding the events of his life. The only reason given for his disappearence is that these years were a time of privacy for Poe (Harrison, 8).

The Writing Style of Edgar Allan Poe

Poe had the ability to merge literary genres together seamlessly, most notably romanticism and dark mystery. This ability set him apart from other writers of his time and even the infamous writers of today's society. Few historical figures could capture the essence of Poe's character because he seemed to be a looming shadow of mystery and awe; bearing the presence of solemnity and attracting curiosity in a crowded room. It comes as no surprise that he is considered the American inventor of the mystery genre (Poe 316). The attribute of having a sensitive heart during the Civil War era, greatly contributed to Poe's world-renowned fame. His tender emotions created a current of drama and dread on paper.

Interestingly enough, his poems were widely read and admired in Europe during a time when they were criticized and virtually unheard of in America. He is the innovator of prose writing and much of his recognition comes from his apparent mastery of the technique in his work. The literary genre that makes up most of Poe’s writing is Gothic Fiction, often filled with mentally ill characters who face the hardships of being consumed by their own mutilated thoughts (NEA, 238).

Possible Historical Influences

The 1800’s were a period of inspiration that allowed Poe to utilize literary techniques based on the work of the most influential writers (Harrison, 8). Poe was living in the same era as the great poet Elizabeth Barrett Barrett; the founder of evolutionism, Charles Darwin; the heroic southerner and sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln; the poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes and President Madison (Harrison, 8).

Claustrophobia, the Deaths of Beautiful Women and Detective Mystery

His Gothic writing style was expressive in context with the inclusion of exclamation points, italicized lettering and capitalized letters to show peaks in intensity (238). A peculiarity in Poe’s writing is the signature confinement felt in the majority of his short stories. In The Cask of Amontillado, a man traps his house guest in his underground wine cellar, building bricks around him making it impossible to escape (238). His poem titled, “Alone” describes his obsession with the psychology of people and the creation of characters with numerous psychological ailments (238). His work is classified into the following categories: claustrophobia, depicted in The Cask of Amontillado; the beauty of women depicted in Ligeia and The Fall of the House of Usher and detective mystery in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (239).

Most of his poems are lyrical enchantments filled with the horror and despair of tragic deaths mostly consisting of the deaths of women whom the main character is affiliated with in marriage or partnership (240). Poe believed that melancholy was the most powerful of tones in poetry and that the inclusion of beauty was essential to a poems success which explains the recurring theme of the death of beautiful women in his work; exemplified by his poem “Annabel Lee” (240).

Major Achievements

There are numerous movies based on Poe’s stories and an NFL team is named after his poem “The Raven” (Peeples 1). Movie producer Alfred Hitchcock was quoted as saying, “It’s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films” (NEA, 243). Musical compositions of Poe’s work have been created as well, including a symphony by Sergei Rachmaninoff made in honor of The Bells (NEA, 242).Two operas have been made based on The Fall of the House of Usher, one created by Phillip Glass and one left unfinished by Claude Debussy, and an entire theatrical performance titled POEtry made by Lou Reed and Robert Wilson (242).

Poe is considered to be the founder of all that was unknown to the literary world during the 1800’s. Before the publication of his short stories, the mystery-detective literary genre was virtually unheard of and the short story itself was an entirely new concept. He receives acclaim for having laid the foundation of the first detective story in America with the publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. His acknowledgment as a poet was captured through his poems, To Helen, The City in the Sea, Ulalume, and The Raven (Quinn, 1). He earned accreditation as a master of the horror genre with the publication of the stories: The Cask of Amontillado, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Quinn, 1). The wit in his literary criticism shines in the books, The Poetic Principle, and The Philosophy of Composition (Merriman). His drive for perfection in every subject he chose to pursue made him an expert literary critic, editor, writer and poet.

Sources Consulted

Design, Erich. "Edgar Allan Poe- Life Stories, Books and Links." Today in Literature.

Edgar Allan Poe Great Tales and Poems. 1st ed. New York, U.S.: Vintage Books Inc., 2009. 235-44. Print.

Harrison, James. Life of Edgar Allan Poe. New York, U.S.: Thomas Y Cromwell & Co., 1903. 8-12. Print.

Merriman, C.D. "Edgar Allan Poe." The Literature Network. 2006. Jalic Inc. Web.

Peeples, Scott. The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe. Reprint. Vol. 1 Boydell & Brewer, 2004. 1-10. Print.

Quinn, Patrick. Poetry and Tales. 19 Vol. of Library of America, 1 Vol. of Edgar Allan Poe. U.S.: Library of America, 1984. Print.


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