Through Edgar Allan Poe’s magnificent style of writing, he provided the world with some of the most mystifying poems and short stories. Although not appreciated during his time, Poe has gained considerable recognition after his death. James Russel Lowell stated, in a book by Louis Broussard, “He combines in a very remarkable manner two faculties which are seldom found united: a power of influencing the mind of the reader by the impalable shadows of mystery, and a minuteness of detail which does not leave a pin or button unnoticed” (7). Poe’s controversial writing style, which has been given praise and criticism by others, can not be compared to that of any other author.
Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Baltimore, Mass., to David and Elizabeth Poe. Poe’s father David married an English woman, Elizabeth, who was in the same traveling company. Poe had a brother, Henry, and a sister, Rosaline. Poe’s grandfather was referred to as “General Poe of Revolutionary fame,” and his great-grandfather was an immigrant laborer who supplied the Revolutionary Army with clothing (Krutch 20).
On December 8, 1811, Elizabeth Poe died of tuberculosis at the young age of twenty-four. “The image of his mother’s young, still, white face was to haunt Edgar for the rest of his life” (Wright 30). When Edgar’s father was plagued with tuberculosis, he was taken into the home of John, a prosperous Richmond merchant, and Francis Allan. This is how Edgar received the middle name Allan. Mrs. Allan loved Edgar, but the story seemed different with John. Although the relationship between John and Edgar appeared bitter, John Allan provided Poe with some support during Poe’s adulthood.
In 1826 Poe was engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster; however, her parents broke off the engagement. Apparently, she married and her husband passed away around 1848. In 1849 Poe proposed to Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, but she was having difficulty saying “yes”; probably because her late husband’s will penalized her for remarrying. If she remarried, she stood to lose control of her late husband’s estate and would only receive one-fourth of the income it generated.
The next stage of Poe’s life was his enrollment at the University of Charlottesville. John Allan sent Poe here in February of 1826 to study law. Allan only gave Poe a fraction of the money he needed, so Poe was forced to gamble in order to improve his finances; through his gambling, Poe only succeeded in building up massive debts. Poe’s gambling debts amounted to be $2,500, that amount would have been about five year’s average income at the time (Anderson 21). “Poe, deep in debt, racked with guilt about his gamblingÃ¢Â?Â¦ began to drink for the first time” (Wright 31).
After the University of Charlottesville, Poe went back home until March of 1827. Poe stormed out of the house with nothing but his clothes he was wearing, and took a ship to Boston. While in Boston, he persuaded a printer to publish a small edition of his early poems called Tamerlane and other Poems (Wright 31). Although this book received only limited recognition, Poe was not discouraged. In December of 1829, Poe published a second volume of his poems, while in Baltimore, called Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. This book was a revised and enlarged edition of his first book; however, it received hardly more attention than his previous volume (Asselineau 8).
Edgar A. Perry was the name that Poe used to enter the army at the age of eighteen. For eighteen months, Poe was the model soldier, and rose to the rank of sergeant. During his tenure in the army, he began to write poetry in Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. In March of 1829, Francis Allan was on her deathbed, with tuberculosis. When Poe head of this he returned to Richmond immediately, only to find his “mother” buried. While in Richmond, John Allan offered to assist Poe in getting out of the army by hiring a substitute; although, Allan only paid twelve of the seventy-five dollars needed to hire the substitute. When Poe dropped out of the army, John Allan promised to assist him in enrolling at West Point.
On July 1, 1830, Poe enrolled as a cadet officer at West Point. While enrolled at West Point, he published a third book of poems. The same thing happened to Poe at West Point as at the University of Charlottesville – John Allan didn’t provide him with adequate funds. In January 1831 Poe wrote to Allan, “You sent me to W. Point like a beggar. The same difficulties are threatening me as before at Charlottesville – and I must resign” (Asselineau 8). Soon, Poe was court-martialed for neglect of duty and disobedience to orders. Poe didn’t attend church on January 23, 1831; and refused to attend class on January 25, 1831. “He was not dismissed for drunkenness or rowdyism, as is often alleged” (Anderson 32). After West Point, Poe lived in obscurity in Baltimore and New York from 1831 to 1834.
On March 15, 1835, Poe pleaded with Mr. Kennedy for help in obtaining a position as schoolmaster. Mr. Kennedy replied to Poe’s request with an invitation to dinner. Poe’s response:
Your kind invitation to dinner today has wounded me to the quick. I cannot come and for reasons of the most humiliating nature – my appearance. You may conceive my deep mortification in making this disclosure to you – but it was necessary. If you will be my friend so far as to loan me twenty dollars, I will call on you tomorrow – otherwise it will be impossible, and I must submit to my fate.
Sincerely yours, E. A. Poe (Krutch 44-45).
Kennedy gave him clothing, food from his table, and a horse to use for exercise. He also helped Poe obtain a job as editor of the Southern Literary Magazine. Edgar Allan Poe’s position at the Southern Literary Magazine paid ten dollars every week.
On the twenty-second of September 1835, Poe and Virginia Clemm, his cousin, were married in Baltimore. In May of the following year they arranged for a public weeding. On the affidavit, it declared that Virginia was “of the full age of twenty-one,” although she was not quite fourteen. In 1842 Virginia was playing the harp and coughed up blood on her dress. This showed that she was in the early stages of tuberculosis. This disease, tuberculosis, had taken Edgar’s father, brother, and all of the women he ever loved. Virginia died of tuberculosis on January 30, 1847.
After Virginia’s death, Poe had been offered a job on the New York Review. When he had arrived in the city his job seemed to have evaporated in the Panic of 1837, which turned out to be one of the country’s worst depressions. While in New York, Poe found an unbelievable offer waiting for him. This offer would allow Poe to finally publish his own magazine. A young man from Illinois, Edward Patterson, wanted to use the money he would inherit on his twenty-fifth birthday to start a literary magazine. Poe would act as the sole editor and Patterson as the publisher, and then the two men would share profits equally. Poe was cautious about this opportunity, and only agreed to the deal if it would be a “five-dollar magazine”. Poe wanted the magazine to be elegant, therefore the price was twice that of any of the other popular magazines of the day (Anderson 113). Poe’s next literary tenure was in Philadelphia, which he is said to have arrived there in the summer of 1838. While in Philadelphia, Poe had a brief period of success, writing The Fall of the House of Usher. Also, while he was there, he was the editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine and then Graham’s Magazine. Although Poe was successful in Philadelphia, this brought him no money.
In 1845 Poe reached the height of his fame. Poe was offered the editorship of Graham’s Magazine, only if he gave up his irregular behavior (Nevins 287). Under his management Graham’s Magazine had become perhaps the most important magazine in America. Before Poe began at Graham’s Magazine the distribution of the magazine was five thousand copies, but with Poe at the helm, distribution rose to thirty-five thousand copies. At Graham’s Magazine, Poe made a salary of eight hundred dollars a year, compared to the ten dollars a week he made at the Southern Literary Magazine.
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found in a terrible state, dressed in borrowed clothes and a fine malacca cane. When he was found, a note was written to J. E. Snodgrass that stated:
There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s fourth ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, and says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you he is in need or immediate assistance.
Yours in haste,
Jos. W. Walker (Walsh 46).
Poe was rushed to Washington College Hospital where he fluttered between violent delirium and rambling consciousness for four days. During one of Poe’s stages while conscious. He told J. E, Snodgrass, “that the best thing his best friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol Ã¢Â?Â¦ he was ready to sink into the earth” (Krutch 5-6). On October 7, 1849, Poe whispered, “Lord Help my poor soul,” and died forty years old (Wright 35). When Poe died he was buried in the Presbyterian graveyard where his grandparents and brother, Henry, were buried. After Poe’s death Nathaniel Parker Willis said, “Poe is no more. He died at Baltimore on Sunday last, in the fortieth year of his age. He was a man of genius and a poet of remarkable power. Peace to his manes” (Carlson 33).
“By knowing who one has been, one knows who one will be, and when and how one will die. Like the hero of The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe states, ‘I shall perish Ã¢Â?Â¦ I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lostÃ¢Â?Â¦'” (Carlson 235). Poe wrote to his aunt, Mrs. Clemm: “I must die. I have no desire to live since I have done ‘Eureka'” (Asselineau 42). Before Poe went on his way to start up the Stylus, he made certain arrangements. If he were to die, Rufus W. Griswold was to be his literary executor and Nathaniel W. Griswold was to be his biographer. One may conclude by statements such as these that Edgar Allan Poe had a conscious desire to make the trip into the afterworld.
The cause of Poe’s death is one of the most mysterious parts of his life. Many believe that he was the victim of a gang accustomed to corral strangers and, after intoxicating them, they would use them as voters – a practice quite easy in the absence of any registration system. Poe, so the theory goes, was captured by such a gang and then abandoned on the street when they discovered the violent effect which alcohol had upon him (Krutch 6). Also, one of the more peculiar facts about Poe’s death is that he was found with the possession of a fine cane. Many believe that this happens to be the cane of Poe’s friend Dr. John Carter. As the story goes, Poe went to visit his friend, and when he left, late that evening, he took the doctor’s cane with him. The reason for this was because Poe could not get his supper at the fashionable Saddler’s Restaurant. However, Dr. Carter’s cane was never returned and Poe was found with a fine cane in his possession.
Poe wrote The Fall of the House of Usher as a story of horror, and used nearly every device at his disposal to stimulate a sense of horror in the reader. Not only is the action in this story itself horrible, but the descriptions of the decayed house, the gloomy landscape, the furnishings of its shadowy interior. All of these are used to build up the sense of something mysterious and unnatural (Woodson 23). In The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe transfers to Roderick Usher his own fear of impending mental decay.
The Murders in Rue Morgue appeared in the April 1841 edition of Graham’s Magazine. This was a detective story “in which Poe managed to combine his characteristic macabre with a very elaborate representation of logical analysis” (Krutch 102). The main character in this story, Dubin the detective, was the basis for several of Poe’s other stories. Poe, also, wrote The Raven while living in New York around the spring of 1845. Although the success of The Raven was sudden and made Poe a celebrity overnight, he hardly made a cent on it due to the lack of copyright protection.
The Tell-Tale Heart, one of Poe’s most famous stories, was published in 1843. In the story, the narrator plans to kill the old man, because of his filmy, vulture-like blue eye. After seven nights, he finally murders the old man, and buries his chopped up body under the floorboard of the room. The next day the police come over to the house to check out a call from the night before, which was placed by a neighbor who said they heard a scream. The police begin to question the narrator, and he starts to hear a pounding in his ear. He believes that the police hear this pounding, which is the beat of the old man’s heart; so he screams out at length his confession (Gale 105).
Another one of Poe’s stories, The Pit and the Pendulum, published in 1842 told about a victim of the Inquisition who is sentenced to death. He finds himself tied face up on a wooden frame. Suddenly, from the ceiling appears a moving pendulum, at the end of which was a razor-keen blade a foot long. With each swing the pendulum inched closer to the victim. The only way for the victim to escape is if he gets the ropes untied, so he smears food on them. This in turn attracted the rats and they began chewing away at the ropes. Just in time, he is freed and rolls out of the way. Once he escaped this danger, another one appeared; the walls began to slowly move in. As the victim is about to fall into the pit, which is in the center of the room, General Lasalle bursts into the room and rescues him (Gale 81).
Poe published A Descent into the MalestrÃ?Â¶m in 1841; this is perhaps one of the best stories Poe has ever written. The story is based on a white-haired, old-looking man who enters a malestrÃ?Â¶m while sailing with the narrator. In an attempt to save himself, the old man fights off the narrator and attaches himself to the boat. Reluctantly, the narrator dives overboard; however, the narrator is rescued by some fishermen and the old man perishes. When rescued, the narrator attempts to explain his story to the fishermen and other people, but nobody believes the account of the narrators adventure (Gale 14).
During Poe’s life, he and his work received much praise. John Neal said, “He might make a beautiful and perhaps a magnificent poem. There is a good deal here to justify such a hope.” Poe later described John Neal’s praise as the first words of encouragement he ever remembered to have heard (Carlson 3). In the New York Mirror there appeared a notice praising highly the style and power of intellect and imagination manifest in the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Also, a man by the name of P. Pendleton Cooke heaps praise on Poe’s poems for their perfect rhythm and vocabulary. He identifies Poe’s genius with a daring and wild imagination.
Although praised by many, fellow authors criticized Poe for his eccentric life style; he also had many critics who didn’t approve of his unorthodox writing style. His most notarized critic was Rufus W. Griswold, who was to be his biographer. Griswold is known, by Poe’s admirers, as a slanderer of the dead and a betrayer of one who had reposed confidence in him. After Poe’s death, Griswold published the “Ludwig” article. In this article he said, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by itÃ¢Â?Â¦ He had few or no friends.” This article was printed on October 9, 1849, and did irreparable damage to Poe’s career. Another critic was quoted in Roger Asselineau’s Edgar Allan Poe as saying,
The reason for Poe’s relative failure is the discrepancy between the irrational nature of what he wanted to convey and the imperturbably intellectual character of his means of expression. In his writings, as in life, even when raving mad, he always behaved and expressed himself like an eighteenth-century gentleman (43).
In conclusion, it is false to call Poe little more than an artist of nightmares, hallucinations, insane crimes, and weird beauties, little more than an intuitive poetic genius. A quote that best defines Poe is from Vincent Buranelli’s book,
Poe is both a dreamy fantasist and a cerebral logician. He lingers with science and is chilled by its abstractions. He resolutely closes his eyes to factual reality and examines it in detail. He works with melancholy, and with humor; with burlesque, and with realism. He probes fascinated, into horrible obsessions, and gazes, enchanted, at eternal beauty (20-21).
Poe, the dreamer, is where the analytical study must properly begin; but it must not end until it has accounted for Poe the rationalist, the scientist, the hoaxer, the humanist, and the literary and social critic (Buranelli 21). Poe is a writer of great skill, and had his life not ended so suddenly, he would have produced many more prolific stories and poems.