Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe is easily one of the most recognizable names in American literature and though he would wish to not be considered an author of Gothic literature, his stories do have a gothic influence. Let me explain.
He was born in 1809 in Boston to David Poe, the son of Irish immigrants, and Elizabeth Arnold Poe. When both of his parents died in 1811 he was taken in as a ward by man named John Allan from Richmond. Evidence shows that the relationship between Allan and Poe was never that of a father and son and Allan never formerly adopted Poe. Throughout Edgar’s life his relationship with his guardian would go through periods of happiness and deep despair as Edgar battled through times of poverty while attending school and times with of gambling and drinking.
Perhaps the most important time of his life was came in 1815 when the Allan family moved to England where John Allan opened a branch of his mercantile firm in London. In 1819, the family traveled to Scotland to visit relatives and there Poe spent two months admiring the local aesthetics. As he traveled throughout the Scotish countryside he was exposed to the ancient castles, abbeys country mansions and cathedrals. Being exposed to such a world as that stayed with Poe and we can see descriptions of these places in his story ‘Fall of the House is Usher.” In that story Poe describes the ancient house of Usher situated next to a Tarn, which is a small mountain lake that was formed by a glacier. Tarns are not found in the eastern United States as they are more common to Scandinavia and Northern England. The word tarn itself is from an Old Norse word. He begins the story by having his narrator describe the house as a depressing scene. “There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart.” The view of the decaying house is enough to inspire the narrator with these thoughts of horrors the same way the view of gothic cathedrals and castles have inspired writers such as Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis and Lathom.
Poe wrote man stories that can be considered gothic in nature including “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Man That Was Used Up.” But Poe is more than just gothic, he is also a mystery. In “The Murderers in the Rue Morgue” Poe created the modern day detective story.
He believed in the idea that the only narratives worth writing were those that could be read in one sitting, secretly criticizing his own work, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” calling it “a silly book.” (I agree in that it is not my favorite story to read.) Poe’s earlier stories including “MS. Found in a Bottle,” “The Assignation,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” received praise from notable American authors such as Washington Irving, whom Poe had to chance to publish in one of the many magazines for which he worked.
Poe worked hard for years to build his own literary magazine that would only feature American writers and he was an advocate for the creation of an international copyright law that would protect American authors and stop American magazines from pirating English works.
Gradually over his professional career he gained some success as a writer and some as a publisher/editor. He once interviewed Charles Dickens in Philadelphia and wrote a well read review of Nathaniel Hawthorne. When his famous poem “The Raven” was published in January 1845 it made Poe an national celebrity.
He was not a drug addict and was not an alcoholic as many people today imagine. The success he is given today was gained through hard work. In school he was very talented in languages such as French and Latin. He once attended the University of Virginia where the faculty included former presidents Madison and Monroe.
Poe is also famous for marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. As strange as this marriage is today with not quite so strange then and there is evidence that he and Virginia did truly love each other. For many years she bought him happiness, but the happiness would not last. In January of 1842 Virginia suffered a massive pulmonary hemorrhage while singing. To distract himself from her illness Poe threw himself at his work. Virginia would never recover and she died at the age of 25 in 1847 leaving Poe in a deep depression that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Poe would die only two years after Virginia, in October of 1849 at the age of 40. HIs death came as a mysterty being admitted in to Washington College Hospital on October 3rd in a delirious fit until he died four days later on October 7.
About a year and a half ago I attended an event that discussed the life and sudden death of Edgar Allan Poe. As most people know, Poe died from unknown circumstances at the Washington College Hospital in Baltimore on October 7th. What no one knows is exactly how he died. Before I go into some of the theories I want to share with you my history of Edgar Allan Poe.
My first experience with Poe happened on October 25th, 1990 when I saw the first Simpsons Halloween Special titled ‘Treehouse of Horror.’ The episode, which is appropriately named “The Raven,” sets Homer as the narrator in this spectacular parody of Poe’s famous poem. After watching the episode and having my father explain to me its origin, I attempted to read the poem, but failed miserably with my young not-quite-eight-year-old mind. It would be ten years later while in high school when I again attempted to read the unusual poem and two years after when I read my first Poe short story, “The Tell Tale Heart,” which was also made into an episode of the Simpsons. Today I can still recall exactly where I was and under what circumstances I read that tale for murder and insanity. I remember how Poe’s words drew me into the story with the steady pace of a beating heart and how the rythme of the tale flowed off of the page and caused me to forget my surrounds. I remember the words changing, moving more rapidly as the climax grew with the beating of the hideous heart.
Back to the library event, which was organized by the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. Throughout my life I heard of a few difference theories about how Poe died. First, the rabies theory, which always seemed the most fitting idea to me, no offense Edgar, but wild stories usually come with wild endings. Second, which I always believed, was the Cooping theory involving a gang that forced him to vote multiple times during an election. Rather than explain the details of these theories I’ll simply refer you to this webpage. In the end no one knows how he really died and we may never know since he has been dead for more than 170 years. If you are interested in reading about Poe’s death, one book that has come highly recommended, which I have not had chance to read, but have every intention is a book titled “Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe,” by John Evangelist Walsh. What ever conclusions people have, I prefer to leave his death as a true mystery. Sometimes there is a little bit of magic hidden in ignorance.
During his lifetime Poe did not receive the attention and praise as he does today. In fact, some people at the time of his death wrote about him being a drunkard and a lunatic. His modern success is in part due to the French poet Charles Baudelaire who published a multi-volume edition of his work in French, which created his fame abroad. Throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th century, Poe’s fame grew as he was gradually introduced into classrooms and pop-culture.
Poe's Tombstone in Baltimore, Maryland
If you are interested in learning more about Poe’s death and how his grave moved from the back of the Westminster Graveyard, where it was first set without without a headstone, to the current day position shown above, please ask Sara Sigourney Rice.