Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) created a literary
legacy of tragedy and gloom that mirrored the actual events of his
life. Orphaned at the age of two, young Edgar was taken in by friends
of his mother, John and Fanny Allan, although Edgar was never officially
adopted by them. The Allans moved to London, where Edgar began his
formal education, but returned to Richmond, Virginia after five years.
When he was of age, Edgar joined the Army and entered West Point
Academy. While he was there, Fanny Allan died and his relationship
with his foster father deteriorated, until John Allan ceased all
contact with Edgar. Soon afterward, he was dismissed from the Army
for several counts of insubordination. Once the stability of his
young life had been torn apart, Poe decided to follow his lifelong
passion and pursue a career as a professional writer.
Though several of Poe's early works
were published, none of them garnered him much recognition in the
literary world. In 1845, Poe's poem "The Raven"
was first published in the New York newspaper The Evening Mirror.
The poem was hailed by critics as a work of genius, earning Poe a
respected reputation as a serious writer.
In Poe's fictional world, cats could
incite a man to unfathomable loathing and violence, vengeful dwarves
could literally make monkeys out of kings, and the dead rarely if
ever stayed dead. "The Tell-Tale Heart,"
in which the imagined beating of a murder
victim's heart unnerves the murderer enough to make him confess his
crime, is perhaps the definitive tale of psychosis and guilty conscience.
There is no more memorable study of icy, calculated revenge than "The
Cask of Amontillado," in which a character is bricked up alive
in a wine cellar. And the eerie, fable-like "The Masque of the
Red Death" is probably the quintessential horror story; in it,
a rich, haughty prince's masquerade ball in a time of plague is not
immune from the menace of the Red Death, for it arrives as the ultimate
While he pioneered the depiction of
horror and madness, he also originated the detective story, in which
heightened powers of reason and deduction solve bewildering mysteries. "The
Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget" were
the first examples of the 'story of ratiocination,' and their influence
can be felt even in modern day crime novels and police procedurals.
Reason and logical analysis were key
pillars of Poe's literary life. His voluminous essays and book reviews
established his name as an astute, and often harsh critic. He wrote
over a dozen articles on cryptography, often challenging readers
to send him ciphers which he would then easily crack. In his tale "The
Gold Bug," Poe includes a crash-course on code breaking as he
describes how the main characters use logic to decipher the directions
to a buried pirate treasure.
However, while Poe's literary career
was on the rise, his personal life was disintegrating into embarrassing
chaos and irrationality.
Despite gaining much critical and popular
acclaim, the economic fragility of the magazine business forced Poe
to latch onto whatever periodical would have him. He took up residence
in first Baltimore, then Philadelphia, then New York, wherever he
could find promising work. But his often serious problem with alcohol
combined with his innate combativeness as a critic and employee only
succeeded in alienating one editor after another. His vicious critical
attacks upon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other prominent writers
of the time outraged the literati. Wherever Poe went, he made enemies
and created hard feelings.
The spitefulness of his literary demeanor
seems inextricably linked to the increasing desperation of his personal
situation. He was always in need of money, not only for his sake
but also for the sake of his young wife, Virginia, who was dying
His first cousin on his father's side,
Virginia Clemm married Poe when she was only thirteen. He found her
childlike innocence and beauty enchanting, and she in turn was devoted
to him; their relationship seemed more like that of brother and sister
than husband and wife. As his professional life grew more perilous,
Virginia became more and more his only source of joy. In a letter
to her, he writes, "You are my greatest and only stimulus now,
to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory and ungrateful life."
On January 30, 1847, that stimulus
was removed for good. Virginia was only twenty-five when she died.
Poe had lived with the fact of her
inevitable death for years, and it haunts his work. The Red Death
is a thinly veiled tuberculosis scourge. In "The Oblong Box," a
grieving artist lashes himself to the coffin of his dead wife as
the ship carrying them both is wrecked by a storm. And despite his
claims to the contrary, "The Raven"
can be seen as a rehearsal of his own forthcoming
A Tragic End
On October 3, 1849, forty-year-old Edgar
Allan Poe arrived in a Baltimore tavern, barely conscious and clad
in filthy, ill-fitting clothes that probably were not his. Ostensibly
in town to drum up subscribers for a potential literary magazine,
he was found at the tavern by an acquaintance who became alarmed
by Poe's wrecked, incoherent state. The renowned author of "The
was taken to nearby Washington Medical College,
where his condition worsened. Miserable and delirious, Poe spoke
to imagined people, and in one grimly lucid moment told a doctor
that the best thing that anyone could do for him would be to put
him out of his misery with a pistol.
Poe spent the next few days in the
hospital, semi-conscious and raving, suffering from either severe
alcohol poisoning or some form of encephalitis. Then, on the morning
of October 7, his delirium abated, and the attending doctor heard
him utter his last words: "Lord, help my poor soul." With
that, the brief, unhappy life of Edgar Allan Poe was over.
No one knows how Poe ended up in Baltimore
in such a pitiable state, but this denouement was very much in keeping
with the rest of his life. Like a character from one of his own stories,
Poe struggled mightily for a life of reason and refinement, but his
every step seemed haunted by specters of madness and personal chaos.
Poe's work has earned him an enviable place
in American literature. He is not only a pioneer of the short story,
he's America's first major horror writer as well as the father of
the detective story. His tales contain an almost timeless fairy tale-like
quality; filled with grim dungeons, Gothic castles, dwarves and madmen,
Poe's fictional universe still exerts a hold on the imagination more
than a century after his death. American International Pictures adapted
eight of his stories into films beginning in 1960, and writers as
disparate as H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King have cited Poe as a
major influence on their work.
His poetry also exhibits an astounding
popularity. "The Raven" is perhaps the most recognizable
poem in the English language, its haunting sing-song rhythm and unforgettable
imagery appealing not only to literary connoisseurs but also to school
children and people who rarely read poetry. Everyone, it seems, knows
the raven's cry of "Nevermore."
It is finally, then, his command of
language that is his greatest bequest to posterity. From the classic
opening line of "The Raven," to the ornate description
of the decaying House of Usher, Poe's diction is often elevated and
complex, but it could also be blunt and fragmented. Poe was a deliberate,
precise wordsmith who labored over the placement of every dash and
comma. Like Shakespeare, he could transcend the sordidness of his
subject matter by the sheer force of his language.
Poe was not the first Gothic writer
but he is undeniably one of the most potent. While other horror writers
come and go, his place in horror literature will remain unchanged,
for it is his work that has formed a lasting foundation upon which
others continue to build.
Written by Joseph Iorillo,
first published in Dark Realms Magazine,
Issue #8, Fall 2002, used with permission.