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Edgar Allan Poe
Born: January 19, 1809
Died: October 7, 1849
 


Edgar Allan Poe, writer, poet, and critic, was famous for his contributions to the literary genres of mystery and macabre. He wrote some of the first detective stories. After his father deserted the family and his mother died (before Poe was three years old), he was taken in by John Allan, a merchant living in Richmond, Virginia.
 

 

So that Poe could receive a classical education, Allan sent him to live in the United Kingdom, from 1815 to 1820. He later continued his studies in 1826 at the University of Virginia but was forced to leave due to gambling debts. Upon returning home, Poe found the woman of his affection engaged to another man.

Seeing no reason to stay in Virginia, he moved to Boston and published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Finances became a problem in Boston as well, and to escape poverty, Poe enlisted in the army, where he performed poorly and was expelled.

Moving to New York City, then Baltimore, and finally back to Richmond, he published poetry and won awards for his stories. In Richmond he was married to Virginia Clemm and worked as an editor for the Southern Literary Messenger. His fame began to spread as a reviewer of literature. Unfortunately, his drinking got the best of him, and he lost his position at the Messenger.

Both Poe’s life and works were controversial. To many of his biographers, most notably Rufus Griswold, he was a dangerous man with many vices (such as heavy drinking, alleged drug addictions, and gambling problems), made even more dangerous because of his exceptional and influential writing abilities. To others, such as the French poet Charles Baudelaire, Poe’s life was full of persecution and suffering; he was more a victim than a villain. His work was controversial because he introduced new ideas and theories into Romantic literature, boldly writing about death and gloom like no one else before him. Many thought that by doing so, he advanced literature, but others considered his work to be dead and not worth reading.

In 1841, he wrote one of the first detective stories ever, entitled “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Later, in 1843, he wrote “The Gold Bug,” for which he won a $100 prize (that was a lot of money at that time!). His poem “The Raven” was his most famous, and when it was published in 1845, he was immediately known nationwide.

After Virginia Clemm died in 1847, Poe travelled to Providence, RI, in hopes of marrying Sarah Helen Whitman, a poet. She said yes but later cancelled the wedding after he was seen ordering wine at a bar, violating a promise he had made to her that he would not drink.

On Sunday, October 8, 1849, Poe was found dead on a sidewalk in Baltimore. According to an article in The Evening Patriot, he had suffered from congestion of the brain. There is much controversy surrounding his death, particularly whether or not he died from drinking. Regardless, his life changed the face of American literature; he made mystery and horror legitimate and popular literary genres.
 


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Unquestionably one of America's major writers, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was far ahead of his time in his vision of a special area of human experience - the "inner world" of dream, hallucination, and imagination. He wrote fiction, poetry, and criticism and was a magazine editor.

Edgar Allan Poe was best known to his own generation as an editor and critic; his poems and short stories commanded only a small audience. But to some extent in his poems, and to an impressive degree in his tales, he pioneered in opening up areas of human experience for artistic treatment at which his contemporaries only hinted. His vision asserts that reality for the human being is essentially subterranean, contradictory to surface reality, and profoundly irrational in character. Two generations later he was hailed by the symbolist movement as the prophet of the modern sensibility.

Poe was born in Boston on Jan. 19, 1809, the son of professional actors. By the time he was 3, Edgar, his older brother, and younger sister had lost their mother to consumption and their father through desertion. The children were split up, going to various families to live. Edgar went to the charitable Richmond, Virginia, home of John and Frances Allan, whose name Poe was to take later as his own middle name.


A New Family

The Allans were wealthy then and were to become more so later, and though they never adopted Poe, for many years it appeared that he was to be their heir. They treated him like an adopted son, saw to his education in private academies, and took him to England for a 5-year stay; and at least Mrs. Allan bestowed considerable affection upon him.

As Edgar entered adolescence, however, bad feelings developed between him and John Allan. Allan disapproved of his ward's literary inclinations, thought him surly and ungrateful, and gradually seems to have decided that Poe was not to be his heir after all. When, in 1826, Poe entered the newly opened University of Virginia, Allan's allowance was so meagre that Poe turned to gambling to supplement his income. In 8 months he lost $2, 000. Allan's refusal to help him led to total estrangement, and in March 1827 Poe stormed out on his own.

Poe managed to get to Boston, where he signed up for a 5-year enlistment in the U.S. Army. In 1827, as well, he had his Tamerlane and Other Poems published at his own expense, but the book failed to attract notice. By January 1829, serving under the name of Edgar A. Perry, Poe rose to the highest noncommissioned rank in the Army, sergeant major. He was reluctant to serve out the full enlistment, however, and he arranged to be discharged from the Army on the understanding that he would seek an appointment at West Point. He thought that such a move might cause a reconciliation with his guardian. That same year Al Araaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems was published in Baltimore and received a highly favourable notice from the novelist and critic John Neal. Armed with these new credentials, Poe visited Allan in Richmond, but another violent quarrel forced him to leave in May 1830.

The West Point appointment came through the next month, but, since Poe no longer had any use for it, he did not last long as a cadet. Lacking Allan's permission to resign, Poe sought and received a dismissal for "gross neglect of duty" and "disobedience of orders." His guardian, long widowed, had taken a young wife who might well give him an heir, and Poe realized that his hopes of a legacy were without foundation.


Marriage and the Search for a Place

During his early years of exile Poe had lived in Baltimore for a while with his aunt Maria Clemm and her 7-year-old daughter, Virginia. He returned to his aunt's home in 1831, publishing Poems by Edgar Allan Poe and beginning to place short stories in magazines. In 1833 he received a prize for "MS. Found in a Bottle, " and John Pendleton Kennedy got him a job on the Southern Literary Messenger. In 1836 Poe married his cousin Virginia - now 13 years old - and moved to Richmond with his bride and mother-in-law. Excessive drinking lost him his job in 1837, but he had produced prolifically for the journal. He had contributed his Politian, as well as 83 reviews, 6 poems, 4 essays, and 3 short stories. He had also quintupled the magazine's circulation. Rejection in the face of such accomplishment was extremely distressing to him, and his state of mind from then on, as one biographer put it, "was never very far from panic."

The panic accelerated after 1837. Poe moved with Virginia and her mother to New York, where he did hack work and managed to publish The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). Then they moved to Philadelphia, where Poe served as co-editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. In 2 years he boosted its circulation from 5, 000 to 20, 000 and contributed some of his best fiction to its pages, including "The Fall of the House of Usher." In 1840, furthermore, he published Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. But there was trouble at Burton's, and in 1841 Poe left for the literary editorship of Graham's Magazine.

It was becoming clear that 2 years was about as long as Poe could hold a job, and his stay at Graham's confirmed this principle. Though he contributed skillfully wrought fiction and unquestionably developed as a critic, his endless literary feuding, his alcoholism, and his inability to get along very well with people caused him to leave after 1842.


Illness and Crisis

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Man That Was Used Up emerged in 1843, and a Philadelphia newspaper offered a $100 prize for his "The Gold Bug, " but Poe was now facing a kind of psychological adversity against which he was virtually helpless. His wife, who had been an absolutely crucial source of comfort and support to him, began showing signs of the consumption that would eventually kill her. When his burden became too great, he tried to relieve it with alcohol, which made him ill.

After great struggle Poe got a job on the New York Mirror in 1844. He lasted, characteristically, into 1845, switching then to the editorship of the Broadway Journal. Although he was now deep in public literary feuds, things seemed to be breaking in his favour. The 1844 publication of the poem "The Raven" finally brought him some fame, and in 1845 the publication of two volumes, The Raven and Other Poems and Tales, both containing some of his best work, did in fact move him into fashionable literary society. But his wife's health continued to deteriorate, and he was not earning enough money to support her and Clemm.

Poe's next job was with Godey's Lady's Book, but he was unable to sustain steady employment, and amid the din of plagiarism charges and libel suits, his fortunes sank to the point that he and his family almost starved in their Fordham cottage in the winter of 1846. Then, on Jan. 30, 1847, Virginia Poe died.

The wonder is not that Poe began totally to disintegrate but that he nevertheless continued to produce work of very high calibre. In 1848 he published the brilliantly ambitious Eureka, and he was even to make a final, heart-wrenching attempt at rehabilitation. He returned to Richmond in 1849, there to court a now-widowed friend of his youth, Mrs. Shelton. They were to be married, and Poe left for New York at the end of September to bring Clemm back for the wedding. On the way he stopped off in Baltimore. Nobody knows exactly what happened, and there is no real proof that he was picked up by a gang who used him to "repeat" votes, but he was found on October 3 in a stupor near a saloon that had been used as a polling place. He died in a hospital 4 days later.


World of His Work

It is not hard to see the connection between the nightmare of Poe's life and his work. Behind a screen of sometimes substantial, sometimes flimsy "reality, " his fictional work resembles the dreams of a distressed individual who keeps coming back, night after night, to the same pattern of dream. At times he traces out the pattern lightly, at other times in a "thoughtful" mood, but often the tone is terror. He finds himself descending, into a cellar, a wine vault, a whirlpool, always falling. The women he meets either change form into someone else or are whisked away completely. And at last he drops off, into a pit or a river or a walled-up tomb.

Poe's critics interpret this pattern to represent the search of the individual for himself by going deep into himself and his ultimate arrival at the unplumbed mystery of his inner self. This search has come, of course, to characterize much of 20th-century art, and it is the distinguished accomplishment of Poe as an artist that his work looks forward with such startling precision to the work of the century that followed.

 

 

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(1809-1849), short-story writer, poet, and critic. The son of itinerant actors, Poe was orphaned at two and was adopted by John Allan, a Richmond, Virginia, merchant and his wife. They gave Poe his middle name and a genteel childhood but eventually became the source of profound unhappiness. Allan was unfaithful to his wife, and when Poe took her part, Allan turned on him savagely. Although Allan violently opposed Poe's literary career, he unwittingly encouraged it. His firm imported many foreign books and magazines, which Poe read assiduously, giving him a literary sophistication far beyond his Richmond peers. Allan sent Poe to the University of Virginia with no spending money; when the boy ran up heavy gambling debts, his foster father refused to pay. After a bitter quarrel, Poe left home to seek literary fame.

Poe moved to Boston in 1827 where he published a book of poems but almost starved. He enlisted in the army and soon became sergeant major of his regiment. A reconciliation with Allan, motivated largely by Poe's hope of an inheritance, led to an appointment to West Point. There he began brilliantly, but another falling out with Allan plunged him into depression. He stopped attending classes and drills and was dismissed in 1831. His cadet friends helped finance a book of poems containing some of his best lyrics, "Israfel" and "The Doomed City," but the book was hardly noticed.

Poe spent the next years living in Baltimore with his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm, and her daughter, Virginia. One of his best stories, "A MS. Found in a Bottle," won him a job on the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. He proved an able editor, greatly increasing circulation. But he had begun drinking heavily, and he soon parted company with the magazine.

In 1836 he married Virginia Clemm, who was only thirteen, and departed with her and Mrs. Clemm for the North. For the next several years he alternated between editing and writing, publishing both poetry and prose, in particular The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, a tale of shipwreck and picturesque horrors in the South Seas. As literary editor of Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine, which had a large circulation, Poe became a major figure in American letters, making enemies by the score with his trenchant criticism. But alcohol cost him this job, too.

He continued to write, however, producing "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Gold Bug," and "The Mystery of Marie Roget" in a cool style that was the polar opposite of his romantic poems and horror stories. If he did not invent the detective story with these tales, he perfected it.

In 1842, inspired in part by a talk with Charles Dickens, Poe wrote "The Raven," his best-known poem. It was an immense success and almost instantly won Poe the fame for which he hungered. But money did not come with it: he still earned as little as four dollars for an article, fifteen dollars for a story. Tormented by poverty, Poe watched his wife die of tuberculosis. He became more and more unstable, drinking and taking opium, at one point attempting suicide with the drug. He published a grandiose prose poem, "Eureka," which combined half-baked science and dubious cosmogony. Returning to Richmond, he swore off liquor and became engaged to one of his youthful loves, now a rich widow. But a trip to Baltimore led to a fatal drinking bout.

As an editor Poe struggled to raise American literature to the level of his own formidable intelligence and talent. His instability doomed this ambition to failure, but his own artistry somehow survived his impulse for self-destruction. Poe added the concept of professionalism to the role of the writer in America. For him language and its artful use was virtually an end in itself, transcending ideology.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008