Poe, Edgar Allan

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Poe, Edgar Allan

Edgar Allan Poe, 1809–49, American poet, short-story writer, and critic, b. Boston. He is acknowledged today as one of the most brilliant and original writers in American literature. His skillfully wrought tales and poems convey with passionate intensity the mysterious, dreamlike, and often macabre forces that pervaded his sensibility. He is also considered the father of the modern detective story.

Early Life and Works

After the death of his parents, both of whom were actors, by the time he was three years old, Poe was taken into the home of his godfather, John Allan, a wealthy Richmond merchant. The Allans took him to Europe, where he began his education in schools in England and Scotland. Returning to the United States in 1820, he continued his schooling in Richmond and in 1826 entered the Univ. of Virginia. He showed remarkable scholastic ability in classical and romance languages but was forced to leave the university after only eight months because of quarrels with Allan over his gambling debts. Poverty soon forced him to enlist in the army.

Because of the deathbed plea of his foster mother, he achieved an unenthusiastic reconciliation with Allan, which resulted in an honorable discharge from the army and an appointment to West Point in 1830. However, when Allan remarried the following year Poe lost all hope of further assistance from him and was expelled from the Academy for infraction of numerous minor rules. Living in a time of frequent economic crisis and depressions, he was to be plagued by poverty throughout his life, a condition that was exacerbated by his chronic alcoholism. His first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was published in 1827. It was followed by two more volumes of verse in 1829 and 1831. None of these early collections attracted critical or popular recognition. Poe went to Baltimore to live with his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm, and her daughter Virginia. In 1835, J. P. Kennedy helped him become an editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. He contributed stories, poems, and astute literary criticism, but his drinking cost him the editorship.

Later Life and Mature Works

In 1836 Poe married Virginia Clemm, then only 13, and in 1837 they went to New York City, where he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), his only novel. From 1838 to 1844, Poe lived in Philadelphia, where he edited Burton's Gentleman's Magazine (1839–40) and Graham's Magazine (1841–42). His criticism, which appeared in these magazines and in the Messenger, was keen, direct, incisive, and sometimes savage, and it made him a respected and feared critic. Some of his magazine stories were collected as Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840). At that time he also began writing the mystery tales that earned him the title "father of the modern detective story." In 1844, Poe moved back to New York, where he worked on the Evening Mirror and later edited and owned the Broadway Journal.

The Raven and Other Poems (1845) won him fame as a poet both at home and abroad. In 1846 he moved to the Fordham cottage (now a museum) and there wrote "The Literati of New York City" for Godey's Lady's Book. His wife died in 1847, and by the following year Poe was courting the poet Sarah Helen Whitman. However, in 1849 he returned to Richmond and became engaged to Elmira Royster, a childhood sweetheart who was by then the widowed Mrs. Shelton. On his way north to bring Mrs. Clemm to the wedding, he became involved in a drinking debauch in Baltimore. This indulgence proved fatal, for he died a few days later.

Assessment

Poe's literary executor, R. W. Griswold, overemphasized Poe's personal faults and distorted his letters. Poe was a complex person, tormented and alcoholic yet also considerate and humorous, a good friend, and an affectionate husband. Indeed, his painful life, his neurotic attraction to intense beauty, violent horror, and death, and his sense of the world of dreams contributed to his greatness as a writer. Such compelling stories as "The Masque of the Red Death" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" involve the reader in a universe that is at once beautiful and grotesque, real and fantastic.

His poems (including "To Helen," "The Raven," "The City in the Sea," "The Bells," and "Annabel Lee" ) are rich with musical phrases and sensuous, at times frightening, images. Poe was also an intelligent and witty critic who often theorized about the art of writing. The analytical mind he brought to criticism is evident also in his famous stories of ratiocination, notably "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter." Poe influenced such diverse authors as Swinburne, Tennyson, Dostoyevsky, Conan Doyle, and the French symbolists.

Bibliography

See his collected poems and stories (3 vol., 1969–78); his letters, ed. by J. W. Ostrom (2 vol., 1948, repr. 1966); biographies by J. Symons (1981), D. Thomas and D. K. Jackson (1987), K. Silverman (1991), and J. Meyers (1992); studies by D. Hoffman (1972), B. L. Knapp (1984), J. G. Kennedy (1989), and D. Stashower (2006).

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