Edgar Allan Poe Biography
A version of this essay was first published in the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1750-1860, edited by Christopher John Murray, 2004. It is published here under under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, January 2009.
January 19th, 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, who is best known as the author of “The Raven,” of Gothic horror stories such as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”, and as the inventor of modern detective fiction and the character of the ‘great detective’. Poe was an accomplished poet, essayist and magazine editor much of whose prodigious literary output was carefully judged to meet a specific demand for mystery and romance. Poe made his living, such as it was, from his writing; he had no personal fortune or wealthy sponsor to support him. As a result Poe’s writing is more often than not driven by a fierce commercialism, yet in his lyric poetry and tales, Poe speaks both to his own time and anticipates literary developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At his best, Poe the critic is capable of powerful insights on the nature of art and the role of the artist.
Poe began his literary career as a poet and his underlying belief in the work of art as the product of the interplay of emotion and reason through intuition has been used to place him firmly in a Romantic tradition. Certainly his fascination with travel and orientalism, which emerges in poems like “Al Aaraaf” (1829), supports comparisons with Keats and Shelley, while the collection Tamerlane, and Other Poems (1827) borrows heavily from the language and posturing of Byron. Yet Poe’s work and career overall defy such categorization: he was far from consistent in his theoretical pronouncements, and poems such as “The Raven” (1845), and “Ulalume” (1847), are concerned with self-revelation and isolation, themes associated more with American than European Romantic traditions.
Born in Boston to actor parents, by the age of three young Edgar Poe had been abandoned by his father and had witnessed the death of his mother from tuberculosis. With little extended family, Poe went to live with John Allan, a Scottish tobacco importer in Richmond, Virginia. When the Allans moved temporarily to England, Poe attended schools in Chelsea and Stoke Newington, an experience which provided material for the story “William Wilson” (1839). Returning to the U.S., he was later ejected from the University of Virginia when he failed to repay gambling debts. John Allan is reputed to have turned away creditors for a full year after Poe left the university.
After his discharge from West Point Military Academy for neglect of military duty, and estranged from John Allan, Poe began to make his way in the literary world. As an editor and critic his skills were considerable. In just two years he raised the circulation of the Southern Literary Messenger from 500 to 3500 copies; later, as literary editor of Graham’s Magazine, he contributed a tale a month, including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which was published in Graham’s in April 1841. From 1841-1845 he was literary critic for the New York Mirror. Yet despite all this Poe’s literary significance was recognised in Europe much earlier than in his native country. The reason for this is unclear, but it may be that his interest in the philosophy of Coleridge, Pascal, Schlegel and Shelley made his work more accessible to European sensibilities. This is especially true of France, where his stories and poems were translated by Charles Baudelaire. Even so the strong American flavour of his Romanticism is evident in many of his works, in particular those tales dealing with psychological motives and nervous disturbances.
As a young poet Poe declared that poetry is opposed to science in that its object is pleasure while science is concerned only with truth. Later, in his treatise “The Poetic Principle” (published in 1850, after his death), he softened a little, claiming that beauty, rather than truth, is the poem’s primary aim. Diverging from the romantic ideals of his youth and hinting at an idea later developed by T.S. Eliot, he suggested that the poet and the man should remain separate: while the man may be passionate, the poet must be a craftsman. His own difficult personal life may have led Poe to this conclusion, but nevertheless it marks a significant shift away from conventional Romantic thinking and perhaps towards literary Modernism.
While he has become famous for his “tales”, Poe’s first published book of prose was The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Written in response to the publisher’s refusal to publish a collection of stories, this adventure narrative is driven by illusion, psychological uncertainty and the breakdown of order; all staples of Gothic tales such as “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1843), “The Black Cat” (1843) and “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). Poe’s other tales, the “tales of ratiocination” mark the invention of the modern detective story. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1845) all feature the amateur detective C. August Dupin, whose rational method demonstrates Poe’s ideas on rationalism and science, outlined theoretically in Eureka (1848).
Ever the fabulist, as his fame as a critic and writer spread, Poe reinvented himself as a model university student, an outstanding athlete and the writer of many works under assumed names. The biographical facts, which include his marriage to his thirteen year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, a succession of underpaid jobs on various magazines, and a history of mental instability and susceptibility to the effects of alcohol and drugs, are lurid enough. Combined with the invented biography, they have turned Poe into a curiosity of literary Americana. More realistically, however, the mythological quality of such stories conceals a life of poverty, tragedy and illness.
In the twenty-first century Poe’s influence on contemporary American culture should not be underestimated: “The Raven” is a regular in high-school literature classes, while many of the tales have been dramatised on film. His 200th anniversary has generated an outpouring of journalism, book publishing, and celebrations. But it is as a writer who worried at the fraying edges of romanticism that Poe made his greatest contribution. While he was certainly capable of striking romantic poses in print and in life, his efforts to express deep psychological disturbance through language, and his philosophical objections to the common romantic view of the poet as prophet or moral arbiter, mean that his work can also be seen to anticipate impressionism and symbolism. As Kenneth Silverman explains in Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, one of the foundations of literary modernism is Poe’s “determined separation of the man who suffers and the artist who creates” (295). Poe died in poverty in Baltimore on 7 October, 1849, apparently from some kind of brain lesion.
See also: my introduction to Poe’s Tales.
A Poe Bibliography
Poe on the web:
The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: AMS Press, 1979
Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews: Theory of Poetry / Reviews of British and Continental Authors / Reviews of American Authors and American Literature / Magazines and Criticism / The Literary & Social Scene / Articles and Marginalia (Library of America) (Library of America), New York: Viking, 1984
Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Leonard Cassuto, New York: Dover, 1999
The Works of Edgar Allan Poe; with “Preface” to the 1849 edition, by M. Clemm; “E.A. Poe”, by J.R. Lowell; “Death of E.A. Poe” by N.P. Willis; “Memoir of the author”, by R.W. Griswold, Boston: Jefferson Press, circa. 1900
The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe; edited by J. Hannay, with illustrations by E.H. Wehnert et al., London: Griffin, 1865
The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by James A. Harrison; 17 volumes, New York, 1902
The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, edited by David Galloway, Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1986
The Centenary Poe: Tales, Poems, Criticism, Marginalia and Eureka, edited and with an introduction by M. Slater, London: Bodley Head, 1949
Tamerlane and Other Poems, 1827; facsimile edition with an introduction by T.O. Mabbott, New York: Columbia University Press, 1941
Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Other Poems, 1829; facsimile edition with a bibliographical note by T.O. Mabbott, New York: Facsimile Text Society 1933
Poems, 1831; facsimile edition with a bibliographical note by K. Campbell, New York: Facsimile Text Society, 1936
The Raven and Other Poems, 1845
Eureka, 1848; reprinted New York: Sun and Moon Press, 1997
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, 1838
Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque, 1839
“The Philosophy of Composition”, in Graham’s Magazine, 1846
“The Rationale of Verse”, in Southern Literary Messenger, 1848
“The Poetic Principle” (lecture); December 20, 1848; published in The Union Magazine, 1850
Marginalia; with an introduction by John Carl Miller, Charlottesville, Va: University Press of Virginia 1981
The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe; edited by J.W. Ostrom, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1948
Essays and reviews of Edgar Allan Poe; selection and notes by G.R. Thompson, Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 1984
Baudelaire, Charles, Baudelaire on Poe: Critical Papers, translated and edited by Lois and Francis E. Hyslop Jr., Philadelphia, Pa.: Bald Eagle, 1952
Bellas, Patricia H., Poe, Master of Macabre, Baltimore: Xavier, 1995
Buranelli, Vincent, Edgar Allan Poe, Boston: Twayne, 1977.
Carlson, Eric W. (ed.), A Companion to Poe Studies, Westport CT.: Greenwood, 1996
Chase, Lewis Nathaniel, Poe and His Poetry, Norwood Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977
Eliot, T.S. From Poe to Valery, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948
Frank, Frederick S. and Anthony Magistrale, The Poe Encyclopedia, Westport CT., Greenwood, 1997
Meyers, Jeffrey, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy, New York: Cooper Square, 2000
Moss, Sidney P., Poe’s Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of his Literary Milieu, Durham, N.C.: Duke U. P., 1963.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. P., 1997
Rosenheim, Shawn and Stephen Rachman (editors), The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. P., 1995
Silverman, Kenneth, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, London: Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1992.
The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge University Press, 2002.