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 2.5 license, August 2006.
Poe’s Tales 1831-1849
By Chris Routledge
While he was also a poet, reviewer and magazine editor, the Tales are Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest literary achievement. An early American practitioner of the short story at a time when the three-volume novel was reaching the height of its popularity, Poe regarded long narratives as lacking in unity and what he called “totality of effect”. The novel, he thought, presented too much material for the mind to comprehend at one time, a limitation which damaged its ability to convey truths. The short story, by contrast, entertained the reader “without excessive and fatiguing exertion” (review of Night and Morning). In less than twenty years Poe produced a remarkable variety of tales. Some are tales of wild Gothic imagination such as “Berenice” (1835), “Morella” (1835) and “The Assignation” (1844), there are comic pieces like “Bon Bon” (1835) and “Loss of Breath” (1835) and adventures such as the prize-winning “MS. Found in Bottle” (1833) and “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841). He also established many of the central principles of classic detective fiction in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841).
Poe wrote the tales for publication in various literary magazines, including Graham’s and the Southern Literary Messenger, and they were later collected as Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque (1839) and Tales (1845). Always a highly prescriptive and forthright critic, Poe’s approach to the composition of his stories was rigorous, beginning with the outcome or “solution” and working backwards to the motivation. Yet unlike the poetry, the tales rarely show distracting signs of having been created to demonstrate some theoretical point, even though most of them are near-perfect examples of Poe’s theories about unity in art. For example, one of the most chilling tales, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, derives at least some of its atmosphere of claustrophobia from descriptive detail and repetition, a kind of linguistic enclosure. This is what Poe called the concentrated effect, in which every part of the story has some relation to the whole. With this in mind it could be argued that the descriptive repetition and the emotional swings of the narrator are as one with the murderous arc of the great pendulum of the story’s title.
Despite their variety, the tales are usually divided into two categories, the Gothic tales and the “tales of ratiocination”. Those in the Gothic category include stories of premature burial, nervous collapse and medieval torture, and have clear links to the tradition of Lewis, Radcliffe and Walpole, although their setting is often Poe’s own time. Their frequent focus on the psychology of the individual, rather than external horrors, takes the genre in a new direction. The Gothic tales abound with solitary individuals, set apart from society and looking on in a melancholy, disjointed way; horrors are as much imagined as real, and uncertainty and disillusion are their central moods. The restricted first person perspective of many of the tales, including “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1843), “The Black Cat” (1843), “A Cask of Amontillado” (1846) and “William Wilson” (1839), heightens the sense of real psychological disturbance.
Although Poe set many of his stories outside of America in England, France and Germany, for example, he was also aware of the Gothic possibilities of his own country. Anticipating the work of American painters such as Frederic Church and the illustrator Porte Crayon, tales such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) similarly satisfy an interest in impenetrable depths and uncertain footings. The theme of an old family collapsed into madness in a crumbling mansion fits well with the European Gothic tradition. But the landscape in which it takes place bears more than a passing resemblance to the “Great Dismal Swamp” of Virginia, where Poe grew up, and reflects the hesitancy of antebellum literature in choosing between nature as a source of moral insight, and as a symbol of chaos and disorder.
While the tales of horror and Gothic imagination remain some of the most accomplished in the genre, still more significant is Poe’s contribution to the development of detective fiction. Drawing on his own ideas of science, Poe created a detective in whom the combination of imagination and rational method made him capable of solving any mystery. C. Auguste Dupin is the blueprint for detectives like Sherlock Holmes whose rigorous deductive sense is balanced with more bohemian and mystical tendencies. Dupin first appeared in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), and featured twice more, in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1845).
In their structure, too, the “tales of ratiocination” inaugurated the classic detective story; they feature incompetent, though methodical police and a narrator-sidekick who is a precursor of Doyle’s Dr. Watson, while the most fundamental trope of all, the principle of the locked room, is the key feature of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Poe believed that the rational principles of detection established in these stories could be applied in real life, and indeed “The Mystery of Marie Roget” was his attempt to “solve” the real mystery of the murder of Mary Rogers in New York. Besides the overt detective tales, other stories point towards the future of detective fiction. “The Gold Bug”, for which Poe won a prize in the Dollar Newspaper competition, involves the deciphering of a code, while “The Man of the Crowd” describes a flâneur familiar to readers of Baudelaire, and a loose prototype for American detectives such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
Although Poe’s great talent was for the short story, his first published prose work was the novella The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Many of the characteristics of the tales can be found in this longer work, in particular the feature Kenneth Silverman describes as “Getting his hero into trouble and keeping him there”. The themes of deceit, illusion and uncertainty run through Pym as they do the shorter tales. Innovative, horrifying and unsettling by turns, Poe’s tales helped establish a tradition of short story writing by American writers, a tradition to which they continue to provide some of the finest examples.
A Note on the Text
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket first published by Harper’s, New York, 1838. The other tales were published in various magazines, then collected as Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque in 1839, and Tales in 1845. Tales are published in many editions of collected and selected works including Poetry and Tales, Library of America 1984.
Bellas, Patricia H., Poe, Master of Macabre, Baltimore: Xavier, 1995
Carlson, Eric W. (ed.), A Companion to Poe Studies, Westport CT.: Greenwood, 1996
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
May, Charles E., The New Short Story Theories, Athens GA: Ohio U. P., 1994
Poe, Edgar Allan, “Review of Night and Morning: A Novel by Edward Bulwer Lytton”, in Graham’s Magazine, April 1841
Silverman, Kenneth, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, London: Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1992