Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849) was an American poet, short story writer, editor and critic. He is best known for his tales of the macabre and his poems.
Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of actress Eliza Poe and actor David Poe, Jr.. His father left before he was born and his mother died when he was only three, so Poe was taken into the home of John Allan, a successful merchant in Richmond, Virginia and baptized Edgar Allan Poe. After attending schools in England and Richmond, Virginia, Poe registered at the University of Virginia, but stayed for only one year. Poe enlisted in the US Army as a private using the name Edgar A. Perry on May 26, 1827. After serving for two years and attaining the rank of Sergeant-major, Poe was discharged. Poe received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but apparently deliberately disobeyed orders to compel a dismissal.
Poe next moved to Baltimore, Maryland with his widowed aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter, Virginia. Poe used fiction writing as a means of supporting himself, and with the December issue of 1835, Poe began editing the Southern Literary Messenger for Thomas W. White in Richmond. This position was held by Poe until January, 1837. During this time, Poe married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm, in Richmond on May 16, 1836.
After spending fifteen fruitless months in New York, Poe moved to Philadelphia. Shortly after he arrived, his novella The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was published and widely reviewed. In the summer of 1839, he became assistant editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. He published a large number of articles, stories, and reviews, enhancing the reputation as a trenchant critic that he had established at the Southern Literary Messenger. In 1839, the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in two volumes. Though not a financial success, it was a milestone in the history of American literature. Poe left Burton's after about a year and found a position as assistant editor at Graham's Magazine.
Virginia suffered a lung hemorrhage in January 1842. It was the first sign of the tuberculosis that would make her an invalid and eventually take her life. Poe began to drink more heavily under the stress of Virginia's illness. He left Graham's and attempted to find a new position, for a time angling for a government post.
Poe arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 27, 1849. He returned to New York, where he worked briefly at the Evening Mirror before becoming editor of the Broadway Journal. There he became involved in a noisy public feud with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. On January 29, 1845, his poem "The Raven" appeared in the Evening Mirror and became a popular sensation.
The Broadway Journal failed in 1846. Poe moved to a cottage in the Bronx. The cottage is on the south east corner of the Grand Concourse and Kingsbridge Road and is open to the public. Virginia died there in 1847. Increasingly unstable after his wife's death, Poe attempted to court the poet Sarah Helen Whitman . Their engagement failed, purportedly because of Poe's drinking and erratic behavior; however there is also strong evidence that Miss Whitman's mother intervened and did much to derail their relationship. According to Poe's own account, he attempted suicide during this period by overdosing on laudanum. He then returned to Richmond and resumed a relationship with a childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster , who by that time was a widow.
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious and "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance," according to the man who found him. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died early on the morning of October 7. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and wearing clothes that were not his own. Some sources say Poe's final words were "It's all over now; write Eddy is no more." (referring to his tombstone). Others say his last words were "Lord, help my poor soul."
The precise cause of Poe's death is disputed.
Dr. J. E. Snodgrass, an acquaintance of Poe's who was among those who saw him in his last days, was convinced that Poe's death was a result of drunkenness, and did a great deal to popularise this interpretation of the events. He was, however, a supporter of the temperance movement who found Poe a useful example in his work; later scholars have shown that his account of Poe's death distorts facts to support his theory.
Dr. John Moran, the physician who attended Poe, stated in his own 1885 account that "Edgar Allan Poe did not die under the effect of any intoxicant, nor was the smell of liquor upon his breath or person." This was, however, only one of several sometimes contradictory accounts of Poe's last days he published over the years, so his testimony cannot be considered entirely reliable.
Numerous other theories have been proposed over the years, including several forms of rare brain disease, diabetes, various types of enzyme deficiency, syphilis, the idea that Poe was shanghaied, drugged, and used as a pawn in a ballot-box-stuffing scam during the election that was held on the day he was found, and more recently, rabies  (though some consider this unlikely).
In the absence of contemporary documentation (all surviving accounts are either incomplete or published years after the event; even Poe's death certificate, if one was ever made out, has been lost), it is likely that the truth of Poe's death will never be known. No other major American writer in the nineteenth century except Sidney Lanier lived a shorter life span.
Poe is now buried on the grounds of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore.
Poe's untimely death in Baltimore has made his grave site a popular tourist attraction - since 1949, the grave has been visited every year by a mystery man, known endearingly as the Poe Toaster, in the early hours of Poe's birthday, January 19th. It has been reported that a man draped in black with a silver-tipped cane, kneels at the grave for a toast of Martel cognac and leaves the half-full bottle and three red roses.
Griswold's biographical "Memoir"
The day Poe was buried, a long obituary appeared in the New York Tribune, signed "Ludwig." This remarkably bitter obituary depicted Poe as dishonest, immoral and morbidly ambitious, insane and incapable of normal human feelings. It was reprinted in numerous papers across the country. "Ludwig" was soon identified as Rufus Griswold, a minor editor and anthologist who had borne a grudge against Poe since 1842, when Poe wrote a review of one of Griswold's anthologies, a review that Griswold found insufficiently laudatory. Though they were coolly polite in person, an enmity developed between the two men as they clashed over various matters. Griswold took advantage of Poe's death to settle the score.
Griswold went on to assume the role of Poe's literary executor, though no evidence exists that Poe had ever made this exceedingly improbable choice. He convinced Poe's destitute mother-in-law Maria Clemm to hand over a mass of letters and manuscripts (which were never returned) and allow him to prepare an edition of Poe's collected works. Griswold assured Clemm that she would receive significant royalties, but she received nothing but a few sets of the edition, which she had to sell herself to realize a derisory return.
Griswold wrote a biographical "Memoir" of Poe which he included in an additional volume of the collected works. This biography depicted Poe as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman. It distorted almost every point of Poe's biography, and included items forged by Griswold to bolster his case. This libelous picture of Poe was immediately denounced by those who knew him well, but Griswold's account became the popularly accepted one, in part because it was the only full biography available and was widely reprinted, and in part because it seemed to accord with the narrative voice Poe used in much of his fiction.
No accurate biography of Poe appeared until John Ingram's of 1875. By then, however, Griswold's distortions were entrenched, not only in America but around the world. Griswold's false picture continues to color the popular image of Poe to this day.
Literary and artistic theory
In his essay "The Poetic Principle " Poe argued that there is no such thing as a long poem, since the ultimate purpose of art is aesthetic, that is, its purpose is the effect it has on its audience, and this effect can only be maintained for a brief period of time (the time it takes to read a lyric poem, or watch a drama performed, or view a painting, etc.) He argued that an epic, if it has any value at all, must be actually a series of smaller pieces, each geared towards a single effect or sentiment, which "elevates the soul".
Poe associated the aesthetic aspect of art with pure ideality, claiming that the mood or sentiment created by a work of art elevates the soul, and is thus a spiritual experience. In many of his short stories, artistically inclined characters (especially Roderick Usher from "The Fall of the House of Usher") are able to achieve this ideal aesthetic through fixation, and often exhibit obsessive personalities and reclusive tendencies. "The Oval Portrait" also examines fixation, but in this case the object of fixation is itself a work of art.
He championed art for art's sake (before the term itself was coined). He was consequentially an opponent of didacticism , arguing in his literary criticisms that the role of moral or ethical instruction lies outside the realm of poetry and art, which should only focus on the production of a beautiful work of art. He criticized James Russell Lowell in a review for being excessively didactic and moralistic in his writings, and argued often that a poem should be written "for a poem's sake."
He was a proponent and supporter of magazine literature, and felt that short stories, or "tales" as they were called in the early nineteenth century, which were usually considered "vulgar" or "low art" along with the magazines that published them, were legitimate artforms on par with the novel or epic poem. His insistence on the artistic value of the short story was influential in the short story's rise to prominence in later generations.
Legacy and lore
Poe's works have had a broad influence on American and World literature (sometimes even despite those who tried to resist it), and even on the art world beyond literature. The scope of Poe's impact on art is evident when one sees the many and diverse artists who were directly and profoundly influenced by Poe.
Poe's curious and often nightmarish work greatly influenced the horror and fantasy genres, and the horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft claimed to have been profoundly influence by Poe's works. He is also credited with originating the genre of detective fiction with his three stories about Auguste Dupin, the most famous of which is "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." There is no doubt that he inspired mystery writers who came after him, particularly Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Doyle was once quoted as saying, "Each [of Poe's detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed.... Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?" (Poe Encyclopaedia 103). Poe also profoundly influenced the development of early science fiction author Jules Verne, who discussed Poe in his essay Poe et ses œuvres and also wrote a sequel to Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Le sphinx des glaces (Poe Encyclopaedia 364). H. G. Wells, in discussing the construction of his classics of science fiction, The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon, noted that "Pym tells what a very intelligent mind could imagine about the south polar region a century ago" (Poe Encyclopaedia 372). Ray Bradbury has also professed a love for Poe. He often draws upon Poe in his stories, often mentioning him by name.
Eureka, an essay written in 1848, included a cosmological theory that anticipated the Big Bang theory by eighty years, as well as the first plausible solution to Olbers's paradox. Though described as a "prose poem" by Poe, who wished it to be considered as art, this work is a remarkable scientific and mystical essay unlike any of his other works. He wrote that he considered it his career masterpiece.
Poe had an interest in the field of cryptography. In particular he placed an notice of his abilities in the Philadelphia paper Alexander's Weekly (Express) Messenger, inviting submissions of ciphers, which he proceeded to solve. His success created a public stir for some months. He later wrote an essay on methods of cryptography which proved useful in deciphering the German codes employed during World War I.
Poe's literary reputation was greater abroad than it was in the United States, perhaps as a result of America's general revulsion towards the macabre. Rufus Griswold's defamatory reminiscences did little to commend Poe to U.S. literary society. However, American authors as diverse as Walt Whitman, H. P. Lovecraft, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor (who however claimed the influence of Poe on her works was "something I'd rather not think about" (Poe Encyclopaedia 259)), and Herman Melville were influenced by Poe's works. T. S. Eliot, who was quite hostile to Poe, conceded that "it is impossible, however, to know if even one's own works were not influenced by his."
In France, where he is commonly known as "Edgar Poe," Charles Baudelaire translated his stories and several of the poems into French. Baudelaire was the right man for this job, and his excellent translations meant that Poe enjoyed a vogue among avant-garde writers in France while being ignored in his native land. From France, writers like Algernon Charles Swinburne caught the Poe-bug, and Swinburne's musical verse owes much to Poe's technique. Poe was much admired, also, by the school of Symbolism, and Stéphane Mallarmé dedicated several poems to him. The subsequent authors Paul Valéry and Marcel Proust were great admirers of Poe, the latter saying of Poe, "Poe sought to arrive at the beautiful through evocation and an elimination of moral motives in his art."
Poe's poetry was translated into Russian by the Symbolist poet Konstantin Bal'mont and enjoyed great popularity there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, influencing artists such as Nabokov, who makes several references to Poe's work in his most famous novel, Lolita. Fyodor Dostoyevsky called Poe "an enormously talented writer" and many of his characters, such as Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment are derived from Poe characters (in this case, Montressor from "The Cask of Amontillado" and C. Auguste Dupin from "Murders in the Rue Morgue") (Poe Encyclopaedia 102). He wrote favorable reviews of Poe's detective stories and briefly references "The Raven" in his greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Poe influenced the Swedish poet and author Viktor Rydberg, who translated a considerable amount of Poe's work into Swedish.
Franz Kafka once said of Poe, "He was a poor devil who had no defenses against the world. So he fled into drunkenness. Imagination served him only as a crutch. He wrote tales of mystery to make himself at home in the world. That's perfectly natural. Imagination has fewer pitfalls than reality...I know his way of escape and his dreamer's face." Poe made a deep impression on Kafka and the influence of Poe's works on his are undeniable.
Jorge Luis Borges was a great admirer of Poe's works, and translated his stories into Spanish. Many of the character's from Borges' stories are borrowed directly from Poe's stories, and in many of his stories Poe is mentioned by name.
In the music world, Joseph Holbrooke , Claude Debussy and Sergei Rachmaninoff composed musical works based on the works of Poe. Holbrooke composed a symphonic poem based on The Raven. Debussy often declared Poe's profound effect on his music (Poe Encyclopedia 93) and began operas based on The Fall of the House of Usher and The Devil in the Belfry, though he did not finish them. Rachmaninoff transformed "The Bells" into a choral symphony. (Three other orchestral works based on Poe, along with the Rachmaninoff, were featured in a concert given by the American Symphony Orchestra in October 1999 .) In the world of visual arts, Gustave Doré and Edouard Manet composed several illustrations for Poe's works. On the stage, the great dramatist George Bernard Shaw was greatly influenced by Poe's literary criticism, calling Poe "the greatest journalistic critic of his time" (Poe Encyclopaedia 315). Oscar Wilde called Poe "this marvellous lord of rhythmic expression" and drew on Poe's works for his play A Picture of Dorian Gray and his short stories (Poe Encyclopedia 375). Alfred Hitchcock declared Poe as one of his inspirations.
In recent years the poet and critic W. H. Auden has revitalized interest in Poe's works, especially his critical works and said of Poe, "His portraits of abnormal or self-destructive states contributed much to Dostoyevsky, his ratiocinatin hero is the ancestor of Sherlock Holmes and his many successors, his tales of the future lead to H. G. Wells, his adventure stories to Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson." (Poe Encyclopaedia 27).
The Mystery Writers of America have named their awards for excellence in the genre the "Edgars."
Even though Poe spent less than two years in the city, Baltimoreans have treated the author as a native son. Many business establishments have used Poe as a theme for their marketing.
In 1996, when the original Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore, they were rechristened "The Baltimore Ravens", in honor of his best known tale. The team even created three "winged" mascots - naturally they named them Edgar, Allan, and Poe.
Poe's image, with his weary expression, piercing eyes and tangled hair (see the daguerrotype above), has become a cultural icon for the troubled genius. His face adorns the bottlecaps of Raven Beer, the covers of numerous books on American literatue as a whole, and is often stereotyped in cartoons as "the creepy guy". For further discussion of this topic, see "Poe and popular culture" by Mark Neimeyer, printed in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK; 2002).
Much of Poe's work is available on-line at Wikisource, See Wikisource Poe Archive
- Politian (fragment, 1835)
- Several of Poe's works were made into movies, notably a series of movies directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price.
- Author Ray Bradbury is a great admirer of Poe, and has either featured Poe as a character or alluded to Poe's stories in many of his works.
- In 1976, the Alan Parsons Project produced a record album entitled Tales of Mystery and Imagination, based on several of Poe's tales.
- Writer Stephen Marlowe adapted the strange details of Poe's death into his 1995 novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World.
- A double-CD organized by Hal Willner, "Closed On Account of Rabies" with poems and tales of Poe performed by various artist like Marianne Faithfull, Iggy Pop and Jeff Buckley was issued in 1997.
- In 2003, Lou Reed released a double-CD set titled "The Raven" after Poe's poem.
Peter Hammill has written and recorded an operatic version of "The Fall of the House of Usher."
- Elysian Fields has been known to preform some of his work in song form.
The Poe Encyclopedia by Frederick S. Frank and Anthony Magistrale. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut and London, (1997)
Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Walter J. Black Inc, New York, (1927)
Raven Beer - The web site of the Baltimore-Washington Beer Works