Many authors have made great contributions to the world of
literature. Mark Twain introduced Americans to life on the
Mississippi. Thomas Hardy wrote on his pessimistic views of the
Victorian Age. Another author that influenced literature is Edgar
Allan Poe. Poe is known as the father of the American short story and
father of the detective story. To understand the literary
contributions of Edgar Allan Poe, one must look at his early life,
his literary life, and a summary of two of his famous works.


“Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston” (Inglis 505) “on January
19, 1809” (Asselineau 409). He was born to a southern family that
were in a traveling company of actors (Inglis 505). His father, David
Poe, was from a Baltimore family. He was an actor by profession and a
heavy drinker. Soon after Edgar Allan Poe was born, he left his
family. Poe’s mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, was a widow at the age of
eighteen. Two years after his birth, she died of tuberculosis
(Asselineau 409). When his mother died, Poe was adopted by John Allan
(Perry XI) at the urging of Mr. Allan’s wife. In 1815, John Allan
moved his family to England. While there, Poe was sent to private
schools (Asselineau 410).

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In the spring of 1826, Poe entered the University of Virginia.
There he studied Spanish, French, Italian, and Latin. He had an
excellent scholastic record. He got into difficulties almost at once.
Mr. Allan did not provide him with the money to pay for his fees and
other necessities. Poe was confused and homesick. He learned to play
cards and started drinking. Soon he was in debt in excess of two
thousand dollars. Poe discovered that he could not depend upon Allan
for financial support. His foster father refused to pay his debts,
and Poe had to withdraw from the University (Asselineau 410).


In May of 1827, Poe enlisted in the army as a common soldier.
He did this under the name of Edgar A. Perry. He was stationed on
Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor for over a year. Poe adapted
very well to military discipline and quickly rose to the rank of
regimental sergeant major. After a while, he got tired of the same
daily routine involved in military life. Poe wrote regularly to Mr.
Allan. He met with Mr. Allan after the death of Mrs. Allan in
February of 1829. With Allan’s support, he received his discharge and
enlisted in West Point on July 1, l830 (Asselineau 410). While at
West Point, Mr. Allan, who had remarried, continued in not providing
Poe with enough money. Poe decided to have himself kicked out of
school. Cutting classes and disregarding orders were his solutions.
He was court-martialed for neglect of duties in January, 1831, and
left West Point the following month (Asselineau 411).
“Poe was great in three different fields , and in each one he
made a reputation that would give any man a high place in literary
history. Poe wrote great short stories, famous not only in his
own country, but all over the world (Robinson V).” “Hawthorne,
Irving, Balzac, Bierce, Crane, Hemingway and other writers have given
us memorable short stories; but none has produced so great a number
of famous and unforgettable examples, so many tales that continue,
despite changing standards to be read and reprinted again and again
throughout the world (Targ VII).” “Poe was the father of the modern
short story, and the modern detective story (Targ VII).” “With
the possible exception of Guy de Maupassant, no other writer is so
universally known and esteemed for so large of a corpus of excellent
tales as in Edgar Allan Poe (Targ VII).”
In 1831, Poe succeeded in publishing a new edition of his
poems entitled, Poems. Poe was now in great difficulty. He went to
New York, but could find no job there. Eventually he took refuge with
his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, in Baltimore. There he decided to seek
employment and make his living by writing. Failing to get attention
with his poems, he decided to start writing short stories. Poe
competed in a contest for the best short story in 1831. The prize was
offered by Phil-Saturday Courier. Because he did not win the prize,
Poe started on an ambitious project. He decided to plan a series of
tales told by members of a literary group. He found no publisher for
his stories, and entered the contest again in June of 1835. This time
he sent one poem and six stories (Asselineau 411). His story, “Ms.
Found in a Bottle,” won , and he received one hundred dollars for it
(Targ IX). Through the influence of one of the judges, John P.
Kennedy, Poe became employed as an editor of the Southern Literary
Messenger, published in Richmond (Asselineau 411). Under Poe’s
editorship, the Messenger ‘s circulation rose from 500 to 3500.
While in Richmond, Poe married his cousin, Virginia, who was not quite
fourteen years old. Poe was fired from the Messenger in January of
1837.


Poe then went to New York, where he was unsuccessful. In the
summer of 1838, he moved to Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia, he
worked as the editor of both Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and
Graham’s Magazine (Asselineau 412). Even though he won a one
hundred dollar prize for “The Gold Bug” (Robinson VI), he moved to
New York. Poe found a job in New York as an assistant editor for the
Evening Mirror. This was where “The Raven” first appeared on January
29, 1845. “The poem immediately caught the imagination of the public
and was reprinted all over the country and even abroad in all kinds
of newspapers and magazines, but Poe pocketed only a few dollars for
his poems (Asselineau 413).” The year of 1845 was a lucky year for
Poe.
He published a collection of his Tales and an edition of his
poems named The Raven and Other Poems . He also became the editor of
the weekly Broadway Journal. Poe broke down when Virginia died in
January of 1848 ( Asselineau 413). In 1849, Poe died in Baltimore
(Targ IX). “Instead of really living, he took refuge from the
physical world in the private world of his dreams-in other words-in
the world of his tales (Asselineau 413).”
In the “Masque of the Red Death”, Poe uses his imagination
throughout the story (Rogers 43). A plague has devastated the entire
country. It takes only half an hour tofor the course of the disease
to run. At first one feels sharp pains and dizziness. Then one
starts bleeding at the pores. The disease results in death. Prince
Prospero has ordered one thousand lords and ladies to the deep
seclusion of one of his abbeys. The building was built by the Prince
and is filled with his exotic ornaments. It is sealed from the
outside world by a huge wall with iron gates. Inside the building are
dancers, musicians, and everything they need in order to stay
secluded until the plague runs its course. After six months of
seclusion, the Prince decides to hold a masked ball. The ball is held
in a suite with seven rooms. Each room is decorated in a single
color. The last room is decorated in red. Within this room stands a
huge clock that strikes the hour with a heavy clang. The rooms are
very crowded for the ball. At the stroke of midnight, a guest is seen
in a costume of the red death itself and This frightens the other
guests. The Prince is angered at what he believes to be a practical
joke. He orders the stranger seized and hanged from the battlements.
Prince Prospero follows the stranger into the red chamber. It is
there that Prince Prospero falls dead at the feet of the stranger.
The others capture the unknown person in the costume. To their horror
they find there is no living form in the costume. One by one they die
until no one else remains. Death is king of all (Rogers 41).


“The horror abysmal darkness, and absolute helplessness
befalling the victims are described with vivid accuracy in tales such
as ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ and
‘The Premature Burial’ (Perry XI-XII).” In “The Fall of the House of
Usher,” the narrator visits his insane friend, Roderick Usher.
Usher’s house is huge and gloomy (Rogers 20). His twin sister,
Madeline, gets sick and dies. The narrator and Usher place her in a
tomb in the basement of Usher’s house. What they do not realize is
that she is still barely alive. Usher keeps on hearing sounds over
the next couple of days. The seventh day after Madeline’s death, a
bad storm appears. The narrator and Usher open the door of the
narrator’s room and Madeline falls on Usher . They both die. The
narrator then leaves the house. As he rides away, the house collapses
to the floor (Rogers 21).

Author

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was a bizarre and often scary writer. People throughout
history have often wondered why his writings were so fantastically different and
unusual. They were not the result of a diseased mind, as some think. Rather
they came from a tense and miserable life. Edgar Allan Poe was not a happy man.

He was a victim of fate from the moment he was born to his death only forty
years later. He died alone and unappreciated. It is quite obvious that his
life affected his writings in a great way. In order to understand why, the
historical background of Poe must be known.

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Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809. His parents
were touring actors and both died before he was three years old. After this, he
was taken into the home of John Allan, a prosperous merchant who lived in
Richmond, Virginia.1 When he was six, he studied in England for five years.

Not much else is known about his childhood, except that it was uneventful.

In 1826, when Poe was seventeen years old he entered the University of
Virginia. It was also at this time that he was engaged to marry his childhood
sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster. He was a good student, but only stayed for a
year. He did not have enough money to make ends meet, so he ran up extremely
large gambling debts to trying make more money. Then he could not afford to go
to school anymore. John Allan refused to pay off Poe’s debts, and broke off his
engagement to Sarah Elmira Royster. Since Poe had no other means of support, he
enlisted in the army. By this time however, he had written and printed his
first book, Tammerlane, and Minor Poems (1829).2
After a few months though, John Allan and Poe were reconciled. Allan
arranged for Poe to be released from the army and enrolled him at West Point.

During this time, his fellow cadets helped him publish another book of poetry.

However, John Allan again did not provide Poe with enough money, and Poe decided
to leave this time before racking up any more debts
Still, Poe had no money and necessity forced him to live with his aunt,
Mrs. Clemm, in Baltimore, Maryland. None of his poetry had sold particularly
well, so he decided to write stories. He could find no publisher for his
stories, and so resorted to entering writing contests to make money and receive
exposure. He was rarely successful, but eventually won. His short story, MS.

Found in a Bottle was well liked and one of the judges in the contest, John P.

Kennedy, befriended him.3
It was on Kennedy’s recommendation that Poe became assistant editor of
the Southern Literary Messenger, published at Richmond by T.W. White. It was at
this time that Poe went through a period of emotional instability that he tried
to control by drinking. This was a mistake because he was extremely sensitive
to alcohol and became very drunk just from one or two drinks.

In May of 1836 Poe married his cousin, Virginia and brought her and her
mother to live with him in Richmond. It was during this time that Poe produced
a number of stories and even some verse.4
Over the next few years, Poe went from good times to bad. He had become
the editor of magazines and had written books, but none of these were paying off
enough. He would always be laid off the editorial staff for differences over
policies. He was doing so poorly that by the end of 1846 he was asking his
friends and admirers for help.

He was then living in a cottage with Mrs. Clemm and Virginia. Virginia
was dying of consumption and had to sleep in an unheated room. After six years
of marriage she had become very ill, and her disease had driven Poe to
distraction.

Virginia died on January 30, 1847, and Poe broke down. It is here that
much is learned about him and why he wrote the way he did. All of his life he
had wanted to be loved and to have someone to love. Yet one by one, he kept
losing the women in his life. His mother, Mrs. Allan, and now Virginia. He had
wanted to lead a life of wealth and luxury and still, despite his tremendous
talent, was forced to live as a poor man.

When he reached manhood, after a sheltered childhood and teenage years,
his life seemed to be caught up in failures. So, he did what most people do.

He found a way to escape. His method was writing. He found so much in common
with his characters, that his life began to emulate theirs. Although it is
probably the other way around.

How tragic that the one thing that he was good at never seemed to do him
any good. No matter what he wrote, he just kept sinking further and further
into an abyss. This abyss could be called death or ultimate despair.

When we read Poe’s stories, we often find ourselves wondering how such a
mind could function in society. This quotation from American Writers: A
Collection of Literary Biographies, very accurately describes the landscape of
Poe’s stories:
The world of Poe’s tales is a nightmarish universe. You cross
wasted lands, silent, forsaken landscapes where both life and waters
stagnate. Here and there you catch sight of lugubrious feudal buildings
suggestive of horrible and mysterious happenings……The inside of
these sinister buildings is just as disquieting as the outside. Everything is
dark there, from the ebony furniture to the oaken ceiling. The walls are
hungwith heavy tapestries to which mysterious drafts constantly give ‘a
hideousand uneasy animation.’ Even the windows are ‘of a leaden hue,’
so that therays of either sun or moon passing through fall ‘with a ghastly
lustre on the objects within.’ …….it is usually night in the ghastly (one
of his favoriteadjectives) or red-blood light of the moon that Poe’s
tales take place-or in the middle of terrific storms lit up by lurid
flashes of lightning.

None of Poe’s characters could ever be normal, since they lived in this
bizarre world. All of his heroes are usually alone, and if they are not crazy,
they are on their way to becoming so rapidly.

This leads one to wonder, just how lucid Poe was when he wrote these
stories. Was he crazy or just upset and confused? Most texts and histories of
Poe have it that he was influenced not only by his life, but by other writers.

These include Hawthorne, Charles Brockden Brown, E. T. A. Hoffman, and William
Godwin to name a few. Many of his stories show similarities to the works of the
aforementioned.

Therefore another point is brought up, was Poe writing these stories as
the result of a tortured existence and a need to escape, or was he writing to
please readers and critics? In letters he wrote, he often pokes fun at his
stories and says that they are sometimes intended as satire or banter. Also in
his letters, he describes horrible events seemingly without any concern. So who
can tell how he really felt since he might not have been totally sane and
rational at the time.

Even though Poe writes such bizarre tales he is never quite taken in
with them. He fears but is at the same time skeptical. He is frantic but at
the same time lucid. It is not until the very end that Poe was consumed by
something, and died. It might have been fear or something worse, something that
could only be scraped up from the bottom of a nightmare. That is what killed
him.

Poe’s stories contain within them a fascination for death, decay, and
insanity. He also displays very morbid characteristics and in some cases,
sadistic. His murderers always seem to delight in killing their victims in the
most painful and agonizing way. Still, terror seems to be the main theme. That
is what Poe tries to bring about in his stories. For example, in The Fall of
the House of Usher what kills Roderick Usher is the sheer terror of his sister
who appeared to have come back from the dead.

According to Marie Bonaparte, one of Freud’s friends and disciples, all
the disorders Poe suffered from can be explained by the Oedipus Complex and the
trauma he suffered when his mother died. The Oedipus Complex is best described
as a child’s unconscious desire for the exclusive love of the parent of the
opposite sex. The desire includes jealousy toward the parent of the same sex
and the unconscious wish for that parent’s death. In fact, upon examining the
women in Poe’s stories, we find that they bear striking resemblance to the
mother that Poe never had.

So one gets a glimpse at how Poe’s life, filled with insurmountable
obstacles and full of disappointments, indeed played a role in his writing. A
good comparison would be Vincent Van Gogh. He also endured hardship and died at
an early age. Poe was only forty when he passed away. Insignificant in his
lifetime, it was only after his death that he was appreciated. He is now
acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in American history. It is indeed a
pity that he will never know or care.


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