Edgar Allan Poe
“His life was short and unhappy, if unhappiness can be short.”
Jorge Luis Borges wrote this clever epitaph in his Introduction to American Literature. He was referring, quite fittingly, to Edgar Allan Poe, the great poet of madness and melancholy. While many notable authors have sneered at Poe and treated him as an inferior writer (“To take him with more than a certain degree of seriousness is to lack seriousness one’s self,” wrote Henry James), Borges recognized Poe’s importance in the history of literature. “It could be said that there are two men without whom contemporary literature would not be what it is,” he wrote. “Walt Whitman…and Edgar Allan Poe.” Borges traced three significant things back to Poe: the symbolism of Baudelaire, the detective story, and the idea of literature as an intellectual activity rather than an expression of the spirit. Without Poe, then, modern literature would be greatly impoverished.
Poe’s life was indeed short and unhappy. He was born in Boston in 1809 to traveling actors. His father disappeared shortly after his birth, and his mother died when he was only two years old. He was then separated from his siblings and sent to Richmond to live with John and Frances Allan. In 1815 the Allans took Poe to England, where they stayed for the next five years. Poe would later describe this time as “sad, lonely, and unhappy.”
As Poe grew older, his relationship with John Allan worsened. Allan described Poe as “miserable, sulky, and ill-tempered,” and chided him for his lack of affection and gratitude. Poe endured a series of failures as a young man: he enrolled at the University of Virginia but dropped out due to gambling debts and problems with alcohol; he enlisted in the Army but left after two years; he enrolled at West Point but soon grew tired of it and intentionally behaved in a way that ensured his dismissal. Allan, who had grown increasingly impatient and unforgiving towards Poe, finally gave up on him; when he died in 1834, he left nothing to Poe in his will.
Poe had some early success as a writer, but not enough to escape from poverty. He remained poor throughout his life, even while enjoying the fame he achieved with his popular poem “The Raven.” His chances at a stable career were often sabotaged by his dipsomaniacal tendencies. His wife Virginia, whom he had married when she was only thirteen years old, fell into a prolonged illness; she died in 1847 at the age of twenty-four. Shortly after this, Poe nearly killed himself by drinking a large dose of laudanum. He spent the remainder of his life unsuccessfully pursuing other women. His alcoholism worsened, and in 1849 he was found in the street in Baltimore, delirious and nearly dead. He was taken to a hospital, where he died a few days later. After his death, Rufus Griswold—a man whom Poe had considered his friend—set about disparaging him.
In short, Poe suffered through a miserable existence of poverty and drunkenness. His literary talents were underappreciated, and the recognition he did receive was not accompanied by wealth. How, then, did such a failed life reach the legendary status it enjoys today? How did Poe rise to become one of America’s most cherished authors? Much credit is due to the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who idolized Poe and lovingly translated his works into French. In France Poe became known as a literary pioneer; his work was not considered merely popular, but art of a very high standard. More translations followed Baudelaire’s, and soon Poe was being read all over the world.
Poe is rare among writers in that he demonstrated a talent for three different forms of literature: poetry, fiction, and criticism. His talents as a poet were apparent when he was a child: one of his teachers described him as a “born poet,” and John Allan, who would later have little patience for Poe’s literary ambitions, agreed with this assessment and shared some of Poe’s poems with the teacher while discussing their potential publication. Poe’s first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was published in 1827, while he was in the Army. At West Point, he entertained his fellow cadets with satirical poems. These poems became so popular that some of the cadets collected money to help him publish his work. When his next volume of poetry was published, it was dedicated to these cadets (though it was written in a style completely different from the satire they expected).
Despite Poe’s aptitude for verse, as a poet he remained obscure until 1845, when the publication of “The Raven” made him a celebrity. (“I have just written the greatest poem that ever was written,” he remarked at the time.) The fame this poem brought him, however, was not accompanied by fortune, and he had to rely on his other literary efforts to earn a living. But whatever neglect his poetry suffered during his lifetime, it has been repaid posthumously, for many of his poems endure today as classics of the form, and some, such as “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and “Annabel Lee,” are among the most popular and adored in all of American poetry.
In 1832, Poe’s first story, “Metzengerstein,” was published in Philadelphia’s Saturday Courier. Several more of his stories were published shortly after this, and in 1833 he won a prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for “MS. Found in a Bottle.” In 1840, twenty-five of his stories were published in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, including “William Wilson,” “Ligeia,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Many of Poe’s stories have become so popular that their plots are well-known even among those who haven’t read them. Because of this familiarity, it is easy to overlook the originality of some of these stories. With the publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, for example, Poe invented the detective story. (As Arthur Conan Doyle would later state, Poe “was father of the detective tale, and covered its limits so completely I fail to see how his followers can find ground to call their own.” Fans of Sherlock Holmes who are not familiar with Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin will be greatly surprised by the remarkable similarities between the two detectives.) He also helped invent modern science fiction, as can be seen in his story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall.” But perhaps above all he is remembered for his tales of horror—“The Tell-Tale Heart,” for example, in a which a murderer is driven mad by the sound of his victim’s heart beating beneath the floorboards; and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” in which a man finds himself imprisoned in a dark chamber as a swinging blade grows ever closer to cutting him in two.
Although some of Poe’s stories have become classics today, during his life he struggled to succeed as an author of fiction. It was mainly from his work at various magazines that he earned his money and reputation. In 1835, Poe was offered a job in Richmond at the Southern Literary Messenger. The reviews he wrote for this magazine brought him serious attention, for in them he demonstrated an ability for skillful criticism and acerbic wit, and he was not afraid to attack even the most popular of authors. (“I intend to put up with nothing that I can put down,” he once said.) His work at the Messenger, however, was disrupted by his drinking problems, which eventually led to his dismissal from the magazine. But despite the damage his drinking did to his work, his achievements at the Messenger were remarkable. Under his direction it received more attention than ever before, and its circulation rose significantly.
After leaving the Messenger, Poe moved to Philadelphia and joined the staff at Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. He published several stories here and continued to gain a reputation for his merciless criticism. He was later appointed to an editorial position at Graham’s Magazine, which, due largely to his efforts, became the best-selling monthly magazine in the country. After the success of “The Raven,” he joined the Broadway Journal in what was to be his final editorial job.
Poe’s essays were popular because they were witty and irreverent. His severe criticism of his contemporaries in the literary world, though often unfair, was entertaining to read. (He described one writer as “remarkable for nothing except the fact that he is remarkable for nothing.”) Unsurprisingly, he would pay for his assaults on other authors by receiving similar treatment in turn. As mentioned earlier, the editor and journalist Rufus Griswold began maligning him as soon as he was no longer around to defend himself. In an obituary published shortly after Poe’s death, Griswold (writing under a pseudonym) acknowledged Poe’s skills as a writer but questioned his character. “He had,” Griswold wrote, “to a morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species, only the hard wish to succeed, not shine, not serve, but succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.”
More recently, the popular position among critics has been to acknowledge Poe’s significance while denying his talent. Harold Bloom, for example, describes Poe as “an inescapable writer, but not a good one.” Bloom has also stated that he prefers to read Poe’s stories in their French and German translations, an amusing tactic encouraged by T.S. Eliot, who claimed that Baudelaire, in his translations of Poe’s work, “transformed what is often a slipshod English into admirable French.”
But of course Poe has had plenty of admirers as well. In addition to the aforementioned opinions of Borges and Conan Doyle, there was Tennyson, who called Poe “the most original genius that America has produced,” André Gide, who considered Poe “the only impeccable master,” George Bernard Shaw, who described Poe’s stories as “complete works of art,” and William Carlos Williams, who memorably said, “Poe gives the sense for the first time in America, that literature is serious, not a matter of courtesy but of truth.”
In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the brilliant Parisian detective Dupin is able to explain the seemingly unexplainable. With extraordinary logic and deduction he solves a crime that appears to everyone else a confusion of bizarre occurrences. He is able to see order where others see chaos.
This juxtaposition of order and chaos, often in an exaggerated form, is what defines so many of Poe’s works. In his stories one finds tedious displays of logic alongside lurid visions of madness. The rational is used as an introduction to—and perhaps an excuse for—the insanity that ensues. Perhaps Poe’s tendency towards logical analysis was a defense against his encroaching madness, and in creating the ingenious detective Dupin, he entertained his hope that even the wildest nonsense could be made sense of by a mind of sufficient genius.
Poe possessed such a mind, but he also possessed the elements of its undoing. “I do believe God gave me a spark of genius,” he said shortly before his death, “but He quenched it in misery.”
A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.