Unquestionably one of America's major writers, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was far ahead of his time in his vision of a special area of human experience—the "inner world" of dream, hallucination, and imagination. He wrote fiction, poetry, and criticism and was a magazine editor.
Edgar Allan Poe was best known to his own generation as an editor and critic; his poems and short stories commanded only a small audience. But to some extent in his poems, and to an impressive degree in his tales, he pioneered in opening up areas of human experience for artistic treatment at which his contemporaries only hinted. His vision asserts that reality for the human being is essentially subterranean, contradictory to surface reality, and profoundly irrational in character. Two generations later he was hailed by the symbolist movement as the prophet of the modern sensibility.
Poe was born in Boston on Jan. 19, 1809, the son of professional actors. By the time he was 3, Edgar, his older brother, and younger sister had lost their mother to consumption and their father through desertion. The children were split up, going to various families to live. Edgar went to the charitable Richmond, Virginia, home of John and Frances Allan, whose name Poe was to take later as his own middle name.
A New Family
The Allans were wealthy then and were to become more so later, and though they never adopted Poe, for many years it appeared that he was to be their heir. They treated him like an adopted son, saw to his education in private academies, and took him to England for a 5-year stay; and at least Mrs. Allan bestowed considerable affection upon him.
As Edgar entered adolescence, however, bad feelings developed between him and John Allan. Allan disapproved of his ward's literary inclinations, thought him surly and ungrateful, and gradually seems to have decided that Poe was not to be his heir after all. When, in 1826, Poe entered the newly opened University of Virginia, Allan's allowance was so meager that Poe turned to gambling to supplement his income. In 8 months he lost $2, 000. Allan's refusal to help him led to total estrangement, and in March 1827 Poe stormed out on his own.
Poe managed to get to Boston, where he signed up for a 5-year enlistment in the U.S. Army. In 1827, as well, he had his Tamerlane and Other Poems published at his own expense, but the book failed to attract notice. By January 1829, serving under the name of Edgar A. Perry, Poe rose to the highest noncommissioned rank in the Army, sergeant major. He was reluctant to serve out the full enlistment, however, and he arranged to be discharged from the Army on the understanding that he would seek an appointment at West Point. He thought that such a move might cause a reconciliation with his guardian. That same year Al Araaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems was published in Baltimore and received a highly favorable notice from the novelist and critic John Neal. Armed with these new credentials, Poe visited Allan in Richmond, but another violent quarrel forced him to leave in May 1830.
The West Point appointment came through the next month, but, since Poe no longer had any use for it, he did not last long as a cadet. Lacking Allan's permission to resign, Poe sought and received a dismissal for "gross neglect of duty" and "disobedience of orders." His guardian, long widowed, had taken a young wife who might well give him an heir, and Poe realized that his hopes of a legacy were without foundation.
Marriage and the Search for a Place
During his early years of exile Poe had lived in Baltimore for a while with his aunt Maria Clemm and her 7-year-old daughter, Virginia. He returned to his aunt's home in 1831, publishing Poems by Edgar Allan Poe and beginning to place short stories in magazines. In 1833 he received a prize for "MS. Found in a Bottle, " and John Pendleton Kennedy got him a job on the Southern Literary Messenger. In 1836 Poe married his cousin Virginia—now 13 years old—and moved to Richmond with his bride and mother-in-law. Excessive drinking lost him his job in 1837, but he had produced prolifically for the journal. He had contributed his Politian, as well as 83 reviews, 6 poems, 4 essays, and 3 short stories. He had also quintupled the magazine's circulation. Rejection in the face of such accomplishment was extremely distressing to him, and his state of mind from then on, as one biographer put it, "was never very far from panic."
The panic accelerated after 1837. Poe moved with Virginia and her mother to New York, where he did hack work and managed to publish The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). Then they moved to Philadelphia, where Poe served as coeditor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. In 2 years he boosted its circulation from 5, 000 to 20, 000 and contributed some of his best fiction to its pages, including "The Fall of the House of Usher." In 1840, furthermore, he published Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. But there was trouble at Burton's, and in 1841 Poe left for the literary editorship of Graham's Magazine.
It was becoming clear that 2 years was about as long as Poe could hold a job, and his stay at Graham's confirmed this principle. Though he contributed skillfully wrought fiction and unquestionably developed as a critic, his endless literary feuding, his alcoholism, and his inability to get along very well with people caused him to leave after 1842.
Illness and Crisis
The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Man That Was Used Up emerged in 1843, and a Philadelphia newspaper offered a $100 prize for his "The Gold Bug, " but Poe was now facing a kind of psychological adversity against which he was virtually helpless. His wife, who had been an absolutely crucial source of comfort and support to him, began showing signs of the consumption that would eventually kill her. When his burden became too great, he tried to relieve it with alcohol, which made him ill.
After great struggle Poe got a job on the New York Mirror in 1844. He lasted, characteristically, into 1845, switching then to the editorship of the Broadway Journal. Although he was now deep in public literary feuds, things seemed to be breaking in his favor. The 1844 publication of the poem "The Raven" finally brought him some fame, and in 1845 the publication of two volumes, The Raven and Other Poems and Tales, both containing some of his best work, did in fact move him into fashionable literary society. But his wife's health continued to deteriorate, and he was not earning enough money to support her and Clemm.
Poe's next job was with Godey's Lady's Book, but he was unable to sustain steady employment, and amid the din of plagiarism charges and libel suits, his fortunes sank to the point that he and his family almost starved in their Fordham cottage in the winter of 1846. Then, on Jan. 30, 1847, Virginia Poe died.
The wonder is not that Poe began totally to disintegrate but that he nevertheless continued to produce work of very high caliber. In 1848 he published the brilliantly ambitious Eureka, and he was even to make a final, heart-wrenching attempt at rehabilitation. He returned to Richmond in 1849, there to court a now-widowed friend of his youth, Mrs. Shelton. They were to be married, and Poe left for New York at the end of September to bring Clemm back for the wedding. On the way he stopped off in Baltimore. Nobody knows exactly what happened, and there is no real proof that he was picked up by a gang who used him to "repeat" votes, but he was found on October 3 in a stupor near a saloon that had been used as a polling place. He died in a hospital 4 days later.
World of His Work
It is not hard to see the connection between the nightmare of Poe's life and his work. Behind a screen of sometimes substantial, sometimes flimsy "reality, " his fictional work resembles the dreams of a distressed individual who keeps coming back, night after night, to the same pattern of dream. At times he traces out the pattern lightly, at other times in a "thoughtful" mood, but often the tone is terror. He finds himself descending, into a cellar, a wine vault, a whirlpool, always falling. The women he meets either change form into someone else or are whisked away completely. And at last he drops off, into a pit or a river or a walled-up tomb.
Poe's critics interpret this pattern to represent the search of the individual for himself by going deep into himself and his ultimate arrival at the unplumbed mystery of his inner self. This search has come, of course, to characterize much of 20th-century art, and it is the distinguished accomplishment of Poe as an artist that his work looks forward with such startling precision to the work of the century that followed.
Further Reading on Edgar Allan Poe
Arthur H. Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941), is extremely reliable. Two very readable treatments are Hervey Allen, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1934), and William R. Bittner, Poe: A Biography (1962). A thorough study is Edward C. Wagenknecht, Edgar Allan Poe: The Man behind the Legend (1963). Two critical studies which supplement each other are Patrick F. Quinn, The French Face of Edgar Allan Poe (1957), which concentrates on the fiction, and Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (1957), which emphasizes the poetry. See also Killis Campbell, The Mind of Poe (1933); Haldeen Braddy, Glorious Incense: The Fulfillment of Edgar Allan Poe (1953); and Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness (1958). Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville (1956), and Sidney P. Moss, Poe's Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu (1963), discuss Poe in the context of his times. For a full list of Poe's works see Robert E. Spiller and others, eds., Literary History of the United States, vol. 3 (1948; 3d rev. ed. 1963).