Edgar Allan Poe: Biography, Works, and Style
- 0:05 Biography
- 5:22 His Works
- 6:24 His Style
- 7:57 Lesson Summary
This video introduces Edgar Allan Poe, the father of the modern mystery story. Through his works, like 'The Raven' and 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' Poe reflected the characteristics of Dark Romanticism by creating horrific storylines and characters while exploring the dark, irrational depths of the human mind.
Edgar Allan Poe is a pop culture legend. His works have been translated into nearly every language. His legacy as the inventor of detective fiction has kept him in more than just literature textbooks. He's known to have influenced such great horror writers as Stephen King, Alfred Hitchcock and even science-fiction's Ray Bradbury. His stories have been made into countless film adaptations. Even his famous poem 'The Raven' was part of The Simpsons' very first 'Treehouse of Horrors' Halloween episode.
It might not be a surprise to those who have read Poe's works that he had a rather sad childhood. Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809 in Boston, the second of three children. His parents, who were traveling actors, died when he was young, so he was sent to live with a wealthy merchant, John Allan, and his wife, Frances, in Richmond, VA. Frances served as a good mother to Edgar, but John proved to be a less-than-supportive foster father. Despite the fact that they never adopted Edgar, Allan was added to his name, and he spent his younger years traveling with the couple and learning the family business. Poor Edgar wasn't terribly interested and spent a good deal of his time writing poems instead. By the age of 13, he had enough poems to publish an anthology, but he was discouraged by both his teacher and his foster father, who preferred he stay in the family business.
At the age of 17, Poe left for the University of Virginia, but because his foster father would not help him pay his bills, he wound up in debt. To offset this, Poe turned to gambling, which only made matters worse. It is said that Poe became so desperately poor that he had to burn his furniture to keep warm. That was a turning point in Poe's relationship with Mr. Allan. Poe resented him for not helping him financially, especially since there was plenty of money available. His situation worsened when he returned home from school to find his fiancée engaged to someone else.
While this was all devastating to Poe, he vowed that he would find success and published his first book, Tamerlane, under the name Edgar A. Perry. He was only 18. He also enlisted in the army, and after two years of service, he returned home in hopes of seeing Frances - the only mother he had known - who had become sick. Sadly, he arrived too late to say his good-byes, a tragedy which haunted him. He remained in Richmond long enough to publish another book of poetry before heading to West Point.
He wasn't there for long, though. After starting, Poe heard that John Allan had remarried without telling Poe or inviting him to the wedding. Since Poe was there on Allan's recommendation, he did his best to get kicked out. As a result, Poe chose to focus on writing and completely severed ties with Mr. Allan. In 1831, at the age of 22, he moved to Baltimore. After being robbed by one of his relatives, he wound up staying with his aunt, Maria Clemm, who became a mother to him. He also lived with his young cousin, Virginia.
Poe continued to live in poverty in Baltimore. Even when Allan died, he left Poe out of his will, so Poe received no help from the man who had raised him. To make money, Poe wrote and sold short stories. This eventually led to a position at the Southern Literary Messenger as an editor and critic, which moved him back to Richmond. Within a year, the magazine became extremely popular thanks to Poe's stories and nasty reviews. By the age of 27, Poe was able to bring Maria and Virginia to Richmond. In 1836, he married his cousin Virginia; she was only 13 years old.
Mostly, the 1830s and early 1840s were good to Poe. He moved to New York, to Philadelphia and back to New York. He wrote some of his best stories and became famous in his own time, quite a feat for any writer (though it did not make him rich). In 1845, Poe's popularity exploded with the publication of 'The Raven.' He traveled the country presenting lectures and solidifying his reputation.
However, in 1847, his treasured wife, Virginia, died, and Poe began to struggle. He was no stranger to loss, but that didn't ease the tragedy of losing his 24-year old wife. He suffered from writer's block for months.
His short but tormented life came to a tragic end on October 7, 1849. He briefly disappeared only to be found five days later in a bar that was being used as an election polling station. He was struggling to stay alive. No one really knows where he had been or what brought about Poe's death. At the time, it was believed to be congestion of the brain. Other speculation has blamed alcoholism.
His literary adversary, Rufus Griswold, wrote a nasty, vengeful obituary of Poe in hopes of paying him back for the critiques Poe made of Griswold's work. His account of the author's life, which began with, 'This announcement will startle many but few will be grieved by it,' claimed that Poe 'had few or no friends' and led people to believe that Poe led a drug- and alcohol-induced life. This is the biography that most people know of Poe, though many sources say those are only myths. Nonetheless, Griswold's attempts to attack Poe only brought more attention to his work, causing sales to skyrocket.
Of course, with all of this tragedy in his life, it is no wonder that Poe often wrote about madmen, murder, being buried alive and death. His psychological thrillers, however, gave way to the modern-day mystery, making him the father of the detective story. His 1841 publication of 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' was the first of these stories and the first to introduce C. August Dupin, Poe's recurring detective.
Unlike some writers, though, Poe wrote in a variety of forms. His most popular pieces are short stories, like 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' 'The Masque of the Red Death' and 'The Fall of the House of Usher,' and poems, like 'The Raven' and 'Annabel Lee.' However, he also wrote essays, including one called 'The Philosophy of Composition,' which shows the method he used to write 'The Raven.' He wrote one play and one novel as well. As a literary critic and an editor, Poe was known to be quite harsh and made many enemies easily. He was especially critical of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poetry, believing it to be poorly written.
Poe is said to have been influence by Lord Byron, a famous English Romantic poet; however, minus characters who have self-destructive tendencies, their styles are very different. Poe's use of diction, or word choice, is the start of what makes him stand apart from other writers. In his short story 'The Fall of the House of Usher' he uses words like 'bleak,' 'rank,' 'depression of the soul' and 'hideous dropping off of the veil' to describe the House of Usher. This pretty heavy word choice is both sophisticated and chock-full of terrifying connotations, or emotional meanings.
Of course, it only follows that this use of such diction leads to horrific imagery, where he uses words to create a picture in the reader's mind. One of Poe's most famous images comes from the first line of his poem 'The Raven:'
'Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary'
While he doesn't use long, lavish descriptions in this line of the poem, we can easily see in our mind's eye the night he describes. It's pitch black at midnight. A dull rain is pattering on what is probably a lifeless backdrop. And because the narrator is so tired, those images are amplified in his mind, too. The other stories are more grotesque in nature, and even others do not create images of the setting but images of what the narrator is thinking. It's Poe's images that add to the overall effects of his stories. These elements are further explored in Poe's works in additional lessons in this course.
Let's summarize. Edgar Allan Poe is known as the creator of the detective story and the modern mystery. He didn't just write short stories; he also wrote poems, essays, and even a novel and a play. Because he was heavily influenced by many tragedies in his life, his writing was usually dark and morbid. Through the use of diction and terrifying imagery, Poe was able to take readers into the dark realms of the world as well as the horrifying depths of the mind. He used these techniques in such famous works as 'The Raven,' 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and 'The Fall of the House of Usher.' His stories and poems are still widely read today, making him one of America's most popular writers.
Chapters in English 102: American Literature
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