For over 150 years, legions of scholars, literary people, journalists and general Poe devotees have tried to capture Edgar Allan Poe’s complex personality and enshrine it forever in paper and ink. They have exhaustively chased every conceivable source to fill in the details of his life. Every person who met Poe (or was willing to claim so), and was still alive after 1875, was coerced to recall any scrap of fact or insight, no matter how trivial or vague. After these people had passed on, their children and even grandchildren were asked to repeat anything they had heard about Poe. From this mass of disjointed and often contradictory information, Poe’s biography has been crafted, each generation relying heavily on the work of prior biographers, themselves often happy to steal from their competitors without so much as a footnote. Every letter he wrote, every note he jotted on a piece of paper, every photograph, every newspaper or magazine article, every building, stick of wood or piece of bric-a-brac with a Poe association was duly collected, catalogued and interpreted — but Poe himself has fooled us all and remains to this day an elusive quarry.
The peculiar curiosity of the reader in the life and character of the writer has long been recognized. Nearly 100 years before Poe was even born, Joseph Addison commented in the opening lines of the first issue of The Spectator: “I have observed, that a reader seldom peruses a book with pleasure, till he knows whether the writer of it be a black or a fair man, of a mild or choleric disposition, married or a bachelor, with other particulars of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right understanding of an author” (Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. I, March 1, 1711).
In Poe’s case, there is a great deal of information, but very few verifiable facts. Everything about him is controversial, literally from the place and date of his birth to the exact location and date of his burial. There is no birth certificate, and although Poe seems to have known that he was born in Boston in 1809, most biographies claimed until 1880 that he was born in Baltimore in 1811. Poe himself once even gave 1813 as the date, two years after his mother’s death. As for Poe’s burial, both October 8 and 9 have been recorded. Since no headstone was placed over Poe’s grave when he was buried, some sources have claimed it as to the right of his grandfather, others to the left. Poe himself began this confusion of fact and fancy in his own brief autobiographical note, provided to R. W. Griswold for The Poets and Poetry of America (1842). Among the numerous inaccuracies is the fable that Poe joined the Greeks in their fight for liberty in 1828. (While at West Point, the jokester Poe merrily spread rumors that he was the grandson of Benedict Arnold.)
Reducing the life and personality of any person to a static sequence of words is not an easy task. In one way or another, all such attempts fail to achieve this lofty goal. Any historical figure is particularly difficult to understand, and Poe has further muddied the waters himself by carefully manipulating his own public image to help sell his writings, or for personal reasons that are no longer always clear to us. It is hard enough to record with any certainty where Poe was and what he was doing at any given time, let alone what he was thinking or how he felt. The reasonableness inherent in this warning does not, however, give pause to the biographer, who will glance at a person’s shadow and confidently describe the color of the pen stuffed in the caster’s inside coat pocket. An offhand comment, for example, made once in idle conversation, but still remembered (accurately or not) fifty years later, is presented by biographers as the subject’s definitive and lifelong position on the matter.
Understandably, biographers are reluctant to admit the dark secrets of their craft. Many are unaware of the extent that the final product is shaped by their own personal biases and the unspoken but still very real mandate of the reader to find the presentation cohesive and, above all, interesting. To achieve these goals, biographers frequently supplement the available historical information with interpretations of Poe’s personality gleaned from his writings, an act of desperation that ignores the fact that Poe’s writings are more the result of his imagination than his personality. It is a common error for readers to confuse Poe’s narrators with Poe himself, but trained scholars should know better.
Was Poe drunk when he was found on the street in Baltimore on October 3, 1849? Dr. J. Evans Snodgrass, the man who sent Poe to the hospital in a carriage, said in 1856 and 1867 that Poe was indeed intoxicated. Dr. John J. Moran, however, Poe’s attending physician for the final few days of his life, insisted in 1875 and 1885 that Poe had no trace of alcohol in his system and had probably been beaten by thugs. Both of these men, having endured whatever passed as medical training in those days, are equally credible witnesses. Moran has the advantage of having spent more time examining Poe, but he has partially discredited himself by leaving us at least three romanticized and somewhat contradictory accounts. (Moran also apparently told the Rev. W. T. D. Clemm in 1849 that Poe had indeed been intoxicated, although this account is related third hand many years later and has few supporting details.) Snodgrass, having left a more coherent account, has generally been accepted by biographers, but he was a radical temperance man and saw in Poe’s death a means of persuading others to abandon alcohol entirely. He may have exaggerated his claims to bolster his own moral position. (Indeed, his first article was written for the Woman’s Temperance Paper of New York City.) He may also simply have been wrong. Curiously, Snodgrass misquoted Walker’s important note describing Poe’s condition, changing “a gentleman, rather the worse for wear” first to “deep intoxication” and later to “beastly intoxication.” With only such imperfect information at hand, whichever account one accepts necessarily depends more on bias and whim than reason.
As another example of this problem, Poe left Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in June of 1840. Poe claimed privately that he left over a point of honor, Burton having advertised an open literary contest with the winner already secretly selected. Burton, however, quickly spread vague rumors that Poe was fired for irresponsible behavior, but offered no proof. Since there is no absolute evidence to substantiate either position, which you choose depends on which you believe. The real question is whether a biographer should choose at all. Instead, is he or she not obligated to report both stories as an impartial observer?
The wide variance among interpretations of Poe’s life can be seen clearly in the three most prominent “camps,” each here named for its originator: The “Griswold Camp” (which vilifies Poe as a devil), the “Ingram Camp” (which glorifies Poe as an angel) and the “Baudelarie Camp” (which glorifies Poe as a devil). To some extent, nearly all biographies of Poe follow or react to this triangle of approaches.
The following items are some of the many biographical books and articles written about Poe. Items listed have been included because they are important, influential or representative examples. Their presence here should not be considered an endorsement of their contents.
Editions and Collections:
- The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, with A Memoir by Rufus Wilmot Griswold and Notices of his Life and Genius by N. P. Willis and J. R. Lowell, 4 volumes, edited by Griswold (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850-1856).
- The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 10 volumes, edited by Edmund Clarence Stedman and George Edward Woodberry (Chicago: Stone & Kimball, 1894-1895).
- The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 17 volumes, edited by James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1902).
- Selections from the Critical Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by F. C. Prescott (New York: Holt, 1909); republished, with new preface by J. Lasley Dameron and new introduction by Eric W. Carlson (New York: Gordian Press, 1981).
- Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 3 volumes, edited by Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969-1978).
- Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Burton R. Pollin, volume 1, The Imaginary Voyages: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The Unparalleled Adventure of one Hans Pfaall, The Journal of Julius Rodman (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981); volume 2, The Brevities of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Gordian Press, 1985).
- Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales, edited by Patrick F. Quinn (New York: Library of America, 1984).
- Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews, edited by G. R. Thompson (New York: Library of America, 1984).
- Poe's Contributions to the Columbia Spy: Doings of Gotham, as described in a series of letters to the editors of the Columbia Spy, together with various editorial comments and criticisms by Poe now first collected, complied by Jacob E. Spannuth, with an introduction by Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Pottsville, Pa.: Jacob E. Spannuth, 1929).
- The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by John Ward Ostrom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948); republished with three supplements (New York: Gordian Press, 1966); fourth supplement, American Literature, 45 (January 1974): 513-536.
Edgar Allan Poe 's importance as a short-story writer may be seen in his pioneering contributions to the genre, in his theory of the tale, in the rich variety, meaning, and significance of his stories, and in their influence on writers the world over. Poe was a pivotal figure in converting the traditional Gothic tale of mystery and terror into variations of the romantic tale and the modern short story by shifting the emphasis from surface sensationalism, suspense, and plausibility of plot pattern to the "under current of meaning" suggested by the symbolic play of language, the subtle use of style, tone, and point of view, the subconscious motivation of character, and serious interpretive themes. The diversity of his seventy works of short fiction (including some sketches) represents not only a response to the demands of the literary marketplace but also an expression of his own deeper evolving outlook on life and his theory of the short story, especially "the tale of effect."
Ever since Poe's short stories first began to appear in the 1830s readers have been intrigued by the nature of the man or the mind that produced them. Was he as demonic or demented as the protagonists of his horror tales, and as analytical or psychic as the heroes of his detective and mystery stories? Contrary to popular legend, Poe was neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict, though he did struggle during much of his adult life against a predisposition to drink during periods of stress and despair. A highly complex character, Poe was capable of the strictest artistic control and intellectual acumen, at other times suffering from emotional instability and dependence.
Born in Boston on 19 January 1809, he was not yet three when his mother died on 8 December 1811 in Richmond. A talented leading lady in the American theater of the day, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, of English birth, had married David Poe, Jr., a mediocre actor who later abandoned his family. After his mother's death Poe was taken in by the childless John and Frances Allan; brother William Henry was taken in by his paternal grandparents; and sister Rosalie was cared for by foster parents. Allan, a Scottish-born tobacco merchant, was as strict and unemotional as his wife was overindulgent. When Allan's business interests took him to Scotland and London in 1815, Mrs. Allan and Poe accompanied him, returning to Richmond in 1820. Poe was educated in private academies, excelling in Latin, in writing verse, and declamation. He enjoyed swimming, skating, and shooting. In 1825 Allan inherited the sizable fortune of his uncle, William Gault; even so, being the child of former actors, Poe was regarded as an outsider by the Richmond elite. At sixteen, young Poe fell in love with Sarah Elmira Royster, to whom he became "engaged" without parental consent.
In February 1826 Poe entered the University of Virginia, where he excelled in Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian. When his allowance from Allan did not cover the cost of books and clothes, Poe resorted to playing cards for money, incurring debts of two thousand dollars. Refusing to pay these "debts of honor" at the end of the term in December, Allan withdrew Poe from the university. When all attempts at reconciliation with Allan failed, Poe went to Baltimore in March 1827, then sailed to Boston, where in May he enlisted in the United States Army as "Edgar A. Perry" and was assigned to duty with the coast artillery at Fort Independence, Boston Harbor and later at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island in Charleston Harbor. It was in Boston that a young printer was persuaded to publish Poe's anonymous first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems. By a Bostonian (1827). After Mrs. Allan died in February 1829, Poe quit the army and sought help in getting an appointment to West Point. A second volume, with six new poems, was published under Poe's own name in Baltimore in December 1829. On 1 July 1830 he entered West Point, but by October, learning that Allan had remarried and despairing of reconciliation or inheritance (he had never been legally adopted), Poe ignored orders, thus obtaining his dismissal from the academy on 31 January 1831.
Poe's writing career falls into three major periods, each marked by a shift in perspective. During the first period, 1827 to 1831, his three slim volumes of poetry expressed a strong attachment to the romantic myth of a pastoral and poetic ideal, made up of "dreams" and "memories" of a pristine paradise or Eden. These early poems celebrated Beauty and Innocence, Love and Joy as dynamic life values in the poet's feeling for the potential of harmony of mind with nature, of the "soul" with "God" or the universal "Ens." In 1831, a transition year, three of Poe's poems ("Romance," "Israfel,"and "To Helen") expressed a new commitment to a poetry of heartfelt conviction in the face of life's burdens and sorrows. During the decade that followed, 1831 to 1841, a radical change was reflected in poems and tales on the theme of death as a finality in a cosmic void of darkness and silence. His third and final period, 1841 to 1849, was marked by a return to poetry and by essays and fiction on the theme of psychic transcendentalism. Through all three of these stages Poe continued to publish comic and satiric tales, mainly parodies, burlesques, grotesques, and hoaxes.
When Poe's three volumes of poetry from 1827 to 1831 went largely unnoticed and when he failed in his applications for editorial work and teaching, he turned to humorous and satiric fiction, then in demand. In June 1831 he submitted five stories to a contest sponsored by the Philadelphia Saturday Courier with one hundred dollars offered as a prize for the best work of fiction. Although Poe did not win the prize, his five tales were published by the Courier from January to December 1832. "Metzengerstein," the first of these stories, has been appreciated for its unity of tone and effective suspense. It is better read as a powerful allegory than a parody, burlesque, or hoax. Its Gothic devices and plot support a serious moral theme: the evil of pride and arrogant power brings about self-destruction by retributive forces from within. In "The Duc de L'Omelette" and "The Bargain Lost" (republished as "Bon-Bon," Southern Literary Messenger, August 1835) the Devil appears as the antagonist in the form of a mysterious stranger. The first story neatly satirizes French aristocratic vanity, hauteur, and cunning so clever as to outface and outwit the Devil himself. In part it satirizes the French affectations of Nathaniel Parker Willis, editor of the American Monthly Magazine. "The Bargain Lost" is the colorful account of Pedro Garcia, a Venetian chef and metaphysician of sorts. The satiric treatment of the character types widens into a tour de force of wit and erudition at the expense of classical philosophers, tyrants, authors, and the conventional figure of the Devil himself. "A Tale of Jerusalem," based on an old theme and episode found in Horace Smith's long novel, Zilla, a Tale of the Holy City (1828), is largely a play on words. "A Decided Loss" (revised as "Loss of Breath," Messenger, September 1835) satirizes "the extravagances of Blackwood," that is, the tales of "sensation" published in Blackwood's Magazine. When the protagonist expresses a "wild delight" in analyzing his sensations, Poe adds a note linking this analysis with "much of the absurd metaphysicianism of the redoubted Schelling." The reliance on grossly implausible events, comic details, historical allusions, humorous word play, and caricature in the story of a man who loses his "breath" (his voice), who is hanged but does not die, gives humorous support to the playful subtitle, "A Tale Neither In Nor Out of 'Blackwood,'" appended to the piece upon its revision.
Although little is known of Poe's activities throughout 1832, in May 1833 he proposed for publication "Eleven Tales of the Arabesque," consisting of the five Saturday Courier tales plus six new stories which were submitted to a contest sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. The first prize of fifty dollars went to Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle," which was published on 19 October, and an honorary second prize to his poem "The Coliseum," The eleven tales "are supposed to be read at table," Poe explained to Joseph T. and Edwin Buckingham, editors of the New-England Magazine , "by the eleven members of a literary club, and are followed by the remarks of the company upon each. These remarks are intended as a burlesque upon criticism. In the whole, originality more than anything else has been attempted ...." As representative of the collection, Poe enclosed "Epimanes" (Messenger, March 1836; republished as "Four Beasts in One--The Homo-Cameleopard," Broadway Journal, 6 December 1845), a story for which he drew upon both ancient and modern history, only the main incident being an invention. Although Jacksonianism may have been an intended target, the satire is less applicable to American democracy than to monarchical regimes. An overlooked aspect of the story is the point of view, the use of a witness-reporter who, like a modern-day "eye-witness" newscaster, describes the unfolding event in the dramatic tones of one who is baffled, amazed, and finally (and ironically) caught up in the crowd's hysterical celebration.
These eleven tales, literary rather than autobiographical in origin, became the basis for Poe's "The Tales of the Folio Club," a scheme introduced in an 1833 manuscript. In the introduction the narrator, a disaffected member of the club, unflatteringly describes the members as "quite as ill-looking as they are stupid." In principle, members are forbidden "to be otherwise than erudite and witty; and the avowed objects of the confederation were 'the instruction of society, and the amusement of themselves.'" It should be noted that Poe's original title, "Eleven Tales of the Arabesque," implied something more than satires and grotesques. Poe referred to "most" of these early stories as "intended for half-banter, half-satire-although I might not have fully acknowledged this to be their aim even to myself"; he identified only "Lionizing" (Messenger, May 1835) and "Loss of Breath" as "satires properly speaking." Reference to a larger purpose-to illustrate a range of creative "Imaginative Faculties"--accompanied Poe's proposed seventeen-tale version of the Folio Club collection in September 1836. Among the nonsatiric Folio Club tales that are neither burlesques nor parodies, several fantasies of the human condition exemplify the impressionistic use of the "Imaginative Faculties." The companion pieces "Siope--A Fable" (Baltimore Book for 1838; republished as "Silence," Broadway Journal, 6 September 1845) and "Shadow--A Fable" (Messenger, September 1835; revised as "Shadow-A Parable," Broadway Journal, 31 May 1845) belong in this category, being distinguished by an arabesque design and "existentialist" themes. In "Siope" the Roman figure of a man on the rock of Desolation "trembled in solitude" at the sight of a restless and hostile universe, but when confronted by SILENCE as the ultimate nature of existence, he shudders and flees in terror. At this, the Demon narrator laughs. But the human "I" "could not laugh with the Demon" (life is no laughing matter); only the lynx "looked at him [the Demon] steadily in the face" (only the philosophical lynx-eye, as Poe noted elsewhere, can see the deeper Dignity of Man). In "Shadow," when questioned, the shadow replies in the frightening tones of "a multitude of beings," in the varying cadences, "the well remembered and familiar accents of many thousand departed friends." This ending is reminiscent of the early poem "The Spirits of the Dead" (1827), where the voices of the dead revive the speaker's will to live in the face of loss and grief. But here that idea is not implied, as if the loss of his mother, Frances Allan, brother William Henry (who died in 1831) and Mrs. Jane Stanard-the "well remembered" mother of a schoolmate-had left him inconsolable.
Poe's tales and poems during this period (1831-1841) made him one of the foremost nineteenth-century "literary conquerors of the Void." But if the Poe hero confronted by Nothingness stands alone in "fear and trembling," God is not therefore "dead" nor life-in-the-large Absurd. In his sea tales Poe's protagonist encounters a boundary situation with "no exit," but in the process his terror is transformed from physical fear to something more. In "MS. Found in a Bottle" the narrator, a rationalist and skeptic, quickly finds himself one of two survivors stranded on a ship in a simoom. Despite the "pitchy darkness" and raging tempest and in contrast to the "superstitious terror" felt by his companion, an old Swedish sailor, he is "wrapped up in a silent wonder." When he is hurled onto a gigantic, strange ship that is very old and porous, he finds himself surrounded by an equally strange crew of aged men with "decayed charts of navigation" and "scattered mathematical instruments of the most quaint and obsolete construction." At this point the narrator is overcome by "a new sense-a new entity," presumably a new, intuitive mode of realization, suggested also by his "thoughtless touches of the brush" on a folded sail which when "spread out" spell "the word DISCOVERY." These and other similar details turn the ship and its captain into a symbol of ancient wisdom; the ship's plummet into a whirlpool at the story's conclusion signals a passive, mystical resignation to the tragic destiny of life. But the narrator's own "eagerness of hope" and curiosity is transformed into a glimpsed vision of the sublime, however terrifying and fatal.
In April 1841 Poe's "A Descent into the Maelstrom," a reworking of material used in "MS. Found in a Bottle," appeared in Graham's Magazine. Here, an old mariner, in contrast to his brother, whose sheer fright turns him into a raving maniac, takes note of the full moon streaming down into the black funnel in which their ship is trapped, in "a flood of golden glory." A magnificent and symbolic rainbow appears, and an agonizing "yell" up to heaven rises out of the mist. Then he is overcome with curiosity, fear, and "a more exciting hope" as he realizes that his only escape is to leave the ship and cling to a water cask. But the real denouement consists of the final four sentences on how the white-haired mariner's story met with disbelief from "the merry fishermen of Lofoden," who thus denied their primal, higher consciousness of the nature of existence.
"The Visionary" (Godey's Lady's Book, January 1834; revised as "The Assignation," Broadway Journal , 7 June 1845) was Poe's first story to appear in a national monthly with a wide circulation. As one of the Folio Club tales it had been assigned to "Mr. Convolvulus Gondola, a young gentleman who had travelled a good deal." Due, in part, to its inflated bathos, it has been regarded as a lampoon of Byronic passion or as a parody of Thomas More. Neither of those views reckons with Poe's preference for the visionary hero, the classical, Hellenic heroine, the conventional villain, the symbolic rescue, the arabesque apartment, the love poem written in London, the painting of the Marchesa Aphrodite, or the final suicide pact. W. H. Auden's comment on Poe's style as "operatic" suggests that these stock elements, coupled with the overwrought diction, may, within the narrator's maturing perception, comprise a psychodrama of the self's quest for origins, for identity, and for unity. So considered, it has been read as a paradigm of Poe's own search for a lost unity of the primal self.
Although the tales of the Folio Club were never published as a group, Poe's friendship with John Pendleton Kennedy helped open the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger, where "Berenice" appeared in March 1835. With the aid of Kennedy, one of the judges in the Visiter contest, Poe became an editor on the Messenger, to which he contributed poems, tales, and reviews (over eighty), helping to increase the circulation from five hundred to over thirty-five hundred.
Meanwhile, Poe had married his cousin Virginia Clemm on 16 May 1836; she was not quite fourteen. Poe had been living in the Clemm house-hold, consisting of Virginia, her mother, Maria Clemm, and Poe's grandmother, Elizabeth Poe, since 1831. After the grandmother's death in 1835 Poe and the Clemms moved from Baltimore to Richmond. In February 1837, with Mrs. Clemm, Poe and Virginia moved to New York, where they stayed for about a year and a half before relocating in Philadelphia.
"Berenice" was the first of five symbolic dramas of the self, published between 1835 and 1839, that are best appreciated as tales of psychic conflict and tales of vision. "In them," Richard Wilbur once wrote, "Poe broke wholly new ground, and they remain the best things of their kind in our literature .... I think he will have something to say to us as long as there is civil war in the palaces of men's minds" ("The House of Poe"). This group includes also "Morella" (Messenger, April 1835), "Ligeia" (American Museum, September 1838), "The Fall of the House of Usher" (Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, September 1839), and "William Wilson" (Gift for 1840). Despite its rich language, "Berenice" has posed a problem for the general reader: the ending (the pulling of Berenice's teeth) is often seen as too gruesome, too repulsive. Poe admitted that "The subject is far too horrible .... I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad-taste-but I will not sin quite so egregiously again," adding the observation that famous magazines are indebted to stories " similar in nature to Berenice .... You asked me in what does this nature consist? In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical .... To be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity."
"Berenice" is best read as not only a study in monomania but also an allegory of the bipart self suffering a radical split. The tale is narrated by Egaeus, whose abstracted, dreaming imagination is his only world of reality. Berenice, in all her natural loveliness, embodies the memory of his original, true identity. However, due to frequent epileptic seizures, her beauty has begun to fade, and Egaeus becomes fixated on her teeth as a sign of her attenuation. In extracting her teeth during Berenice's most severe cataleptic fit (it appears that she has died), Egaeus (the heartless intellect) violates the very unity of mind and heart that his fragmented self so desperately seeks to recover. "Morella"is a variation on the same theme: the tragedy of a cold, unloving rationality that is unable to respond to the "mystical" studies of "the imaginative Morella." Morella's readings in Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and the Pythagoreans left her husband, the narrator, whose guide is Locke's definition of identity as "the sameness of rational being," confused and afraid. Morella's decline parallels Berenice's in symbolic meaning, but her return through her daughter, born immediately after her death, adds another dimension, the idea of psychic continuity or indestructible will, along with the secondary theme of retribution from within.
At least twice Poe singled out "Ligeia" as his "best" tale, probably because of its intricate symbolic design and its theme: life has no meaning or purpose unless spiritual integrity can be recovered from the repressed "will." When Poe remarked that "I should have intimated that the will did not perfect its intention--there should have been a relapse ... and Ligeia ... should be at length entombed as Rowena," he hinted that either the act of willing requires repeated renewal, or human purpose is at the mercy of the fates, forces beyond human control. The epigraph ascribed to Joseph Glanvill, however, still holds true: "Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will."
Published the year after "Ligeia," "The Fall of the House of Usher" is Poe's most popular tale and perhaps his best. It has been a favorite of anthologists since Rufus Griswold. In its group it is the only tale with three instead of two characters, suggesting the three faculties in Poe's "world of mind"--Pure Intellect, Taste (or "poetic intellect"), and Moral Sense-which Poe elsewhere terms "mental power," "sensibility," and "intense vitality" or "Energy." The narrator functions as an observer-interpreter, as a voice for the meaning of it all, the only "central intelligence" in the story. Roderick Usher is the creative mind ("poetic intellect") in the hypnagogic or visionary state, now suffering from a psychic conflict caused by the repression of his Moral Sense or will (entombment of his sister, Madeline). Though his eye was "large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison"--a sign of his sensibility--he lacks the "moral energy" or "vitality" necessary to true genius as defined by Poe. As with the "lofty" and "ethereal" Lady Ligeia, so here on the "threshold" (of consciousness) "there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher," whose fatal embrace of Roderick becomes (in the words of one noted critic) a "foreview of the soul's reconstitution and purification in death."
As a classic of its genre, "William Wilson" is Poe's clearest embodiment of the Double. In it the protagonist's counterpart dramatizes not only conscience but a Jungian "anima" or Primal Self in deep discord with the willful ego. Here, as elsewhere in Poe, this shadow self comes to momentary consciousness in "dim visions of my earliest infancy ... the belief of my having been acquainted with the being who stood before me, at some epoch very long ago." Suppressed in his self-willed boyhood, this deeper Moral Sense remains undeveloped as Wilson pursues a life of increasing folly, dissipation, and crime, heedless of the repeated visitations and warnings of his alter ego. Although a transparent allegory in its general outline, here, too, Poe blends the supernatural and the psychological through the symbolic use of architectural details and neo-Gothic elements, thus adding nuance and depth of meaning.
By now Poe had entered upon his greatest period as a writer of prose fiction (1837-1845), which coincided more or less with his years in Philadelphia (1838-1844). He remained busy from May 1839 as coeditor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, doing most of the reviews and one feature per month. The twenty-five tales published to date were collected in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), specially arranged and prefaced by Poe, thus providing new clues to Poe's artistic purpose and form. Applying to the table of contents his remark that he "desired to preserve, as far as a certain point, a certain unity of design," one sees immediately that the arabesques are alternated with the grotesques: "Morella," "Lionizing," "William Wilson," "The Man That Was Used Up," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Duc de L'Omelette," and so on through the first twelve tales, after which the sequence becomes less regular, with four arabesques among the last five. It would seem that Poe carefully distinguished these two modes of fiction, although elsewhere he may have used the terms loosely; even here he refrains from any attempt at definition. In speaking of "this prevalence of the 'Arabesque' in my serious tales" Poe furnishes another clue to his use of the term, especially as he then distinguishes his 'phantasy-pieces' from the vogue of "'Germanism' and gloom." In his own tales of terror, he claims "that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul,--that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results." The placement of "MS.Found in a Bottle," "Shadow," and "The Visionary" among the arabesques suggests that the Folio Club plan was more complex than supposed or that it had undergone revision in Poe's mind. In short, it becomes absurd to erect a theory of Poe's fiction based on the notion that Poe did not distinguish arabesque from grotesque.
Beyond the sixteen tales already discussed, there are seven satires and two serious stories included in the collection; one of the latter, "Hans Phaall" (Messenger, June 1835; later "Hans Pfaall"), has by some been considered a long narrative rather than a short story. Except for "King Pest the First. A Tale Containing an Allegory" ( Messenger, September 1835), most of these satires appeared in the late 1830s. "The Man That Was Used Up: A Tale of the Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign" (Burton's, August 1839) relates not only to problems with the Kickapoo tribe of Indians in Florida in 1839 but also to the heroic action of Col. Richard M. Johnson (later vice-president under Martin Van Buren) at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813, leaving his body shattered. More significant is the satire of the specious social lion and his empty-headed admirers. In the next tale, "The Devil in the Belfry" (Saturday Chronicle, 18 May 1839), written in the manner of Washington Irving's Knicker-bocker history, Poe amused himself by caricaturing the inhabitants of the Dutch borough of Vondervotteimittiss in all their complacency and clock-ridden existence. When a devilish stranger arrives and causes the town clock to strike thirteen, pandemonium sets in. This story is very likely one of Poe's jabs at smug bourgeois America; but more particularly it satirizes President Van Buren, who was preparing for a visit in June 1839 to Kinderhook and New York.
In "King Pest" Poe's black humor is so extreme that it ceases to be funny. Many readers reacted with loathing and horror to the description of the company drinking out of skulls. Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, was overcome with disgust: "He who could write 'King Pest' had ceased to be a human being." Others have noted the angry, cruel, grim humor in some of these tales, as if Poe were unburdening his resentments against the world and against God's indifference to man-further evidence of Poe's bitterness and skepticism during the 1830s. On the other hand, Constance Rourke, in American Humor (1931), appreciates "King Pest" as "one of the most brilliant pure burlesques in the language, transmuting terror into gross comedy, as it had often been transmuted in the western tall tales."
Next came two satires of how to concoct a Blackwood's Magazine story according to Poe's tongue-in-cheek version of the formula. Given Poe's predilection for exaggeration, implausible incidents, caricature, sophomoric puns, farfetched coinages, and other wordplay, it is not surprising to find him lampooning his own use of these outrageous devices in "The Signora Zenobia" and its companion piece, "The Scythe of Time" (American Museum, November 1838; revised as "How to Write a Blackwood Article" and "A Predicament," Broadway Journal, 12 July 1845). These two offer the reader an essay definition and an illustration of Poe's precise, as well as broad use of, the "grotesque" as burlesque. Psyche Zenobia, the first-person narrator of both parts, is a snobbish literary bluestocking from Philadelphia come to Edinburgh to seek out Mr. Blackwood, editor of the famous journal that bears his name. Besides recommending several examples of preposterous fiction, he advises her to strive for the sensational incident, and "Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations-they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet." Then there is the tone or manner of narration--ranging from "the tone didactic" to "the tone transcendental ... a little reading of the Dial will carry you a great way." Finally, "an air of erudition" is essential and can be achieved by including "little scraps of either learning or belespritism," especially phrases and snatches of poetry in French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Greek.
"Von Jung, the Mystic" (American Monthly Magazine, June 1837; revised as "Mystification," Broadway Journal, 27 December 1845) is situated at Gottingen, one of the German universities where dueling was in favor when the Baron Ritzner Von Jung arrived. Poe not only undercuts the whole dueling mystique but also exposes the pretentious reputations and presumed special knowledge of the participants. The next selection, "Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Hand in a Sling" (previously unpublished), is an amusing anecdote told by a first-person narrator, the self-styled "Sir Patrick O'Grandison, Barronitt, 39 Southampton Row, Russell Square, Parrish o'Bloomsbury." Very popular, it became one of the first Poe stories to be pirated in London.
Despite the originality, subtlety, and variety of these stories, reviews of the collection were few, sales poor. In the so-called "interlude" year of 1840 "The Journal of Julius Rodman" was serialized in six installments (January-June) in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, and Poe made plans for his own critical journal, to be called the "Penn Magazine," but his prospectus failed to attract financial support. "Peter Pendulum (The Business Man)" (Burton's , February 1840), a little-known parody of Joseph C. Neal's Charcoal Sketches (1838), ironically describes the narrator's pride in being a "methodical" businessman, but whose actual "business" consists of petty schemes of a ridiculous, marginal nature for extorting a pittance here and there by such "methods" as "Mud-Dabbling," "Cur-Spattering," and "Organ-Grinding."
"The Man of the Crowd" (Graham's, 1840) has increasingly become a favorite of the general reader and the Poe scholar. As a study in compulsive behavior, it is the first of five dramatizations of pathological states. Readers have variously seen "the old man" of the story, who is pursued and observed by the narrator, as a lost soul, an outcast, a lonely drunkard, the narrator's own future self, or Everyman burdened by "the mystery hidden in every human soul." But the overt statement of theme, repeated in the final paragraph, refers to him as "the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the 'Hortulus Animae,' and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that 'es lässt sich nicht lesen [it does not allow itself to be read].'" The old man is not Everyman, then, but rather the perpetrator of a crime so heinous that it cannot be expiated, nor identified by others.
From 1841 to 1849 Poe's transcendentalism, cosmic and psychic, was chiefly developed in the final two parts of a trilogy of "angelic colloquies" and in the closely related "The Island of the Fay" (Graham's, June 1841) and "Mesmeric Revelation" (Columbian Magazine, August 1844). The first colloquy, "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" (Burton's, December 1839), reprinted in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, contains several of Poe's psycho-transcendental themes: death-as-metamorphosis and the revelation of a supernal existence in which the senses have "the keenness of their perception of the new."
By far the most important of these philosophical fantasies is "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (Graham's, August 1841), detailing the process by which Monos was "born again" as he passed through Death into "the Life Eternal." In what is a major statement of Poe's social and philosophical perspective, Monos proceeds to diagnose "man's general condition," as marked by the "evil days" of "general misrule," ugly industrialization, sorry attempts at "omniprevalent Democracy" (equalitarianism), and, worst of all, the tyranny of the mechanical arts and the "harsh mathematical reason" over the poetic intellect--alas for the "majestic intuition of Plato!" The dominant rationalism (the "leading evil, Knowledge," infected with system and abstraction) led to the exploitation of nature and the corruption of cultural values. In this sick society "the world of mind" suffered from fragmentation and psychic conflict (as reflected in Poe's murder tales). Only by a recovery of poetic sensibility and the "sentiment of the natural" can the individual be redeemed and regenerated into the reintegrated Self.
The third of these angelic dialogues, "The Power of Words" (Democratic Review, June 1845), is the briefest and by some considered the best. One of Poe's chief philosophical concerns in the piece is the idea that happiness is not to be found in knowledge, but in the acquisition of knowledge--"the thirst to know which is for ever unquenchable within it [the soul]--since to quench it would be to extinguish the soul's self." This theme of spiritual individualism echoes "MS. Found in a Bottle," where the narrator feels "a curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of these awful regions ... hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge ...."
Somewhat earlier Poe composed one of his finest symbolic fantasies, "The Island of the Fay," a prose poem that first expounds on the dependence of perception on solitude and perspective. Then comes this key passage: "As we find cycle within cycle without end-yet all revolving around one far-distant centre which is the Godhead, may we not analogically suppose, in the same manner, life within life, the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine?"--words restated at the end of Eureka (1848), Poe's long essay on the cosmogony of "the material and the spiritual universe." The dream vision that follows, of the fay in a fragile canoe, adds the polarity of light and dark, of life and death, as symbolic of the cyclical life process.
"Mesmeric Revelation" is both a sequel to "The Island of the Fay" and a prelude to Eureka. It is basic to an understanding of Poe's framework of language and ideas on matter, spirit, God, and the universe, ideas that he was to set forth in much greater detail in Eureka. Vankirk, a hypnotized "sleep-waker," reports from a vision of "the ultimate life" beyond the gulf. In so doing he repeats, almost verbatim, ideas Poe stated in his letters of 2 July 1844 to James Russell Lowell and of 10 July 1844 to Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers, a Georgia poet who much admired Poe's work. While under hypnosis, Vankirk states that God is the original "unparticled matter [that] not only permeates all things, but impels all things; and thus is all things within itself." What is called "death" is but "the painful metamorphosis" of the "rudimental" organic life into the "ultimate" inorganic, angelic life of "the nearly unlimited perception." For this essay tale, Poe drew on Chauncey Hare Townshend's Facts in Mesmerism (1840), which he called "one of the most truly profound and philosophical works of the day--a work to be valued properly only in a day to come."
Closely related to these works is the earlier "Eleonora" (Gift for 1842), the most striking example of what Poe called "the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical," as expressed in its rich imagery, subtle tonalism, structural development, and symbolism. Interpretations have ranged from the autobiographical, the ethical (the matured Eleonora absolves the narrator of his broken vow), and the idea of paradise lost and regained, to the gnostic or neo-Platonic pattern of the soul's experience.
Another arabesque called "Life in Death" (Graham's, April 1842) is best known by the title "The Oval Portrait," the shortened and improved version which appeared in the 26 April Broadway Journal. It is a brief but complex story of a painter who spends many weeks portraying his wife, young and beautiful at the outset, until he finds, to his shock, that the final touches of his brush coincide with her dying breath. The painter is "confounded, subdued, and appalled" by the "absolute life-likeness of expression" in the painting. What appalls him about this expression he does not say. But the omniscient narrator lets fall the clue at the very end: when the work was finished, "for one moment, the painter stood entranced ... but in the next, while yet he gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, "This is indeed Life itself!' turned suddenly to regard his beloved:--She was dead! " At that moment, just before his wife's death, there was something in the painting itself that appalled him, and that something could only be her look as the dying victim of his artistic monomania (the "passionate" absorption of the "wild and moody man" in his art), for which she had come to hate him and his work. It is that realization that caused him to cry out in despair, not in triumph, even before seeing that his wife had died, for she had died less from physical causes than from being denied the right to recognition and love as a human being. The vague and shadowy setting, the painter's self-described "dreamy stupor," and the candles with which he lights his studio are suggestive of another psychic experience.
In January 1842 Virginia Poe suffered her first attack of tuberculosis, placing her health in jeopardy for years, during which Poe agonized with every relapse. In May Poe resigned the editorship at Graham's Magazine that he had held since April 1841. In his third essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne, for the November 1847 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, Poe composed a discriminating and revealing definition of originality as something more than novelty: "true originality ... is that which, in bringing out the half-formed, the reluctant, or the unexpressed fancies of mankind, or in exciting the more delicate pulses of the heart's passion, or in giving birth to some universal sentiment or instinct in embryo, thus combines with the pleasurable effect of apparent novelty, a real egoistic delight," leaving the reader to feel that he and the author "have, together, created this thing." Even allegory--which is usually to be avoided-if "properly handled, judiciously subdued, seen only as a shadow or by suggestive glimpses" may fulfill the function of the tale, namely to stimulate the reader to intense, psychic excitement. Most famous of all is this definition:
A skilful artist has constructed a tale. He has not fashioned the thoughts to accommodate his incidents, but having deliberately conceived a certain single effect to be wrought, he then invents such incidents, he then combines such events, and discusses them in such tone as may best serve him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very first sentence tend not to the out-bringing of this effect, then in his very first step has he committed a blunder. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one preestablished design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.Taken alone, this definition may seem to relate only to rational art, in which everything is preconceived, but if taken with the definition of "true originality" above, it describes the organic nature of subconsciously determined creative art-as in the symbolic and impressionistic "tales of effect."
Of Poe's richly varied output in 1841-1842, two were comedies. In "Never Bet Your Head: A Moral Tale" (Graham's, September 1841; republished as "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," Broadway Journal, 16 August 1845) Poe created a witty burlesque of the transcendentalists. Toby Dammit, affected by a disease called "the transcendentals," insists on leaping the stile at a covered bridge. At Toby's offer "to bet the Devil his head," the Devil himself appears, to insist on a trial and "to see whether you go over it handsomely and transcendentally, and don't omit any flourishes of the pigeon-wing." In the end the "transcendentalists" refuse to pay the narrator for Toby's funeral expenses. The other humorous tale, "A Succession of Sundays" (Saturday Evening Post, 27 November 1841), is a situation comedy spiced with a bit of wordplay and caricature in the description of the granduncle Rumgudgeon, the "rusty, crusty, musty, fusty" curmudgeon. The story was republished as "Three Sundays in a Week" in the 10 May 1845 Broadway Journal .
By midsummer of 1842 two other tales of major rank had been finished. "The Masque of the Red Death" (Graham's, 30 April 1842) transformed what Poe knew of the bubonic plague and the Philadelphia cholera epidemics into a highly artistic Gothic fantasy symbolizing the irresponsibility of attempting to escape the realities of Life, of Time, and of Death. This work deserves the high place it holds among Poe's impressionistic tales of effect, both for its dramatic irony and its rich color symbolism. In "The Pit and the Pendulum" (Gift for 1843) Poe utilized the dramatic monologue for emotional intensity and psychological and "spiritual effect," improving upon his Blackwood's model. The popularity of this tale in Poe's time is attributed to the fact that many of his readers were familiar with its source stories, which were widely printed. Despite the rational calculations of the protagonist, this story goes beyond the tale of ratiocination in its emphasis on the hero's will to live in the face of inexorable fate (the pendulum), rewarded by a last-moment rescue. Several critics have seen the hero as existential man undergoing fear and dread, with the pit as the Void and the wall as the boundary situation of No Exit.
In late 1842 Poe finished two more tales of terror, "The Tell-Tale Heart" (Pioneer, January 1843) and "The Black Cat" (Saturday Evening Post, 19 August 1843). Along with "The Imp of the Perverse" (Graham's, July 1845) and "The Cask of Amontillado" ( Godey's Lady's Book, November 1846) they comprise a group of murder tales or studies in the pathology of crime. To some extent Poe attributed such self-destructive behavior to "the imp of the perverse," but in his diagnosis of the sick society in "The Colloquy of Monos and Una," Poe noted that with the loss of Taste (sensibility) and Moral Sense consequent upon the "diseased commotion, moral and physical," disruption of the tripartite self led to acute psychic conflict. In his murder stories of the years immediately following, such conflict is dramatized as violence, sadism, and self-deception. "William Wilson" is often included in this group, being the first and clearest example of the psyche at war with itself. "The Tell-Tale Heart," a dramatic monologue, is marked by intensity of tone, "totality of impression," and psychorealism. These aspects of the story are especially noticeable in the hallucinative "tell-tale" heartbeats which drive the speaker, who has murdered an elderly man, to confess his crime. Also effective are Gothic elements such as the old man's deformed "evil eye" and the "death watch" sound the narrator hears coming from the wall: "I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me." The "dread" of death as destiny in a universe of Nothingness or Nada adds a philosophical dimension to this tale of terror.
In "The Black Cat" a confessional narrator relives the drama of his perverse conflicts with his cats, his wife, and himself. His persistent rationalizing, masochism, and final compulsion to confess underscore the dramatic irony of his stated purpose as that of simply recounting "a series of mere household events." As the cats become the agents of retribution, so the narrator becomes his own victim: the cats project his own demonic nature and ultimate fate. Two years later Poe published "The Imp of the Perverse," in which he attributes much of human conduct to the irrational compulsion to do oneself harm. Not diabolic, this "imp" also is "occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good," as in the subconscious urge to confess in order to lighten the heavy burden of guilt. It is the telltale beating of the "heart" (the Moral Sense) that becomes louder and louder until it can no longer be ignored. Although there is no such explicit confession in "The Cask of Amontillado," which rounds out this group of tales, Montresor's narrative some fifty years after the event (he has entombed his rival, Fortunato, alive in a catacomb) suggests a desire to unburden the soul of its secret guilt. And when, after Fortunato's cries have ceased, Montresor says, "My heart grew sick on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labour," the reader knows it was not only dampness that "sickened his heart." The dramatic irony in this tale so coldly told lies in the unawareness of Fortunato that he is being lured, through his own vanity and boasting, to his doom-Fortunato, whose name means both fortunate and fated, and who is described by Montresor as "rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was." "The Cask of Amontillado" is "unsurpassed for subtly ironic touches ... on its surface completely amoral, [it] is perhaps the most moral of his [Poe's] tales," Thomas Ollive Mabbott noted.
Still suffering from economic hardship, in March 1843 Poe went to Washington in search of a government job, but the search came to naught because of a drinking spree. Friends put the penniless Poe on the train for Philadelphia. In June, however, he became instantly famous when his story "The Gold Bug" won a one-hundred-dollar prize offered by the Dollar Newspaper. It appeared on 21 and 28 July in two installments and was often reprinted and even dramatized. In July The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe, the first of a pamphlet series, reprinted "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (which first appeared in the April 1841 issue of Graham's Magazine) and "The Man That Was Used Up." During the winter months Poe lectured in several cities on poetry in America.
From 1844 to 1846 a dozen comic and satiric pieces in what Poe called "the plausible or verisimilar style" were published. Like his earlier humorous tales of the 1830s, these were popular and sold well, being either amusing or suspenseful, or both."Raising the Wind; or Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences" (Saturday Courier , 14 October 1843; revised as "Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences," Broadway Journal, 13 September 1845) was so called after a London farce about a Jeremy Diddler, who made a living by petty swindles. After describing nine of the admirable qualities of the diddler, including perseverance, ingenuity, and audacity, Poe presented eleven examples of diddles, classified as simple, bold, neat, and so on, each wittily told in a lively, colloquial, concise style. "The Spectacles" (Dollar Newspaper, 27 March 1844), Poe's next effort, is an overlong bit of implausible comedy about a young man of weak eyesight who, refusing to wear glasses, falls "in love at first sight," not realizing until too late that he has married his great-great-grandmother, aged eighty-two. When it is revealed that he has been the object of a plot to get him to wear glasses and that he is not really married, he is free to wed the lovely Stephanie, heir to his grandmother's fortune. This happy ending, rare in Poe's fiction, does not occur in "The Oblong Box" (Godey's Lady's Book, September 1844), in which the artist Wyatt brings aboard ship a mysterious box, an object of great curiosity to his friend, the narrator. In an epilogue, the captain explains that the box contained not a famous painting, as had been supposed, but the corpse of Wyatt's wife, whose loss Wyatt so mourned that during a storm he lashed himself to the box and plunged to his death in the ocean. However, the Wyatt who could not go on living was the grief-stricken husband, not-as some critics would have it-Wyatt the artist overcome by "the death of a beautiful woman." In "Thou Art the Man" ( Godey's Lady's Book, November 1844) another oblong box containing a corpse plays a key role in the surprise ending, a happy one in that justice is done. As the first comic detective story, it has been described by Howard Haycraft as "a trail-blazing tour de force" in using "the scattering of false clues by the real criminal" and "the psychological third degree."
Poe's knowledge of the mountains southwest of Charlottesville, Virginia, gave him the title and the setting for "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" (Godey's Lady's Book, March 1844). In his first use of mesmerism Poe presents Augustus Bedloe's first-person account, while in a hypnotic trance, of his seeming reincarnation as a British officer named Oldeb fighting and dying in a Middle-Eastern city during an insurrection in 1780. Rather than conclude that the narrator is unreliable or that the story is a clever ratiocinative hoax, the reader would do better to invoke a "suspension of disbelief." In "The Angel of the Odd--An Extravaganza" ( Columbian Magazine, October 1844), the most absurdly comic of all Poe's tales, the author seems to be describing himself as one of "these fellows, knowing the extravagant gullibility of the age, [who] set their wits to work in the imagination of improbable possibilities-of odd accidents." The incredibilities that follow turn out to be the Angel of the Odd'srevenge on the skeptical narrator, if only in a dream after imbibing too much brandy. Another overdone satire, "The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq." (Messenger, December 1844), showed up the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of the literary establishment of magazine editors of his day-their lack of standards and integrity, their reliance on puffery and on the jargon of praise and condemnation of fellow editors and authors.
The Poes returned to New York City in April 1844, and during the next five years Poe wrote such famous poems as "The Raven," "Ulalume," "For Annie," and "Annabel Lee." The popularity of "The Raven," which was often reprinted, parodied, and anthologized, made Poe more famous. Graham's Magazine for February 1845 carried James Russell Lowell's long essay-appreciation of Poe, praising him as "the most discriminating, philosophical and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America." Aided by Lowell, Poe became editor of the Broadway Journal, for which he wrote over sixty reviews and essays, a few new stories, and in which he reprinted revised versions of his tales and poems. By fall he had, with borrowed money, bought the journal, but when it lost money, Poe, ill and depressed, stopped publication early in January 1846. In 1845, also, two volumes of his work were published: Tales by Edgar A. Poe, containing twelve stories selected by Evert A. Duyckinck, and, in November, The Raven and Other Poems.
At this time Poe wrote two tales concerned with historical perspective. In "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade" (Godey's Lady's Book, January 1845) Poe made effective use of factual wonders from various sources in continuing the adventures of Sinbad, up to the invention of the telegraph, the daguerreotype, the bustle skirt, and other marvels of the nineteenth century. In "Some Words with a Mummy" (American Review , April 1845) it is the Egyptian mummy, brought back to life by a galvanic battery, who not only astonishes a company of doctors and scholars by his quick comprehension but also reports the superiority of ancient science and arts, at the expense of modern technology and spurious claims for progress and democracy (which Poe equated with "mobocracy"). Here Poe also made fun of the vogue of Egyptology.
That perspective determines perception became the theme of two stories, one serious, the other comic-satiric. In "The Premature Burial" (Dollar Newspaper, 31 July 1844), after establishing the degree of "appalling and intolerable horror," the narrator describes his sensations while undergoing an attack of catalepsy, when "all was void, and black, and silent, and Nothing became the universe." As a result his whole outlook on life changed for the better when he ceased to dwell on sepulchral terrors: "they must sleep, or they will devour us-they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish"-the same conclusion reached by the narrator of "The Man of the Crowd." In one of his most radical experiments with perspective, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" (Graham's Magazine, November 1845), Poe both playfully and seriously reverses the roles of patients and caretakers in a French asylum for the insane. As a result, the narrator, a visitor to the institution, is taken in by the "soothing system" then in use in England, Italy, and the United States. Critics disagree as to whether Dickens is satirized in Poe's narrator, Dickens having described visits to asylums in Boston and Hartford,one in particular: "I very much questioned within myself as I walked through the Insane Asylum, whether I should have known the attendants from the patients." More interesting is the general question of who is "sane" or "insane" and whether Poe was speaking for himself when Monsieur Maillard, the asylum's superintendent, comments that "the dexterity with which he [the lunatic] counterfeits sanity, presents, to the metaphysician, one of the most singular problems in the study of mind."
When "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (American Review , December 1845) appeared, mesmerism was being used, in the United States and abroad, by physicians as well as spiritualists. After his shocker became a subject of special interest, Poe responded coyly and cleverly to inquiries: "Why cannot a man's death be postponed indefinitely by Mesmerism? Why cannot a man talk after he is dead? Why? Why?" But a year later, he replied differently: "Hoax' is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar's case." In London it was published as a pamphlet, with a preface describing it as "only a plain recital of facts, of so extraordinary a nature as almost to surpass belief." A rather implausible piece,"The Sphinx" (Arthur's Ladies' Magazine, January 1846) is noteworthy as an experiment in visual perspective as a source of fear and confusion.
Of Poe's famous detective stories, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is, if not the first of its kind, the first in which a crime is solved by analysis. The popularity of these tales Poe attributed to their being "something in a new key .... people think they are more ingenious than they are--on account of their method and air of method. In the 'Murders in the Rue Morgue,' for instance, where is the ingenuity of unraveling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?" "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" quickly became popular in the United States and by 1846 had been published in France. Although some critics have found fault with the inaccurate references to the setting in Paris, Poe was not troubled by them, nor was his translator Charles Baudelaire: "Do I need to point out that Edgar Poe never came to Paris?" The description of Dupin's domicile, his daytime dream state, his nocturnal activities, and his "abstract" trancelike quality of eyes and voice identify him as a "Bi-Part Soul," both creative and resolvent--in short, a psychotranscendental hero. In contrast to the story's narrator and the Parisian police, who are "cunning but no more," relying on measurement and direct, diligent investigation, Poe's detective, C. Auguste Dupin, trusts the half-closed eye, the sidelong glance ("by undue profundity we perplex and enfeeble thought"). All told, however, Dupin's success results from close inquiry and keen observation as well as profound intuitions.
Historically, "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (Ladies' Companion, November 1842, December 1842, February 1843) is significant as the first detective story to attempt the solution of a real crime. Otherwise, it has been regarded as too long, too involved, too discursive, and lacking in plot suspense--more of an essay analyzing a crime than a work of fiction. Poe had completed two thirds of his fictional version when new facts became known in the real murder case. At that point he felt obliged to add new matter suggesting death by abortion. In his fictional parallel about the fate of Marie, a Parisian grisette, Poe said that his purpose was to analyze "the true principles which should direct inquiry in similar cases." To Dupin "this is a far more intricate case than that of the Rue Morgue," testing his intuitive insight into "the seemingly irrelevant," the "collateral, or incidental, or accidental events," "the unlooked for and the unimagined," even the "Calculus of Probabilities"--or so he claimed. Dupin's psychological insight is shown in his speculative analysis of the murderer's state of mind.
"The Purloined Letter" (Gift for 1845) is, in Poe's words, "perhaps the best of my tales of ratiocination" and is the favorite of most readers as well. Immediately popular, it was among his first translated into French. Here again Dupin is presented as the seer relying on trancelike reflection, intuitive identification, sharp observation, and the clever ruse--in contrast to the "persevering, ingenious, cunning" police. Dupin is able to fathom the thoughts of the culprit, Minister D----, because, like D----, he is both poet and mathematician. As so-called hero-god he operates within society but outside its conventions and limits.
Though published before "The Purloined Letter," "The Gold Bug," Poe's most successful tale, also embodies a combination of deductive reasoning (the solving of the famous cryptogram), hunches, emotional intensity, and accidental circumstances. Although Poe knew Sullivan's Island and vicinity from his tenure in the army, he modified his setting for the story with romantic details, being more intent on writing a romantic mystery, a blend of fantasy and realism. Usually overlooked by critics is the fact that the story's protagonist, William Le Grand, like Dupin, is not only a rationalist but a man of "vision," "absorbed in reverie," with "deep-set eyes," at times excited to the point of apparent "madness."
In his three balloon hoaxes spanning the years 1835 to 1849, Poe put his long-standing interest in astronomy and mechanics to work. His first hoax, "Hans Phaall--A Tale" (Messenger, June 1835), is an account of an allegedly triumphant pioneer trip to the moon, full of human horror, terror, and suffering, and documented with plausible scientific detail. Whereas this hoax features a sustained narrative and conventional satire, the much later "The Balloon Hoax" (published by the New York Sun on 13 April 1844 as a one-page broadside entitled "The Extra Sun") seems to have been written mainly to appeal to the desire of the popular press to feed the public's hunger for news of actual, not just imaginary, flights. Poe relied mainly on Monck Mason's account of a real trip by balloon from London to Weilburg. And, to stir up excitement over his own story, Poe played a major role in announcing and advertising the famous first crossing of the Atlantic in Mason's Flying Machine, claiming that the air will now become "a common and convenient highway for mankind." In contrast to the incredibly sensational crises of Hans Phaall, this tale achieved credibility from its calmly objective tone and style as much as from its supposed verisimilitude.
Poe's late and last balloon story,"Mellonta Tauta" (Godey's Lady's Book, February 1849), is a more ambitious mixture of science fiction and social criticism. In fact, the voyage beginning on 1 April 2848 is little more than a device for futuristic criticism of blind American faith in technology, mass man (mobocracy), the "Humanity" doctrine (humanitarianism), transcendentalism, progress, bigness (which caused New York City to be destroyed in the disastrous earthquake of 2050), and "churches" for the worship of the idols Wealth and Fashion. As Republicanism degenerates into the rule of the Mob, so "democracy is a very admirable form of government-for dogs" (by analogy with the social system of prairie dogs). The story is critical of the deductive logic of Aristotle, the inductive method of Francis Bacon, the former's absurd faith in immutable axioms, and the latter's dogmatic trust in details and "facts." In contrast to these creeping and crawling modes of thought, Poe advocates the intuitive leap, as in the way Johannes Kepler guessed , that is, imagined certain laws. Except for some joking metaphors, here Poe is serious in restating his epistemological credo.
His final piece of science fiction, "Von Kempelen and His Discovery," opportunistically exploited the Gold Rush mania by means of what Poe called an "exercise" or experiment in "the plausible or verisimilar style." However, upon its publication on 14 April 1849 in the Boston Flag of Our Union, there was no excitement among readers. Shortly before, on 17 March 1849, "Hop-Frog: Or, the Eight Chained Orang-Outangs" appeared in the same Boston paper. Despite its being "one of Poe's great tales of horror," the reader may feel, according to Mabbott, that "the vengeance is too much for poetic justice," and that it is "notable mainly as a terrible exposition of the darkness of a human soul." But, of course, here, as elsewhere, the sensational Gothic plot must be read for its neo-Gothic "undercurrent of meaning."
In 1846, with Poe only irregularly employed, the family suffered from economic hardship,illness, and depression. At the Fordham Cottage, now their residence, Virginia died of consumption on 30 January 1847. During her final illness, Poe, with "the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope and despair," tried to drown his grief in alcohol. Despite his continuing illness, Poe produced tales, essays, reviews, and poems.
In 1848 Poe lectured on "The Poetic Principle" and Eureka. Now more in need of emotional security than ever, he developed romantic friendships with several women, notably Sarah Helen Whitman, Mrs. Annie Richmond, and Mrs. Elmira Shelton (formerly Sarah Elmira Royster, his former fiancee); these platonic friendships are echoed in some of the poems and letters, but not in the fiction. Poe's conditional engagement to the forty-five-year-old Mrs. Whitman was ended when he ("wisely," Mabbott thought) called on her after drinking. Years later she published Edgar Poe and His Critics (1860), a sympathetic defense of Poe as person and writer. Poe's final year, 1849, was divided among lecturing, writing poetry and narrative, and visiting friends, old and new, in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Baltimore. Two months in Richmond were his happiest; there he visited Mrs. Shelton, now a widow, who apparently accepted his marriage proposal. Seemingly in fair health when leaving Richmond for New York to fetch Maria Clemm, he stopped in Baltimore and several days later, on election day, 3 October, was found "extremely ill," half conscious and delirious, outside a polling place. On 7 October he died.
Part of Poe's influence on world literature consists of his theory of the short story: in his definitions of the "tale of effect," "the tale proper," and the tale of "single effect," Poe laid the theoretical base for his organic concept of the story, both dramatic (as in the "The Tell-Tale Heart") and symbolic (as in "Ligeia" and "Eleonora"). Poe distinguished "the tale proper" from the novel by the former's "far more imperatively" demanding a tight construction of plot. This criterion was applied in Poe's tales of ratiocination in a concentrated, economical plot, climax, and denouement. Though sometimes marked by "Defoe-like detail," the Poe story is carried along psychologically by the momentum of suspense and the narrator's stream of consciousness, reflected in the mood and atmosphere of the setting. But no single definition, not even Poe's own, does justice to the variety of his short stories. When asked about "Berenice"he briefly characterized four types of tales--the grotesque, the tale of horror, the burlesque, and the arabesque, not including the detective story. As "romances," the arabesques create a unity or "totality of impression," a design comparable to musical form in the interweaving of motifs and "accompanying tones" and rhythms suited to the sense (Poe here borrowing from his theory of poetry). As a poem must be brief--not over one hundred lines--so the tale of effect must be limited to the reader's capacity for a sustained, heightened response. In these impressionistic tales Poe made the most "imperative" demands on the reader through a style powerful in feeling and mood, in hypnotic tonalities and rhythms, and in symbolic suggestiveness. Rather than "explaining away his incredibilities," Poe insisted, the author should give them "the character and the luminousness of truth," thus bringing about, "unwittingly, some of the most vivid creations of human intellect," creations which, in their dramatizing of "the agonizing consciousness of consciousness," have become the indispensable keystone to much modern psychological fiction, as Allen Tate, D.H. Lawrence, Lewis Simpson, and others have maintained.
Poe's influence may also be measured by his many admirers among creative writers, from Thomas Holley Chivers, Margaret Fuller, Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Lowell, among Poe's American contemporaries, to his followers in France--Charles Baudelaire, Jules Verne, the Goncourts, Stephane Mallarme, Paul Valery, Andre Gide, and many others; to Fyodor Dostoyevski, Charles Algernon Swinburne, August Strindberg, Walt Whitman (the poems), Henry James (the fiction), Robert Louis Stevenson, William Butler Yeats (the poems), Edmund Gosse, George Saintsbury, Thomas Hardy, Hamlin Garland, Ambrose Bierce, Edwin Markham, Conrad Aiken, Walter de la Mare, Edwin Arlington Robinson, George Bernard Shaw, Vachel Lindsay, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound (the poems), Lafcadio Hearn, Ruben Dario, Willa Cather, W.H. Auden, Allen Tate, Richard Wilbur, Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, Vladimir Nabokov, Konstantin Balmont, James Branch Cabell, Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, and many others, in Spanish America, Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Scandinavia, Japan, and China. Poe has also influenced Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Sergey Rachmaninoff, Sergey Prokofiev, Jean Sibelius, and the painter Rene Magritte, among others. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Isaac Bashevis Singer said, "I found comfort in such pessimists and decadents as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Edgar Allan Poe , and Strindberg .... The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice." This statement is especially true of Poe, who wrote, "It is only the philosophical lynxeye that, through the indignity-mist of Man's life, can still discern the dignity of Man" (Marginalia, June 1849).