Edgar Allan Poe

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This daguerreotype of Poe was taken less than a year before his death at the age of 40.
This daguerreotype of Poe was taken less than a year before his death at the age of 40.

Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 in Boston, MassachusettsOctober 7, 1849 in Baltimore, Maryland) was an American poet, short story writer, editor and critic and one of the leaders of the American Romantics. He is best known for his tales of the macabre and his poems, as well as being one of the early practitioners of the short story and a progenitor of Gothic and Detective fiction (Crime fiction) in the United States. Poe died at the age of 40, the cause of his death a final mystery. His exact burial location is also a source of controversy.


The life of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allen Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of actress Elizabeth Poe and actor David Poe, Jr. His father left before he was born, and his mother died when he was only three, so Poe was taken into the home of John Allan, a successful tobacco merchant in Richmond, Virginia and baptized Edgar Allan Poe. (While his middle name is frequently misspelled as 'Allen', Poe himself used 'Allan'[1].) After attending the Misses Duborg boarding school in London and Manor School in Stoke Newington, London, (UK), Poe and the Allans moved back to Richmond, Virginia in 1820. Poe registered at the University of Virginia in 1826, and only stayed there for one year. He was estranged from his adopted father at some point in this period over gambling debts Poe had made while trying to get more spending money, and so Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private using the name Edgar A. Perry on May 26, 1827. That same year, he released his first book, Tamarlane and Other Poems. After serving for two years and attaining the rank of Sergeant-major, Poe was discharged. In 1829 Frances Allan dies and he published his second book, Al Aaraf. Around this time, he was reconciled with Allan after Frances Allan's deathwish, and through him received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His time at West Point was ill-fated, as Poe apparently deliberately disobeyed orders and was dismissed. After that, his adoptive father repudiated him until his death in March 27,1843.

Poe next moved to Baltimore, Maryland with his widowed aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter, Virginia. Poe used fiction writing as a means of supporting himself, and with the December issue of 1835, Poe began editing the Southern Literary Messenger for Thomas W. White in Richmond. This position was held by Poe until January, 1837. During this time, Poe married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, in Richmond on May 16, 1836.

After spending fifteen fruitless months in New York, Poe moved to Philadelphia. Shortly after he arrived, his novella The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was published and widely reviewed. In the summer of 1839, he became assistant editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. He published a large number of articles, stories, and reviews, enhancing the reputation as a trenchant critic that he had established at the Southern Literary Messenger. In 1839, the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in two volumes. Though not a financial success, it was a milestone in the history of American literature. Poe left Burton's after about a year and found a position as assistant editor at Graham's Magazine.

Virginia suffered a lung hemorrhage in January 1842. It was the first sign of the tuberculosis that would make her an invalid and eventually take her life. Poe began to drink more heavily under the stress of Virginia's illness. He left Graham's and attempted to find a new position, for a time angling for a government post. He returned to New York, where he worked briefly at the Evening Mirror before becoming editor of the Broadway Journal. There he became involved in a noisy public feud with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. On January 29, 1845, his poem "The Raven" appeared in the Evening Mirror and became a popular sensation.

The Broadway Journal failed in 1846. Poe moved to a cottage in the Bronx. The cottage is on the south east corner of the Grand Concourse and Kingsbridge Road and is open to the public. Virginia died there in 1847. Increasingly unstable after his wife's death, Poe attempted to court the poet Sarah Helen Whitman. Their engagement failed, purportedly because of Poe's drinking and erratic behavior; however there is also strong evidence that Miss Whitman's mother intervened and did much to derail their relationship. According to Poe's own account, he attempted suicide during this period by overdosing on laudanum. He then returned to Richmond and resumed a relationship with a childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster, who by that time was a widow.


Edgar Allan Poe's reburial celebration on November 17, 1875 at Westminster graveyard
Edgar Allan Poe's reburial celebration on November 17, 1875 at Westminster graveyard

On October 3, 1849 Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious and "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance," according to the man who found him. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died early on the morning of October 7. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and wearing clothes that were not his own. Some sources say Poe's final words were "It's all over now; write Eddy is no more." (referring to his tombstone). Others say his last words were "Lord, help my poor soul."

The precise cause of Poe's death is disputed. Dr. J. E. Snodgrass, an acquaintance of Poe who was among those who saw him in his last days, was convinced that Poe's death was a result of drunkenness, and did a great deal to popularize this interpretation of the events. He was, however, a supporter of the temperance movement who found Poe a useful example in his work; later scholars have shown that his account of Poe's death distorts facts to support his theory.

Dr. John Moran, the physician who attended Poe, stated in his own 1885 account that "Edgar Allan Poe did not die under the effect of any intoxicant, nor was the smell of liquor upon his breath or person." This was, however, only one of several sometimes contradictory accounts of Poe's last days he published over the years, so his testimony cannot be considered entirely reliable.

Numerous other theories have been proposed over the years, including several forms of rare brain disease, diabetes, various types of enzyme deficiency, syphilis, the idea that Poe was shanghaied, drugged, and used as a pawn in a ballot-box-stuffing scam during the election that was held on the day he was found, and more recently, rabies[2] (though some consider this unlikely).

In the absence of contemporary documentation (all surviving accounts are either incomplete or published years after the event; even Poe's death certificate, if one was ever made out, has been lost), it is likely that the truth of Poe's death will never be known. No other major American writer in the nineteenth century except Sidney Lanier and Stephen Crane lived a shorter life span.

Poe is buried on the grounds of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground[3], now part of the University of Maryland School of Law[4] in Baltimore.

Even after death, however, Poe has created controversy and mystery. Because of his fame, school children collected money for a new burial spot closer to the front gate. He was reburied on October 1, 1875. A celebration was held at the dedication of the new tomb on November 17, 1875. Likely unknown to the reburial crew, however, the headstones on all the graves, previously facing to the east, were turned to face the West Gate in 1864.[5] Therefore, as it was described in a seemingly fitting turn of events:

In digging on what they erroneously thought to be the right of the General [Poe] the committee naturally first struck old Mrs. Poe who had been buried thirty-six years before Edgar's mother-in-law; they tried again and presumably struck Mrs. Clemm who had been buried in 1876 only four years earlier. Henry's [Poe's brother] foot stone, it there, was respected for they obviously skipped over him and settled for the next body, which was on the Mosher lot. Because of the excellent condition of the teeth, he would certainly seem to have been the remains of Philip Mosher Jr, of the Maryland Militia, age 19.

Since Poe's death, his grave site has become a popular tourist attraction. Beginning in 1949, the grave has been visited every year by a mystery man, known endearingly as the Poe Toaster, in the early hours of Poe's birthday, January 19th. It has been reported that a man draped in black with a silver-tipped cane, kneels at the grave for a toast of Martel cognac and leaves the half-full bottle and three red roses.

"Memoir" - Griswold's biography of Edgar Allan Poe

The day Edgar Allan Poe was buried, a long obituary appeared in the New York Tribune signed "Ludwig". The piece began, "Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it."[6] It was reprinted in numerous papers across the country. "Ludwig" was soon identified as Rufus Griswold, a minor editor and anthologist who had borne a grudge against Poe since 1842, when Poe wrote a review of one of Griswold's anthologies, a review that Griswold deemed to be full of false praise. Though they were coolly polite in person, an enmity developed between the two men as they clashed over various matters. Critics see Griswold's obituary as using Poe's death as his way to settle the score.

Griswold went on to assume the role of Poe's literary executor, though no evidence exists that Poe had ever made the choice. He convinced Poe's destitute mother-in-law Maria Clemm to hand over a mass of letters and manuscripts (which were never returned) and allow him to prepare an edition of Poe's collected works. Griswold assured Clemm that she would receive significant royalties, but she received nothing but a few sets of the edition, which she had to sell herself to make any sort of profit.

Rufus Griswold wrote a biographical "Memoir" of Poe, which he included in an additional volume of the collected works. Griswold depicted Poe as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman. This biography presented a starkly different version of Poe's biography than any other at the time, and included items now believed to have been forged by Griswold to bolster his case. Griswold's book was denounced by those who knew Edgar Allan Poe well; Griswold's account became a popularly accepted one, however, in part because it was the only full biography available and was widely reprinted, and in part because it seemed to accord with the narrative voice Poe used in much of his fiction.

No accurate biography of Poe appeared until John Ingram's of 1875. By then, however, Griswold's depiction of Poe was entrenched in the mind of the public, not only in America but around the world. Griswold's madman image of Poe is still existent in the modern perceptions of the man himself.

Literary and artistic theory

In his essay "The Poetic Principle" Poe argued that there is no such thing as a long poem, since the ultimate purpose of art is aesthetic, that is, its purpose is the effect it has on its audience, and this effect can only be maintained for a brief period of time (the time it takes to read a lyric poem, or watch a drama performed, or view a painting, etc.) He argued that an epic, if it has any value at all, must be actually a series of smaller pieces, each geared towards a single effect or sentiment, which "elevates the soul."

Poe associated the aesthetic aspect of art with pure ideality, claiming that the mood or sentiment created by a work of art elevates the soul, and is thus a spiritual experience. In many of his short stories, artistically inclined characters (especially Roderick Usher from "The Fall of the House of Usher") are able to achieve this ideal aesthetic through fixation, and often exhibit obsessive personalities and reclusive tendencies. "The Oval Portrait" also examines fixation, but in this case the object of fixation is itself a work of art.

He championed art for art's sake (before the term itself was coined). He was consequentially an opponent of didacticism, arguing in his literary criticisms that the role of moral or ethical instruction lies outside the realm of poetry and art, which should only focus on the production of a beautiful work of art. He criticized James Russell Lowell in a review for being excessively didactic and moralistic in his writings, and argued often that a poem should be written "for a poem's sake."

He was a proponent and supporter of magazine literature, and felt that short stories, or "tales" as they were called in the early nineteenth century, which were usually considered "vulgar" or "low art" along with the magazines that published them, were legitimate artforms on par with the novel or epic poem. His insistence on the artistic value of the short story was influential in the short story's rise to prominence in later generations.

Legacy and lore

Edgar Allan Poe's grave, Baltimore MD.
Edgar Allan Poe's grave, Baltimore MD.

Poe's works have had a broad influence on American and World literature (sometimes even despite those who tried to resist it), and even on the art world beyond literature. The scope of Poe's impact on art is evident when one sees the many and diverse artists who were directly and profoundly influenced by him.

Detective Fiction

He is often credited as being an originator the genre of detective fiction with his three stories about Auguste Dupin, the most famous of which is "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." (Poe also wrote a satirical detective story called "Thou Art the Man") There is no doubt that he inspired mystery writers who came after him, particularly Arthur Conan Doyle in his series of stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was once quoted as saying, "Each [of Poe's detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed.... Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?" (Poe Encyclopaedia 103). Though Poe's Auguste Dupin was not the first detective in fiction, he became an archetype for all subsequent detectives.

The Mystery Writers of America have named their awards for excellence in the genre the "Edgars."

Science Fiction, Gothic Fiction and Horror Fiction

Poe also profoundly influenced the development of early science fiction author Jules Verne, who discussed Poe in his essay Poe et ses œuvres and also wrote a sequel to Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Le sphinx des glaces (Poe Encyclopaedia 364). H. G. Wells, in discussing the construction of his classics of science fiction, The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon, noted that "Pym tells what a very intelligent mind could imagine about the south polar region a century ago" (Poe Encyclopaedia 372). Renowned science fiction author Ray Bradbury has also professed a love for Poe. He often draws upon Poe in his stories and mentions Poe by name in several stories. His book The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories about the colonization of Mars in the future, features a story titled "Usher II" about an eccentric who constructs a house based on Poe's tale "The Fall of the House of Usher". The story contains a strong anti-censorship message under the premise that in the dystopian future, the works of Poe (and some other authors) have been censored.

Along with Mary Shelley, Poe is regarded as the foremost proponent of the Gothic strain in literary Romanticism. Death, decay and madness were an obsession for Poe. His curious and often nightmarish work greatly influenced the horror and fantasy genres, and the horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft claimed to have been profoundly influenced by Poe's works. Another writer profoundly influenced by Poe is Detroit-born horror author Thomas Ligotti; his unconventional characters, desolate locations, and morbid outlook have distinct shades of both Poe and an early Lovecraft.

Physics and Cosmology

Eureka, an essay written in 1848, included a cosmological theory that anticipated the Big Bang theory by eighty years, as well as the first plausible solution to Olbers' paradox. Though described as a "prose poem" by Poe, who wished it to be considered as art, this work is a remarkable scientific and mystical essay unlike any of his other works. He wrote what he considered as his career masterpiece.

Poe eschewed the scientific method in his Eureka. He argued instead that he was reasoning from pure intuition, using neither the Aristotelian a priori method of axioms and syllogisms, nor the empirical method of modern science set forth by Francis Bacon. For this reason he considered it a work of art, not science, but insisted that it was still true. Though some of his assertions have later proven to be false (such as his assertion that gravity must be the strongest force--it is actually the weakest) others have been shown to be surprisingly accurate and decades ahead of their time.


Poe had a keen interest in the field of cryptography, as exemplified in his short story "The Gold-Bug". In particular he placed a notice of his abilities in the Philadelphia paper Alexander's Weekly (Express) Messenger, inviting submissions of ciphers, which he proceeded to solve.[7] His success created a public stir for some months. He later wrote essays on methods of cryptography which proved useful in deciphering the German codes employed during World War I.

Poe's success in cryptography relied not so much on his knowledge of that field (his method was limited to the simple substitution cryptogram), as on his knowledge of the magazine and newspaper culture. His keen analytical abilities, which were so evident in his detective stories, allowed him to see that the general public was largely ignorant of the methods by which a simple substitution cryptogram can be solved, and he used this to his advantage. [8] The sensation Poe created with his cryptography stunt played a major role in popularizing cryptograms in newspapers and magazines.

American Short Story Writers and Poets

Poe's literary reputation was greater abroad than in the United States, perhaps as a result of America's general revulsion towards the macabre. Rufus Griswold's defamatory reminiscences did little to commend Poe to U.S. literary society. However, American authors as diverse as Walt Whitman, H. P. Lovecraft, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor (who, however, claimed the influence of Poe on her works was "something I'd rather not think about" (Poe Encyclopaedia 259)), and Herman Melville were influenced by Poe's works. T. S. Eliot, who was quite hostile to Poe, conceded that "it is impossible, however, to know if even one's own works were not influenced by his."

Influence on French Literature

In France, where he is commonly known as "Edgar Poe," Charles Baudelaire translated his stories and several of the poems into French. Baudelaire was the right man for this job, and his excellent translations meant that Poe enjoyed a vogue among avant-garde writers in France while being ignored in his native land. From France, writers like Algernon Swinburne caught the Poe-bug, and Swinburne's musical verse owes much to Poe's technique. Poe was much admired, also, by the school of Symbolism, and Stéphane Mallarmé dedicated several poems to him. The subsequent authors Paul Valéry and Marcel Proust were great admirers of Poe, the latter saying "Poe sought to arrive at the beautiful through evocation and an elimination of moral motives in his art."

Other World Literature Influenced by Poe

Poe's poetry was translated into Russian by the Symbolist poet Konstantin Bal'mont and enjoyed great popularity there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, influencing artists such as Nabokov, who makes several references to Poe's work in his most famous novel, Lolita. Fyodor Dostoevsky called Poe "an enormously talented writer" and many of his characters, such as Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment are derived from Poe characters (in this case, Montresor from "The Cask of Amontillado" (this is debatable: Raskolnikov is constantly in doubt and trying to justify his actions to himself, while the chilling effect of Montresor's narration lies precisely in the character's calm certainty of his purpose) and Auguste Dupin from "Murders in the Rue Morgue") (Poe Encyclopaedia 102). He wrote favorable reviews of Poe's detective stories and briefly references "The Raven" in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Poe influenced the Swedish poet and author Viktor Rydberg, who translated a considerable amount of Poe's work into Swedish.

A Japanese author even took a pseudonym, Edogawa Rampo, from a rendering of Poe's name in that language.

Franz Kafka once said of Poe, "He was a poor devil who had no defenses against the world. So he fled into drunkenness. Imagination served him only as a crutch. He wrote tales of mystery to make himself at home in the world. That's perfectly natural. Imagination has fewer pitfalls than reality...I know his way of escape and his dreamer's face." Poe made a deep impression on Kafka and the influence of Poe's works on his are undeniable. Both authors focus on disturbed states of mind and the crimes or horrors that arrive from them. Also, they both used closed-off, isolated settings to explore their characters (though while Poe usually chooses exotic settings, such as the catacombs beneath an Italian palazzo or an abandoned mansion in the Appenines, Kafka tends more often to choose settings of urban blight, such as a stuffy apartment or the attics of housing projects.)

Jorge Luis Borges was a great admirer of Poe's works, and translated his stories into Spanish. Many of the characters from Borges' stories are borrowed directly from Poe's stories, and in many of his stories Poe is mentioned by name.

In Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks, a character reads Poe's short novels and professes to be influenced by his works.


In the music world, Joseph Holbrooke, Claude Debussy and Sergei Rachmaninoff composed musical works based on the works of Poe. Holbrooke composed a symphonic poem based on The Raven. Debussy often declared Poe's profound effect on his music (Poe Encyclopedia 93) and began operas based on The Fall of the House of Usher and The Devil in the Belfry, though he did not finish them. Rachmaninoff transformed "The Bells" into a choral symphony. (Three other orchestral works based on Poe, along with the Rachmaninoff, were featured in a concert given by the American Symphony Orchestra in October 1999 [9].)

Visual Arts

In the world of visual arts, Gustave Doré and Édouard Manet composed several illustrations for Poe's works.

Playwrights and Filmmakers

On the stage, the great dramatist George Bernard Shaw was greatly influenced by Poe's literary criticism, calling Poe "the greatest journalistic critic of his time" (Poe Encyclopaedia 315). Oscar Wilde called Poe "this marvellous lord of rhythmic expression" and drew on Poe's works for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and his short stories (Poe Encyclopedia 375). Alfred Hitchcock declared Poe as one of his inspirations, saying "It's because I liked Edgar Allan Poe's stories so much that I began to make suspense films." Actor John Astin, who performed as Gomez in the Addams Family television series is an ardent admirer of Poe, and in recent years has starred in a one man play based on Poe's life and works, entitled Edgar Allan Poe: Once Upon a Midnight. The play is lent a degree of realism by the fact that Astin more than slightly resembles Poe in appearance. [10] Astin also wrote an essay on Poe's prose poem Eureka [11] and has said of Poe, "I feel that Poe, through his own tortured existence, gained deep insight into the nature of the universe, along with an intense love and appreciation for life itself. Through this play I want to share that impression with others." [12]

Literary Criticism

In recent years the poet and critic W. H. Auden has revitalized interest in Poe's works, especially his critical works. Auden said of Poe, "His portraits of abnormal or self-destructive states contributed much to Dostoyevsky, his ratiocinating hero is the ancestor of Sherlock Holmes and his many successors, his tales of the future lead to H. G. Wells, his adventure stories to Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson." (Poe Encyclopaedia 27).

Pop Culture

His legacy is abundant in modern pop culture. It is much alive in the city of Baltimore. Even though Poe spent less than two years there, he is now treated like he had been a native son. In 1996, when NFL football arrived, the team took the name Baltimore Ravens, in honor of his best known tale. The team's three "winged" mascots were named Edgar, Allan, and Poe. The television show Homicide: Life on the Street, set in Baltimore, made reference to Poe and his works in several episodes. Poe figured most prominently in an episode in which a Poe-obsessed killer walls up his victim in the basement of a house to imitate the grisly murder of Fortunado by Montressor in "The Cask of Amontillado". In a disturbing scene near the end of the episode, the killer reads from the works of Poe as a dramatic effect to increase the tension.

But Poe's vast influence over pop culture does not end with Baltimore. Poe's image, with his weary expression, piercing eyes and tangled hair (see the daguerrotype above), has become a cultural icon for the troubled genius. His face adorns the bottlecaps of Raven Beer [13], the covers of numerous books on American literature as a whole, and is often stereotyped in cartoons as "the creepy guy". [14] In 1967, Poe appeared as part of the backdrop crowd of the Beatles' immensely popular album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. Besides the Beatles, numerous popular movie makers and rock stars have incorporated Poe or Poe's works into their works (see "Adaptations" below).

Preserved home

Edgar Allan Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Maria rented several homes in Philadelphia, but only the last house has survived.

That Spring Garden home (where the author lived in 1843-44) is today preserved by the National Park Service as a memorial to one of our most influential and fascinating American authors.

Notable works

Wikisource has original works written by or about:



The Auguste Dupin stories

Longer Works




Poe as a character


  1. ^  Poe's Middle Name. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore
  2. ^  Benitez, R. Michael (Sep. 24, 1996). Edgar Allan Poe Mystery. University of Maryland Medical News Also see Salon.com article
  3. ^  Baltimore Sun article about Westminster Hall.
  4. ^  UM School of Law homepage.
  5. ^ To read Griswold's full obituary, see Edgar Allan Poe obituary at Wikisource.
  6. ^  Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. American Symphony Orchestra
  7. ^  Baltimore-Washington Beer Works
  8. ^  See "Poe and popular culture" by Mark Neimeyer, (2002). Discussion of the modern presentation of Edgar Allan Poe found in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe: University Press; Cambridge, UK. ISBN 0521793262

General references

  • The Poe Encyclopedia by Frederick S. Frank and Anthony Magistrale. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut and London, (1997) ISBN 0313277680
  • Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, three volumes (I and II Tales and Sketches, III Poems), edited by Olive Mabbott, The Belknap Press Of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1978
  • Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Walter J. Black Inc, New York, (1927)

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