Edgar Allan Poe
An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
There is no greater master of the ghoulish among American authors than the tragic figure of Edgar Allan Poe.
❧ Full name: Edgar Allan Poe [ĕd-gàr ăl-àn pō; see our pronunciation guide for details]
❧ Dates: 19 Jan. 1809-7 Oct. 1849
❧ Areas active: the northeastern United States (mainly Boston, Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City) and the United Kingdom (mainly London and southern Scotland)
❧ Original language of writing: English
❧ Exemplary or important works: “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Raven,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Philosophy of Composition”
Tales of diablerie have been part of the literary canon from time immemorial. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the death of the hero’s beloved friend Enkidu is preceded by mysterious and horrible dreams; the Odyssey features both an eerie visit to the netherworld and a year spent on the deceitfully lovely island of Aeaea,* home of the perilous witch-goddess Circe, who graciously welcomes forlorn travelers in only to transfigure them into pigs; Medieval and early Modern literature feature a pantheon of horrors, frequently relying on the notion of witchcraft set forth systematically in the Late Middle Ages (as in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” or Macbeth). But, during the Enlightenment, there was something of a lull in fantastic literature, or at least a lull in its respectability; it began to return in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, under the ægis of the Romantic movement. The modern horror genre thus looks to Edgar Allan Poe as one of its greatest re-founding fathers, as does the genre of the detective story.*
Poe’s biography has a touch of the gothic itself. His father abandoned the family only a year after Poe’s birth, and his mother died of tuberculosis a year further on. He was informally taken in by a prosperous merchant family, the Allans (hence the middle name), who had him baptized in the Episcopal Church and educated in Scotland and England. His relationship with the Allans became highly strained in his adulthood due to quarrels about money (and Mr. Allan’s illegitimate children), and his foster father ultimately disowned him in his early twenties. Shortly thereafter, Poe’s brother Henry, who was living with their widowed aunt in Baltimore, died due to complications from alcoholism—an issue with which the writer himself also struggled periodically, at least by some accounts. He dedicated himself to a career writing, flitting here and there along the northeastern coast of the United States, receiving occasional aid and encouragement from fellow writers and well-to-do patrons, and seeing some public success with his 1845 poem “The Raven”; however, he also alienated many fellow writers by accusing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. His wife (and cousin) died, also of tuberculosis, in 1847.
Just two years later, in the first week of October, Poe too died, under strange circumstances: a week after giving a handful of well-received lectures and readings in Richmond and then leaving ostensibly for New York, he was found in a Baltimore tavern, disheveled and delirious. An editorial acquaintance took him to Washington College Hospital; he reported that Poe was badly drunk, dressed (very uncharacteristically) in dirty and ill-fitting clothes that did not seem to be his own. He drifted in and out of coherence, and spent some time calling out the name “Reynolds,” though no one knew whom he was speaking of; he gave no account of how he had come to be where he was or in his condition, and after a few days, he died. The cause was reported as “inflammation of the brain,” then a common euphemism for complications due to alcoholism, but some friends of Poe disputed this, and the documentation—even his death certificate—were lost. Various explanations have been proposed, including rabies from one of his pets, a depressive episode leading to suicide (which most historians find unlikely in his case), and the possibility that Poe was a victim of “cooping.”** None have gained consensus acceptance, and the horror writer’s death remains a mystery. The luckless man’s character was then promptly assassinated as well: a former acquaintance and bitter enemy, Rufus Griswold (who had already begun slandering Poe in life) not only wrote the first important obituary for him, not only wrote the first and most complete biography of Poe, but contrived to be named his literary executor! The picture he painted was of an arrogant, dubiously sane addict, which he “proved” by means of letters that were later proven to have been heavily edited or, in some cases, entirely forged on Griswold’s part.
He wrote one full-length, somewhat meandering novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. His poems and short stories are better-known. Several, such as “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” provide early examples of the realistic treatment of bizarre subject matter lending it a more deeply eerie quality; others, like “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” and “The Imp of the Perverse” explore the strange urge to call our own terrors down upon us; others still are thoroughly dreamlike, particularly “The Masque of the Red Death” (which appears to owe something in its premise to the Decameron of Boccaccio, composed during an outbreak of the Black Death). For all their horrifying subject matter, and even despite the distance of a nineteenth-century idiom, Poe’s style remains surprisingly accessible, and his stories are in many ways their own best introduction. As they are comfortably out of copyright, we can freely recommend to our readers that they jump in this very evening, with any copy they find convenient. Happy Halloween.
*Detective stories in turn, through early Batman comics, became the principal source of the superhero genre, so that there is a real sense in which we have Edgar Allan Poe to thank for Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise. The reader may make of this what they choose.
**Cooping was a form of election fraud in the mid-nineteenth century: groups who wished to influence an election would abduct people and place them in a “coop,” a type of box or small room, where they would be threatened, beaten, drugged, or otherwise forced into compliance, and then sent to vote as their captors wished, often multiple times in a series of disguises. Poe was found on the day of an election, and this would explain both his state of delirium and his puzzling clothing.
Gabriel Blanchard knows nothing about the death of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe and indeed was not in the country at the time. He works for CLT as the editor at large, and where he lives is not important.
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Published on 30th October, 2023.