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Poe, Edgar Allan
Article Outline
Introduction; Poetry and Essays; Stories

I.  Introduction

Poe, Edgar Allan (1809-1849), American writer, known as a poet and critic but most famous as the first master of the short-story form (see Short Story), especially tales of the mysterious and macabre. The literary merits of Poe's writings have been debated since his death, but his works have remained popular and many major American and European writers have professed their artistic debt to him.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Poe was orphaned in his early childhood and was raised by John Allan, a successful businessman of Richmond, Virginia. Taken by the Allan family to England at the age of six, Poe was placed in a private school. Upon returning to the United States in 1820, he continued to study in private schools. He attended the University of Virginia for a year, but in 1827 his foster father, displeased by the young man's drinking and gambling, refused to pay his debts and forced him to work as a clerk.

Poe, disliking his new duties intensely, quit the job, thus estranging Allan, and went to Boston. There his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), was published anonymously. Shortly afterward Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army and served a two-year term. In 1829 his second volume of verse, Al Aaraaf, was published, and he effected a reconciliation with Allan, who secured him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. After only a few months at the academy Poe was dismissed for neglect of duty, and his foster father disowned him permanently.

Poe's third book, Poems, appeared in 1831, and the following year he moved to Baltimore, where he lived with his aunt and her 11-year-old daughter, Virginia Clemm. The following year his tale “A MS. Found in a Bottle” won a contest sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. From 1835 to 1837 Poe was an editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. In 1836 he married his young cousin. Throughout the next decade, much of which was marred by his wife's long illness, Poe worked as an editor for various periodicals in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in New York City. In 1847 Virginia died and Poe himself became ill; his disastrous addiction to liquor and his alleged use of drugs, recorded by contemporaries, may have contributed to his early death.

II.  Poetry and Essays

Among Poe's poetic output, about a dozen poems are remarkable for their flawless literary construction and for their haunting themes and meters. In “The Raven” (1845), for example, the narrator is overwhelmed by melancholy and omens of death. Poe's extraordinary manipulation of rhythm and sound is particularly evident in “The Bells” (1849), a poem that seems to echo with the chiming of metallic instruments, and “The Sleeper” (1831), which reproduces the state of drowsiness. “Lenore” (1831) and “Annabel Lee” (1849) are verse lamentations on the death of a beautiful young woman.
III.  Stories

Poe, by his own choice, was a poet, but economic necessity forced him to turn to the relatively profitable genre of prose. Whether or not Poe invented the short story, it is certain that he originated the novel of detection. Perhaps his best-known tale in this genre is “The Gold Bug” (1843), about a search for buried treasure. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842-1843), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844) are regarded as predecessors of the modern mystery, or detective, story (see Detective Story).

Many of Poe's tales are distinguished by the author's unique grotesque inventiveness in addition to his superb plot construction. Such stories include “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” (1838), noted for its blend of factual and fantastic material; “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), in which the penetrating gloominess of the atmosphere is accented equally with plot and characterization; “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), a spine-tingling tale of cruelty and torture; “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), in which a maniacal murderer is subconsciously haunted into confessing his guilt; and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), an eerie tale of revenge.


"Poe, Edgar Allan," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2003
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