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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the best-known American authors, but his literary legacy is complex and confusing. Poe pioneered many of the most enduring forms of American popular culture, including the detective story, science fiction, and the gothic or sensational tale; yet he also exerted a profound influence on Modernism through the enthusiasm of Charles Baudelaire and the French Symbolist poets. Poe’s fiction celebrates both the hyper-rationality of his detective double, C. Auguste Dupin, and the inability of philosophy to account for the perverse. Poe maintained that authors should begin by considering their writing’s effect on the reader; yet he was highly critical of sentimentality and didacticism, insisting that beauty, understood as the elevation of the soul, was the essence of true poetry.

Poe’s life was as contradictory as his literary legacy. He suffered the early death of his parents, disinheritance by his foster father, poverty, anonymity, and a series of professional failures, but he also enjoyed some notable successes: a reputation as a discerning, if severe, literary critic; sudden celebrity after the publication of “The Raven”; notoriety for his involvement in a number of literary scandals; and the beginnings of a European reputation as a misunderstood American genius. Many myths about Poe’s life have taken powerful hold on the popular imagination, partly due to Poe’s exaggeration and distortion of his own life story, to his creation of memorable pathological narrators, which readers have confused with Poe himself, and to society’s difficulty in coming to grips with the contradiction between Poe’s aesthetic of writerly mastery and his apparent lack of control over his finances, his drinking, and his career. One of the first American writers to attempt to support himself by writing for a popular audience, Poe remains a cultural icon for the risks and rewards of aesthetic engagement.

Born in Boston on July 19, 1809, Edgar Poe was the second child of Elizabeth and David Poe, itinerant actors who performed in theaters in eastern seaboard cities from Massachusetts to South Carolina. David Poe abandoned the family while Poe was still an infant. When his mother died in December 1811 while appearing at the Richmond Theater, Poe was taken in by a prosperous Virginia merchant and his wife, John and Frances Allan.

An exporter of tobacco and importer of a variety of merchandise, John Allan moved his family to England in 1815 to set up a branch of his firm in London. There, Poe attended boarding school until he was eleven, when Allan moved the family back to Richmond on account of business failures. Poe completed school in Richmond, entering the newly opened University of Virginia in 1826. He excelled at ancient and modern languages, but incurred large gambling debts that Allan refused to pay. Quarreling with his foster father over his irresponsibility and extravagance, Poe fled to Boston, arranged for the publication of his first volume of poetry—Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827)—and enlisted in the United States Army under the name Edgar A. Perry. Poe left the army and reconciled with Allan when his foster mother died in 1829, obtaining a nomination to West Point in part through Allan’s influence. While waiting to take up his appointment, Poe published his second book, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (1829).

Poe resumed his studies at West Point but continued to quarrel with Allan, who refused to support him financially and whose remarriage in the fall of 1830 dashed Poe’s hopes that he eventually would become Allan’s heir. Poe got himself dismissed from West Point by deliberately disobeying orders; then he set out for New York City, where he published Poems (1831) on the strength of a subscription list generated by his fellow cadets. Poe struggled in the following years to support himself by his writing, moving to Baltimore to live with his grandmother, his aunt, and his young cousin Virginia Clemm, and submitting stories for newspaper prize competitions. Early in 1835, he began to publish tales and book reviews in a newly established Richmond magazine, the Southern Literary Messenger. By the end of the year Poe had been hired as a regular contributor and as editor of the journal’s reviews, and he had reconstituted a family in Richmond consisting of his aunt Mrs. Clemm and thirteen-year-old Virginia, whom he married in the spring of 1836.

While at the Messenger, Poe developed a national reputation as a “tomahawk” critic, one who mercilessly subjected authors to unrelenting criticism in the manner of the British quarterly reviews. However, the magazine’s financial troubles and Poe’s disagreements with its owner over editorial and personal matters, including Poe’s drinking, forced his resignation from the Messenger in 1837. Not for the last time, Poe turned to literary hack work to support himself. In 1838, the Harper Brothers, an increasingly prominent New York publishing firm, brought out his partially serialized adventure novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but it sold poorly in the United States despite being enthusiastically reviewed and pirated in England. In 1839, Poe finally obtained steady work in Philadelphia as editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, where he published “The Fall of the House of Usher” and a number of other tales and reviews. His first collection of fiction, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, was published in Philadelphia later that year, but reviewers found the tales extravagant and mystical and the book sold poorly. Fired from Burton’s in 1840, Poe attempted to garner capital and subscribers for a literary magazine of his own; but when this project proved unfeasible, he accepted a job as literary editor and reviewer for Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, a monthly journal that published literature and criticism alongside sentimental illustrations and the latest fashions.

Poe published “The Man of the Crowd” and the first of his detective stories in Graham’s along with numerous other tales, poems, and reviews. In January 1842, Virginia Poe burst a blood vessel while singing, almost died, and never fully recovered her health. Poe’s own ill health prompted his replacement at Graham’s, and he spent the next two years publishing wherever he could, unsuccessfully angling for a government appointment, and gaining a measure of celebrity by winning a Philadelphia newspaper contest with the cryptographic tale “The Gold Bug” in 1843. After experimenting with the lecture circuit, Poe moved his family to New York in 1844. There, failing to find better work, he wrote anonymous articles as a “mechanical paragraphist” for the New York Mirror.

Poe burst onto the New York literary scene rather suddenly in January 1845 when James Russell Lowell’s favorable sketch of Poe’s life and works was followed by the publication of “The Raven,” a poem that was immediately copied, parodied, and anthologized. As the “Author of ‘The Raven, ” Poe was introduced into fashionable New York literary society, attending the salon of Ann Lynch, carrying on a literary flirtation with the poet Frances Sargent Osgood, and sharpening his critical credentials by accusing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism in an extended series of articles in the Broadway Journal. Poe’s sudden celebrity and his reputation for critical independence endeared him to a group of literary nationalists who sponsored the publication of his Tales and The Raven and Other Poems in July and November 1845. Poe gradually assumed editorship and part ownership of the Broadway Journal, using it as a vehicle for printing revised versions of tales that had been scattered among a variety of newspapers and magazines. Just as Poe seemed to be gaining a measure of control over his career and his literary corpus, however, his personal and professional life began to unravel. Out of perversity, anxiety, strategy, or some combination of the three, Poe gave a disastrous reading at the Boston Lyceum, presenting his early poem “Al Aaraaf” as if it were a new production and, when the substitution was discovered, claiming to have been drunk at the time and to have hoaxed the Bostonians by getting them to applaud an inferior poem. Poe’s war of words with the Bostonians increased his notoriety and his reputation for unreliability; meanwhile, the Broadway Journal, of which Poe had acquired complete control, collapsed under the weight of considerable debt. Poe continued to publish tales and criticism and to get embroiled in literary scandals, finally fleeing the city in the spring of 1846 for a cottage in Fordham, New York, hoping the change of pace would relieve him from pressure and improve Virginia’s health. Destitute and ill, Poe and his wife appeared in the papers as charity cases, much to Poe’s chagrin. Virginia’s health declined, and she died early in 1847.

In the last years of his life, Poe wrote poems, tales, and criticism and lectured on poetry and poetic theory, devoting considerable energy to Eureka (1848), a book-length prose poem detailing his theory of the universe. Reviving his plan to found an elite literary magazine, Poe traveled to Richmond to seek southern support in the summer of 1849. There he took the temperance pledge and became engaged to his boyhood sweetheart before returning north on literary business. Stopping in Baltimore, he apparently broke his pledge, became drunk and disoriented, and was found unconscious outside a polling station on Election Day. Taken to a hospital, Poe died days later of “congestion of the brain.” Shortly after the funeral, his character was maligned in a pseudonymous obituary by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, the man Poe had named as his literary executor. Griswold’s posthumous edition of Poe’s Works (1850) sealed Poe’s literary fame, but the volumes were prefaced by laudatory sketches by Lowell and N. P. Willis, as well as by Griswold’s melodramatic and damning “Memoir of the Author,” giving lasting form to the split subject of Poe biography.
Meredith L. McGill
Rutgers University

In the Heath Anthology
Romance (1829)
Sonnet - To Science (1829)
Bridal Ballad (c.1831)
Israfel (1831)
The City in the Sea (1831)
The Sleeper (1831)
To Helen (1831)
Ligeia (1838)
The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)
Sonnet - Silence (1840)
The Man of the Crowd (1840)
The Black Cat (1843)
The Tell-Tale Heart (1843)
Dream-Land (1844)
Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (c.1844)
The Purloined Letter (1844)
The Raven (1845)
The Philosophy of Composition (1846)
Ulalume (1847)
Annabel Lee (1849 - 1850)
Eldorado (1849)

Other Works

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"A Poe Webliography: Edgar Allan Poe on the Internet"
The quintessential portal for Poe links.

The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore
A great deal of information about Poe including lectures, articles, images, and a chronology.

The Poe Decoder
Extensive information about Poe's life and writings.

The Poe Page
The texts of many of Poe's poems.

Secondary Sources