Edgar Allan Poe: Contribution to American Literature

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      EARLY LIFE. Edgar Allan Poe, the most famous of all southern writers and one of the world's greatest literary artists happened to be born in Boston because his parents, who were strolling actors, had come there to fill an engagement. His grandfather, Daniel Poe, a citizen of Baltimore, was a general in the Revolution. His service to his country was sufficiently noteworthy to cause Lafayette to kneel at the old general's grave and say, "Here reposes a noble heart."

      An orphan before he was three years old, Poe was reared by Mr. and Mrs. John Allan of Richmond, Virginia. In 1815, at the close of the War of 1812, his foster parents went to England and took him with them. He was given a school reader and two spelling books with which to amuse himself during the long sailing voyage across the ocean. He was placed for five years in the Manor School House, a boarding school, at Stoke Newington, a suburb of London. Here, he could walk by the very house in which Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. But nothing could make up to Poe the loss of a mother and home training during those five critical years. The head master said that Poe was clever, but spoiled by "an extravagant amount of pocket money." The contrast between his school days and adult life should be noted. We shall never hear of his having too much money after he became an author.

Edgar Allan Poe: great storyteller American Literature
Edgar Allan Poe

      Life of Edgar Allan Poe is a fantastic study in human insecurity, frustration and utter failure. He was a great poet, novelist and short story writer. Born in Boston to David and Elizabeth Poe, the travelling actors. When he was one year old, his father disappeared, and when he was two years of age his mother died in Richmond, Virginia. He was taken to the household of John Allan, a wealthy tobacco merchant who resented the love showered by his childless wife upon the boy Edgar. Later, he became an almost un-adopted orphan dependent upon the will and favor of Allan, but he was brought up with all advantages of a rich young gentleman of Virginia. From 1815 to 1820 he travelled with his supposed parents in Europe and attended the school in Stake Newington in England, only for three years. By 1820 his feelings of being rejected by the Allans became overpowering. In the same year, he entered the Richmond Academy. The women with whom he consoled his bereaved soul also left him for one or the reason. By 1826, he discontinued his university education though he casually entered. After a quarrel with the Allans, he left their house for working in the field of journalism. He initiated the genre of 'detective fiction' in American literature.

      Like so many other major 19th Century American writers, Poe was orphaned at an early age. Poe's strange marriage in 1835 to his first cousin Virginia Clemm, who was not yet 14, has been interpreted as an attempt to find the Stable family life he lacked. Poe believed that strangeness was an essential ingredient of beauty, and his writing is often exotic. His stories and poems are populated with doomed, introspective aristocrats (Poe, like many other southerners, cherished an aristocratic ideal). These gloomy characters never seem to work or socialize. Instead, they bury themselves in dark, moldering castles’ symbolically decorated with bizarre rugs and draperies that hide the real world of sun, windows, walls, and floors. The hidden rooms reveal ancient libraries, strange art works, and eclectic oriental objects. The aristocrats play musical instruments or read ancient books while they brood on tragedies, often the deaths of tragedies, like a vampire from the grave, appear in many of his works, including “The Premature Burial,” “Ligeia,” “The Cask of House of Usher.” Poe’s twilight realm between the settings is not merely decorative. They reflect the overcivilized yet deathly interior of his characters’ disturbed psyches. They are symbolic expressions of the unconscious, and thus, are essential to his art of fiction.

      Poe’s verse, like that of many southerners, was very musical and strictly metrical. His best-known poem, in his own lifetime, is “The Raven” (1845) - In this eerie poem, the haunted, sleepless narrator who has been reading and mourning the death of his “lost Lenore” at midnight, is visited by a raven (a bird that eats dead flesh, hence, a symbol of death) who perches above his door and ominously repeats the poem’s famous refrain, “never more.” The poem “Raven” ends in a frozen scene of death - in life: “And the Raven, never flitting, still /Is sitting, still is sitting /On the pallid bust of paellas just / Above my chamber door;/ And his eyes have all of? A demon’s that is dreaming, Streaming throws his shadow /On the floor;/ And my soul from out / That shadow /That lies floating on the floor/ Shall be lifted - nevermore!”

      Poe’s stories - such as those cited above - have been described as the tales of horror. Stories like, “The Gold Bug” and “The Purloined Letter” are more tales of ‘ratiocination’ or reasoning. The horror tales prefigure works by such American authors of horror fantasy as H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. The tales of “ratiocination” are harbingers of the detective fiction of Dashiell Harnett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and John D. MacDonald. There is a hint, too, of what was to follow as science fiction. All these stories reveal Poe’s science fiction with the mind and the unsettling scientific knowledge that was radically secularizing the 19th century worldview. In every genre, Poe explores complexities of the psyche. Profound psychological insights glint throughout the stories: “Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not,” we read in ‘The Black Cat’. To explore the exotic and strange aspects of psychological processes, Poe delved deep into accounts of madness and extreme emotion. The painfully deliberate style and elaborate explanation in the stories heighten the sense of the horrible by making the events seem vivid and plausible.

      The House of the Seven Gables is a famous novel written by him in 1851. This was inspired by the author’s family history. According to the legend, Poe’s grandfather was a judge at the Salem, conducted the Witch trials. He was crushed by one of his victims. The story is set in the mid-19th century. The generations earlier, “wizard” Maule had pronounced a curse on Colonel Pyncheon just before being hanged for witchcraft. With Maule dead, Pyncheon was able to take the possession of a plot of land, the ownership of which he and Maule had long disputed, and build the House of the seven gables on it. The current owner of the house is the hypocritical Judge Pyncheon who does not occupy the decaying house himself but just returned after spending 30 years in prison; a sentence he received from his cousin the Judge, having been wrongfully convicted of murdering their rich uncle. Clifford and Hepzibah and joined by Phoebe, a young cousin from the country, and Holgrave, a dangerous - Typist who takes lodgings in the house. Believing that Clifford knows where the deeds to the ‘murdered’ uncle’s property are. Judge Pyncheon threatens Hepzibah and Clifford to inherit his considerable wealth. Holgrave reveals that he is the last descendent of ‘Wizard’ Maule and explains how both the ‘murdered’ uncle and the Judge were the victims, not of any human wrong-doing but of the Maule curse. Holgrave and Phoebe plan to marry and their union automatically will remove the curse.

      His combination of decadence and romantic primitivism appealed enormously to Europeans, particularly to the French poets Stephen Mallanne, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valery, and Arthur Rimbaud. Poe is not un-American, despite his aristocratic disgust with democracy, preference for the exotic, and themes of dehumanization. On the contrary, he is almost a text-book example of Tocqueville's prediction that American democracy would produce works that lay bare the deepest, hidden parts of the psyche. Deep anxiety and psychic insecurity seem to have occurred earlier in America than in Europe, for Europeans, at least, had a firm, complex social structure that gave them psychological security. In America, there was no compensation security. Poe accurately described the underside of the American dream of the self-made man and showed the price of materialism and excessive competition likeliness, alienation, and images of death in life.

      His literary “decadence” also reflects the devaluation of symbols that occurred in the 19th century. From many eras and places, in the process stripping them of their identity and reduced them to merely decorative items in a collection. The resulting chaos of styles was particularly noticeable styles of its own. The jumble reflects the loss of coherent systems of thought as immigration, urbanization, and industrialization uprooted families and traditional ways. In art of fiction, this concision of symbols fueled the grotesque, an idea that Poe explicitly made his theme in his classic collection of stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840).

      In 1820 the boy returned with the Allans to Richmond, where he prepared for college, and at the age of seventeen entered the University of Virginia. "Here," his biographer says, "he divided his time, after the custom of undergraduates, between the recitation room, the punch bowl, the card-table, athletic sports, and pedestrianism." Although Poe does not seem to have been censured by the faculty, Mr. Allan was displeased with his record, removed him from college, and placed him in his counting house. This act and other causes, which have never been fully ascertained, led Poe to leave Mr. Allan's home.

      Poe then went to Boston, where, at the age of eighteen, he published a thin volume entitled Tamerlane and Other Poems. Disappointed at not being able to live by his pen, he served two years in the army as a common soldier, giving both an assumed name and age. He finally secured an appointment to West Point after he was slightly beyond the legal age of entrance. The cadets said in a joking way that Poe had secured the appointment for his son, but that the father substituted himself after the boy died. Feeling an insatiable ambition to become an author, Poe neglected his duties at West Point, and he was, fortunately for literature, discharged at the age of twenty-two.

      HIS GREAT STRUGGLE.—Soon after leaving West Point, Poe went to his kindred in Baltimore. In a garret in that southern city, he first discovered his power in writing prose tales. In 1833 his story, MS. Found in a Bottle, won a prize of one hundred dollars offered by a Baltimore paper. In 1834 Mr. Allan died without mentioning Poe in his will; and in spite of his utmost literary efforts, Poe had to borrow money to keep from starving.

      After struggling for four years in Baltimore, he went to Richmond and became editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. He worked very hard in this position, sometimes contributing to a single number as much as forty pages of matter, mostly editorials and criticisms of books. In Baltimore he had tested his power of writing short stories, but in Richmond his work laid the foundation of his reputation as a literary critic. While here, he married his cousin, Virginia Clemm. Perhaps it was irregular habits that caused him to lose the profitable editorship of the Messenger soon after he married. Let us remember, however, that his mother-in-law was charitable enough not to unveil his weakness. "At home," she said, "he was as simple and affectionate as a child."

      The principal part of the rest of his life was passed in Philadelphia and New York, where he served as editor of various periodicals and wrote stories and poems. In the former city, he wrote most of the tales for which he is to-day famous. With the publication of his poem, The Raven, in New York in 1845, he reached the summit of his fame. In that year he wrote to a friend, "The Raven has had a great 'run'—but I wrote it for the express purpose of running—just as I did The Gold Bug, you know. The bird beat the bug, though, all hollow." And yet, in spite of his fame, he said in the same year, "I have made no money. I am as poor now as ever I was in my life."

      The truth was that it would then have been difficult for the most successful author to live even in the North without a salaried position, and conditions were worse in the South. Like Hawthorne, Poe tried to get a position in a customhouse, but failed.

      He moved to an inexpensive cottage in Fordham, a short distance from New York City, where he, his wife, and mother-in-law found themselves in 1846 in absolute want of food and warmth. The saddest scene in which any great American author figured was witnessed in that cottage in "the bleak December," when his wife, Virginia, lay dying in the bitter cold. Because there was insufficient bed clothing to keep her warm, Poe gave her his coat and placed the family cat upon her to add its warmth.

      Her death made him almost completely irresponsible. The stunning effect of the blow may be seen in the wandering lines of Ulalume (1847). The end came to him in Baltimore in 1849, the same year in which he wrote the beautiful dirge of Annabel Lee for his dead wife. He was only forty when he died. This greatest literary genius of the South was buried in Baltimore in a grave that remained unmarked for twenty-six years. In anticipation of his end, he had written the lines:—

 "And oh! of all tortures,—
 That torture the worst
 Has abated—the terrible
 Torture of thirst  For the napthaline river
 Of Passion accurst:—
 I have drank of a water
 That quenches all thirst."

      HIS TALES.—He wrote more than sixty tales, some of which rank among the world's greatest short stories. The most important of these productions may be classified as tales (1) of the supernatural, like The Fall of the House of Usher and Ligeia, (2) of conscience, like William Wilson, that remarkable forerunner of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, (3) of pseudo-science, like A Descent into the Maelstrom, (4) of analysis or ratiocination, like The Gold Bug and that wonderful analytical detective story, the first of its kind, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the predecessor of later detective stories, like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and (5) of natural beauty, like The Domain of Arnheim.

      This classification does not include all of his types, for his powerful story, The Pit and the Pendulum, does not belong to any of these classes. He shows remarkable versatility in passing from one type of story to another. He could turn from a tale of the supernatural to write a model for future authors of realistic detective stories. He could solve difficult riddles with masterly analysis, and in his next story place a conscience-stricken wretch on the rack and then turn away calmly to write a tale of natural beauty. He specially liked to invest an impossible story with scientific reality, and he employed Defoe's specific concrete method of mingling fact with fiction. With all the seriousness of a teacher of physics, Poe describes the lunar trip of one Hans Pfaall with his balloon, air-condenser, and cat. He tells how the old cat had difficulty in breathing at a vast altitude, while the kittens, born on the upward journey, and never used to a dense atmosphere, suffered little inconvenience from the rarefaction. He relates in detail the accident which led to the detachment from the balloon of the basket containing the cat and kittens, and we find it impossible not to be interested in their fate. He had the skill of a wizard in presenting in remarkably brief compass suggestion after suggestion to invest his tales with the proper atmosphere and to hypnotize the reader into an unresisting acceptance of the march of events. Even a hostile critic calls him "a conjuror who does not need to have the lights turned down."

      In one respect his tales are alike, for they are all romantic and deal with the unusual, the terrible, or the supernatural. Some of these materials suggest Charles Brockden Brown, but Poe, working with the genius of a master artist, easily surpassed him.

      HIS DEVELOPMENT OF THE MODERN SHORT STORY.—Poe has an almost world-wide reputation for the part which he played in developing the modern short story. The ancient Greeks had short stories, and Irving had written delightful ones while Poe was still a child; but Poe gave this type of literature its modern form. He banished the little essays, the moralizing, and the philosophizing, which his predecessors, and even his great contemporary, Hawthorne, had scattered through their short stories. Poe's aim in writing a short story was to secure by the shortest air-line passage the precise effect which he desired. He was a great literary critic, and his essays, The Philosophy of Composition and The Poetic Principle, with all their aberrations, have become classic; but his most famous piece of criticism—almost epoch-making, so far as the short story is concerned—is the following:—

 "A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents,—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

      Poe's greatest supernatural tale, The Fall of the House of Usher, should be read in connection with this criticism. His initial sentence thus indicates the atmosphere of the story:—

 "During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher."

      Each following stroke of the master's brush adds to the desired effect. The black and lurid tarn, Roderick Usher with his mental disorder, his sister Madeline, subject to trances, buried prematurely in a vault directly underneath the guest's room, the midnight winds blowing from every direction toward the House of Usher, the chance reading of a sentence from an old and musty volume, telling of a mysterious noise, the hearing of a muffled sound and the terrible suggestion of its cause,—all tend to indicate and heighten the gloom of the final catastrophe.

      In one of his great stories, which is not supernatural, The Pit and the Pendulum, he desires to impress the reader with the horrors of medieval punishment. We may wonder why the underground dungeon is so large, why the ceiling is thirty feet high, why a pendulum appears from an opening in that ceiling. But we know when the dim light, purposely admitted from above, discloses the prisoner strapped immovably on his back, and reveals the giant pendulum, edged with the sharpest steel, slowly descending, its arc of vibration increasing as the terrible edge almost imperceptibly approaches the prisoner. We find ourselves bound with him, suffering from the slow torture. We would escape into the upper air if we could, but Poe's hypnotic power holds us as helpless as a child while that terrible edge descends.

      A comparison of these stories and the most successful ones published since Poe's time, on the one hand, with those written by Irving or Hawthorne, on the other, will show the influence of Poe's technique in making almost a new creation of the modern short story.

HOUSE WHERE POE WROTE "THE RAVEN" (Near Eighty-fourth Street, New York)
      POETRY.—Poe wrote a comparatively small amount of verse. Of the forty-eight poems which he is known to have written, not more than nine are masterpieces, and all of these are short. It was a favorite article of his poetic creed that there could be no such creation as a long poem, that such a poem would in reality be a series of poems. He thought that each poem should cause only one definite emotional impression, and that a long poem would lack the necessary unity. He says that he determined in advance that The Raven should contain about one hundred lines. His poetic aim was solely "the creation of beauty." He says:—

 "Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation; and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones."[Footnote: The Philosophy of Composition.]

      He then concludes that death is the most melancholy subject available for a poet, and that the death of a beautiful woman "is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." From the popularity of The Raven at home and abroad, in comparison with other American poems, it would seem as if the many agreed with Poe and felt the fascination of the burden of his song:—

 "Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
 It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
 Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."

      His most beautiful poem, Annabel Lee, is the dirge written for his wife, and it is the one great poem in which he sounds this note of lasting triumph:—

 "And neither the angels in heaven above,
 Nor the demons down under the sea,
 Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
 Of the beautiful ANNABEL LEE."

      A few of his great poems, like Israfel and The Bells, do not sing of death, but most of them make us feel the presence of the great Shadow. The following lines show that it would be wrong to say, as some do, that his thoughts never pass beyond it:—

 "And all my days are trances,
 And all my nightly dreams
 Are where thy dark eye glances,
 And where thy footstep gleams—
 In what ethereal dances,
 By what eternal streams."
 [Footnote: To One in Paradise.]

      It would be difficult to name a poet of any race or age who has surpassed Poe in exquisite melody. His liquid notes soften the harshness of death. No matter what his theme, his verse has something of the quality which he ascribes to the fair Ligeia:—

 "Ligeia! Ligeia!
 My beautiful one!
 Whose harshest idea
 Will to melody run."

      The fascination of his verse is not due to the depth of thought, to the spiritual penetration of his imagination, or to the poetic setting of noble ideals, for he lacked these qualities; but he was a master in securing emotional effects with his sad music. He wedded his songs of the death of beautiful women to the most wonderful melodies, which at times almost transcend the limits of language and pass into the realm of pure music. His verses are not all-sufficient for the hunger of the soul; but they supply an element in which Puritan literature was too often lacking, and they justify the transcendental doctrine that beauty is its own excuse for being.

      GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—Poe was a great literary artist, who thought that the creation of beauty was the object of every form of the highest art. His aim in both prose and poetry was to produce a pronounced effect by artistic means. His continued wide circulation shows that he was successful in his aim. An English publisher recently said that he sold in one year 29,000 of Poe's tales, or about three times as many of them as of any other American's work.

      The success with which Poe met in producing an effect upon the minds of his readers makes him worthy of careful study by all writers and speakers, who desire to make a vivid impression. Poe selected with great care the point which he wished to emphasize. He then discarded everything which did not serve to draw attention to that point. On his stage the colored lights may come from many different directions, but they all focus on one object.

      Hawthorne and Poe, two of the world's great short-story writers, were remarkably unlike in their aims. Hawthorne saw everything in the light of moral consequences. Poe cared nothing for moral issues, except in so far as the immoral was ugly. Hawthorne appreciated beauty only as a true revelation of the inner life. Poe loved beauty and the melody of sound for their own attractiveness. His effects, unlike Hawthorne's, were more physical than moral. Poe exalted the merely technical and formal side of literary excellence more than Hawthorne.

      Poe's prose style is direct, energetic, clear, and adequate to the occasion. His mind was too analytic to overload his sentences with ornament, and too definite to be obscure. He had the same aim in his style as in his subject matter,—to secure an effect with the least obstruction.

      His poetry is of narrower range than his prose, but his greatest poems hold a unique position for an unusual combination of beauty, melody, and sadness. He retouched and polished them from year to year, until they stand unsurpassed in their restricted field. He received only ten dollars for The Raven while he was alive, but the appreciation of his verse has increased to such an extent that the sum of two thousand dollars was recently paid for a copy of the thin little 1827 edition of his poems.

      It has been humorously said that the French pray to Poe as a literary saint. They have never ceased to wonder at the unusual combination of his analytic reasoning power with his genius for imaginative presentation of romantic materials,—at the realism of his touch and the romanticism of his thought. It is true that many foreign critics consider Poe America's greatest author. An eminent English critic says that Poe has surpassed all the rest of our writers in playing the part of the Pied Piper of Hamelin to other authors. At home, however, there have been repeated attempts to disbar Poe from the court of great writers. Not until 1910 did the board of electors vote him a tablet in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

      It may be admitted that Poe was a technical artist, that his main object was effectiveness of impression and beauty of form, that he was not overanxious about the worth of his subject matter to an aspiring soul, and that he would have been vastly greater if he had joined high moral aim to his quest of beauty. He overemphasized the romantic elements of strangeness, sadness, and horror. He was deficient in humor and sentiment, and his guiding standards of criticism often seem too coldly intellectual. Those critics who test him exclusively by the old Puritan standards invariably find him wanting, for the Puritans had no room in their world for the merely beautiful.

      Poe's genius, however, was sufficiently remarkable to triumph over these defects, which would have consigned to oblivion other writers of less power. In spite of the most determined hostile criticism that an American author has ever known, the editions of Poe's works continue to increase. The circle of those who fall under his hypnotic charm, in which there is nothing base or unclean, is enlarged with the passing of the years. As a great literary craftsman, he continues to teach others. He is now not likely to be dislodged from that peculiar, narrow field where he holds a unique and original position among the great writers of the world.

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