Authors: Edgar Allan Poe
First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2015
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Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe:
Edgar Allan Poe died penniless and largely unappreciated, and in America he was mostly ignored for the latter half of the nineteenth century. But popular culture has been good to Poe; his stories and poems have been adapted into movies, inspired whole genres of novels, and been quoted and parodied in countless television shows and paperback thrillers. Once he was considered an eccentric minor figure, a genius who was constitutionally unable to achieve real success. But modern readers of detective stories, gothic and horror novels, and science fiction consider Poe a pioneer. The annual awards for excellence given by the Mystery Writers of America, the Edgars, are named after Poe in recognition of his central importance in creating the first ratiocinative (i.e., methodical and logical) detective, C. Auguste Dupin.
Poe’s prose work in particular was written to capture the attention of a mass audience, at a time when there was great competition from other magazine journalists. His lurid imagination certainly made him stand out. Never one to moralize, unlike most of the writers of the day, Poe was interested solely in the aesthetic experience. He wrote about two sides of the life of the mind: the mind deranged by guilt, desire, or loss; and the rational mind that can impose order on a seemingly incomprehensible world. Although today Poe is treasured mostly by lovers of his gothic sensibility, he also had a sly sense of humor and a penchant for put-ons that remind us not to take even his most morbid writing completely seriously.
The Life and Work of Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809, into a family of actors. His father, David Poe, disappeared from his life before Poe was old enough to remember him, and his mother, Elizabeth, died shortly before Edgar’s third birthday. Edgar; his older brother, Henry; and his sister, Rosalie, were taken in by different families. Edgar was raised in Richmond, Virginia, in the home of John Allan, a local merchant, and his wife, who had no children of their own. When Allan moved his family to England in 1815 in order to expand his mercantile business, Edgar attended several boarding schools during the five-year stay. Allan’s British business endeavor ultimately failed, and the family returned to Richmond in 1820.
Despite the family’s financial straits, Poe received the best education available in Richmond. He was a prizewinning scholar and an athlete, successful in school if not exactly popular. He attended school with the sons of some of the most prestigious families in Virginia, but his status as an orphan and the ward of John Allan, who never formally adopted Edgar, separated him from his peers, at least in his own mind. In 1826, at age seventeen, Poe entered the University of Virginia to study ancient and modern languages. When he racked up several thousand dollars in gambling and other debts during that first year at school—the result of his determination to present himself as a young man of means—his relationship with his foster father, already strained, reached the breaking point. Allan refused to send Poe back to the university in the spring, and Poe left the house, writing to Allan, “My determination is at length taken . . . to find some place in this wide world, where I will be treated—not as
have treated me.” After complaining of what he considered to be his second-class status in the Allan household, Poe closed the letter with a request for money to get him started in Boston. In April 1827, he headed north on his own. It is unknown to historians whether or not he had assistance in this venture from Allan.
By the end of May that same year, Poe had enlisted in the army under an assumed name. He had also published his first book of poetry,
Tamerlane and Other Poems,
which he signed “By a Bostonian.” In the army he trained as part of an artillery battery; over a period of eighteen months he was stationed in Boston Harbor, at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina (the setting for his story “The Gold-Bug”), and at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. Poe rose to the rank of sergeant major but was dissatisfied with army life. In letters he sought the help of John Allan in arranging a discharge rather than serving his full five-year term of enlistment, in order to enter West Point. While waiting to enter the academy, he published a second collection of poems,
Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems,
in December 1829.
Also in 1829, Poe went to Baltimore to visit the branch of his family that his brother, Henry, had been living with: his grandmother, his aunt Maria Clemm, and her children, Henry and Virginia. His career at West Point turned out to be short-lived; another financial dispute with his foster father led to a renewed, more or less complete estrangement between the two, and Poe resolved to get himself court-martialed by disobeying regulations. He was formally discharged from military service in March 1831. While awaiting dismissal he prepared another volume of verse,
Poems by Edgar A. Poe. Second Edition,
for publication, drumming up subscriptions among his fellow cadets to pay for the book.
Poe returned to Baltimore to live with his grandmother and the Clemms in the spring of 1831. Over the next several years, while barely scraping together a living from a series of odd jobs, he published his first stories in the Philadelphia
and the Baltimore
. Poe’s story “Ms. Found in a Bottle” won a first prize of fifty dollars in a literary contest sponsored by the
in October 1833. In March of the following year, John Allan, who had mostly rebuffed Poe’s occasional attempts to contact him in the years since he had left West Point, died; he did not provide for Poe in his will. Winning the
prize, though, led Poe to a promising association with a Richmond magazine, the
Southern Literary Messenger
, which published his stories and reviews and, in August 1835, took him on as a staff editor.
Meanwhile, with the death of Poe’s grandmother in July 1835, the Clemms lost their sole means of support. When Maria Clemm wrote to her nephew that she and Virginia were to be taken into the home of another relative, Poe became distraught. His life with the Clemms had been the closest thing to a loving family life he had known. Promising that he could support them with his position at the
, he proposed to marry Virginia and to bring her and her mother to Richmond. Virginia was thirteen at the time. They likely married in secret in Baltimore in September 1835, and in May 1836 took out a second marriage license in Richmond, on which it was claimed that Virginia was “of the full age of twenty-one years.” Poe wrote prolifically for the
during this time, including hundreds of reviews that frequently offended the literary establishment of the day with their cutting judgments. By the end of 1836, after disputes with
owner T. W. White, Poe was again out of work.