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Free Edgar Allan Poe as an American writer Essay Sample

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Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, poet, editor and literary critic. He is well known for his detective and horror stories. Poe was one of the earliest American writers of short stories and he is considered to be the inventor of the detective fiction genre. A very unusual author, Edgar Poe has greatly influenced the development of world literature. He was the writer who updated the aesthetics of Gothic literature, made it more modern, and brought to a new level the category of horror in literature. By preserving some of the traditions and canons of the Gothic genre Poe created on its basis a new type of short story, which gave rise to the literature of horror as it exists today. Much in his life and work is beyond the conventional concepts and standards. Edgar Poe’s legacy is one of the most complex phenomena in the world literature even today, despite the large number of studies.

Edgar Poe’s life

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809 in Boston, USA. His parents were the wandering troupe actors. They died when Edgar was two years old. Edgar’s mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, was English. Edgar’s father, David Poe (1784 - 1811) was an American, Irish by descent. The boy was taken in and adopted by a wealthy merchant from Virginia John Allan.

Poe’s childhood passed in a rich environment. John Allan spared no money on his education, and although sometimes their affairs were unsuccessful (there were times when they even expected bankruptcy) the boy did not feel it: he was dressed like a prince, and he had his own horse and his dog. When Edgar was six years old his family went to England and sent the boy to an expensive boarding school in London, where he had been studying for five years. Upon their return to the USA in 1820 Edgar went to college and graduated in 1826. To complete his education Edgar was sent to the University of Richmond, which had just been founded.

Edgar Poe was a bright child: when he was five he learned to read, draw, write, recite, and ride a horse. At school he was a good student; he acquired a large stock of knowledge in literature, especially English and Latin, universal history, math, some fields of science such as astronomy and physics. The temper of the poet since his childhood had been uneven, passionate, and impulsive. Sometimes he displayed strange behavior. Since his early age Edgar wrote poetry, was fond of fantasy, loved to make psychological experiments with other people.

Rich life was over when he was not yet 17. He spent only a year in college. In the autumn of 1826 there was a disagreement between John Allan and his adopted son. Today it is impossible to define the reason of it. However, it was confirmed that he had forged a bill signed by John Allan; also, being drunk he spoke disrespectfully to him, etc. On the other hand, it is not known what a brilliant young man had to bear having a rich patron (John Allan received an unexpected inheritance, making him already a millionaire), a stranger to the arts and poetry. Apparently, he was genuinely loved by Mrs. Edgar Allan, and her husband had been dissatisfied with the eccentric foster child. The reason for the quarrel was that Allan refused to pay Edgar’s gambling debts. The young man thought they were a debt of honor and did not see any other outcome to save honor, but leaving a rich house where he grew up.

Edgar Allan Poe began his wandering life. Having left the house of Allan he went to his native Boston, where under the pseudonym “a Bostonian” he published a collection of poems Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). This book probably absorbed all the savings of the beginning writer. Not having a home he decided to enlist as a soldier in the Army. He spent in the Army about a year and even received the rank of Sergeant Major for Artillery. In the early 1828 the poet, however, could no longer bear his position and turned to his adoptive father asking for help, and probably expressing remorse. John Allan, perhaps at the request of his wife, helped the young man and provided a replacement to finish his enlisted term. But, having arrived in Richmond Edgar did not meet his patron: Mrs. Allan had died a few days earlier (February 28, 1829).

Having gained freedom, Edgar Allan Poe once again turned to the poetry. He again travelled to Baltimore and met there with his family from his father’s side – his sister, grandmother, his uncle George Poe and his son Nelson who could introduce Poe to the local newspaper editor. With his help Edgar managed to get acquainted with a prominent New York writer John Neal. His reaction to Poe’s poems was for all reservations most favorable. Finally, in late 1829 in Baltimore the second collection of poems was published by his name, entitled Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems. This time the book was distributed to bookstores but gone unnoticed.

Meanwhile, John Allan insisted that Edgar completed his education. It was decided that he should enter the West Point Military Academy. In March 1830, at the request of Allan Edgar he was accepted as a student, although his age did not fit. His adoptive father signed the obligation for Edgar to serve in the army for five years. Edgar apparently was reluctant to go to the academy. He could not leave its walls by normal procedure. He took up the case and managed to be expelled in March 1831. This young poet regained freedom, but, of course, once again was in disagreement with John Allan.

From West Point Poe went to New York, where he hastened to publish a third collection of poems entitled, however, as Poems by Edgar A. Poe. Second Edition. The funds for the publication were gathered by subscription. Many of his friends from the academy signed in, expecting that they would find in the book of poetry the pamphlets and epigrams against the professors, by which the student Allan Po became known at school. But they were disappointed. There were no buyers for the book priced at $2.50. In 1831 Poe had to contact his adoptive father for money again.

Autumn 1831 to autumn 1833 was the most difficult period for Edgar Allan Poe. In the summer of 1831 Edgar lived in Baltimore with his aunt Mrs. Clemm, mother of Virginia, which later became the poet’s wife. Since the autumn of 1831 there is no information about him. By the end of this period Edgar Allan Poe lived in extreme poverty. In 1836 he married Virginia Clemm. He was 27 and she was 13.

There is no doubt that during these years the young poet had been working hard. He wrote a series of short stories – the best ones in the early period of his work. In the autumn of 1833 the weekly Baltimore announced a contest for the best story and the best poem. Edgar Allan Poe sent six stories and a passage from the poem The Coliseum. The jury unanimously considered the stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe to be the best. However, not considering it possible to give two awards to the same person, a prize of a hundred dollars was given only to the story MS. Found in a Bottle. The money arrived on time. The author was literally starving.

In the period of 1833-1840 the author produced a lot of poems and short stories, worked in Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. In 1841-1843 he lived with his family in a suburb of Philadelphia and worked in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and Graham’s Magazine. In Philadelphia Edgar Allan Poe also intended to publish his own journal The Stylus (or The Penn), but the venture failed.

Soon Poe experienced new hardships. By his words, his wife “ruptured a blood-vessel, in singing, and has never recovered from the accident” (cited in Quinn et al. 22). Today it is known that she had tuberculosis and never recovered. Also in 1846 New York magazine Broadway Journal, in which Poe worked, failed, and the poet lost the source of income. It meant a new period of poverty.

The last years of life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1847-1849, were years of agony, insanity, success, fails and constant slander. Dying Virginia asked Mrs. Shew, a friend of Edgar Allan Poe, never to leave him. Edgar Allan Poe was fascinated by women, imagined love, and even discussed marriage. He behaved strangely, but, however, he managed to publish several works of genius. But Poe’s alcoholism became more painful, and nervousness increased to almost a mental disorder. Mrs. Shew decided to withdraw from his life. The fall of 1849 came to an end. Carried away by chimerical projects he considered himself a suitor again. In September he gave a lecture in Richmond on The Poetic Principle with great success. He left Richmond with $1,500 in his pocket. What happened then remains a mystery. Apparently, he was poisoned by robbers or even “sold his own clothes to buy drink” (Cavendish 52). Edgar Allan Poe was found unconscious and robbed. He was taken to a hospital in Baltimore, where he died on October 7, 1849.

As it can be seen the writer had a complex biography. Some of the facts from his life (e.g. his extreme poverty) were common for many writers of his time, but some facts seem to be as mysterious and weird, as Poe’s stories. Such mysterious and weird life has definitely influenced the development of Poe’s original style and predetermined the themes of his stories.

Style and themes

Poe began his literary career as a poet. His first work in prose appeared in 1833 (MS. Found in a Bottle). His works were influenced by romanticism, the decline of which was already noticeable: “Poe draws at will on its conceptual vocabulary, its rhetoric, and its metaphors” (Polonsky 42). Dark fantasy, which gradually disappeared from the European literature, was reborn in a more original and bright forms of Poe’s horror stories. Poe was strongly influenced by English and German Romanticists, especially Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann (Poe was fascinated by the German idealist philosophy and literature).  According to Tony Magistrale, he “imitated the fantastic supernaturalism of German Romantic literature and art” (Magistrale 18). Poe liked the dark shade of ominous Hoffmann fantasies, although he considered that the horror of his stories was from the soul but not from Germany. Hoffmann’s idea that life is a nightmare that haunts people until death expresses the main idea of the horror stories, which together with a unique style of expression, can be seen in the very first Poe’s stories. With time this idea only deepened, and was treated with a masterly skill in his later writings.

Inescapable terror of life, the world completely dominating over man as the realm of madness, death and decay predetermined by the supreme power of cruel destiny – this is the content of Poe’s stories. Death as a manifestation of the supernatural (the death of a beautiful woman in a mysterious situation) is, for example, the theme of the story Ligeia (1838), one of Poe’s best stories.

It raised the problem of overcoming death, and a miraculous, mysterious resurrection of Ligeia. In the short story Berenice (1835) a hermit Egaeus was obsessed with manic idea that he had to have the perfect teeth of his dying bride Berenice, and he breaks them out committing a sacrilege of the dead body. In other stories Poe uses the theme of the loss of a beloved person (Eleonora, Morella, etc.). Those stories were written long before the death of his beloved wife Virginia.

The problems of the conflict between good and evil, of split mind, of propensity to evil can be found in the story about a double William Wilson (1839); the same propensity to crime, evil and destruction is inherent in the characters of the stories The Imp of the Perverse (1845), Metzengerstein (1932), The Black Cat (1843), The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) and others. Metempsychosis, the transfer of thoughts at distance became the subject of the story A Tale of the Ragged Mountains (1844) and an essential component of one of the most impressive stories The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). In the ancient castle, dark, full of some special oppressive atmosphere lives its last owner, Roderick Usher. With a morbidly nervous perceptiveness he hears through the noise of storm how his sister buried alive is trying to escape from her coffin. But he is not able to go and help her, as he has a manic fear of horror. His sister appears in a bloody shroud, the horror kills her brother, they both die and the house of Asher falls destroyed by the storm.

Roderick is in fact the main and the only Poe’s character, variously repeated in other stories: a nervous, painfully perceptive viewer, a recluse who is afraid of life and who loves rare books,; he is as conditional as Poe’s favorite heroine – a mysteriously wise, fading beautiful woman. Poe’s characters are in the power of fate, which defined their deaths; they are weak-willed, and have no power to protest against life, perceived as a nightmare and evil. Each of them is the victim of some obsession; they are not real people with real feelings and passions, but abstract figures, nearly schemes, which possess vitality only by the exceptional skill of the writer.

In an attempt to overcome the apathy of his characters Poe gives them the power of thought; he glorifies the will. The words of Joseph Glenville: “Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will” were chosen as the epigraph to Ligeia. But while the most unnatural and incomprehensible events evolve according to a strict logical consistency in Poe’s stories and make the reader believe in the unbelievable, in this case Poe’s skill failed – his characters are weak-willed. Poe does not pay attention to the average human nature, psychology and life of an ordinary man; he is interested only in unusual and abnormal. From the very first line of his works all the elements of style – composition, choice of words, logic of the narrative – are designed to achieve a specific, pre-calculated effect, striking the reader at the climax of the story. That is why Poe chose such terrible themes as, for example, untimely burial.

The supernatural element in Poe’s stories is a rationally chosen path to achieve the effect. Effects also determine the conventional image of characters, which corresponds to the conventional realism of his wild and desolate landscapes (The Assignation, Ligeia, Fall of the House of Usher and others). Hoffmann, for example, by contrast, did not choose the deliberately unnatural surroundings of the Middle Ages; he makes the most incredible events occur in the ordinary burgher philistine atmosphere. Poe is also characterized by love to show the world through things, jewelry, etc.; a trait which was later inherited by Oscar Wilde.

Poe’s sci-fi stories The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall (1835), The Balloon Hoax (1844), A Descent into the Maelström (1841), as well as Poe’s only novel Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) display a great ingenuity and common skill of the style, but Poe’s imagination is too weak and pale in comparison with the actual development of technology; sometimes it is just a logical description of the already known inventions (The Balloon Hoax) or depiction of facts (The 1002 Tale of Scheherazade, (1845)).

Science for Poe is just a means of manifestation of the unknowable, which helps make this incomprehensible (e.g. the ship aging with its immortal team, the abyss absorbing ships at the South Pole, etc.) look more probable by the use of accurate geographic data, chemical recipes, information on maritime affairs, etc. Science is playing a decorative role, because Poe was seeking only sciolism. He is mystifying the reader, and in his science fiction stories he unfolds the same theme of imminent death of the protagonist. While in his horror stories Poe was one of the last representatives of romanticism, in science fiction he had an impact on a number of Western writers. The Gold-Bug with its search for treasure and cryptograms influenced The Treasure Island by Stevenson, and The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall anticipated From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne.

Poe’s disposition to the speculative analysis and the logical sequence of events, even of unbelievable ones, can be clearly seen in his detective stories The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842) and The Purloined Letter (1845). As in science fiction, Poe tries to give his detective stories the character of the facts that took place in reality by introducing into the narrative police reports, dates, references to the periodical press, etc. The tangle of contradictions and confusing facts is gradually solved by the coherent system of logical analysis, before which all mysteries are powerless.

Characteristically, the motive of private property, which is completely dominant in detective genre, finds no place in Poe’s stories. Also, Poe is not interested in the issues of morality, psychology of the criminal and crime. He is interested only in the technical side of things (one of his stories is even entitled Raising the Wind or Diddling Considered As One of the Exact Sciences), plot puzzles and offering clues to the reader, which serves as a climax of horror stories. In his detective stories Poe tried to get closer to reality, but instead he turned to the area of analytical thought. His Auguste Dupin is the forerunner of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Gilbert Chesterton’s Father Brown, as well as Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot.

Poe’s story Eureka (1848) stands apart from the rest of his stories. In this story Poe described a mystical pantheistic system, outlining the basis of his philosophy. It is interesting to note that this poem presented the hypothesis of the Big Bang theory, which became generally accepted only in the 20th century.

Works of Edgar Allan Poe do not fit into a certain trend or school in literature. Building on the experience of the previous literature, largely following the traditional methods, being under the influence of a variety of contemporary writers, Edgar Poe created his works characterized by a strong and unusual originality. It is considered that “no American writer of the antebellum period enjoys greater current popularity and recognizability” (Kennedy 3). Though his works were practically unnoticed during his life, they appeared to be a cornerstone of the world’s literature. Praised after his death, Poe remains one of the most mysterious writers in history. 

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