An Educator's Guide to Edgar Allan Poe

In 1809, American writer, editor, poet, and critic, Edgar Allan Poe, was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19. Hailed as the father of the detective novel, his tales of mystery and intrigue set the stage for detective stories of the modern era. Poe's horror stories are unrivaled and The Raven, written in 1845, is among the most well-known poems to this day. Poe's contributions to the short story genre, of which many of his authored tales belonged, were innumerable in regards to their allegorical meanings and theories and have influenced writers all over the world.

The Early Life

Edgar Allan Poe had a way of capturing the imagination and maintaining the interest of his readers. He was creative and talented and his poems and short stories were revolutionary in that they inspired a new literary genre, later known as the modern "detective story." Poe’s life became somewhat of a mystery as well. Since his passing, the lines between the truth and fiction have become blurred substantially.

Poe’s parents were both actors, but he was never really able to get to know them. Early on, his father abandoned the family and his mother met her death when Poe was just three years old. He was sent to live with John and Frances Allan in Virginia which separated Poe from his brother and sister. John Allan was a tobacco merchant and he and Poe never quite connected, as Poe preferred poetry over business matters but Frances and Poe were able to form a close bond.

Another issue between John Allan and Edgar Allen Poe was money. In 1826, Poe went to the University of Virginia. John did not send him enough money to cover all costs associated with his schooling. This led Poe to turn to gambling to make up the difference but he ended up in debt instead. Eventually he returned home but he faced another setback in his personal life. The woman he was engaged to, Elmira Royster, decided she to marry someone else. This broke Poe’s heart and, in frustration, he left Mr. and Mrs. Allan’s home.

The Beginning of Edgar Allen Poe’s Career

Poe seemed to have multiple aspirations. In 1827 he published, Tamerlane and Other Poems. At the same time, Poe decided to join the Army. He envisioned going to the military academy, West Point, and in 1830 he was awarded a spot at the prestigious academy. Prior to going to attending West Point in 1829, Poe published another collection entitled Al Asraaf, Tamberlane, and Minor Poems. At West Point, Poe excelled in his studies, but after handling his duties poorly he was kicked out after the first year. Some believe that Poe aimed to be court-martialed. While he was at West Point, he and his father had a fight in which John Allan decided to disown Poe.

Poe put all of his focus on writing after he left the academy. In search of opportunities he moved around and lived in Baltimore, New York City, Richmond, and Philadelphia. He lived with Maria Clemm, his aunt, from 1831 to 1835. He developed an interest in his cousin, Virginia, and she became a literary inspiration for Poe. Poe married his 13 year-old cousin in 1835.

Poe was working for the Southern Literary Messenger, a magazine in Richmond, where he developed a ruthless critic by writing brutal reviews of his colleagues. Some of Poe’s own works were also published in the Southern Literary Messenger which included The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, however only two parts were published. Poe’s employment with the magazine was short-lived and he left the publication in 1837. His relationship with others at the publication was strained due to his combative personality, aggressive writing style, and some believe that alcohol also played a role in his departure. He went on to work at two more publications, The Broadway Journal and Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine.

Edgar Allen Poe: The Major Works

A book containing a collection of Poe’s short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, was published in the late 1830s. This book included “William Wilson,” “Ligeia,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” These stories were some of Poe’s most chilling. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was detective fiction, a new genre, and Poe released it in 1841. In 1843, Poe won the literary prize for “The Gold-Bug.” This was a tale of hunting treasure and cryptography, filled with suspense.

In 1845, Poe published the poem The Raven and was suddenly a literary sensation. This is considered to be among the best of his works. In The Raven, Poe explored loss and death which was a common theme for him. The same year, Poe was criticized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, another poet, in retaliation for Poe stating previously that Longfellow had plagiarized.

Poe continued working in various forms while he examined his methods, and literary theory in general, through various essays which included “The Poetic Principle,” “The Rationale of Verse,” and “The Philosophy of Composition.” He also produced other poems such as The Bells and Ulalume as well as another gripping tale, “The Cask of Amontillado.”

The Death of Edgar Allen Poe

When the love of Poe’s life, Virginia, passed way in 1847, Poe was devastated. He continued to write but struggled financially and was in bad health. The final days of Edgar Allen Poe remain a mystery. On September 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond and was reportedly heading to Philadelphia. Just over a month later, October 3, he was found delirious in Baltimore. He died in a hospital bed on October 7.

It is said that he passed away of brain congestion but there has been an endless amount of speculation to what the actual cause of death was. Some believe alcohol led to his death but others believe otherwise as records of the poet's death certificate have since been lost. Some speculations include epilepsy, rabies, and carbon monoxide as contributing to his death.

Not long after his death, his reputation was damaged by Rufus Griswold, a literary adversary of Poe's. He had been criticized sharply by Poe and took revenge in Poe’s obituary. In the obituary, Griswold portrayed Poe as being a womanizer, mentally deranged, and a drunk. Griswold was the first person to write Poe’s biography which cemented certain misconceptions in the minds of the public.

Poe's Legacy

Poe may never have seen financial success during his lifetime, but regardless of this fact, he is among America’s most lasting and influential writers. The great works of Poe are loved today even more so than during the author's own time. Poe was an imaginative, bright author who crafted poems and stories that still move, surprise, and shock readers today.

Poetry

Fiction

Nonfiction

Additional Resources

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