Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was a bizarre and often scary writer. People throughout
history have often wondered why his writings were so fantastically different and
unusual. They were not the result of a diseased mind, as some think. Rather
they came from a tense and miserable life. Edgar Allan Poe was not a happy man.
He was a victim of fate from the moment he was born to his death only forty
years later. He died alone and unappreciated. It is quite obvious that his
life affected his writings in a great way. In order to understand why, the
historical background of Poe must be known.
Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809. His parents
were touring actors and both died before he was three years old. After this, he
was taken into the home of John Allan, a prosperous merchant who lived in
Richmond, Virginia.1 When he was six, he studied in England for five years.
Not much else is known about his childhood, except that it was uneventful.
In 1826, when Poe was seventeen years old he entered the University of
Virginia. It was also at this time that he was engaged to marry his childhood
sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster. He was a good student, but only stayed for a
year. He did not have enough money to make ends meet, so he ran up extremely
large gambling debts to trying make more money. Then he could not afford to go
to school anymore. John Allan refused to pay off Poe’s debts, and broke off his
engagement to Sarah Elmira Royster. Since Poe had no other means of support, he
enlisted in the army. By this time however, he had written and printed his
first book, Tammerlane, and Minor Poems (1829).2
After a few months though, John Allan and Poe were reconciled. Allan
arranged for Poe to be released from the army and enrolled him at West Point.
During this time, his fellow cadets helped him publish another book of poetry.
However, John Allan again did not provide Poe with enough money, and Poe decided
to leave this time before racking up any more debts
Still, Poe had no money and necessity forced him to live with his aunt,
Mrs. Clemm, in Baltimore, Maryland. None of his poetry had sold particularly
well, so he decided to write stories. He could find no publisher for his
stories, and so resorted to entering writing contests to make money and receive
exposure. He was rarely successful, but eventually won. His short story, MS.
Found in a Bottle was well liked and one of the judges in the contest, John P.
Kennedy, befriended him.3
It was on Kennedy’s recommendation that Poe became assistant editor of
the Southern Literary Messenger, published at Richmond by T.W. White. It was at
this time that Poe went through a period of emotional instability that he tried
to control by drinking. This was a mistake because he was extremely sensitive
to alcohol and became very drunk just from one or two drinks.
In May of 1836 Poe married his cousin, Virginia and brought her and her
mother to live with him in Richmond. It was during this time that Poe produced
a number of stories and even some verse.4
Over the next few years, Poe went from good times to bad. He had become
the editor of magazines and had written books, but none of these were paying off
enough. He would always be laid off the editorial staff for differences over
policies. He was doing so poorly that by the end of 1846 he was asking his
friends and admirers for help.
He was then living in a cottage with Mrs. Clemm and Virginia. Virginia
was dying of consumption and had to sleep in an unheated room. After six years
of marriage she had become very ill, and her disease had driven Poe to
Virginia died on January 30, 1847, and Poe broke down. It is here that
much is learned about him and why he wrote the way he did. All of his life he
had wanted to be loved and to have someone to love. Yet one by one, he kept
losing the women in his life. His mother, Mrs. Allan, and now Virginia. He had
wanted to lead a life of wealth and luxury and still, despite his tremendous
talent, was forced to live as a poor man.
When he reached manhood, after a sheltered childhood and teenage years,
his life seemed to be caught up in failures. So, he did what most people do.
He found a way to escape. His method was writing. He found so much in common
with his characters, that his life began to emulate theirs. Although it is
probably the other way around.
How tragic that the one thing that he was good at never seemed to do him
any good. No matter what he wrote, he just kept sinking further and further
into an abyss. This abyss could be called death or ultimate despair.
When we read Poe’s stories, we often find ourselves wondering how such a
mind could function in society. This quotation from American Writers: A
Collection of Literary Biographies, very accurately describes the landscape of
The world of Poe’s tales is a nightmarish universe. You cross
wasted lands, silent, forsaken landscapes where both life and waters
stagnate. Here and there you catch sight of lugubrious feudal buildings
suggestive of horrible and mysterious happenings……The inside of
these sinister buildings is just as disquieting as the outside. Everything is
dark there, from the ebony furniture to the oaken ceiling. The walls are
hungwith heavy tapestries to which mysterious drafts constantly give ‘a
hideousand uneasy animation.’ Even the windows are ‘of a leaden hue,’
so that therays of either sun or moon passing through fall ‘with a ghastly
lustre on the objects within.’ …….it is usually night in the ghastly (one
of his favoriteadjectives) or red-blood light of the moon that Poe’s
tales take place-or in the middle of terrific storms lit up by lurid
flashes of lightning.
None of Poe’s characters could ever be normal, since they lived in this
bizarre world. All of his heroes are usually alone, and if they are not crazy,
they are on their way to becoming so rapidly.
This leads one to wonder, just how lucid Poe was when he wrote these
stories. Was he crazy or just upset and confused? Most texts and histories of
Poe have it that he was influenced not only by his life, but by other writers.
These include Hawthorne, Charles Brockden Brown, E. T. A. Hoffman, and William
Godwin to name a few. Many of his stories show similarities to the works of the
Therefore another point is brought up, was Poe writing these stories as
the result of a tortured existence and a need to escape, or was he writing to
please readers and critics? In letters he wrote, he often pokes fun at his
stories and says that they are sometimes intended as satire or banter. Also in
his letters, he describes horrible events seemingly without any concern. So who
can tell how he really felt since he might not have been totally sane and
rational at the time.
Even though Poe writes such bizarre tales he is never quite taken in
with them. He fears but is at the same time skeptical. He is frantic but at
the same time lucid. It is not until the very end that Poe was consumed by
something, and died. It might have been fear or something worse, something that
could only be scraped up from the bottom of a nightmare. That is what killed
Poe’s stories contain within them a fascination for death, decay, and
insanity. He also displays very morbid characteristics and in some cases,
sadistic. His murderers always seem to delight in killing their victims in the
most painful and agonizing way. Still, terror seems to be the main theme. That
is what Poe tries to bring about in his stories. For example, in The Fall of
the House of Usher what kills Roderick Usher is the sheer terror of his sister
who appeared to have come back from the dead.
According to Marie Bonaparte, one of Freud’s friends and disciples, all
the disorders Poe suffered from can be explained by the Oedipus Complex and the
trauma he suffered when his mother died. The Oedipus Complex is best described
as a child’s unconscious desire for the exclusive love of the parent of the
opposite sex. The desire includes jealousy toward the parent of the same sex
and the unconscious wish for that parent’s death. In fact, upon examining the
women in Poe’s stories, we find that they bear striking resemblance to the
mother that Poe never had.
So one gets a glimpse at how Poe’s life, filled with insurmountable
obstacles and full of disappointments, indeed played a role in his writing. A
good comparison would be Vincent Van Gogh. He also endured hardship and died at
an early age. Poe was only forty when he passed away. Insignificant in his
lifetime, it was only after his death that he was appreciated. He is now
acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in American history. It is indeed a
pity that he will never know or care.