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Edgar Allan Poe - Biography

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

Ever since Edgar Allan Poe began writing in the early 1830s, his work has become synonymous with terror, death, and Gothic horror. Clearly he had an obsession with the topic of death, as well as an extremely morbid fantasy life. Many of his biographers suggest that this may have had some basis in the loss of his parents at an early age, or the fact that he did not successfully bond with the family who raised him. But for whatever reason, there can be little doubt from reading Poe's fiction that he derived not only a titillation, but a peculiar comfort, from the idea of death.

Edgar Allan Poe was born January 19, 1809, in Boston, where his parents were actors in a traveling company. After the death of his parents when he was a toddler, Poe was taken in as a sort of 'foster child' by John Allen, a wealthy tobacco merchant in Richmond, Virginia. In 1815 the Allens and Edgar moved to England, returning to the United States five years later, when Edgar was eleven.

Our first clue that Poe had a somewhat peculiar interest in death occurred when he was still a child. According to family members, the young Edgar greatly enjoyed playing practical jokes, which always involved death in some form; for example, he loved dressing as a ghost or a corpse and frightening family guests. This is not in itself an unusual sport for a young boy, but Edgar seems to have done it so realistically that people were actually frightened. His childhood letters also reflect an excessive delight in graphic, gory details.

The early loss of his natural parents may have reflected itself in his unusual choice of a bride. In 1831, after the publication of his third book of poetry, Edgar moved to Baltimore and moved in with his aunt, Maria Poe Clemm, and her eleven-year-old daughter Virginia. Two years later he and Virginia were married; Edgar was twenty-four and Virginia was thirteen. Even in an age when women married much younger than they do now, and occasionally married people more closely related than we would think proper, Edgar and Virginia's was considered extremely peculiar. Because he continued to live with Virginia's mother after his marriage rather than Virginia setting up housekeeping with him, it would seem that the marriage was in part a way to permanently replace his mother. Whatever his motives, it apparently worked for Edgar; it would seem the marriage was an extremely happy one.

But despite his apparent marital bliss, the pattern for his morbid imagination was already firmly set. The vast majority of his poems, and later, his short stories, deal with death in an extremely macabre way.

Poe's move from poetry to short stories was anything but an aesthetic decision. In 1832, the year before his marriage, Poe entered a short-story writing contest. Prior to this he had always proclaimed the short story to be an inherently bourgeois pastime, not capable of reaching the heights of cosmic expression that one could attain through poetry or drama. To his surprise, however, he won the contest, beating out a number of well-known short story writers. Poe needed money badly, and he decided to embark on a side career as a short-story writer.

For a time he wrote prolifically in almost every popular genre, eventually settling on detective stories and tales of horror. Poe's approach to the short story was that, like a poem, it should not deal with ordinary life but with the life of the imagination. And clearly Poe had an unusually feverish -- and death-haunted -- imagination. For Poe, the state of life that is 'really real' is the place of the dead, and he always seems to be swimming upstream, trying to join those he has loved and lost.

Poe also wrote a number of mystery stories, such as 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue,' and 'The Purloined Letter,' which are not Gothic at all; they feature a cerebral detective, Auguste Dupin, anticipating the tradition of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. But it must be noted that these stories, by definition, center around death, and do not shrink from describing it. For Poe, the curtain between the dead and the living, between normal everyday life and unspeakable horror, seemed thinner than it does for most of us, and worse, could be ripped cleanly in two at any minute.

Many writers have lived with the presence of death in their lives, dealt with it, and continued living healthy lives. For Poe, however, it became an inseparable part of his being. And his persistent forays into the blackness of his own soul touches something disturbing but endlessly fascinating in our own.

The Cask of Amontillado

The Tell-Tale Heart


Murders on the Rue Morgue

The Purloined Letter

The Fall of the House of Usher

William Wilson

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Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar...

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