There is a story that, while serving as a young cadet, Edgar Allan Poe was expelled for reporting to a military march wearing nothing but a pair of white gloves. It appears that this is an urban legend, but there are many aspects of Poe’s life and work which are true, and often surprising. He was a pioneer of the short story form. Helped to develop and, in a sense, invent several modern literary genres. He even anticipated an important scientific theory of the twentieth century. And then there were the snails…
Poe was going to be named Cordelia, if he’d been a girl. His mother, an actress, had portrayed the Shakespeare character in a production of King Lear. But when Poe was born (in 1809), and was most definitely a boy, he was named Edgar instead. (His actor father had portrayed Edmund in King Lear, and the young Poe was named after Edmund’s brother in the play – rather than Edmund himself, for some reason.) The ‘Allan’ comes from his foster parents, John and Frances Allan; it is perhaps the most misspelled author’s middle name of all time (if it can be said to be a middle name). Even the Oxford English Dictionary misnames him as ‘Edgar Allen Poe’.
Edgar Allan Poe’s celebrated poem ‘The Raven’ was inspired by the works of two Victorian writers: by the talking raven Grip in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841), and (for its metre) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’. It is perhaps his single best-known work, even more famous than his short stories. Even those who have never read Poe know ‘The Raven’, especially if they’ve watched The Simpsons (who have also adapted and drawn upon several other Poe works, such as his short story, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’). There is reason to believe that Poe originally planned to have a parrot, rather than a raven, utter the refrain ‘Nevermore’ in the poem: in his ‘Philosophy of Composition’, he wrote that in his mind there ‘arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech.’ Whether Poe was merely retrospectively having us on, or whether he was being genuine here, cannot be known for sure; but we have no greater authority in this instance than Poe’s own words, and, as he says, the parrot seems the natural choice for a bird capable of mimicking human speech.
But Poe was an important driving force behind the short story form, adopting it as his preferred literary form long before it had become a powerful publishing phenomenon in the later portion of the nineteenth century. He even used the term ‘short story’ earlier than everyone else: the OED lists 1878 as the earliest instance of the term, but Poe was using it in 1840.
‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ shows Poe’s links with the earlier Gothic novel of the late eighteenth century, but it shows Poe scaling down the core elements of that form to the demands of the short story: the Gothic novel’s cast of characters is reduced to just a handful of people, the Gothic castle becomes just one room, and the subterranean secret (usually involving a network of catacombs and servants carrying food to hidden wives and secret prisoners) is scaled down to the body of the old man under the floorboards.
Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) often gets the credit for being the first detective story, but in fact this is highly disputed: many believe the honour should go to German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1819 story ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi’. (Among other achievements, Hoffmann provided Tchaikovsky with his material for The Nutcracker.) Another detective story written before Poe’s was a short tale by his publisher, William Evans Burton, called ‘The Secret Cell’ (1837), a story in which a London policeman solves the mystery of a kidnapped girl.
Poe also wrote possibly the first story involving code-breaking: ‘The Gold-Bug’ (1843) involves the decoding of a document to reveal the location of the buried treasure of Captain Kidd. Poe was a keen cryptographer who liked to ask readers of Alexander’s Weekly to submit ciphers for him to solve; he was never beaten. For more on Poe’s role in the development of the literature of cryptography, we recommend Shawn Rosenheim’s excellent book, The Cryptographic Imagination.
His 1848 prose-poem Eureka even predicts the Big Bang by some eighty years. Poe considered this book his masterpiece, though it is among his least-read prose works today.
Not everyone has been impressed by Poe, though: W. B. Yeats thought his writing ‘vulgar’ and T. S. Eliot bemoaned the fact that, after taking so much care over the ideas and the plots of his stories, he should make the execution of them so careless. This criticism has been levelled at Poe by numerous people over the years.
Although he is now credited with being not only an important originator (or at least early exponent) of key literary genres (detective story, science fiction), Poe struggled financially throughout his life and died penniless shortly after being found on the streets of Baltimore in 1849. He was just 40 years old. The only book by Poe which was successful enough to be republished during his lifetime was a non-fiction work on molluscs (which he didn’t so much write as put together, by editing a much longer work by someone else). Only 12 copies of his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1829), are thought to survive; in 2009, one of these copies sold at auction for $662,500. This week, a handwritten copy of a poem by Poe, ‘The Conqueror Worm’, fetched $300,000 at auction in Massachusetts.