Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) was a pioneer of what we’d now call the ambiguous horror story, where the supernatural elements of the tale may actually be explained (or explained away) with a psychological explanation. He was also an accomplished poet and a pioneer of science fiction. His 1848 prose-poem Eureka even predicts the Big Bang theory by some eighty years. Poe considered this book his masterpiece, though it is among his least-read prose works today.
Poe often gets the credit for inventing the detective story. Although some earlier candidates have been proposed – such as E. T. A. Hoffmann’s ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi’ (1819), and ‘The Secret Cell’ (1837), written by Poe’s own publisher, William Evans Burton – it was Poe who really showed what could be done with the detective story form. ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844) is one of three ground-breaking stories Poe wrote featuring C. Auguste Dupin, his amateur sleuth without whom the world would never have had Sherlock Holmes or, one suspects, virtually any other fictional detective.
Poe was a fascinating figure, so let’s take a closer look at some of the most curious facts about the life and work of one of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century.
1. He was the first person to use the term ‘short story’.
At least, Poe’s use of the term is the earliest that has yet been uncovered, from 1840 – nearly 40 years earlier than the current OED citation from 1877. This is fitting, given that Poe was a pioneer of the short story form. (We’ve offered our pick of Poe’s best stories here.)
Poe wrote ‘I have written five-and-twenty short stories whose general character may be so briefly defined’ in his preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. This fact was discovered by Martin Greenup – see his ‘Poe and the First Use of the Term “Short Story”‘, Notes and Queries, 60.2 (2013), 251-254.
Poe wrote many classic short stories, including ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, and numerous other well-known tales – because our list is designed to showcase the sheer variety of Poe’s stories, and the various genres which he helped to develop (Gothic horror, ghost story, science fiction, detective story).
At least, if you believe the rather outlandish claim of Lizzie Doten, the psychic medium whose 1863 book, Poems from the Inner Life, included poems which Doten claimed to have received from the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe. (We must confess to being, er, sceptical here at Interesting Literature…)
Perhaps Doten spied a chance to increase the popularity of her own rather mediocre verses by attaching Poe’s name to the project!
3. The American football team the Baltimore Ravens are named in honour of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem ‘The Raven’.
This is the only example of a big sports team being named after a work of literature. 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. 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. We have discussed his essay in more detail here.
4. Poe often wrote with his Siamese cat on his shoulder.
Poe would place the cat on his shoulder before he commenced writing a poem.
Poe sometimes wrote about cats in his fiction, too. ‘The Black Cat’, first published in August 1843 in the Saturday Evening Post, is one of Poe’s shorter stories and one of his most disturbing, focusing on cruelty towards animals, murder, and guilt, and told by an unreliable narrator who’s rather difficult to like.
5. Poe coined the word ‘tintinnabulation’ to describe the sound made by the ringing of bells.
This word was invented by Poe in his poem ‘The Bells’, where he writes, ‘Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme, To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells … From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.’ You can read the whole poem here. (We also recommend Poe’s poem ‘To Helen’, which we’ve analysed here.)
If you enjoyed this post, check out our previous post on Edgar Allan Poe and some of the things which he correctly predicted. You might also enjoy our interesting Stephen King facts. If you’re eager to dip into some of Poe’s writings, we’d recommend this collection of some of his finest short stories: The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (Penguin Classics).
Image: Cropped image from the famous E.A. Poe daguerreotype, W.S. Hartshorn (1848 daguerreotype), C.T. Tatman (1904 photo of a c. 1848-1860 photo of daguerreotype missing since 1860) public domain.