Category Archives: Essays

Edgar Allan Poe: Poet and Prophet

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, and wrote short stories in a whole host of new genres. 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…

Poe1Poe 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).

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creature capable of speech; and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech.’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 theory 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.

If you enjoyed these facts, we have delved further into the life of Edgar Allan Poe here, and offer an analysis of one of his most famous poems here.


In Celebration of Thomas Paine

We at Interesting Literature felt it was about time we saluted a truly modern man, Thomas Paine (1737-1809).

A story from the 1960s shows just how inflammatory this champion of freedom, equality, and independence still is, even in more recent times. In 1964 the mayor of Thetford in Norfolk (Paine’s hometown) said he would only approve a statue of Paine if it was stamped with the words ‘convicted traitor’.


Paine certainly remains a divisive figure, but that is because he was never afraid to speak his mind, even if he knew it would land him in hot water. He played an influential role in both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense argued for independence for America, and when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he drew heavily on Paine’s work (Paine was also the first person to use the phrase ‘United States of America’). John Adams would later say, ‘Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.’ Common Sense remains one of the bestselling books in American publishing history: in 1776 alone it is thought to have sold in excess of 100,000 copies.

Paine would go on to support the French Revolution, both before and after the storming of the Bastille in July 1789. His old ally in the American Revolution, the Irish Whig politician Edmund Burke, opposed the French Revolution and wrote a pamphlet, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), condemning the actions of the revolutionaries. In response, Paine wrote a pamphlet, Rights of Man (not ‘The Rights of Man‘), published in two volumes in 1791 and 1792, which supported the idea of abolishing the monarchical and aristocratic system in France. Paine did, however, oppose the execution of the king, Louis XVI, and was against capital punishment on principle. This was partly what landed him in trouble – and in prison – in 1793, when he was thrown into gaol and only released the following year. One story has it that he narrowly escaped execution himself: in the house where he was imprisoned, every day the gaolers would go around chalking the doors of those who had been condemned to die later that day, and the day came when it was Paine’s turn. However, since he was suffering from a fever, the guards had agreed to keep his door open to allow fresh air into his cell. As a result, the door was chalked – but on the inside. When it was later closed, the guards on duty at that time missed the chalk cross that had been marked on Paine’s cell door. He had narrowly escaped the guillotine.

Paine’s other great work was The Age of Reason (1793-4), in which he subjected the Bible to rigorous scrutiny and criticism. His aim was to show that it was not the word of God, but a man-made text, by highlighting the inconsistencies and incongruities within the Old and New Testaments. For instance, if Moses is supposed to be the author of certain early books of the Old Testament, then why is Moses always referred to in the third person? He also exposed the many historical inaccuracies in the Bible, and criticised the Christian doctrine of the Fall. Here he is on the Genesis story of Adam and Eve: ‘The Christian Mythologists, after having confined Satan in a pit, were obliged to let him out again to bring on the sequel of the fable. He is then introduced into the Garden of Eden, in the shape of a snake or a serpent, and in that shape he enters into familiar conversation with Eve, who is no way surprised to hear a snake talk; and the issue of this tête-à-tête is that he persuades her to eat an apple, and the eating of that apple damns all mankind.’

The book is also a very witty take on biblical scripture, leading some to condemn it for its excessive ridicule of the Bible. For instance, on the fact that Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus after the resurrection, Paine writes: ‘she was a woman of a large acquaintance, and it was not an ill conjecture that she might be upon the stroll.’  Paine’s language at such moments was attacked by many for its ‘vulgarity’ – that is, for writing in a way that would appeal to both the middle and working classes. But this was very deliberate on his part, an aspect of his egalitarian nature and his desire to reach out to ‘the common man’.

He wrote the first volume of The Age of Reason in prison without the aid of books (or even a copy of the Bible), critiquing the Old Testament from memory. The Age of Reason appears to be the first place that the phrase ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’ appears, albeit not in so many words – a phrase which Napoleon (who according to some accounts slept with a copy of Paine’s Rights of Man under his pillow) would later popularise.

One of the most persistent ‘charges’ laid against Paine is that he was an atheist. In fact, as he makes repeatedly clear in The Age of Reason, he was a deist (that is, one who believes in a Creator but not an intervening God) whose aim was to defend God against the (mis)representations of him in the Old and New Testaments. In a letter of 1803, he wrote that ‘the people of France were running headlong into atheism, and I had the work translated and published in their own language to stop them in that career, and fix them to the first article (as I have before said) of every man’s creed who has any creed at all, I believe in God.’


But such intellectual nuances seemed to be beyond the grasp of most of his friends and associates. Only six people attended his funeral when he died in 1809. Many had abandoned him as an ‘atheist’ for his ridicule of the Bible and organised religion. To this day, nobody knows where Tom Paine’s bones lie, since it was rumoured they were removed from his grave in the States and returned to England. He remains a much more valued figure in America than he ever has been in his home country.

If you seek his monument, as the inscription to Sir Christopher Wren says in St Paul’s Cathedral, look around you: the signs of Paine’s influence are there for all to see. As he had remarked in a letter to George Washington in 1789, ‘A share in two revolutions is living to some purpose.’

Nine Interesting Facts about Washington Irving

Washington Irving. Who was that man? Find out just a handful of reasons why we should all have his name on our lips.

1. Washington Irving was named after the first official President of the United States of America. Born in 1783 in New York (the city that would loom large in his work), the American writer was named after the great American, George Washington. Of course, Washington only became President in 1789, but when Irving was born he was already known as an important founding father of the newly independent United States.

2. His first book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), gave us the Knickerbocker Glory. Irving’s first book was a humorous history of New York – yes, once again New York looms large in Irving’s life – and was a huge success. But one of the great linguistic legacies of the work was that it gave us the name ‘Knickerbocker’, which, following Irving’s book, came to be used as a name for an inhabitant of New York (or a ‘native New Yorker’, to quote from the song). The Knickerbocker Glory – a multi-coloured ice-cream sundae served in a tall glass – first appears in print in 1936 in a Graham Greene novel. The reasons for Irving’s Knickerbocker being associated with this colourful dessert probably have something to do with our third, related, interesting fact …

3. Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), gave us the word ‘knickers’. ‘Knickers’ has never been out of use since. Diedrich Knickerbocker was the fictional ‘author’ of Irving’s humorous ‘history’, and Knickerbocker came to be used for any New Yorker. However, within half a century the word was being used to describe ‘loose-fitting breeches, gathered in at the knee, and worn by boys, sportsmen, and others who require a freer use of their limbs. The term has been loosely extended to the whole costume worn with these’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Why the shift in meaning? One theory, which the OED offers, is that such garments resembled the knee-breeches worn by Knickerbocker in British artist George Cruikshank’s illustrations to Irving’s History of New York. At any rate, ‘knickers’ had appeared by the 1880s, with the word shifting genders from men to women, and it has remained so ever since.


4. Irving was the first person to refer to New York as ‘Gotham City’. Yes, New York again. Irving first gave his hometown that sobriquet in 1807 in his satirical periodical Salmagundi. Irving borrowed the name from the Nottinghamshire village in England, which was reputedly inhabited by fools. (This legend itself derived from medieval times, and the tale of the ‘Wise Men of Gotham’: the story goes that in the thirteenth century, King John wanted to build a hunting lodge near the village, but decided against it because the people of the village appeared to be very simple. Whenever the king’s men arrived they found villagers doing incredibly stupid things: attempting to drown eels, or rolling cheeses down a hill in the hope that they’d find their way to the Nottingham fair. The plan worked and John moved his lodge elsewhere.) Interestingly, the Nottinghamshire village is pronounced ‘Goat-em’, whereas the nickname for New York is always ‘Goth-em’. Of course, since Irving first Christened New York ‘Gotham’, the Batman comic strip and films have cemented the phrase ‘Gotham City’ firmly in the American – and, indeed, the world’s – psyche.

5. Irving wrote the fairy story of Rip Van Winkle. The story of the man who goes to sleep in the Catskill mountains and wakes up years later to find his wife dead and his son grown up was written by Irving while he was staying in England, in 1819. Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep for twenty years, not a hundred: some think he sleeps for a century because the tale is confused with Sleeping Beauty.

6. He also wrote ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. This was written a year after ‘Rip’, in 1820, and was, of course, made into the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow in 1999. Irving is best-known for these two fairy tales.

7. He gave us the phrase ‘the almighty dollar’. Not much to add on this one, except to say that he coined this phrase in 1837 in his story ‘The Creole Village’.

8. Irving was responsible for the ‘flat earth’ myth. Once more, we’re in the realm of foolish medieval folk. According to Jeffrey Russell in his 1991 book Inventing the Flat Earth, it was Irving’s 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus which cemented the myth that medieval people thought the world was flat, whereas Columbus believed it was round. Indeed, the main bone of contention in the 1490s – at the time of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World – was more the size, rather than the shape of the world. But sometimes a myth can be more powerful than fact, and many still believe that Columbus’s contemporaries all thought the world was flat and it might be possible to sail over the edge of it. Why did Irving invent the story then? Possibly to make Columbus look even more of a man ahead of his time than he was, as the great man who helped to found the New World, Irving’s own homeland.

9. Irving helped to create the modern idea of Christmas. Charles Dickens often gets the credit for inventing the modern Christmas, with goodwill to everyone, the resurrection of old and formerly outdated customs, and the big Christmas feast. It’s certainly true that before the early nineteenth century, the older Christmas celebrations of the Middle Ages had waned, but it was not Dickens who first began to popularise them again. Dickens himself was greatly influenced by Irving. Indeed, the anonymously published 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (also known as ”Twas the night before Christmas’) also gets the credit for inventing the mythlore of Santa Claus with his flying sleigh and reindeer, but Irving was ahead of this poem, too: in 1812 he added passages to his revised Knickerbocker’s History of New York which helped to foster this renewed interest in the idea of Santa Claus. Like Dickens, he wrote five Christmas stories, and, like Dickens also, he championed traditional festive customs which had fallen out of favour (and which he had experienced while staying in England shortly before this). So next time you’re sipping your eggnog round a festive fire, raise your glass in a toast to Irving, the man who helped to invent Christmas as we know it.

If you enjoyed this feast of facts, check out our interesting facts about Margaret Atwood.