Some writers seem to lead a private life that resembles the literary universe they create. One of them is Edgar Allan Poe, the father of the horror story. The mere mention of his name brings to mind associations of the Gothic and grotesque, and in more than one way his life parallels the mystical scenarios of his stories.
Poe was unofficially adopted by foster parents after his father had mysteriously disappeared and his mother died. He received a good education, but he fell out with his foster father who wanted him to go into his tobacco business. He was expelled from university due to debt problems; and after a short military career (where he enlisted under a false name), he had different editing jobs for publishing companies.
Poe had a talent for writing and published essays, poems, and stories in several periodicals. But his private life was dominated by unrest and a hang to gambling and alcohol. He secretly married his 13-year old cousin, Virginia, who some years later died of tuberculosis. His poems and stories became popular, and he even won a prize of fifty dollars for one of his early short stories. But he was unable to hold any permanent position, due to his elusive anxiety and excessive intake of alcohol. The circumstances around his death in 1849 are mysterious and could just as easily have been taken out of one of his own stories.
Edgar Allan Poe introduced what later has become an immensely popular literary genre: the mystery plot and the horror story. The reading audience loved, and still do, the thrilling and mystic narrative where strange and disturbing things happen. Poe was a master of his genre; the dream-like settings of e.g. “The Raven” and the strange, mysterious events of “The Fall of the House of Usher” are intriguing and spur the imagination of the reader. His popular and thrilling “The Murder in Rue Morgue” is said to be the first crime story ever. An interesting project is “A Descent into the Maelström” which is a strange story set in Norwegian Lofoten, a place Poe probably never visited.
The legacy of Edgar Allan Poe is there in today’s crime literature and horror movies, and he is still among the most popular American authors. His literary thesis is that man’s response to events and time is more or less universal; whatever happens, the human reaction is the same regardless of setting and personality. His overall production totals only forty eight poems and a dozen or so short stories, but his literary qualities and the originality of his plots put him in the front line of influential writers from the 19th century.
Tasks and Activities
- The writing of Edgar Allan Poe raises the issue of the author's presence in his work. Do you think the author's socio-cultural background is important to understand and appreciate his work?
- Many writers were addicted to drugs and alcohol, and much of their writing may have been produced under the influence. How do you think that affected their inspiration and work?
- Poe belongs to the so-called Gothic tradition of romantic literature. What does that mean? If you don't know, you may read more here: The Gothic Novel
- Search the net for information about the circumstances around Poe's death.
- As "the father of crime literature", Poe would probably be surprised if he knew what he had started and how the genre developed. Read more about Crime Literature and the construction of The Classic Crime Plot
- Follow the links and read more by Edgar Allan Poe