Edgar Allan Poe did not live an easy life while he was growing up. Early in his life, he lost a mother along with a mother figure due to illness. Both of his father figures left him as well, so at the age of 16, he was an orphan with only writing to turn to. What is an adolescent boy to write about when he knows nothing except death, illness, and deprivation? Horror. His early life, in part, might explain Poe’s bizarre stories and poems. However, it is apparent that Poe is more than just a horror story writer; he uses his work to explain psychological and moral realities to his readers. (Lawrence, 1985).
The life that Poe experienced was reflected in his writing. Beginning with early childhood, when he lost his parents, Poe was subjected to a difficult life that would later have a major effect on his work. Among his foster father, John Allan, his first love, Sarah Elmira Royster, and his young first wife, Virginia Clemm, his contacts largely defined his works. Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, to two small-theater actors, Elizabeth and David Poe. When his father died at the age of thirty-six, his mother, who was still acting, would have Edgar and his sister, Rosalie, sleep backstage.
Early Life Tragedies
On December 11, 1811, at only twenty-four, his mother died of tuberculosis, and he and his sister were orphaned. His sister was sent to live with a Mrs. Mackenzie and Edgar, to John and Frances Allan, whose marriage had been childless. Poe was never adopted but they took care of him. William, Edgar’s older brother, had been living with the grandfather, David Poe, Sr. because at the time of his birth, his parents did not have the money to care for him. Edgar moved to Richmond, Virginia, with the Allans, where he slept in his own bedroom in the apartment above his stepfather’s store. Edgar never got along with his foster father, argued with him, and hardly showed any affection. John Allan once even described his son as sulky, miserable, and ill-tempered (Bloom, 1985).
In 1825, he became secretly engaged to fifteen-year-old Sarah Elmira Royster. Her father found out, however, and finding Poe unsuitable for a son-in-law, she was forced to break off the relationship. She wed a successful businessman instead (Meltzer, 2003). Poe entered the University of Virginia in the spring of 1826. He studied many languages including Italian, French, Latin, and Spanish. But John Allan made him leave one year later after young Poe racked up huge debts by drinking and gambling instead of attending classes (Buranelli, 1977).
In 1829, he had his second volume of verse, Al Aaraaf, published. He reconciled with his father to help him leave the Army and Allan was able to obtain an appointment for Poe at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Poe quarreled with John Allan before entering West Point, and that argument, coupled with the widowed Allan’s remarriage to Louisa Gabriella Patterson, created a final, irrevocable break. His foster father disowned him permanently, and with no financial support, Poe felt he had no choice but to get himself expelled in order to find a job. Edgar Allan Poe went through a lot of stress in his early life, and his alcohol use can be repeatedly seen in many of his works, like The Black Cat and The Cask of Amontillado. His addiction to drugs with hallucinogenic effects, such as opium, played a part in his writing as seen in the mental breakdown of the mind of the main character in The Raven. In The Fall of the House of Usher the main character, Roderick Usher, is the most perfect pen-portrait of Poe (Tilton, 2003).
When Poe and his new family returned to Virginia in 1826, he enrolled in the newly opened University of Virginia. It was there that he studied classical and modern languages, including Latin. However, after receiving very little allowance from John Allan, Poe turned to gamble to help supplement his income. In a matter of eight months, he had lost nearly $2000. Allan refused to help him with his debts, which led him to estrangement from his family. In March of the next year, Poe left home to live on his own.
Joining the Army
Poe returned to Richmond and worked for Allan as a clerk. Disliking the work very much, he ran away to Boston, where he published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, in 1827. One of the poems, which he addressed to Sarah Royster was called Song and was about a woman who married another man and experienced a burning blush expressing a maiden shame (Pickering, 1995). After moving to Baltimore and then back to Boston, he decided to sign up for a five-year enlistment in the U.S. Army. That same year, he managed to publish Tamerlane and Other Poems, but the book failed to attract notice from the public. Two years later, under the fictitious name of Edgar A.
Perry, Poe rose to the highest nonpaying rank in the Army, sergeant major. He didn’t want to serve his full five years, however, and arranged to be discharged from the Army under the condition that he would seek an appointment at West Point, a U.S. military academy. He was later dismissed from the academy for “gross neglect of duty” and “disobedience of orders.” That same year Al Araaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems were published in Baltimore and surprisingly received a highly favorable notice from critic John Neal. Having newly found success, he visited Allan in Richmond, but a violent quarrel caused him to leave in May 1830.
Later that year, Poe and Virginia moved to New York, where he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. In 1838, they decided to move to Philadelphia, where he served as co-editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. In two years, he quadrupled the magazine’s circulation from 5,000 to 20,000 and contributed some of his best fiction to its pages, including “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In 1841, there was trouble with the magazine and he left for the literary editorship of Graham’s Magazine. (Buranelli, 1977).
Poe’s Writing and Autobiographical Impact
Edgar Allan Poe’s writing was influenced by tragedies he experienced throughout his life, as well as his experiments with drugs and alcohol. Poe had two main loves in his life, Virginia Clemm, and Sarah Helen Power Whitman. These two women had a great impact on both his writing and his health. After his departure from West Point, Poe decided to move to Baltimore with his Aunt Maria and his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia. After realizing he was in love with Virginia, they decided to marry. Poe’s relationship with Virginia was very rocky due to his drug and alcohol addictions and Virginia’s poor health. Poe’s attitude depended all on how Virginia was feeling.
Sarah Helen Power Whitman was one of Poe’s great loves and the inspiration for the second To Helen’ (Bloom, 1985). Three years prior to their meeting, Poe saw Helen at a party after a lecture he gave in Providence, Rhode Island, but never spoke (May 1991). After finding out Poe was interested in her, she became very fond of his poetry, which led her to compose the playful poem To Edgar A. Poe for Valentine’s Day party in 1848 (Peeples, 1998). On December 15, 1848, Poe and Helen drew up a marriage contract after Helen’s mother Mrs. Nicholas insisted (Bloom, 1985). The wedding was called off on December 23, 1848, after Helen found out about his interest in Annie Richmond.
Poe’s writings and his relationship with Virginia caused him great depression and he began heavily drinking. Poe would travel around the world with the intent to speak with students about his writings, but the night before he would either forget or sleep days at a time. After returning home to Virginia he decided to enter an alcohol program to stop drinking, but it did not succeed. Virginia’s health got worse and so did Poe’s drinking problem.
Poe felt that the alcohol was not sufficient at soothing his problems. During a crucial and dramatic time, he attempted suicide by taking laudanum. Laudanum was a solution of powdered opium in alcohol; it had weaker opium content than morphine or heroin. At the time, this drug was used in mental hospitals as a tranquilizer. Critics have been mixed concerning Poe. Many years after his death, his work still received much attention. Some critics harshly criticized Poe’s writing but most have been inspired by his use of sound effects, vivid imageries, and his exploration of altered mental states and the dark side of human nature. Some of Poe’s tales also contain undeniable traces of sadism. His half-mad murderers delight in torturing their victims and eventually killing them with devilish savagery. The old man’s terror must have been extreme,’ jubilantly exclaims the murderer of The Tell-Tale Heart’. His work has remained very popular among American readers despite his uncertain states of mind. (Buranelli, 1977).
Edgar Allen Poe was a mentally unstable man which allowed him to have a very unique writing ability. His upbringing was a major contributing factor to this instability. Both of Poe’s parents died when he was at the mere age of two. Poe grew up with his aunt and uncle, who gave him some of the best opportunities to be successful in life but deprived him of the love and attention needed to become a normal person. Poe’s uncle never accepted him into the family and because of this there were some quarrelsome times. Poe went on to figure out a path that would guide his life but had a hard time figuring out what it was he wanted to do. He traveled all over the map and eventually found that writing poetry and stories would help ease his misery. Poe wrote an astonishing amount of poetry and short stories for the short life span he had (1809-1849).
Poe’s Style and Technique Versatility
Poe’s disturbed life had a great influence on the variety of literary elements that he used. Because of the tragedies and horrible situations he got himself into, we can see many things such as pain, fear, or agony reflected in the work he has done. The two short stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” have very similar noticeable literary techniques in common: writing style, irony, and point-of-view. Poe’s writing technique has been discriminated against by many well-known authors, mostly because of the fact that they can’t relate to his ridiculously creepy subject matter, which is seen in his writing style.
Poe uses repetition of words to emphasize the meaning of a certain line or paragraph. For example, in the short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” Poe constantly repeats the word “very”: “true!-nervous-very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am.” We can also see a repetition of words in the short story “The Black Cat” where the author uses “hung it” when referring to how he would like to see the cat die. He uses these two words more than six times in one sentence. By using repetition Poe enables the reader to slow down the rate at which they read and register in their minds how unstable both of the narrators really are. In the two short stories “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” obsession is something that Poe uses as well. “The cat followed me down the steep stairs, and, nearly throwing me headlong, exasperated me into madness.” This is the author’s way of telling the reader that the narrator is fueled by the hatred for the cat and obsessed with seeing it to its death. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” the reader hears these lines: “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded – with what caution – with what foresight – with what dissimulation I went to work!” By using this kind of exciting description the author makes the narrator seem like an obsessive repulsive freak.
The point of view that each of the narrators has in these two stories is very similar. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” the narrator tries to convince the reader that he is perfectly sane, when in fact, it is totally opposite. We see this when the narrator tells us: “Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing”. The same goes for “The Black Cat” when the narrator says: “Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad I am not-and very surely do I not dream.” The stories of both of the protagonists are told in the first person and it is clear that both of these characters are slightly deranged. By using the first-person point of view, Poe has the uncanny ability to make his characters seem much more disturbed than they would appear if the story wasn’t told in their own words.
There is a distinct similarity in the ironic endings in both “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”. The one thing that both narrators thought would rid them of their paranoia would end up being the one thing that makes them even crazier. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” we can see this when the narrator says: “Villains! I shrieked, dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! – hear, hear! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!” In “The Black Cat” the narrator doesn’t actually talk about killing his wife, instead he indirectly relates his wife’s death to what must be done to the cat. After killing the both cat and his wife in the same process he feels no pain or agony as if they were one person. Both of the narrators in these essays think that after killing their enemies they will be relieved of the tension that is bunching up inside of them, but in fact, it ultimately leads to their demise.
After the inevitable death of Virginia in January 1837 was devastated, but he was prepared to lose her so he continued writing and lecturing. In the summer of 49,’ he returned to Richmond and became reacquainted with Sarah Elmira Royster, who had become a wealthy widow. Their marriage was set for the following October. But Poe’s depression and inner conflicts led to heavier drinking. Edgar led a reckless life roaming the streets.
Last Days and Death
Poe sometimes took his brother’s identity to mislead his creditors and John Allan. This lifestyle finally caught up with on September 28, 1849, when he got off a train in Baltimore drunk, and running a high fever. He immediately went to his friend’s house, but he was not home. Poe wandered off and wasn’t seen for five days. A stranger found Poe semiconscious, stretched on a broad plank across some barrels on the sidewalk. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he lapsed into tremors and delirium and eventually a coma. On the morning of the second day, he was much calmer but suddenly began ratings which continued through the following Saturday night. 5 am on Sunday morning, October the 7th Poe raised his head for the last time and said: “Lord help my poor soul.”
He died alone: His fiancée had no idea where he was and neither did his once caretaker Mrs. Clemm. He was buried in Baltimore’s Presbyterian cemetery the next day. Nevertheless, he continued to produce successful work despite his depression. A year later, however, Poe was found half-conscious on October 30 in a stupor near a saloon. He died in a hospital four days later, and to this day, nobody knows the cause of his death.
Poe’s last words express everything of his life. Even though he was a proud man not showing much weakness, he begged God to save his soul. He probably knew that he was insane regularly, and in his writings, but he probably let himself express his tragedies to the world as revenge for his terrible life. That may be one of the reasons why he didn’t commit suicide. If one were depressed as much as Poe, they would usually choose death over the living. His obsession with “death” results in writing many mysteries or stories involved with murder, disease, suicide, etc. Some of his writings are very astonishing and sometimes even lunatic, but it is not even close to his life experience. (Bloom, 1985) There were ten important people in his life that either died or left Poe abruptly. These catastrophes one by one damaged Poe’s ability to organize his emotions in his brain, and eventually destroyed it, resulting in Poe making so many mysteries.
Edgar Allen Poe could have been passed as a bum. He was a full-time drunk and a drug addict, but his ingenious mind led to some of the best pieces of literature we know today. His works are widely used in schools in North America and will always be around to show people how smart this man really was. Although he suffered from severe alcoholism along with drug abuse Poe was a very wise man and we can tell this from the work we read by him today. Not only are his short stories perfectly structured, but they can grab your attention like that of few other authors. Because Poe had many dramatic events in his life – which in turn caused his mental instability – his works were affected by life experiences. Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” are reflections of his life as are all of his works.
Edgar A. Poe was not only a poet, but also an acclaimed author, critic, and editor. He, in my opinion, is one of the greatest poets of all time because he didn’t follow the norm and went out on his own to do what he loved. He wrote about things that he genuinely felt during the times in his life that were the hardest. Edgar Allen Poe was very fun to write a paper on, and my sources were very informative.
Even though Poe writes such bizarre tales he is never quite taken in with them. He fears but is at the same time skeptical. He is frantic but at the same time lucid. It is not until the very end that Poe was consumed by something, and died. It might have been fear or something worse, something that could only be scraped up from the bottom of a nightmare. That is what killed him.
Poe’s stories contain within them a fascination for death, decay, and insanity. He also displays very morbid characteristics and in some cases, sadistic. His murderers always seem to delight in killing their victims in the most painful and agonizing way. Still, terror seems to be the main theme. That is what Poe tries to bring about in his stories. For example, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” what kills Roderick Usher is the sheer terror of his sister who appeared to have come back from the dead. He is now acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in American history. It is indeed a pity that he will never know or care.
Poe displays horror throughout all of his stories. A person will kill another, as in the case of The Tell-Tale Heart where the insane man kills his neighbor because of his glass eye. After he strangles his neighbor to death, he dismembers him and buries him beneath the floorboards to cover up for his crime. Poe also writes of mentally different people as in The Cask of Amontillado. The story tells of a man who sets a drunkard between two walls and then seals the walls up, leaving the drunkard to die from starvation and dehydration. This man is also crazy, he starts off the story by saying “¦ when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” Average human beings would not vow revenge solely due to an insult, mentally ill people, on the other hand, would be more apt to do this.
Edgar Allan Poe is a creative writer who not only displays his ability to write horror stories but also is able to exhibit the moral and psychological realities of life. Generations will be born and generations will die, but throughout time Edgar Allan Poe will still be one of the best writers of the macabre in American history.
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Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1977.
Lawrence D.H. Modern Critical Views on Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
May, Charles. Edgar Allan Poe: a study of the short fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Meltzer, Milton. Edgar Allan Poe: A biography. Brookfield: Twenty-First Century Books, 2003.
Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe revisited / Scott Peeples. New York: Twayne Publishers; London: Prentice Hall International, 1998.
Pickering, James. Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Stories. NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.
Tilton, Rafael. Edgar Allan Poe / by Rafael Tilton. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2003.