Edgar Allan Poe

Snippet 1: A Brief Biography

Author, poet, editor, and critic, Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809. His parents were both actors, who died shortly after Poe's birth, leaving him to be raised by John Edward Allan, a well-to-do tobacco merchant, who never quite approved of his dreamy, poetry-writing foster child. Early on in life, Poe's gifts as a poet were recognized by his teachers, and by the age of eighteen he had published his first poem. It was called "Dreams," and in a way, it suggested Poe's life-long desire for a reality different from the one he lived. "Oh that my young life was a lasting dream....T'were better than the cold reality of waking life" he wrote. In the same year that "Dreams" was published, the young and very ambitious Poe also self-published his first book of poems, titled Tamerlane and other Poems. Poe is best known, though, for his tales of dark and macabre mysteries, in which he often focused on the twisted psychology of those who commit murder. In The Cask of Amontillado, for instance, the logical-sounding madman carefully explains how he hid his murderous intentions behind a cheery smile:

"It must be understood, that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation."

Perhaps Poe's most famous mystery is "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), in which he introduced the amateur investigator C. Auguste Dupin (Dupin reappears in later works as well). Poe's creation of Dupin, before the word "detective" even existed, is one of the reasons many people consider Poe to be the inventor of detective fiction, and Poe did indeed lay out the pattern for the modern crime novel, where the police fail to unravel the mystery and the amateur figures it out by following the clues. Poe was also the first American writer to try to earn a living from his writing, and for a while he almost succeeded. But luck turned against him. Plagued by money troubles, he died at the age of forty under fittingly mysterious circumstances. He was found lying unconscious in the streets of Baltimore and taken to a nearby hospital, where he died soon after.

Snippet 2: Quoth the Raven "Nevermore"

In a way, the bird's famous line from Poe's best-known poem "The Raven" pretty much sums up how many men of letters have viewed the work of Edgar Allan Poe. America's first philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson snidely referred to Poe as "the jingle man." Novelist Henry James said liking Poe's work was the mark of a "second-rate sensibility." The poet T.S. Eliot echoed James's contempt. Eliot insisted that only adolescents could like reading Poe. Yet the fact remains that Poe's "The Raven" was a smash hit as soon as it was published in 1845. The poem even earned him international acclaim. Not that national or international success did Poe much good. Deeply in debt and desperate for money, he still seems to have been paid only a one-time sum of ten dollars for the poem. He didn't get one red cent for all the copies sold afterward.

Reading Poe's famous poem, you're likely to agree with Emerson. However, that doesn't mean you won't be taken by these very different readings of the poem by Christopher Walken, James Earl Jones, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee, largely because it's fun to see what each man does with the poem's over-the-top melodrama and obvious rhyme scheme. My personal favorite is Chistopher Lee's version because it also includes dark and brooding drawings by French illustrator Gustave Doré. However, you may also be surprised at how expertly James Earl Jones notches down the clanging sound of Poe's rhyme in stanzas like this one:

Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door
Only this, and nothing more.'

Still, jingling rhymes aside, there weren't many who could match Poe's gift for creating eerie settings and bizarre characters, who, for all their weirdness, seem completely capable of turning up in the real world. If you don't believe me, watch this Australian version of his famous short story The Masque of the Red Death. Thanks to Poe, the plot is fast-paced and unfolds with just the right amount of suspense. The language, quoted from the story, is wonderful. It's emotionally moving and creepy at the same time. It will pull you right into Poe's world, where death, dressed up as a rotted corpse, turns up at a party and seriously spoils everyone's good time.

Snippet 3: Poe Goes Hollywood

Hollywood has always loved horror stories, and for good reason. Some of its biggest moneymakers have been horror films. No wonder, then, that several of Poe's stories were turned into movies. Often, the director of those movies was Roger Corman. Corman, in fact, made so many films based on Poe's fiction, people speak of Corman's "Poe cycle." Now, there are those who say Corman did Poe justice and that Vincent Price, who usually starred in Corman's Poe movies, was the perfect actor to play a Poe character. About Price, they might be right. But I think they are wrong about Corman's take on Poe. Corman seemed to miss what the British novelist D.H. Lawrence pointed out in his wonderfully weird little book Studies in Classic American Literature: Poe's characters are generally torn apart by internal demons, not external ones. Above all, they fear mental disintegration and loss of control. But those themes were apparently not interesting enough for Corman. For instance, if you take out his version of The Masque of the Red Death on DVD—something well worth doing just for the fun of seeing how Hollywood used to make horror movies—you'll see that Corman has made Prince Prospero, the main character, a sexual predator and devil worshipper (so much for those internal demons!). Corman must have thought Poe's prince, doomed by cruel arrogance and a belief in his personal invulnerability, was a little too bland to catch the public's fancy. He may have been right about that. But Poe, one of America's first and toughest literary critics, probably would not have applauded the changes to his work.

Last change made to this page: May 18, 2011