Edgar Allan Poe is a name even the literary illiterate know, but not many people know Edgar Allan Poe the person. When reading the works of this poetic genius many might think that he had a vivid imagination or just a morbid soul. The truth is that the works of Poe are based on his own life, the life of an orphan who suffered from an obsessive compulsive disorder and who eventually became diseased by alcoholism. Understanding Poe the man, who had true medical problems that caused erratic behavior and depression among many other things, is to have an understanding of the true meaning hidden behind the words of his poetry.
Poe earned his place as a major figure in American letters for his tales of the bizarre and fantastic, short stories that are structurally brilliant and considered precursors of many forms and themes in subsequent American and European literature (Bloom, Harold p. 491). Born of impoverished parents and orphaned at the age of two, Poe lived a brief and tragic life: a life whose legend has often proved an overpowering influence on the critical reception of his work (Bloom, Harold p. 491).
Before Poe was three years old both of his parents died, and he was raised in the house of John Allan, a prosperous exporter from Richmond, Virginia, who never legally adopted his foster son. Poe attended many of the best schools at that time. At the University of Virginia he distinguished himself academically, but after little more than only one year he had to leave because of financial debt and lack of adequate funds from Allan. Poe went on to enlist himself in the army where he finished and published his first poetry collection Tamerlane and Other Poems.
These works received no recognition. When his second set of works appeared in 1829, it received only slight attention. Also in 1829 Poe was honorably discharged from the army, having attained the rank of regimental sergeant major, and was then admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point (Gale Research p. 1).
However because Allan would neither provide Poe with sufficient funds to maintain himself as a cadet nor give the consent necessary to resign from the Academy, Poe gained a dismissal by ignoring his duties and violating regulations (Gale Research p. . He went on to New York after this where his third collection of works were published and then he moved on to Baltimore. Over the next few years the first of Poes short stories appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier and his MS. Found in a Bottle won a cash prize for the best story in the Baltimore Saturday Visitor (Gale Research p. 2). Despite this Poe was still broke and the death of Allan didnt provide him with any legacy.
Finally things began to look up financially when he accepted an editorship at The Southern Literary Messenger. His writing for the Messenger exhibited a unique talent for criticism characterized by a probing analytical quality (Bloom, Harold p. 1). With this job Poe made himself known as a wonderful author of all types of writing and as a critic with such imagination and insight that the world has yet to see someone as brilliant as he. After his wifes death from tuberculosis in1847, Poe became involved in a number of romantic affairs.
It was while he prepared for his second marriage that Poe, for reasons unknown, arrived in Baltimore, and about one month after his arrival he was discovered in a state of semi-consciousness; he died four days later without regaining the necessary lucidity to explain what had happened during the last days of his life (Gale Research p. 2). Aside from a common theoretical basis, there is a psychological intensity that is characteristic of Poes writings, especially the tales of horror that comprise his best and his best known works (Gale Research, p. 3).
These stories which include The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Tell-Tale Heart are often told by a first person narrator, and through this voice Poe probes the workings of a characters psyche (Gale Research, p. 3). This technique foreshadows the psychological explorations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the school of psychological realism (Gale Research, p. 3).
The sense of despair and melancholy in his work as well as his well-known concept that the greatest theme for poetry is the death of a beautiful woman, bear the influence of the Romantic movement (Bloom, Harold p. 1). It was Poes particular genius that in his work he gave consummate artistic form both to his personal obsessions and those of previous literary generations, at the same time creating new forms from which provided a means of expression for future artists (Gale Research, p. 4). It was not until the 1941 biography by A. H. Quinn that a balanced view was provided of Poe, his work, and the relationship between that authors life and his imagination (Gale Research, p. 5).
Nevertheless, the identification of Poe with the murderers and madmen of his works survived and flourished in the twentieth century, most prominently in the form of psychoanalytical studies such as those of Marie Bonaparte and Joseph Wood Krutch (Gale Research, p. 5). Added to the controversy over the sanity, or at best the maturity of Poe (Paul Elmer More called him the poet of unripe boys and unsound men), it was the question of the value of Poes works as serious literature (Gale Research p. 5).
Edgar Allan Poes personal life, especially the stories surrounding his drinking and early death, are dealt with extensively by Poes contemporary critics as well as those writing in the twentieth century (Bloom, Harold p. 491). In their confusion of the man and his literary creations, certain critics have ascribed to Poe a morbidity of character and a cruel and unnatural temperament. (Bloom, Harold p. 491).
This critical attitude was adumbrated by the publication of Poes letters under the direction of R. W. Griswold, his literary executor (Bloom, Harold p. 491). Griswold, for reasons unknown, sought to defame Poe by falsifying his letters and printing forged material that portrayed Poe as a bizarre and menacing character (Bloom, Harold p. 491). Although he was ultimately vindicated through the scholarship of A. H. Quinn and others, it has been the work of modern scholars to reestablish Poes reputation based on the work and not the man (Bloom, Harold p. 491).