Friday, January 22, 2010

A Man of Mystery

by Jean Henry Mead

Edgar Allan Poe was not only one of the most brilliant and original American writers, he’s considered the father of the modern detective story.

Born 201 years ago on January 19, 1809, he was orphaned when his actor parents died.

Edgar’s godfather, John Allan, a wealthy Richmond, Virginia, merchant, took the three-year-old child into his home although he never adopted him. Edgar accompanied the Allans to Europe, where he attended schools in England and Scotland. When he returned to this country in 1820, he continued his education in Richmond and the University of Virginia, where he excelled in classical and romance languages. But he was forced to leave after only eight months because of gambling debts that led to his estrangement with Allan. Because he was penniless, Poe then joined the army.

He was appointed to West Point in 1930 but was expelled not long after for minor infractions of the rules. The first Mrs. Allan convinced Poe to reconsile with her husband shortly before she died but Edgar’s support was again cut off when Allan remarried. Poe then attempted to earn a living by writing alone. His first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, had been published anonymously in 1827, and was followed by two more books of verse in 1829 and 1831, which hardly caused a ripple in literary society.

Poe then moved in with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter Virginia in Baltimore. And in 1835, J. P. Kennedy was impressed with his prose and helped him become editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. While there he contributed poems, short stories and literary criticism, but lost his editorship because of his excessive drinking.

The following year he married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, and they moved to New York City in 1837. There he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in 1838. Then, in Philadelphia, he edited Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine from 1839-1840 and Graham’s Magazine from 1841-1842. Some of his stories were collected in a volume titled Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840. The Poes moved back to New York in 1844, where he worked for the Evening Mirror and edited and later owned the Broadway Journal.

Fame arrived in 1845 with the publication of The Raven and Other Poems, published in the U.S. and Europe. His young wife Virginia died two years later and Poe soon courted the poet Sarah Helen Whitman. But two years later he was engaged to Elmira Royster, a widow who had been his childhood sweetheart. On the way to the wedding, Poe attended a party in Baltimore, and indulged in so much alcohol that he died several days later at the age of 40.

Although Poe was tormented by his own demons, he was said to have been witty and considerate. He was also known to have been a good friend and affectionate husband. His greatness as a writer stemmed from a reported neurotic attraction to beauty, horror and death. “Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are both beautiful as well as grotesque. Poe's work also influenced that of Dostoyevsky, Swinburne, Tennison, Conan Doyle and the French symbolists.

I’ll never forget the first story written by Poe that I read in junior high, which I remember to this day: “The Cask of Amontillado.” I had nightmares for months afterward, dreaming that I had been walled up in a dungeon. But I later read “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” as well as his musical and sensuous poetry. Among my book collection is a leather bound copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, which I treasure and hope to find time to reread again some day.


Mark W. Danielson said...

No doubt, Poe was a talented writer, but he was hardly a role model. Then again, some of our best mystery writers have had difficult pasts. Perhaps that ingrediant also gives them an edge on developing gritty characters.

Jean Henry Mead said...

True, Mark. People who lead happy lives rarely write phenomenal prose.

Bill Kirton said...

He's always been one of my heroes. My own earliest encounter with him was 'The Hasty Heart' - very scary. I think, too, that the rhymes and rhythms of The Raven haunted me (in a positive sense) from the moment I read them:
And the silken sad uncertain
Rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.
I'm quoting these from memory - a memory laid down some 45 years ago. And there's a hilarious (but respectful) parody of it by C.L. Edson which is well worth seeking out. If you can't find it, I have a copy I'll send you. Thanks for highlighting a truly great original.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Bill. I'd love to have a copy.