Edgar A. Poe:

In the Valley of the Shadow

Edgar Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to Elizabeth ("Betty") Arnold Hopkins, an English actress, and David Poe, an Irish actor. The father deserted the family of four (Edgar's elder brother was William Henry; his sister, Rosalie) when Edgar was still an infant; the mother died when Edgar was three -- only the first of the tragedies that plagued his life. The children were adopted by John Allan, a wealthy tobacco exporter in Richmond, Virginia and raised by his wife, Frances, aided by her elderly servant Nancy.

Poe was educated at a boarding school in London, at a private school and an academy in Richmond, and at the University of Virginia. From the latter Poe was dismissed after just a year (though in good scholastic standing, including distinction in French and Latin), due to drinking and gambling (he ran up a debt of $2,000 -- a small fortune in those days), to which he turned owing to financial hardship. (He never got along with his foster father, who refused to support him fully at the university, and whose name he adopted but used only as an initial.) Back in Richmond, Poe wrote his first serious poem, "Tamerlane" (later his first published work) out of heartbreak over the marriage of a woman he loved.

Poe tried his luck in Boston but could not find work and enlisted in the Army under an assumed name. He was athletic and had set a school record with an impressive mark in the long jump (21' 6"). Here he continued writing poetry and soon decided army life was not to his taste. He revealed his true name but was only granted a discharge on the condition he reconcile with Allan. The latter refused, sending Poe into his first nervous breakdown; meanwhile, Frances Allan died, and John Allan fulfilled her request to mend relations with Poe, who obtained his discharge.

In the meantime, Poe's first small books of verse, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827) and Al Aaraaf (1829) were published and met with critical acclaim. He again broke with Allan and moved in with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virginia. For some reason, Poe again tried a military career, entering West Point in mid-1830 but immediately regretting it. He renewed his drinking and gambling and was court-martialed in early 1831.

In 1832, Poe published his first short story, the occult "Metzengerstein," in The Philadelphia Saturday Courier, followed by four others. In the following year, Poe submitted six short stories, collectively entitled Tales of the Folio Club, to a contest sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor; one of these, "MS. Found in a Bottle," considered one of the first science fiction stories, won both the $50 first prize and acclaim for its 24-year-old author. (At this time, also, Poe began experimenting with opium, following the lead of Coleridge and Elizabeth Barrett.) He now published regularly and in 1835 became editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, to which he returned. Love and loneliness led Poe (in 1836) to marry Virginia, though only aged thirteen and his cousin.

Poe's drinking and womanizing led to his dismissal from the Messenger, though it continued to publish his work, including the serialized Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket (a tale of adventure to the Antarctic which would inspire sequels by Jules Verne and H.P. Lovecraft). After a fruitless year in New York the Poes moved (in August 1838) to Philadelphia, where they remained for six years. To survive Poe did hack work including a text book on shells. At this time Virginia's health began to fail. Poe found a position on Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine and saw publication of "The Fall of the House of Usher," one of his masterpieces. Toward the end of 1839, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published, collecting in two volumes 25 of his best stories -- the "grotesque" tales were his humorous pieces, often satires on Gothic works, while the "arabesques" were the better known horror stories.

Poe was occupied with critical and editorial work during most of 1840. He long dreamed of editing his own magazine, and at the beginning of 1841 he began The Penn Magazine. It was a failure. He went to work for Graham's Magazine and in April published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" -- called "the world's first detective story." The following month, "A Descent into the Maelstrom" was finally published in 1841 (it was written at least nine years before); Verne's Captain Nemo would revisit the Norwegian phenomenon in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Now Poe was drawing a handsome salary of $800 a year, but in January of 1842 disaster struck -- Virginia began hemmorhaging while singing -- her first tubercular attack. Poe went to drinking and lost yet another promising editorial position, though he produced the now-classic "The Masque of the Red Death" and "The Pit and the Pendulum." The following year saw the publication of additional horror classics "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat," and the mysteries "The Gold Bug" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget."

In 1844, after finishing "The Raven," the Poes went again to New York, where Poe perpetuated his famous "Balloon-Hoax" in the pages of the Sun. Free-lance work followed, and by the end of the year Poe was on the staff of another newspaper, the Mirror -- where, in January of '45, "The Raven" was published. Success came overnight and the poet's reputation was established. He joined the Broadway Journal. That summer Wiley and Putnam published a volume of Tales and Poe's success was such that by October he acquired ownership of the Journal. In November, The Raven and Other Poems was brought out by Wiley & Putnam. Unfortunately, Virginia's health had taken another bad turn, Poe resumed drinking, and his paper folded after only four months.

Previously, in 1843, Poe had published "The Rationale of Verse;" and now "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) appeared. In these essays Poe set forth his theory of writing, which emphasized economy of words, tightness of construction, the supreme importance of effect. These formulations put into words what he had long practiced as author of numerous reviews in addition to his own creative work.

In January of 1847, Poe's beloved Virginia died of tuberculosis. He was demolished. He wrote little, apart from the mournful "Ulalume," until the appearance, the following spring, of Eureka -- A Prose Poem, published in two small editions totalling 750 copies by George Putnam. Despite its subtitle, it was a philosophical manifesto with far-ranging implications. Poe considered it to be his masterpiece, though others considered it lunacy and it has been largely ignored. Poe continued his project of publishing his own magazine, now to be titled The Stylus, but failed to obtain the needed support. At last a sponsor appeared from nowhere, one Edward Patterson, who dispatched Poe on a lecture tour in the summer of 1849 to promote the venture. Not surprisingly, this ended in disaster, another breakdown, and even attempts at suicide. A final recovery led to a brilliant lecture in Richmond, in August, on "The Poetic Principle." On a couple occasions he was close to remarrying -- both women of means. One prospect was ruined by rumors of the other prospect and by Poe's inevitable drinking. The second ended tragically in Baltimore, where he had travelled to make wedding arrangements. While some contend Poe simply drank himself to death, others believe he was encouraged to drink and then used as a "repeat voter." Whatever the truth, one of America's greatest writers was dead at the age of forty.

Poe's creative writing transformed and extended Romanticism and Gothicism, while his critical theory presaged Symbolism. Translated by Baudelaire, he was much admired by the French, strongly influencing the aesthetic schools of the Decadents and Symbolists, and was also revered by the Surrealists. But of all his accompishments, it is for his tales of terror (and the mesmerizing poem, "The Raven") that Poe is best remembered. H.P. Lovecraft, granting Poe the singular honor of his own chapter in his landmark Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927, 1933), acknowledged his master as the "deity and fountain-head of all modern diabolic fiction."

Alan Gullette

First posted: July 27, 1996
Last updated: October 21, 2004

Selected Authors of Supernatural Horror

Ambrose Bierce H.P. Lovecraft Edgar A. Poe
Algernon Blackwood Arthur Machen M. P. Shiel
Lord Dunsany Fitz-James O'Brien Clark Ashton Smith
William Hope Hodgson Other Links Photo Gallery

Alan Gullette, Oakland, California. Email: alang@alangullette.com