Poe: About the Man

Who was Edgar Allan Poe?

He was an antebellum Virginian, a journalist, a performer, an amateur scientist, and, as the son of an actress, a social outcast. These factors shaped both the man and the literature he produced. The result was the birth of American Literature.

"I am a Virginian."

In calling himself a Virginian, Poe identified himself with the state in which he had been reared, educated, and begun his career in journalism. Until about 1820, Virginia was the largest, most populous, and most influential state in the Union.

When the actress Eliza Poe died in Richmond in 1811, she had three young children. William Henry Leopold Poe grew up with his grandparents in Baltimore. Rosalie Poe grew up in the Richmond family of William MacKenzie and his wife. John Allan and his wife Frances Keeling Valentine Allan took Edgar, age two, into their household and gave him the name Allan when he was baptized. A successful merchant, Allan ensured that Poe received a good education but never adopted him. According to Poe, Allan showed him little affection, and tensions between the two increased as Poe grew older. In the Allan household, Poe learned the characteristics of a southern gentleman–proper etiquette, chivalry towards women, and a sense of class distinction.

Poe grew up accustomed to the fine furnishings with which the Allans decorated their homes. As an adult, he lived in poverty in a succession of sparsely furnished rented rooms and houses, but the characters in his fictional works, such as "The Raven" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," live in the kind of opulent manors Poe knew in his childhood.

Insurance Declaration for Moldavia. Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia. Declarations and revaluations. Library of Virginia.

"And this maiden she lived with no other thought … Than to love and be loved by me."

"To Zante". 6 November 1840. Philadelphia. Manuscript. Tane Collection.

Poe's first fiancée, Elmira Royster Shelton, inspired the poem "To Zante." Poe became engaged to her before he left Richmond to attend the University of Virginia, but her disapproving father broke off their relationship by intercepting Poe's letters. The incident that Poe scholars believe inspired this poem occurred ten years later, when Poe and his new wife, Virginia Clemm Poe, encountered Shelton and her husband at a party. Shelton's description of the encounter survives in one of her letters: "I remember seeing Edgar & his lovely wife, very soon after they were married. … I shall never forget my feelings at the time–They were indescribable, almost agonizing–However in an instant, I remembered I was a married woman, and banished them from me."

Elmira Shelton. Ca. 1850. Daguerreotype. Poe Museum.

Poe's first and last fiancée, Elmira Royster Shelton, is pictured here in about 1850, when she was about forty years old. In July 1849, twenty-three years after their first engagement and both widowed, Poe and Shelton became engaged again.

Poe used realistic details to change fantasy into science fiction.

During his lifetime, Poe's best-selling work was The Conchologist's First Book, a textbook on shells. His last book, which he considered his most important work, is Eureka, a long philosophical essay in which he tries to explain the mysteries of the universe. Here he proposes an early version of the "Big Bang" theory of the origin of the universe–eighty years before the scientific community embraced it. Poe's other scientific interests included astronomy, biology, and modern technology. He was fascinated by the recent invention of photography and by the possibility of the creation of the electric light bulb, which was invented almost forty years after his death. Poe proposed replacing the expensive typeset printing of his day with a form of anastatic printing similar to the modern photocopier. He hoped this technology would allow books to be published inexpensively so that a wider audience could afford them.

The Conchologist's First Book. Bound volume. Library of Virginia.The Conchologist's First Book

This text book reveals something of Poe's scientific interests. A biology text book is also attributed to Poe. Just as important, this book reveals Poe taking on an uncreative piece of hackwork as he struggled to make a living as the first American writer to support himself solely through his writing. The work might not have fulfilled Poe's need for creative expression, but the fifty dollars it brought him were very much needed to supplement the income he received from magazine work.

"Hans Phaal, A Tale.". Published in the Southern Literary Messenger. 1835. Library of Virginia.

Poe published his early science fiction story, "Hans Phaal, A Tale," while he was editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. He incorporated scientific details to make the account of a trip to the moon sound plausible. The story is one of many travel adventures in which Poe used scientific-sounding details to add realism to his fiction. Without this sense of realism, Poe's science fiction would not have evolved from tales of fantasy. Poe's use of realistic details allowed him to make his tales of terror more effective than the Gothic tales popular with the public. In fact, he claimed that some readers thought this was a true story. Poe's science fiction inspired the French writer and "Father of Science Fiction" Jules Verne, who also wrote stories of space travel and futuristic technology.

Poe was the first American author to live by his writings.

Many American authors of Poe's day were able to devote themselves to writing because they had access to family fortunes or because they had comfortable positions at universities. Left entirely out of John Allan's will (which made provisions for illegitimate children Allan had never seen), Poe become the first American writer to make a living from his writing.

After publishing three volumes of poetry, Poe turned to magazines as a ready market for his work. He began his career in journalism as an editor at Richmond's Southern Literary Messenger in 1835, when he was twenty-six. In addition to the first appearances of Poe's early horror tales "Berenice" and "Morella," the pages of this magazine also featured the scathing literary reviews that first brought Poe national attention. With biting humor, he attacked the northern literary establishment and made personal attacks on some of his colleagues. Within seventeen months, Poe had increased circulation seven times, but his salary remained so low that he moved to New York and then to Philadelphia to work at a series of magazines in those cities.

Masthead from Southern Literary Messenger. Library of Virginia.

The experience Poe gained working at this magazine allowed him to pursue a writing career and to edit journals in New York and Philadelphia before he returned to Richmond in 1848 to contribute to the Southern Literary Messenger again. He continued to supply articles for the magazine until his death in 1849.

During Poe's life, books were expensive, but, thanks to new developments in printing, magazines and newspapers were cheaper and more readily available. Poe knew how to write stories and articles that sold magazines and he became editor of some of the most popular magazines in the country. His stories were not merely acts of self-expression but also devices calculated to entertain an audience. If his narrators sound insane, it is not necessarily because Poe was exorcising his own demons. It's more likely that he was writing the kinds of stories that he knew would attract and hold readers.

America's First Great Literary Critic

As proud as Poe was to call himself a Virginian, he felt slighted by the northern literary establishment, which tended to look down on southern writers. As a literary critic, Poe attacked the northern establishment and exposed its practice of "puffery" in which authors hired their friends to write positive reviews of their work in order to boost advance book sales.

Boston and New York were the center of the American publishing industry and home to many of the nation's most popular authors. In his reviews, Poe termed the Boston literary group surrounding the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a "legion of literary quackery" and criticized Longfellow for his lack of originality. Poe's antagonism toward northern writers made him unwelcome in literary circles and hindered his own career. Thirty years after Poe's death, another southern writer, William Hand Browne, wrote, "Some of the old vindictiveness against Poe still crops up occasionally in the Northern papers–partly because they hate the South and everything Southern, and partly because some of the old 'mutual-admiration' set still survives, and have never yet forgiven the man who told them the truth about themselves."

"The Literati of New York City.". Published in Godey's Lady's Book. September 1846. Library of Virginia.

Authors of the United States. Alexander Ritchie after Thomas Hicks. Engraving. 1866. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

Ripped from the Headlines

"The death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world."

The first modern detective story, Poe's immensely influential novella, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," laid the foundations for the mystery genre and initiated the "locked door" mystery, a murder that has taken place within a room that is locked from the inside. The success of the novella, first published in the April 1841 issue of Graham's Magazine, encouraged Poe to write two sequels, both featuring the same detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Poe's detective was the prototype for Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character created four decades later.

Poe used the newspapers' vivid descriptions of the corpse and crime scene to all but prove that a single murderer had committed the crime.

Today's most popular television shows, like Law and Order, frequently draw inspiration from the sensational murder cases that capture newspaper headlines, but Poe perfected the practice in the 1840s. When he read that a popular New York City "cigar girl," Mary Rogers, had been murdered and that the police were unable to find the murderer, Poe announced that he would solve the crime in his tale "The Mystery of Marie Roget." The story was published in three installments in Godey's Ladies' Book, a journal that had covered the real murder case. Poe knew that the public's interest in the actual murder would guarantee an audience for his fictional version.

From the newspapers' vivid descriptions of the corpse and crime scene, Poe deduced that a single murderer had committed the crime. Details in the case continued to reach the newspapers even after Poe published the first installment of his story. Afraid of having his solution proved wrong, Poe changed the ending at least twice.

"Mystery of Marie Roget.". Tales of Mystery, Humour & Imagination. London, 1852. Library of Virginia.

Father of American Literature

At the time that Poe published his first book, writers in the United States were trying to start an American literary tradition independent of British literature. Poe's taste for writing about distant lands and exotic cultures was different from his slightly older contemporaries, such as Washington Irving (author of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow") and James Fenimore Cooper (author of The Last of the Mohicans), who were trying to define American literature by writing traditional works about American subjects and settings. In contrast, Poe valued innovation and originality in literature. Poe would complain that Cooper relied too heavily on American subject matter at the expense of plot development and originality.

Birth of American Literature

Tamerlane and Other Poems, By a Bostonian. Boston, 1827. Tane Collection.

Poe published Tamerlane at the age of eighteen but claimed that he wrote much of it by the time he was fourteen. Other major poets of Poe's period–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Cullen Bryant, who were all older than Poe–would not issue their first volumes of poetry until the 1830s. The only information known about Tamerlane's distribution is a reference by Poe stating that its publication was "suppressed through circumstances of a private nature." So rare is the book that no copies were believed to exist until one was found ten years after Poe's death, and Poe's first biographer, Rufus W. Griswold, having never seen a copy, considered it a hoax. Only twelve copies are now known to survive, including this copy–one of two remaining in private hands.

Tales. Edgar A. Poe. 1845. Library of Virginia.

Detective fiction writer Ellery Queen described Poe's Tales as "the first and the greatest, the cornerstone of cornerstones … the highspot of highspots." A. S. W. Rosenbach, a collector and scholar of American literature, called it "the greatest volume of short stories ever to appear from the hand of man." Tales includes the stories that defined the modern detective story. With "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe became the first American author to initiate a new literary genre. British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his Sherlock Holmes mysteries on Poe's detective stories, and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote tales of pirates and buried treasure influenced by Poe's treasure-hunt mystery, "The Gold Bug."

"The Raven". Published in American Review, February 1845. Library of Virginia.The Raven and Other Poems

One of Poe's biographers, Hervey Allen, considered this book "the most important volume of American poetry to that time." The title poem, "The Raven," catapulted Poe to worldwide fame. The poem appeared anonymously in the February 1835 issue of American Review, a political journal, and was accompanied by a glowing introduction, possibly written by Poe. Without the protection of effective copyright laws, Poe saw his most pouplar works printed in magazines throughout the United States and Europe without his consent. Publishers, knowing that they could print authors' works without paying for them, were unwilling to pay high prices to recompense the authors. Poe received only fifteen dollars for "The Raven" but used his position as a popular magazine editor to champion the cause of international copyright law.

Le Courbeau. 1975. Illustrated by Edouard Manet. Translated by Stéphane Mallarmé. Facsimile. Library of Virginia.

Poe's works were immensely popular in Europe, especially in France, where translations sometimes appeared within months of their first printings in America. In 1875 the renowned French poet Stephan Mallarmé issued a new French translation of "The Raven" with illustrations by his friend Edouard Manet.

Not only did his poetry attract admirers in English-speaking countries, but it also appealed to French audiences. The renowned French poet Charles Baudelaire discovered Poe's works and spent much of his own career translating them into French. Poe became a major influence on avant garde French writers and artists, making him America's first internationally influential writer.

Better known as a painter who inspired the Impressionists, Manet rarely experimented with book illustration. This work is a particularly innovative example. Here, Manet has deviated from traditional book illustration and covered only parts of the page, sketching with a loose technique that borders on abstraction. Manet's illustrations dispense with the demons and angels found in illustrations of the poem by his contemporaries in favor of restrained representations of a scholar in his study.

The Raven. Illustrated by Gustave Doré, Elihu Vedder, Dora Wheeler. 1884. Library of Virginia.The Raven

The French artist Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was the most famous illustrator of the late nineteenth century. "The Raven" was the only the work by an American author that he illustrated and the last work he produced.

"The Raven". Illustrated by James Carling. ca. 1882. Courtesy of the Poe Museum."The Raven"

The Anglo-American artist James Carling created forty-three illustrations for a proposed volume of "The Raven." Believing that other artists' illustrations failed to capture the spirit of Poe's work, Carling described his drawings as "stormier, wilder, and weirder." Perhaps too "weird" for the 1880s, these drawings were not published until nearly a century later. Carling died at twenty-nine, and his reputation today rests primarily on his illustrations for "The Raven."