Poe: Explore the Myth

Who was Edgar Poe?

Poe created a new form of psychological tale in which the character's descent into madness becomes the central theme. In spite of his numerous contributions to lyric poetry, science fiction, and mystery, Poe's reputation as the master of the macabre remains secure. More than merely continuing in the tradition of Gothic literature with its roots in the British Horace Walpole and the German E. T. A. Hoffman, Poe replaced the supernatural element in Gothic literature with the demons of the character's tormented imagination. Poe discarded the moral lesson, the happy ending, and the theme of virtue rewarded in favor of creating an emotional impact on the audience. He brings the reader into the mind of the insane and, decades before Sigmund Freud, explores the darkest recesses of the subconscious.

A Social Outcast

Born in Boston on 19 January 1809, Poe was the son of actors Elizabeth ("Eliza") Arnold Poe and David Poe. At that time the acting profession was still considered immoral. For part of Poe's childhood, acting was banned in his hometown of Richmond, where as a child he bore the stigma of having been the son of "players." John M. Carter noted that despite Poe's being the ward of a prominent Richmonder, one of Poe's classmates "held himself too high to associate with the son of an actress and a pauper, and let the high-strung [Poe] understand it."

Making her American stage debut in Boston in 1796, Elizabeth Arnold performed more than two hundred roles in theaters from Boston to Charleston. Norfolk, Richmond, and Alexandria were regular stops for companies. Abandoned by her husband, David Poe, who she married in she was left with three young children. When Eliza Poe died in Richmond on 8 December 1811, at age 24, she was buried against the east wall of the cemetery at St. John's Church because her profession prevented her from being buried near the respectable citizens.

"Nobody Coming to Mary Me, as sung by Eliza Poe." Published in The American Star; Being a Choice Collection of the Most Approved Patriotic & Other Songs. Richmond: Peter Cottom, 1817. Library of Virginia.