Saturday, January 19, 2008

Edgar Allan Poe -1-19-08

It's the birthday of the poet and short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe, (books by this author) born in Boston (1809). He was the son of two actors, but both his parents died of tuberculosis when he was just a boy. He was taken in by a wealthy Scotch merchant named John Allan, who gave Edgar Poe his middle name. His foster father sent him to the prestigious University of Virginia, where he was surrounded by the sons of wealthy slave-owning families. He developed a habit of drinking and gambling with the other students, but his foster father didn't approve. He and John Allen had a series of arguments about his behavior and his career choices and he was finally disowned and thrown out of the house.

He spent the next several years living in poverty, depending on his aunt for a home, supporting himself by writing anything he could, including a how-to guide for seashell collecting. Eventually, he began to contribute poems and journalism to magazines. At the time, magazines were a new literary medium in the United States, and Poe was one of the first writers to make a living writing for magazines. He called himself a "magazinist."

He first made his name writing some of the most brutal book reviews ever published at the time. He was called the "tomahawk man from the South." He described one poem as "an illimitable gilded swill trough," and he said, "[Most] of those who hold high places in our poetical literature are absolute nincompoops." He particularly disliked the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier.

Poe also began to publish fiction, and he specialized in humorous and satirical stories because that was the style of fiction most in demand. But soon after he married his 14-year-old cousin, Virginia, he learned that she had tuberculosis, just like his parents, and he began to write darker stories, about husbands preserving the teeth of their dead wives and people buried alive. One of his editors complained that his work was growing too grotesque, but Poe replied that the grotesque would sell magazines. And he was right. His work helped launch magazines as the major new venue for literary fiction.

But even though his stories sold magazines, he still didn't make much money. He made about $4 per article and $15 per story, and the magazines were notoriously late with their paychecks. There was no international copyright law at the time, and so his stories were printed without his permission throughout Europe. There were periods when he and his wife lived on bread and molasses, and sold most of their belongings to the pawnshop.

It was under these conditions, suffering from alcoholism, and watching his wife grow slowly worse in health, that he wrote some of the greatest Gothic horror stories in English literature. Poe's best-known short story is "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), about a man who kills his employer and then believes he can still hear the employer's heart beating. It begins, "TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story."

Near the end of his wife's illness, he published his most famous poem, "The Raven," about a young man visited by a raven in the middle of the night, and who comes to believe that the bird is possessed by the spirit of his dead lover, Lenore. It begins,

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —"

For many years after his death, Poe was considered by critics in this country to be a mere sensationalist writer of Gothic tales. But much of his work was translated into French, where he inspired a generation of surrealist poets and fiction writers, including Charles Baudelaire, who said that he prayed every morning to God, to his father, and to Poe. Today Poe is credited with having invented the psychological horror story and the detective story.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote, "All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream."

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