Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849
Poe, Edgar Allan 1809-1849, Writer. The South's most renowned literary artist of the 19th century spent most of his productive years as a struggling journalist in large northern cities. Born on 19 January 1809, in Boston, Mass., Poe was the second child of David and Elizabeth Arnold Poe, both active theatrical performers on the East Coast of the United States. His father mysteriously disappeared in 1810, and after his mother's subsequent death, in December 1811, he became the foster son of John Allan, a prominent Richmond, Va., tobacco merchant who gave Poe many childhood advantages. In 1826 he attended the University of Virginia, leaving after only a few months to join the United States Army. His first volume of poems, entitled Tamerlane and Other Poems, was privately published in 1827; a second volume, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, appeared in 1829 shortly after he was honorably discharged from the army. Aided by his foster father, he entered West Point in 1830 as a cadet but was soon discharged for failing to heed regulations. Beginning in 1829, influential writers and journalists like John Neal and John P. Kennedy began to support his efforts to attain literary prominence. Poems,, a third volume of poetry, was published in 1831.
Thoroughly trained in the classics and in the rhetoric and aesthetics of the Scottish common-sense school of philosophers, Poe was, according to the critic Robert D. Jacobs, indeed a southerner by temperament and inclination. Many of his formative years were spent in the southern cities of Richmond and Baltimore, the latter being the home of his blood relatives. Choosing a literary career after the death of his foster father, Poe began to contribute critical reviews to the Richmond Southern Literary Messenger in 1835 and later became its editor for two years. He married Virginia Clemm, his cousin who was less than 14 years old, in 1836. Until his death in 1849, Poe worked tirelessly as an editor and a reviewer, composing at the same time poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays of the highest literary excellence. He contributed to several noted American periodicals and newspapers; and in October 1845 he edited and briefly owned his own magazine, Broadway Journal.
Poe published his only major long piece, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, in 1838 and a short story collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, in 1839. His poem "The Raven," printed in the New York Evening Mirror on 29 January 1845, brought him considerable recognition. Tales, a second collection of short stories, and a third volume of poems, The Raven and Other Poems, appeared in 1845. After the death of his wife in January 1847, he continued to write and to pursue his ambition of owning his own magazine. In early October of 1849, while traveling to New York to marry Sarah Royster Shelton, a widowed former sweetheart, Poe stopped in Baltimore, where he was later found ill on a city street. He died in a Baltimore hospital on 7 October 1849. His unexpected death was noted by nearly every significant newspaper and magazine in the eastern United States.
A controversial figure, Poe has been the subject of much speculative analysis. Generally, his biographers conclude that his instability as a person was in part due to the pressure of being a journalist. Although periodically he experienced poverty and the ill effects of poor health, Poe managed to perfect a variety of literary forms. He absorbed the current wave of romantic thought, which in his day brought significant changes in literary theory and practice. His classical bent, along with his background in Scottish philosophy and aesthetics, contributed to his theory of unity of effect and to his ideas about the short poem. He and Nathaniel Hawthorne introduced the ambiguities of symbolism in their Gothic tales, and Poe is credited with defining the short story as a distinct literary form. His attempts to formulate an objective method for writing poetry had some impact upon the French Symbolist poets of the later decades of the 19th century. In the area of popular literature, he is said to have fathered the modern detective story and some forms of science fiction.
Poe believed his art—all art—should be evaluated by international, rather than national or regional, standards, but he was, nonetheless, frequently identified at the time with the South. He did not defend his region's politics or social customs, like other antebellum southern writers, but his lyricism was common to southern poets. Raised a Virginian, Poe sometimes posed as the southern gentleman, even if transcending regionalism in his work.
J. Lasley Dameron
Memphis State University
James A. Harrison, ed., The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1902); Robert D. Jacobs, Poe: Journalist and Critic (1969); Arthur H. Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941).