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Edgar Allan Poe is one of the leading figures of American literature. He is known as a poet and a critic, but is most famous as the first master of the short story form, especially tales of the mysterious and gruesome. In Poe's poems, like his tales, his characters are tortured by nameless fears and longings. Today Poe is acclaimed as one of America's greatest writers, but in his own unhappy lifetime he knew little but failure.
Poe had an unstable family life. The insecure place he held at home interfered with his emotional stability. He was born as the son of actors. "The two were not notably talented; they played minor roles in third-rate theatrical companies." (Buranalli 7) Between them they barely managed to make a living. Poe was the second of their three children. About the time the third child was born, the father died, or disappeared, and Mrs. Poe went to Richmond, Virginia with the two youngest children. The oldest child, William Henry, had been left in the care of his grandparents in Baltimore shortly after his birth. Mrs. Poe was overtaken by a fatal illness (tuberculosis). Devastated by the disease and worn out with the struggle to support her children, she died. Edgar, two years old, and the infant, Rosaline, were orphaned.
Poe was taken into the home of John Allan, a wealthy merchant. His wife, Frances Allan, had no children and wanted to adopt Poe as her son. Mr. Allan was unwilling to commit himself to a step of such permanence. "The acting profession was despised at the time and was even considered immoral." (Meyers 11) Mr. Allan thought the little son of actor parents was a questionable person to inherit his name and the fortune he was busy accumulating. He was however, willing to support the child, to please his wife.
Family was of the greatest importance in Richmond, the place where Poe spent most of his boyhood. Poe felt the difference between the children at school and himself. He was not close to his (foster) father, like other boys were. Mr. Allan's unwillingness to adopt him bothered him greatly. It hurt him that he was not wanted enough by his father to legally be his son. He acted out in fits of temper and rebellion. His family did not understand his reasoning for being so upset. Mr. Allan was a hardheaded businessman with no patience for Poe's "reasonless" actions. "He handled the situation by reminding the boy of his 'disreputable' parentage; he reproached him for lack of 'gratitude' for his home." (Buranelli 37)
Mr. Allan had from time to time engaged in extra-marital relations. Some of his natural children were then living in Richmond and the knowledge of this, in one way or another, seemed to have become known to his wife. Her sorrow was great. When Edgar learned of his foster father's affairs, he took sides with his mother.
Mr. Allan was cold to Poe and it was seldom that they got along. Poe was eager to escape the Allan house, and was relived when he was sent off to the University of Virginia. His foster father provided him with considerably less than the amount necessary to pay his way. In order to maintain his position he began to gamble heavily, this only led him to greater debt. By the end of the year he owed 2,500 dollars. He was nervous and unstable, and he began to drink. Mr. Allan's pride and thrift could not tolerate such conduct. Without delay, he pulled Poe out of the University and set him to work at a lowly, routine job in his counting house. Poe despised his job and his foster father, so he left home.
After this point the only time Poe communicated with his foster father was when he needed money or needed to be bailed out of a difficult situation. Mr. Allan reluctantly helped him, until the death of Mrs. Allan. When Mrs. Allan died his foster father remarried and disowned Poe.
Although Poe had no support from his (foster) family, he still made a success of himself. He was praised in his time, as he is now, but he was never paid much for his work. His career started when he won a story contest for the "MS. Found in A Bottle" in 1833. The prize money was not much, but one of the judges, novelist John P. Kennedy, had an interest in Poe and befriended him by helping him sell a story to the new Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond. Poe joined the editorial staff of the magazine and soon became its editor. A number of his own stories appeared in its pages. He was shown to be an able editor and perceptive literary critic. He made a name for both himself and the magazine.
Unfortunately, Poe was an alcoholic. He was dismissed from the Messenger for intoxication, taken back, and again dismissed for the same reason. Poe looked for work in a publishing house or with a magazine, but had no luck because during this time there was a financial panic and various magazines were compelled to cease publication. He successfully published a long sea story, called "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym". " This story was so convincing in its detail that some critics were sure it was the record of an actual voyage." (Carlson 78)
After two years, Poe began editing again, this time for Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine. A contract for a Monthly feature set him to writing some of his stories of horror and the supernatural. These stories were collected and published under the title, "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque" in 1840, followed by The Prose Romances of Edgar Allan Poe. The same year Burton's was sold (the name was changed to Graham's Magazine) Poe became editor of its successor. "Under his management, it became perhaps the most important American magazine of its day." (Carlson 84) In it was printed his first detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue".
In 1843, his story, "The Gold Bug", won a $100 prize from the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. This brought him considerable publicity. The next year, he left Graham's Magazine. Soon after, his poem, "The Raven", was published in the New York Evening Mirror. It was reprinted in a number of magazines, and at once became extremely popular. "Poe himself often read it to groups, with the lamps turned down until the room was almost dark, while his voice took on an appropriately eerie tone." (Meyers 152) With "The Raven", Poe reached the height of his fame.
Nevertheless, his reputation brought him little money, and the family remained desperately poor. Few free-lance writers can make a living by writing only; most depend upon editorial and other positions. Poe worked briefly on the Evening Mirror, the Broadway Journal, and wrote a series of sketches for Godey's Lady's Book. He was successful in getting such editorial jobs, but he never held them long. "Alcoholism and mounting mental disorder made Poe quarrelsome and unreasonable." (Carlson 209) He was known to often have outbursts of senseless rage. His childish tantrums and his hostile verbal attacks offended the very persons who could have helped him most in his career.
When Poe lost his wife, his last hold on reality vanished. He worked feverishly at writing a book, "Eureka", which he believed would be an expression of profound truth. The book was a strange jumble of unproven scientific statement and wild imaginings, springing from his disturbed state.
It is known that Poe was the originator of the American short story. There had been other short works of fiction, but Poe perfected the short story as an art form. Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, and Conan Doyle were all influenced by his writing. Poe was most popular for his detective stories. No one has outdone him in creating an atmosphere of morbid horror in such tales as "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tell-Tale Heart". It is sad that, though his talent was recognized and appreciated, he was never in very good financial state.
Poe's love life was just as depressing as his professional and family lives were. His romances all ended in despair. He met his first love, Sarah Elmira Royster, while he was attending the University of Virginia. She lived on a nearby street, so he visited he often. Before Poe left the University he was engaged to Elmira. Their affair was not made known to the adults of either household. Mr. and Mrs. Royster learned of the love affair and brought pressure to break off the match. "Poe's letters to his sweetheart were intercepted and Elmira was forbidden to write. The attentions of an eligible young bachelor, A. Barret Shelton, were pressed upon her, and she was finally sent away for a while into safekeeping." (Buranelli 94)
On September 22, 1835, Poe married his first cousin Virginia Clemm. She was only about thirteen years old at the time. Virginia was unfailingly devoted to him. She was sweet and gentle, but rather simple-minded. She could not follow the "wild frights of Poe's erratic genius", but she gave him an adoring, admiration. He showed his best self to her. In January of 1842 Virginia started showing symptoms of tuberculosis. She grew sicker steadily for five years, while Poe sank deeper into melancholia. During this time Poe resorted to drinking more than ever. There is also evidence of him using opium at this time. During the winter of 1846-47, when the couple had little food of fuel, Virginia reached the end of life.
After Virginia's death Poe became even more depressed and temperamental. He slept with many women in a vain attempt to find comfort for the loss of his wife. In 1849 he re-met his high school sweetheart, Elmira. They became engaged. After making wedding plans, he set out for New York City from Richmond, but disappeared in Baltimore. He was found five days after he disappeared very near death. He died without regaining full consciousness, four days later on October 7, 1849, ten days before the date he had set for his wedding.
Poe's life was indeed marked by misery and tragedy. He was abandon by his father, lived in poverty as a writer, and suffered the loss of many loved ones. On the other hand, maybe it was his dreary life that caused him to escape into the imaginative fantasy world that became his writer's playground. Looking at it from that perspective, perhaps his unfortunate personal life was the springboard for his success as a writer. Poe did, no matter, have great talent and will forever be remembered for his brilliance in American literature