Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Writers Born Today - Edgar Allan Poe

Mathew Brady [Public domain]
It's the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, born January 19, 1809 in Boston.

His contributions to American literature are unequaled. He invented the detective novel with his character C. Auguste Dupin when he published The Murders in The Rue Morgue. Without his tales of detection, there would be no Sherlock Holmes. His horror stories inspired H.P. Lovecraft, Steven King, and Alfred Hitchcock, to name only a few. Yet by the time he died in 1849, he was penniless. Only seven people attended his funeral.

 Being the child of two actors may have set the stage for his tumultuous life. By the age of three he was an orphan, and although he was taken in by John Allan, a wealthy tobacco planter from Virginia, his luck didn't seem to change much.

He was a brilliant student, but debts and poverty forced him out of school. Twice he fell in love and twice his love was taken from him, either through death or estrangement. When his stepmother died, his stepfather did not even inform Poe that she had been ill for a long time, and he arrived too late for the funeral.

Poe's relationship with his benefactor, John Allan, was always strained. While at college, Poe racked up thousands of dollars in debt, debt that Allan refused to help pay. As a result Poe had to drop out of school and seek employment. To earn a living (and some say, to dodge his creditors) Poe joined the army. Upon Allan's death, Poe discovered that he had been cut out of his stepfather's will.

Despite his financial setbacks, Poe received a better education that most, and had been writing poetry since his early teens. His first volume of verse, Tamerlane and other Poems, had been published when he was just 18, but sold few copies. Determined to make a living as a writer, he got himself kicked out of West Point.

His luck began to change when he was hired as the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe's literary criticism and reviews boosted both his reputation and the magazine's circulation. But he left after a quarrel with the magazine's owner. He arrived in New York just in time to see his first and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published. In 1839 he became editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and it was here that several of his short stories were published, including The Fall of the House of Usher and The Man That Was Used Up (a satirical early science fiction tale).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
By 1840, he was again unemployed. He tried to obtain a government position, but after that fell through he moved to New York, and lived in a cottage in the Bronx. By now his wife was sick with tuberculosis and Poe was drinking heavily to deal with the stress. But it was while in New York that Poe became a household name with the publication of his most famous poem, The Raven, in 1845. Overnight he became a literary sensation. Children followed him in the street flapping their arms and crying "Nevermore". But it's publication did not secure the financial success he needed. He was paid a mere nine dollars for the poem, less than 300.00 in today's dollars.

In 1847 his wife died and Poe began a downward spiral from which he never recovered. After being found on the streets of Baltimore incoherent in October, 1849, he was taken to Washington College Hospital. He died five days later, having remained unconscious most of the time. The mystery of his demise and his location in the four days prior to his hospitalization has never been solved.

After his death, a literary rival, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, was appointed the executor of Poe's estate. Having suffered under Poe's withering criticism in life, Griswold attempted to take revenge after Poe's death by publishing a biography that depicted Poe as a lunatic and degenerate. Whatever his intentions, the effort to destroy Poe's reputation backfired. People flocked to buy his works, delighted to read the stories of such an evil man.

Today, there are few persons planet Earth who have not heard of his name. A search on Google of "Edgar Allan Poe" yields nearly 15 million hits. The Mystery Writers of America have named their awards after him, and the highest achievement for a writer in the mystery genre is to win "The Edgar".

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