Edgar Allan Poe was a bizarre and often scary writer. People throughout history have often wondered why his writings were so fantastically different and unusual. They were not the result of a diseased mind, as some think. Rather they came from a tense and miserable life. Edgar Allan Poe was not a happy man. He was a victim of fate from the moment he was born to his death only forty years later. He died alone and unappreciated. It is quite obvious that his life affected his writings in a great way. In order to understand why, the historical background of Poe must be known.
Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809. His parents were touring actors and both died before he was three years old. After this, he was taken into the home of John Allan, a prosperous merchant who lived in Richmond, Virginia. 1 When he was six, he studied in England for five years. Not much else is known about his childhood, except that it was uneventful. In 1826, when Poe was seventeen years old he entered the University of Virginia. It was also at this time that he was engaged to marry his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster.
He was a good student, but only stayed for a year. He did not have enough money to make ends meet, so he ran up extremely large gambling debts to trying make more money. Then he could not afford to go to school anymore. John Allan refused to pay off Poes debts, and broke off his engagement to Sarah Elmira Royster. Since Poe had no other means of support, he enlisted in the army. By this time however, he had written and printed his first book, Tammerlane, and Minor Poems (1829). 2 After a few months though, John Allan and Poe were reconciled.
Allan arranged for Poe to be released from the army and enrolled him at West Point. During this time, his fellow cadets helped him publish another book of poetry. However, John Allan again did not provide Poe with enough money, and Poe decided to leave this time before racking up any more debts Still, Poe had no money and necessity forced him to live with his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, in Baltimore, Maryland. None of his poetry had sold particularly well, so he decided to write stories. He could find no publisher for his stories, and so resorted to entering writing contests to make money and receive exposure.
He was rarely successful, but eventually won. His short story, MS. Found in a Bottle was well liked and one of the judges in the contest, John P. Kennedy, befriended him. 3 It was on Kennedys recommendation that Poe became assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, published at Richmond by T. W. White. It was at this time that Poe went through a period of emotional instability that he tried to control by drinking. This was a mistake because he was extremely sensitive to alcohol and became very drunk just from one or two drinks.
In May of 1836 Poe married his cousin, Virginia and brought her and her mother to live with him in Richmond. It was during this time that Poe produced a number of stories and even some verse. 4 Over the next few years, Poe went from good times to bad. He had become the editor of magazines and had written books, but none of these were paying off enough. He would always be laid off the editorial staff for differences over policies. He was doing so poorly that by the end of 1846 he was asking his friends and admirers for help. He was then living in a cottage with Mrs. Clemm and Virginia.
Virginia was dying of consumption and had to sleep in an unheated room. After six years of marriage she had become very ill, and her disease had driven Poe to distraction. Virginia died on January 30, 1847, and Poe broke down. It is here that much is learned about him and why he wrote the way he did. All of his life he had wanted to be loved and to have someone to love. Yet one by one, he kept losing the women in his life. His mother, Mrs. Allan, and now Virginia. He had wanted to lead a life of wealth and luxury and still, despite his tremendous talent, was forced to live as a poor man.
When he reached manhood, after a sheltered childhood and teenage years, his life seemed to be caught up in failures. So, he did what most people do. He found a way to escape. His method was writing. He found so much in common with his characters, that his life began to emulate theirs. Although it is probably the other way around. How tragic that the one thing that he was good at never seemed to do him any good. No matter what he wrote, he just kept sinking further and further into an abyss. This abyss could be called death or ultimate despair.
When we read Poes stories, we often find ourselves wondering how such a mind could function in society. This quotation from American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, very accurately describes the landscape of Poes stories: The world of Poes tales is a nightmarish universe. You cross wasted lands, silent, forsaken landscapes where both life and waters stagnate. Here and there you catch sight of lugubrious feudal buildings suggestive of horrible and mysterious happenings…… The inside of these sinister buildings is just as disquieting as the outside.
Everything is dark there, from the ebony furniture to the oaken ceiling. The walls are hung with heavy tapestries to which mysterious drafts constantly give a hideous and uneasy animation. Even the windows are of a leaden hue, so that the rays of either sun or moon passing through fall with a ghastly lustre on the objects within. ……. it is usually night in the ghastly (one of his favorite adjectives) or red-blood light of the moon that Poes tales take place-or in the middle of terrific storms lit up by lurid flashes of lightning.
None of Poes characters could ever be normal, since they lived in this bizarre world. All of his heroes are usually alone, and if they are not crazy, they are on their way to becoming so rapidly. This leads one to wonder, just how lucid Poe was when he wrote these stories. Was he crazy or just upset and confused? Most texts and histories of Poe have it that he was influenced not only by his life, but by other writers. These include Hawthorne, Charles Brockden Brown, E. T. A. Hoffman, and William Godwin to name a few. Many of his stories show similarities to the works of the aforementioned.
Therefore another point is brought up, was Poe writing these stories as the result of a tortured existence and a need to escape, or was he writing to please readers and critics? In letters he wrote, he often pokes fun at his stories and says that they are sometimes intended as satire or banter. Also in his letters, he describes horrible events seemingly without any concern. So who can tell how he really felt since he might not have been totally sane and rational at the time. Even though Poe writes such bizarre tales he is never quite taken in with them. He fears but is at the same time skeptical.
He is frantic but at the same time lucid. It is not until the very end that Poe was consumed by something, and died. It might have been fear or something worse, something that could only be scraped up from the bottom of a nightmare. That is what killed him. Poes stories contain within them a fascination for death, decay, and insanity. He also displays very morbid characteristics and in some cases, sadistic. His murderers always seem to delight in killing their victims in the most painful and agonizing way. Still, terror seems to be the main theme. That is what Poe tries to bring about in his stories.
For example, in The Fall of the House of Usher what kills Roderick Usher is the sheer terror of his sister who appeared to have come back from the dead. According to Marie Bonaparte, one of Freuds friends and disciples, all the disorders Poe suffered from can be explained by the Oedipus Complex and the trauma he suffered when his mother died. The Oedipus Complex is best described as a childs unconscious desire for the exclusive love of the parent of the opposite sex. The desire includes jealousy toward the parent of the same sex and the unconscious wish for that parents death.
In fact, upon examining the women in Poes stories, we find that they bear striking resemblance to the mother that Poe never had. So one gets a glimpse at how Poes life, filled with insurmountable obstacles and full of disappointments, indeed played a role in his writing. A good comparison would be Vincent Van Gogh. He also endured hardship and died at an early age. Poe was only forty when he passed away. Insignificant in his lifetime, it was only after his death that he was appreciated. He is now acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in American history. It is indeed a pity that he will never know or care.