Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849)

1200px-Edgar_Allan_Poe,_circa_1849,_restored,_squared_offEdgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, United States, on January 19, 1809, and died on October 7, 1849, in Baltimore, United States. He was an American writer, editor, and literary critic. Poe is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. He is widely regarded as a central figure of Romanticism in the United States and of American literature as a whole, and he was one of the country’s earliest practitioners of the short story. He is generally considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. He was the first well-known American writer to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career.

Poe was the second child of actors David and Elizabeth “Eliza” Arnold Hopkins Poe. His father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died the following year. Thus orphaned, the child was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. They never formally adopted him, but he was with them well into young adulthood. He attended the University of Virginia but left after a year due to lack of money. Edgar Poe quarrelled with John Allan over the funds for his education and enlisted in the Army in 1827 under an assumed name. It was at this time that his publishing career began with the anonymous collection Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), credited only to “a Bostonian”. Edgar Poe and John Allan reached a temporary rapprochement after the death of Frances Allan in 1829. Poe later failed as an officer cadet at West Point, declaring a firm wish to be a poet and writer, and he ultimately parted ways with John Allan.

Poe switched his focus to prose and spent the next several years working for literary journals and periodicals, becoming known for his own style of literary criticism. His work forced him to move among several cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. He married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, in 1836. In January 1845, Poe published his poem “The Raven” to instant success, but Virginia died of tuberculosis two years after its publication.

Poe planned for years to produce his own journal The Penn (later renamed The Stylus), but before it could be produced, he died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849, at age 40. The cause of his death is unknown and has been variously attributed to alcohol, “brain congestion”, cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, suicide, tuberculosis, and other causes. (Source: Wikipedia)

In just five stories published between 1841 and 1845, Edgar Allan Poe laid down most of the ground rules of detective fiction. In the three tales featuring chevalier C. Auguste Dupin (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, and “The Purloined Letter”) he created the Great Detective, not to mention the locked-room mystery, the notion of armchair detection and the secret-service story; “The Gold Bug” revolved around the use of cyphers; “Thou Art the Man” made use of false clues and the least likely suspect; and “The Oblong Box” which, as Xavier Lechard pointed out to me “is much less frequently anthologized and thus more obscure than the other five.” “It doesn’t have a detective but it is a mystery nevertheless, complete with a puzzle, several clues and a solution that while obvious today must have been a knockout at the time”. The Mystery Writers of America have named their awards for excellence in the genre the “Edgars.”

Poe’s Detective Bibliography:  “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841); The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” – A sequel to “The Murders In The Rue Morgue” (1842-43); “The Gold-Bug” (1843); “The Purloined Letter” (1844-45); “Thou Art the Man” (1844); and “The Oblong Box” (1844).

“Historians of the detective story are divided between those who say that there could be no detective stories until organized police and detective forces existed, and those who find examples of rational deduction in sources as various as the Bible and Voltaire, and suggest that these were early puzzles in detection. For the first group the detective story begins with Edgar Allan Poe, for the second its roots are in the beginning of recorded history.” (Bloody Murder by Julian Symons. Published with revisions in Penguin Books, 1974).


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jacket)

Poe’s mysteries include not only “The Gold-Bug” and the three Dupin tales, but also, “Thou Art The Man” and “The Oblong Box”. In addition, both “The Spectacles” (1844), and “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” share much of the form of mystery tales, with surprise solutions hinted at through clues in the stories, and many scenes and incidents having two meanings, one surface, one hidden and revealed at the end, even though neither has a detective or an explicit puzzle to solve. “Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” could be a formal model for Melville’s mystery tale “Benito Cereno”, although I know of no explicit evidence that Melville actually read Poe’s tale.

Most of Poe’s mystery stories were written during a relatively short period, 1841 – 1844. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) is the most important of Poe’s mystery works. It is the first, and the one that set the form of not only Poe’s other stories, but of all subsequent mystery fiction.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” seems like a direct ancestor of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. The relationship of Holmes and Watson seems similar to that of Dupin and the narrator. They meet and move in with each other, just as in A Study in Scarlet. And the narrator deeply admires Dupin, just like Watson and Holmes. The storytelling style also seems close to Doyle. The way in which Dupin announces he has a visitor coming, whom they must capture to solve the mystery, is very close to Doyle’s climaxes. The emphasis on Dupin’s intellect, and the use of reasoning and deduction to solve the mystery, anticipate both Doyle and detective fiction as a whole. Dupin’s explanations of how he solved the case seem very similar to those of Holmes. (Source: Edgar Allan Poe by Michael E. Grost).

Further reading: Poestories.com and The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

%d bloggers like this: