Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). Eleonora, The Fall of the House of Usher & The Purloined Letter.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

THERE is probably no American man of letters over whose life and character controversy has raged more violently than it has over the life and character of Edgar Allan Poe. The biography prefixed to the first collected edition of his works was, to put it mildly, unsympathetic; and later writers, in seeking to dress the balance, have perhaps gone farther than the facts warranted in the other direction.

Poe’s father, the descendant of an English family that had settled in Maryland, was educated for the law, but became an actor and married an actress. Edgar was born in Boston on January 19, 1809. His parents died when he was only two years old, and their three children were left destitute. The elder brother died young; the sister lost her mind; and Edgar was adopted by a Mr. Allan. It seems that Mr. Allan and his wife indulged the boy unwisely, and later Mr. Allan resented in Poe the absence of the qualities of restraint and discipline which he had done nothing to instil.

While Mr. Allan was in England between 1815 and 1820, Poe attended school there; and on the return of the family to Virginia, he continued his education first in Richmond and then at the University of Virginia. There he developed a fondness for gambling and drink; and, Mr. Allan having refused to pay his debts, he left college and enlisted in the United States army. After two years of good conduct, his adoptive father obtained his discharge and had him entered at West Point; but the next year he was expelled for neglect of duty and was henceforth thrown on his own resources.

Meantime he had printed a volume of poetry, and the success of his tale, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” introduced him to the publishing world. From this time on (1833) his life was that of a literary hack. He was employed successively on the staff of the “Southern Literary Messenger,” of the New York “Quarterly Review,” and of “Graham’s Magazine;” and for a short time he edited a journal of his own, the “Stylus.”

When free from the influence of liquor he seems to have been a diligent and capable worker, and personally attractive and well-bred; but his addiction to alcohol led to the breaking of all his engagements. In 1835 he married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, a very young and beautiful girl, who died after painful hardships in 1847. Her mother had been Poe’s chief protector after he was cast off by Mr. Allan. After Virginia’s death, Poe was engaged to a Mrs. Whitman, and later to a Mrs. Shelton. He died miserably in a hospital in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.

Such was the career of the man who, in the eyes of many European critics, was the greatest literary genius which America has produced. He gained distinction in the three fields of criticism, poetry, and the short story. In the first of these much of his writing has sunk into obscurity because of the unimportance of the writers criticized; yet there survive several notable contributions to literary theory. His poetry is marked by an extraordinary and highly individual quality of melody, and by a power of rendering with great effectiveness moods of strange and mysterious subtlety. Of his tales, the three which are here printed are representative. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” we have an example of his creation of an unreal but vividly imagined situation, wrought out with almost unparalleled richness of suggestive detail, and making its appeal not so much to our senses as to our nerves. “Eleanora” is more akin to his poetry, and is one of those pieces in which he may be supposed to have started with personal experience and to have idealized and heightened it till it produces almost the effect of pure fantasy. Finally, in “The Purloined Letter” we have his remarkable logical capacity exhibited in the production of one of the first of modern detective stories. Whether or no America has produced a greater genius than Poe, it would be hard to prove that it has produced one more original.

W. A. N.