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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Gothic Undercurrents

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Henry Ward
- Ambrose
- Charles
Brockden Brown
- Emily Dickenson
- Charlotte
Perkins Gilman
- Nathaniel
- Washington
- Herman
- Edgar
Allen Poe
- William
Gilmore Simms
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Edgar Allan Poe
[7244] W. S. Hartshorn, Edgar Allan Poe (1848),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-10610].

Edgar Allan Poe Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Born to the teenage actors Elizabeth Arnold and David Poe Jr. (in a time when acting was a highly disreputable career), Edgar Allan Poe was raised by a Richmond, Virginia, merchant named John Allan after both his parents died. Allan sent Poe to the University of Virginia, but Poe left after quarrelling with Allan in 1827. Allan had no patience for Poe's literary pretensions, and Poe found Allan cheap and cruel. Poe then sought out his father's relatives in Baltimore, where he published his first volume of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems, and later secretly married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. He moved with his wife and her mother to Richmond, Philadelphia (where he wrote several of his most famous works, including "Ligeia," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "The Tell-Tale Heart"), and then to New York City. Throughout these relocations, he worked editing magazines and newspapers, but found it difficult to hold onto any one job for very long. Poe's horror tales and detective stories (a genre he created) were written to capture the fancy of the popular reading public, but he earned his national reputation through a large number of critical essays and sketches. With the publication of "The Raven" (1845), Poe secured his fame, but he was not succeeding as well in his personal life. His wife died in 1847, and Poe was increasingly ill and drinking uncontrollably. He died on a trip to Baltimore, four days after being found intoxicated near a polling booth on Election Day.

Poe was influenced by the fantastic romances of Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. However, unlike most of his famous contemporaries, Poe rarely described American life in any direct way in his writings. Often set in exotic, vaguely medieval, or indeterminately distant locations, Poe's work seems more interested in altered states of consciousness than history or culture: his characters often swirl within madness, dreams, or intoxication, and may or may not encounter the supernatural. His literary reputation has been uneven, with some critics finding his extravagant prose and wild situations off-putting or absurd (and his poetry pedestrian and repetitive). Poe's defenders, however (including many nineteenth- and twentieth-century French intellectuals), see him as a brilliant allegorist of the convolutions of human consciousness. For example, there are many "doubles" in Poe: characters who mirror each other in profound but nonrealistic ways, suggesting not so much the subtleties of actual social relationships as the splits and fractures within a single psyche trying to relate to itself.

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