|Edgar Poe was born to itinerant actors in Boston in 1809. His mother Elizabeth Arnold
Poe died when Edgar was two, by which time his father, David Poe, had disappeared. He was
raised as a foster child by Frances Allan and her husband John Allan, a tobacco exporter
of Richmond. Poe spent his youth between the ages of six and eleven with the
England where he attended boarding school. Returning to Richmond, Poe later enrolled for a
year at the University of Virginia. His tenure was marked by distinction in Latin and
French and ended with the withdrawal of Allan's support due to Poe's gambling debts.
eighteen, Poe set off for Boston where he published his first volume of poems. He
subsequently enlisted in the army for two years. Following a brief reconciliation with
Allan after his foster mother died, he obtained an appointment to West Point. But
Allan soon remarried; Poe lost all hopes of Allan's support and he left West Point because the
service was an inappropriate career for a young man of little means. Although Poe
romanticized his forbears and pretended to have set off for Greece and St. Petersburg in
some idealized aristocratic pursuit of freedom during his years in the army, it is clear
that he faced, from age twenty two, a life of struggle and poverty.
In 1831, Poe published a new collection of poems. He appears to have spent most of the
next four years in Baltimore living with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter,Virginia.
These were difficult times letters to Allan indicate Poe feared imprisonment for debt and
mentioned that he was perishing for want of aid. During this period, Poe was writing tales
and selling them to journals in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Poe as he appeared in Graham's Magazine in 1845.
When he became editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond in 1835, Poe found
his vocation: editor, critic and contributor to a series of journals, each of which
flourished under his guidance. Poe married Virginia in 1836. With Maria Clemm they formed
a household which, in 1837, moved from Richmond to New York and thence to Philadelphia
where Poe enjoyed his most productive and most contented years. In 1844, they returned to
New York where Poe briefly owned his own journal. It was in New York that Virginia died of
tuberculosis in 1847.
Following Virginia's death, Poe rapidly disintegrated, returning to Richmond in 1849
still preoccupied with the goal of his lifetime: owning his own journal. Setting off for
New York shortly thereafter to visit Mrs. Clemm, his hopes still high for the future, Poe
traveled no farther than Baltimore. There he died in delirium of "acute congestion of
the brain" and was buried near his grandfather in the Presbyterian cemetery.
Exactly how long Poe lived in the small brick house now connected to 530 North Seventh
St. is unknown. Apparently, he moved into this house sometime between the fall of 1842 and
June of 1843 and left in April 1844. Like all of Poe's homes, this one was rented. It may
or may not have been furnished when Poe; his wife, Virginia; his mother-in-law, Maria
Clemm; and their cat, Catterina, moved in. Whatever furniture they used or purchased has
disappeared without a trace.
The importance of this house lies in its location and its connection to Poe. During the
entire six years (1838-1844) that Poe lived in Philadelphia, he attained his greatest
successes as an editor and critic, and he published some of his most famous tales,
including, "The Gold Bug," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The
Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". Of his several
Philadelphia homes, only this one survives. It serves as a tangible link with Poe and his
days of greatness in Philadelphia. For this reason, it is fitting that Congress chose this
site as our nation's memorial to Edgar Allan Poe.
Edgar Poe has cast a long shadow: he has probably had a greater influence than any
other American writer. Although Poe's tales and poems range from masterful to ludicrous,
Poe exerted his most significant influence as a man who understood the temper of his
times, and foreshadowed so much of the future of literature. His wide-ranging tales and
his broad criticism sought a method for American literature where none had prevailed. Poe
deliberately sought great variety in his tales. A review of his more than seventy pieces
of fiction testifies not merely to his range, but also to the significant popular genres
he created or made his own which today form the staples of American fiction.
Poe's greatest influence comes about in the murder mystery. He can be said to have
invented it when he published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue''. Although murders in
fiction existed before Poe, his preoccupation with the ingenious solution of the crime
established in his tales of ratiocination (the process of exact thinking) changed the
emphasis from the acts to getting the facts. Poe's cerebral and eccentric detective Dupin
("the ingenious are always fanciful and the truly imaginative never otherwise than
analytic") who also appeared in "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "'The
Purloined Letter" is the identifiable ancestor of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes,
Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason and all those other
heroes whose minds are "resolvent and creative".
One popular genre which can be traced back to Poe, science fiction, was seen more as a
hoax by Poe's contemporaries. Orson Welles' radio broadcast of a Martian landing is a
later example of the American hoax or tallstory tradition. In "The Unparalleled
Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" in which Poe attempted an ingenious simulation of a
balloon flight to the moon or in "A Descent into the Maelstrom,' Poe's imaginative
science and pseudo-science made for compelling pieces of fiction which led to future
amplification in the work of such writers as Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke.
Another popular form which Poe created, was the treasure-mystery combination with
builtin clues, which Robert Louis Stevenson later capitalized on. This type of story has
been required adolescent reading for decades, but was poorly developed until the "The
Gold Bug was published.
Poe is justifiably famous for his tales of terror, his "arabesques" as he
called them, in contrast with his "grotesques" or humorous satires on Gothic
works. From "Morella", the first of his treatments of the death and terrifying
rebirth of a beautiful woman which was to find its most compelling expression in "The
Fall of the House of Usher", Poe uses his awesome imaginative power. In such tales as
"The Black Cat", "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Pit and the
Pendulum", Poe developed his ability to convey imagined horror by making it
Because of the power of Poe's narrative voice, many a tale is indelible. Poe's
imaginative sociology in "The Man of the Crowd" will tell you more about
loneliness in the crowd than David Riesman did. The psychological analysis in
"William Wilson" is an excellent and frightening exploration of split
personality two generations before Freud.
One would think that Poe would be best remembered for his powerful tales, but much of
his international reputation rests on his critical acumen which pointed in equally new
directions. Poe was among the first to discern the tendency of the age toward "the
curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused" In a famous critical piece,
Poe recognized Hawthorne as one of our "few men of indisputable genius;" he went
on to formulate his famous conception of the short story, which must be designed for
"a single effect" and every word of which must be made to count.
Poe applied his test of condensation to poetry. He had read and absorbed Coleridge, and
he responded to the aesthetics of the European romantics. When Poe embodied romantic
tendencies, abridged them into rules with his assured spareness and so decreed that a poem
must be short as well as extraordinarily crafted, he foreshadowed the direction of
symbolist and modern poetry. In his essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe
proceeded to deliver a detailed account of every step in the process of designing
"The Raven," ostensibly to suit popular and critical taste at once. Poe himself
spoke of this essay as being his "best specimen of analysis." The essay
epitomized Poe's greatest critical contribution, his insistence upon the application of a
rigorous method in all forms of thought."
Poe's approach to literature, his famous method which emphasized strict artistic
control rather than the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion, earned him the homage of
the French symbolists such as Baudelaire who spent fourteen years translating his tales. A
phrase in Marginalia," "my heart laid bare" becomes the title of
Baudelaire's journal, while another phrase "the orange ray of the spectrum and the
buzz of a gnat...affect me with nearly similar sensations" was reflected in
Baudelaire's epoch making sonnet "Correspondances ."
Poe's method leads to the symbolist poetry of Mallarme and to Rimbaud and the
dreaminspired surrealists Poe's brooding heroes and symbolic houses lead to the decadent
heroes, new Roderick Ushers with their concern for the artifical detail of their shut-in
paradise, reflected earlier in such Poe tales as "The Masque of the Red Death"
and "The Philosophy of Furniture".
Poe is returned to America through French symbolism, and so made digestible to such
important American poets as T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. In opposition to the romantic
stress on the expression of personality, Poe insisted on the importance not of the artist,
but of the created work of art. He stands as one of the few great innovators in American
literature who took his place in international culture as an original creative force.