Saturday, January 19, 2013

January 19: Edgar Allan Poe's Birthday

Although he's dead and has been for some time, we're still celebrating Edgar Allan Poe's birthday today. He would be 204 today, and we think he deserves at least a post for his troubles.

If you were unable to subtract 204 from 2013, you should know that he was born in 1809 and only lived to age 40. He was born Boston, Massachusetts and briefly attended schools in Irvine, Chelsea and Stoke Newington in the United Kingdom before eventually settling with his foster family, the Allans, in Richmond, Virginia.

He spent about a year at the newly established University of Virginia studying ancient and modern languages, but ended up dropping out. As an 18 year-old (although he said he was 22), he enlisted in the army and served as a private at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor. His first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was released the same year. It was pretty much a horrendous failure, with only 50 copies published that few took notice of.

When he actually reached 22 his elder brother died, due in part to alcoholism. Poe focused on his writing and struggled, like many do, to make ends meet. After a few publications he was noticed by John P. Kennedy, who helped him in classic business style by introducing him to a few movers and shakers. This helped land him a job as the assistant editor for the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond until he lost his job for being drunk.

They were kind of sweet, though. Virginia wrote
this acrostic poem for Edgar one Valentine's Day.
In a part of his life that should be brushed over, Poe, quite disgustingly, married his 13 year-old cousin, Virginia, in Baltimore. The ceremony was held in secret, though he did later marry her in public. He eventually got his job back at the Southern Literary Messenger and returned to Richmond.

He stayed at the Messenger until 1837, and afterwards published the majority of his works. His cousin-wife fell ill to tuberculosis and Poe, who was already fond of booze, started drinking more. Virginia died in 1842, which obviously didn't help Poe's drinking problem either.

Poe went out with a few other women following his wife's death but with little success. More often than not his drinking problem and erratic behaviour got in the way. Poe was eventually found in a bad state on 3rd October 1849. Supposedly delirious and calling out "Reynolds", he later died at Washington College. All records concerning the cause of his death have been lost, so it remains a mystery. 

While Edgar Allan Poe had quite an erratic life, he is most known for the mark he left upon literature. During his lifetime, he was known not as a writer but as one of the fiercest of literary critics. Later in his short life, he began to gain notoriety for his short stories and poetry. His works were dark, and many of his stories and poems dealt with death. He was one of the first Americans to write short stories, and is even credited by some, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories), to have invented the detective fiction genre.

An 1858 illustration for "The Raven"
done by John Tenniel. 
Two of his most famous works are "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven". The first is a short story in which the narrator tries to convince you that he's sane while describing a murder he has committed. Eventually, he begins to hear the beating of his victim's heart from under the floorboards. We won't spoil the details of the story for you if you haven't read it, but it's definitely an interesting read if you're not too squeamish. 

You may also know his narrative poem entitled "The Raven", especially if you're a fan of The Simpsons. It tells of an upset lover and a mysterious talking raven that appears and repeatedly utters the word "nevermore" to him. However, as we pointed out yesterday, there are no such things as talking birds. Most of Poe's stories were quite dark, and we can only imagine that had to do with his life. Nevertheless, he left an indelible mark on literature, especially the mystery genre. The Edgar Award is even given out each year by The Mystery Writers of America for distinguished work in the genre. Last year's winner was a British author named Mo Hayder, for her novel Gone.