EDGAR ALLAN POE (1809—1849) of Virginia can reasonably be described as the greatest and certainly the most creative American poet of the 19th century. As fiction writer and critic he ranks among the highest. Although he was born in Boston and spent the last few years of his short and unhappy life in New York trying to scratch out a living as a literary man, Poe was a Southerner. He emphatically considered himself to be and was so regarded in his time. Any doubt can be resolved by reading his frequent, biting, and sometimes hilarious skewering of the over-praised and self-promoting New England writers of the time and the culture that produced then. And it is not likely that any Northerner could have displayed the imaginative genius of Poe’s writings. The Yankees got revenge by downgrading Poe’s reputation to the point that it was not fully recovered until well into the 20th century and then due to the recognition given in Europe.
Orphaned early, Poe was raised in Richmond, Virginia, as a foster child of John Allan, a wealthy merchant. After Poe’s somewhat profligate spending as a student at the University of Virginia, he was disowned by Allan and for the rest of his life struggled with poverty in a society that could hardly support a writer without independent means. James Fenimore Cooper and William Gilmore Simms had landed estates. Ralph Waldo Emerson married the terminally ill daughter of a banker. Henry David Thoreau’s father owned a factory. Herman Melville relied on a post in the New York Customs office for support. Poe received ten dollars for “The Raven,” a poem famous throughout the entire English-speaking world.
Poe’s poetry has a unique and innovative musical beauty that is still moving and widely admired. His short stories are still read, particularly those of the “horror” genre which have spawned an endless series of bad movies. “Gothic horror” had already made an appearance in Europe when Poe took it up, but he made creative use of the trend. In his stories “The Purloined Letter” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe is considered to have invented the detective story, a type of fiction which is massively popular. A major prize for mystery writers is named for him. Although Poe’s essays and criticism are not as well known as his poetry and stories, their quality is as high as that of his other writings. They, in fact, provide a major review of American society and literature during the 1830s and 1840s.
Only a few volumes of poems and stories were published in book form during Poe’s lifetime and much of his writing was scattered through magazines. The first comprehensive and still useful collection of poetry, fiction, and criticism was James A. Harrison, ed., The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, published in 17 vols. in 1902. Today most of Poe’s works are online in a multitude of sources, each with its own slant and rule of selectivity. Two good biographies of Poe can be found at 07.09.01 and 07.09.04.