Hello everyone and welcome to another Little Lecture Presentation. My name is David and I am happy to share with you the background and context of the famous Edgar Allan Poe.
So, what will you learn from this video? That is a very good question and one that should always be answered early on as I don’t want to waste any of your valuable time. This video will briefly cover a few different areas pertaining to Poe. We will mostly investigate his background, looking closely at the major events of his life, his impact on literature, and the major features of his writing. In looking at these different categories we will also grasp a bit of the historical context including some popular literary trends as well as imagery from the locations that Poe lived. If you would like to investigate some of Poe’s stories more deeply, be sure to check out our other presentations, including the story analyses and conference presentations on Poe. Well, Let’s Begin!
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809. His mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe was a rather successful actress and was able to earn a respectable salary and accolades. Unfortunately, she passed away when Edgar was only two years old. Poe’s father, David Poe Jr., was not successful and brought much stress to his mother. Shortly before her death, he left the family, leaving Poe with no parents when his mother passed away. Luckily, for Poe, another family stepped in to care for him. John Allan, although never officially adopting Edgar, became Edgar’s foster father. This is why Poe took on the middle name of Allan. His foster father ran a successful mercantile business in Richmond Virginia, where Poe would spend much of his childhood.
Poe, throughout his life, attended a few different schools. When he was very young, he received private schooling in Virginia until John Allan moved the family to England for five years while he settled some new business propositions. While in England, Poe attended the Manor House School just outside of London. When the family returned to the United States in 1820, Poe finished his schooling in Virginia before moving on to University in 1826. Like many other creative people, Poe did not last very long in college and only spent one year there. This was mostly a result of his financial concerns as he liked to gamble and left himself with little money to pay his tuition. Poe would also spend a year at the military school, West Point, in 1830. The picture you see on the bottom of this slide is from Thomas Jefferson’s collection and it is an image of the University of Virginia when Poe would have been attending
As mentioned with his short time at University, Poe often found himself in some tricky financial situations and was continually looking for ways to make money. One of these ways was writing poetry and stories for newspapers and magazines. While Poe’s foster father was a successful businessman, he refused to help Poe with his monetary problems. This was why Poe had to leave both University and West Point, as he was unable to continue paying his tuition. With the prospect of his father’s help gone, Poe turned his attention to other ways to make money and decided that writing might work. It is important to note, as it helps to better understand Poe’s writing and it will come up later in this presentation, that Poe’s livelihood depended on the selling of his stories and poetry, so unlike author’s today who may be more experimental or literary, Poe had to make sure he was reaching his market audience by writing to their tastes. This led to Poe writing more short fiction, rather than poetry, even though he wanted to be a poet. Furthermore, it is crucial to consider how a reader of the time would interact with Poe’s stories. He did not publish his tales as books, but rather, he published his stories in magazines and newspapers for daily entertainment. Poe’s fans would be looking for his next story much in the same way that people now wait for the new season of Stranger Things to release on Netflix. Speaking of context, I would like to show some images, over the next three slides, to let you see just what the American landscape may have looked like for Poe.
This first image is one of a busy city street in New York in the early 1800’s. Poe would end up living in a few different places in his life including, Richmond, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Upstate New York. Much of his time was spent in cities, similar to this image.
This next image is also of New York City, but from a more bird’s eye perspective.
The last image here is of Philadelphia in the early 1800’s. Hopefully, these images can help place you in the time period that Poe worked in.
While Poe is most famous for his fiction he did write other works as well, including non-fiction criticism and essays. It is rather amazing to consider that in only a five year period, from 1840-1845, Poe wrote nearly all of his most famous pieces. Although his fiction was popular, his criticism and essays impacted fiction as well. Poe argued that poetry should be focused on beauty and part of this is the need for the poem to have a musical quality to it. This is why so much of Poe’s poetry has heavy rhyming and strong rhythms. Poe was an advocate of the short story and helped popularize the genre as he argued that it was the better form when compared to the novel. Poe felt that both poetry and short fiction, because of their compact nature, require great cohesiveness and unity. Poe noted that this connectedness made these works stronger than the novel as the shorter pieces provided only what was required and as a result needed to be much more carefully written. Overall, the connectedness of the plot and idea offered a stronger piece of fiction, and these ideas are still practiced today by writers of short fiction.
Poe’s financial concerns were not his only problem. In 1835, he married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. Poe loved her deeply and they seemed to have a healthy relationship, but unfortunately, in 1841, Virginia began to show signs of tuberculosis. This illness was extremely hard on the Poe family as Virginia existed on the brink of death and Edgar was continually tortured by thinking she had died or would die soon. This stress, along with the stress of trying to publish fiction weighed on Poe to the point that he began heavily drinking. It would also seem that this period, when Virginia was sick, provided inspiration for Poe as he turned to writing about death and madness more frequently. Six years after getting ill, Virginia passed away.
I wanted to show this quote, which comes from a letter that Poe sent to one of his friends in 1847, that describes how severely Virginia’s illness weighed on him. In the letter, he notes that continually thinking she had died after finding her extremely ill made him face the prospect of her death over and over again, which turned him to drinking. He also explains how he felt he lost his mind while dealing with the situation and very nearly went completely mad. It is interesting to note how similar this letter sounds to so many of Poe’s narrators or characters, suggesting that Poe used his own troubles to help him write his weird tales.
Poe did not live long after his wife, as he died in 1849 while in Baltimore, Maryland. Eerily similar to his stories, Poe’s death is still a mystery as he was found, possibly drugged and drunk in Baltimore and was taken to the hospital where he would later die. Although there has been much speculation, ranging from – he was an alcoholic and drank himself to death – to he was drugged and forced to wear different clothes to cast more votes in the election and the drugging killed him – there is not and probably will never be a definite answer in the death of Poe. The important thing to point out though, is Poe lived a rather normal life. Often people and textbooks make him out to be some crazy lunatic but he was simply a brilliant, creative, and mildly strange man who liked to write stories to earn money.
As is the case with most authors, Poe exhibits very unique characteristics that can be observed in nearly all of his works. I will provide a quick overview of his most common traits, while the more specific lectures in this series will look more closely at the characteristics present in a single story. With that being said, this is not an exhaustive list, but will provide you with a working knowledge of Poe’s most distinctive features so that you can keep an eye out for them while reading or discussing these works in class. The first, would be Poe’s use of the American Romanticism style. As mentioned earlier, Poe was writing to entertain a large audience, and the Romantic literary movement was very popular while he was writing. American Romanticism focuses on the workings of the human mind, seeing it not as a closed door, but an open window in which to investigate humanities inner workings. While Poe decidedly takes a more dark approach to this, it is clear that his focus is on the mind and the many ways in which it functions. Many of the following features I discuss will further expand on the Romantic element. Poe was known for writing gothic fiction, and inspired many future gothic and southern gothic writers. Characteristics of the gothic to look for in his works would be overly dark and dismal locations that are described in detail and often a supernatural presence – including hauntings or unexplained events. Reflecting the interest of investigating the mind, many of Poe’s tales and poems have characters that are struggling with encroaching madness. Poe liked to utilize psychological ideas in his writing, working with current medical ideas at the time, involving how our brain and emotions function. Often, characters in Poe’s tales will describe their thoughts or their actions will clearly be tied to some observable concept, such as anxiety or perverseness. Many of these characters who exhibit mental decline become unreliable narrators. This creates a sense of confusion for the reader, further building the eerie gothic feel of the works. Many of Poe’s protagonists are also unnamed, further adding to the unreliable claim but also helping to apply a sense of universality to his tales, making each reader feel as if they could struggle with what the character is feeling. Finally, it would be a shame not to notice all of the symbolic value Poe includes in his works. The locations that are described in detail are usually symbolic of parts of the mind, such as descending into the basement, which would reflect going deeper into the subconscious or more primal emotions. Likewise, when characters are named, their names usually have some significance to the story. Be sure to keep an eye out for all of the symbolism present while reading.
Finally, I will leave you with a list of important Poe works to consider readings or studying. Most of these are short stories, however, “The Raven and Other Poems” as well as “Annabel Lee” are poetry collections. Thank you for watching and I hope this little lecture was helpful. If you enjoyed it, be sure to hit like and subscribe to our page and most importantly, check out our website at little-lecture.com. Have a wonderful day and happy reading!