Edgar Allan Poe

by Beth Crawford

Poe's Sad Life Story

Edgar Allan Poe actually had a pretty good life... for two years. Just before his third birthday, his mother died of tuberculosis and his father abandoned Poe and his siblings. Poe went to go live with his foster family while his two other siblings went to live elsewhere. Poe's foster father, John Allan abused him and was pretty hammered most of the time. However, his foster mother, Frances Allan, taught Poe many different school subjects, including English and history, which he enjoyed. She also attempted to protect him from his abusive foster father. Poe enlisted in the army to escape John Allan and he excelled. However, he returned home when he learned that his foster mother had died of tuberculosis. After living with his Aunt for a while, Poe learned that his brother had died, also from tuberculosis. These deaths inspired Poe's famous poem The Raven. In 1834, John Allan died. Despite his and Poe's less-than-friendly relationship, Poe took his death horribly. He began to add opium to his alcohol and his poetry and prose became much more violent and dark. in 1836, Poe married his cousin, Virginia (who was not even 14 at the time). Sadly in 1837, she died of tuberculosis. Her death inspired, A Tell Tale Heart, and Annabel Lee. Soon after Virginia's death, Poe got engaged to a childhood friend. However, just 10 days before the wedding, Poe mysteriously died.

Edgar Allan Poe Death Theories

Ten days before his second wedding, Poe decided to take a trip to New York. However, he didn't even make it to Baltimore and his whereabouts were unknown for 5 days. A man named Joseph W. Walker found him delirious and lying in a gutter. In the following days, he never regained enough consciousness to explain why he was found on the streets, in clothes that weren't his. In his final days, he repeatedly called out "Reynolds" in his fits of delirium. His death certificate says phrenitis- swelling of the brain, but they really didn't know what had happened. Here are some of the top theories

1. Beating

Many think that after becoming senselessly drunk, Poe was beaten senseless and robbed by "ruffians"

2. Cooping

Another commonly accepted theory is that Poe became a victim of cooping- where gangs kidnap unsuspecting individuals and force them to vote for a specific candidate under multiple disguises. This would account for the fact that Poe was found on election day.

3. Alcohol

Poe, even though he was an alcoholic, had some condition where he would get drunk much more quickly than others. Some report him to be staggering after one glass of wine. So maybe he drank himself to death.

4. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Coal gas was used for indoor lighting in the early 19th century, which emitted carbon monoxide.

5. Heavy Metal Poisoning

Levels of mercury were found in Poe's blood after his death. This is most likely due to his exposure to the Cholera epidemic in Philadelphia. His doctor prescribed Mercury Chloride.

6. Rabies

Poe's symptoms resembled closely the symptoms of a person with the rabies virus. However, he did not develop hydrophobia, the fear of water, which many people infected with rabies develop.

7. Brain Tumor

Poe was buried in an unmarked grave without a ceremony. Later his body was exhumed so that he could be buried properly. When he was exhumed, they felt a little mass rolling around in his skull. Although believed to be his brain, we now know that the brain is one of the first body parts to decompose after death. However, it could be a brain tumor that calcified.

8. Flu

Maybe a less dramatic theory is that Poe fell victim to the flu which escalated to pneumonia on his deathbed.

9. Murder

Not a widely accepted theory, but it fits Poe's personality and works. This theory claims that Poe was murdered by the three brothers of his fiancee. The three brothers ambushed Poe and warned him from marrying their sister. Poe disguised himself in second hand clothes and hid in Philadelphia for a week before beginning the journey home. However, the brothers intercepted him in Baltimore, beat him up, and forced him to drink whiskey, which they new he could not handle.

Influential People and Motivations

John Allen- Poe's foster father who abused him from an early age and refused to pay for his college tuition. He later died, leaving Poe out of his will. After his foster father's death, Poe increased his substance abuse of both opium and alcohol. His writing was also affected. He began to more about sudden death. He also began to give more and more public displays of drunkenness, which began to hurt his reputation.

Frances Keeling Valentine Allen- Poe's foster mother who introduced him to English and history. She encouraged Poe's love of writing and English in his youth and attempted to shield him from his foster father's abuse. Mrs. Allen was probably one of the only people that Poe became very attached to. This made her death in 1829 extremely hard for Poe to handle. Her death inspired a new era in Poe's writing. His works began to become increasingly darker starting with The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Ligeia.

Virginia Poe- Poe's cousin who he married when she was only thirteen. However, their marriage only lasted one year due to her tragic death in 1837 of tuberculosis. Her death led to Poe's excessive drinking which would greatly effect the remainder of his life. She also inspired the poem Annabel Lee. Her death may have also been the impetus for A Tell Tale Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum.

Poe's mother- died when Poe was not yet three years old of tuberculosis. Although Poe was too young to be immediately affected by the death of his mother, he later lamented frequently about how much better his life could have been if he had not ended up in foster care.

Tuberculosis- The disease itself did not inspire Poe, but the havoc and sadness it caused him and his loved one's set Poe down the dark path. Of his few friends and family, tuberculosis killed four of them.

Poverty- One of Poe's impetuses for writing so many short stories and poems were his frequent and extreme impoverished years. At one point, Poe had to burn his own furniture to keep warm in the winter. He wrote more and more stories, hoping that one would be published so that he could continue to survive.

Defining Quote

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Mr. Poe in Modern America

Modern day America is always obsessing over their celebrities, politicians, and role models' lives. If Edgar Allan Poe lived in this time period, and adopted the same habits, I can honestly say I feel like he would be put into a mental institution. Edgar Allan Poe clearly had psychological issues and needed attention. With a more cognizant community, when referring to mental health, he would get the help he needed. However, he alcohol and drug abuse, combined with his mental issues, would probably give America the wrong impression of Edgar Allan Poe. He would be met with skepticism, sympathy, and probably some disgust or disdain from the American public. However, I think that his works, had he published them in this time period, would be more widely accepted. In the early 19th century, Poe's works were viewed with skepticism. In this time period however, I feel like the American public would accept his writings and, with the movie industry in modern times, perhaps even make a horror film out of one.

If I had Edgar Allan Poe's skills to write books and poetry across many genres and varieties, particularly in the horror or gothic genre, I would probably try to bring awareness to some of the terrible atrocities and overlooked issues occurring in developing nations across the globe. In some cases, the terrible events happening in some of these countries appear to have come straight from a horror book. Hopefully the novels that I would write would either scare people into helping/volunteering or at least make people more aware of what is going on in the world.

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In Alyssa Amaral's evaluation, Racial and Cultural Anxieties in Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, she evaluates the extent of which Antebellum American ideas of segregation and race appear in Edgar Allan Poe's novel that was published during the time period. Throughout her essay she develops her thesis- Poe's imagery and descriptions mirror events and ideas in Antebellum America-with specific examples from the book and by citing other sources. Throughout the essay in its entirety, Amaral maintains a completely emotionally vacant, informative tone since her essay falls strictly under the educational sector of essays. A purely educational mindset also prevents personal opinions about racial equality and segregation to cloud her evaluation of the novel and prevents criticism from the highly opinionated due to the factually orientated arguments. In the beginning of the novel, Poe only mentions racial and cultural differences in people when describing the cook of the Grampus, Seymour, as black. Later the issue becomes more prevalent as the Jane Guy approaches the island of Tsalal. Pym's describes nearly everything on the island as either dark or black: the native's skin, the land, the animals, even the natives' teeth are black. In addition, once the white sailors and natives come in contact, the natives appear to hold a disgust and fear for anything white-even flour or linens. On the island, the unusual qualities of the water streams catch Pym's eye. He notices two separate veins of water that, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot force to merge or even make contact. This symbolizes Poe's belief that races and cultures should not be mixed. He gives a terrible example of what, in his mind, could happen if racial and cultural mixing were to occur- conjuring the scene where the natives bury all of the sailors alive. This rebellion closely resembles Nat Turner's rebellion, which occurred around the same time that the novel was published. Additionally, Poe often describes the natives as "savage" or "barbaric" which was the norm in 19th century America. Thus, Amaral uses specific examples from the novel to support her assertion that the expansionist and racist ideologies of Antebellum America heavily influenced the novel's plot and symbolism.


Context of Pym

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was written in Pre-Civil War America (also Antebellum America). Andrew Jackson's presidency had just concluded and Martin Van Buren was inaugurated into office only a year prior to the novel's debut. Tensions between the North and South continued to escalate as the complicated matters of expansion and annexation of new states threatened to upset the balance of Congress and the House.

Timeline of events leading up to Pym:

1830- Indian Removal Act

1831- Turner's Rebellion

1832- Black Hawk War begins

1832- Trail of Tears begins

1833- Force Bill signed by Andrew Jackson

1835- Cherokee Indians walk the Trail of Tears

1837- Van Buren elected

1838- American steamboats begin to cross the Atlantic

1838- The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

Many symbols and scenes in Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym closely resemble and reflect expansionist and racial ideologies and events occurring in early 19th century America. Although Poe makes no blatant racial slurs or obvious references to slavery, the ideas Poe presents about racial mixing and segregation mirror those of Antebellum America. For example, when Pym and the crew of the Jane Guy land on the island of Tsalal, Pym displays a curiosity for the strange multicolored veins present in the water supply. Two major arteries, a light purple and dark purple, flow in the water. No matter how hard Pym tries, he cannot force the two to even touch, let alone mix. This reflects public's fear and anxiety over cultural and racial mixing. Poe asserts through this symbolism the popular idea (at the time) that races and different peoples naturally separate and want to be separate. In addition, Poe's decision to write a travel narrative, full of adventure and exploration, demonstrates an attempt to indulge his audience's obsession with expansion and exploration. In this time period, for those who could read, travel narratives were immensely popular. This could be attributed to the expansionist policies and idea of Manifest Destiny that provided such a large part of the American Identity in Antebellum America.

Themes in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

Annotated Excerpt and Style Analysis

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Edgar Allan Poe alternates between descriptive passages and narrative, journal entries. This allows the rhythm of the novel to continue pressing forward even if minimal action occurs. Similarly, the journal entry layout allows Poe to "make time fly," skipping what would be otherwise redundant and numerous descriptions of sea life. While the occasional descriptive passage or chapter allows the setting to be reestablished and provides context for the major events, the travel narrative aspect of the novel is more entertaining and fast paced. These chapters are characterized by short descriptive sentences and brief anecdotes. However, both the long passages and journal entries contain almost an excessive amount of ambiguity. This is the most prominent stylistic aspect of the novel. Several times while reading, a description of an animal or "white powder" would convince me that Poe was delirious and in some dreamworld. However, sometimes with the aid of the internet, the aspect which Poe was attempting to describe could be ascertained. For example, in the excerpt above, we see Pym describing a "white powder" falling in the canoe. In this instance, Poe is not referring to ash, but snow. Ambiguous references similar to this scatter Poe's novel. Another example would be Pym's description of birds that "Carry their heads high, with their wings drooping like two arms, and, as their tails project from their body in a line with the legs, the resemblance to a human figure is very striking, and would be apt to deceive the spectator at a casual glance or in the gloom of the evening." He's describing a penguin believe it or not. Although this ambiguity can prove frustrating and perplexing to the reader, it adds to the excited and anxious atmosphere of the novel, and adds to its appeal to the expansionist and explorer audiences Poe tried to reach.

Comparison to Other Authors

Although Edgar Allan Poe does has his own distinctive style, he borrowed or at least was influenced by the stylistic preferences of other prolific writers during his time period. For example, Jane Austen (1775-1817) often used parody, irony, free indirect speech, and some degree of realism in her novels. A little known fact about Edgar Allan Poe was that he wrote numerous criticism essays and satirical stories. The style of these pieces were very similar stylistically to Jane Austen. Another famous writer of the era Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote very descriptive passages, used repetition, and often used the changing rhythm style similar to the style changes in Poe's Pym. With regards to Edgar Allan Poe's poetry, it is hard to put into one category. For example, the first volume of poems he published, Tamerlane, was lighthearted-about girls he fancied. He wrote it at age 18. However, his later poems, such as The Raven had a darker tone and a different style. This wide variety of skills and poems closely resembles the different styles and subjects of poetry adopted by Alfred Lord Tennyson. He also did not conform to one style of poetry, but embraced all forms and wrote about many different subjects like Poe.

Pym in Modern America

Critics in the early 19th century were especially hard on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. In fact, Poe received so much criticism for this book that he himself dismissed it as a "very silly book." However, modern day critics tend to view the novel in a more positive light. I think that the adventurous and fast-paced aspects of the novel would appeal to many book-lovers in modern day America. However, the frequent gore scenes and references to cannibalism and racism may offend a good portion of the American public. However, due to the poor reception to the novel in Antebellum America, I believe that the novel would encounter more appreciation than the time period in which it was published.

Edgar Allan Poe's American Experience

In some regards, Edgar Allan Poe achieved the American Dream. He rose from being an orphan and going through a rough childhood, to becoming one of the most remembered and revolutionary writers in American history. He is now known as the "Father of the short story" and is considered to be the inventor of the detective story. Although his works were met with varying degrees of success, he revolutionized the writing world of the early 19th century. In this regard, Mr. Poe's American Experience was remarkable. However, although remarkable, his actual experience in Antebellum America was not great as evidenced by his life story. His life and writings may have inspired others and left a huge impact on the world, but his life was not good at all. Anything good in his life was taken away, mostly by disease. In this instance, his American Experience is pretty depressing.
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