For my students to better understand the stories they will read by Poe a biographical sketch might help. Probably more than any other American author, Poe as a personality has appealed to popular imagination. Generally, he is thought of as a figure who might have emerged from one of his stories or poems, mysterious, wild, and abnormal. There are elements of strangeness in the life of this neurotic genius.
Poe’s tragic life was a product of bad luck and instability. He was orphaned at two and became the ward of the John Allan family of Richmond, Virginia. Never legally adopted, he could not live quite the normal life of a son in a well-to-do family. He was the product of good schools, reared for the life of a gentleman in an atmosphere of gentility, restraint, and refinement, he emerged a loner-luckless, bitter, quarrelsome, alienated. Although Poe was not always the brooding, gloomy person tradition has painted, his life was on the whole an unhappy one.
In 1835 he married thirteen-year old, Virginia, who died of a burst blood vessel at twenty six. To forget his troubles at home Poe periodically went on drinking sprees. Proud of his aristocratic upbringing and because of the high opinion he had of his abilities, he was bitter about not doing better in the world. When Poe was schooled in England he developed his love for languages and the classics. and for ancient houses and traditions, and the ghostly tales of which the English are so fond. He did not have financial success and died a pauper at age forty.
These are the facts of Poe’s life, and seem at first glance to have no connection with his writings. Yet he apparently inherited an artistic temperament which his foster father never recognized. Although as a boy Poe enjoyed all the advantages of a gentleman’s son he must have been aware this was not his birthright. His talent was strong enough to direct his life, yet the constant emphasis on ancient family and on rich and costly surroundings in his stories indicate that the expensive tastes nurtured in him when young never changed. His disappointment in love, the loss of a gentleman’s estate and the constant recurrence of death in Poe’s family undoubtedly heightened Poe’s morbid preoccupation. His own vivid sense of the dramatic and his restless nature that craved excitement, account for the startling situations in his stories.
When Poe was about to start his career as a writer of tales, he looked for a formula for marketable fiction. This formula was that of the single effect, set forth in his “Review of Twice-Told Tales” by Hawthorne. “The writer of a tale, Poe held, should subordinate every thing in it to the effect he wanted the narrative to have upon the reader. Two elements in the tales chiefly accounted for their success: the climatic arrangement of happenings in them and a poetic style appropriate to their unfolding.”
Poe knew how to fascinate the reader from the outset of a story. Here are the first few lines of several of his tales:
“The Pit and the Pendulum”
“I was sick-sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence-the dread sentence of death-was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears.”
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
“True-nervous-very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses-not destroyed-not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard mary things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken: and observe how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”
“The Black Cat”
“For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not-and very surely do I not dream. But tomorrow I die, and today I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified-have tortured-have destroyed me.”
“The Cask of Amontillado”
“The men Fortunate had done me a thousand wrongs. I bore them as best I could. But when he began to insult me, I vowed revenge. You do understand my nature, will know that I spoke no threats aloud. But to myself I vowed to be avenged, sometime.”
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length, found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was-but, with the first glimpse of the building, s sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.”
Though Poe could create immediate interest in a story, there are aspects of his style that will be difficult for my students. In Poe’s time simplicity of diction was not in style. Poe seemed compelled to display his knowledge of words, sometimes sacrificing communication with the reader. Harry Levin, a critic, has pointed out another reason for this fault: “Working under pressure, he could not afford to become a devotee of the single precise word; instead, he seems to grope for several approximate synonyms, so that his writing smells of the thesaurus.”