The American city of Baltimore is famous today as the
setting for the gritty crime-drama The Wire. But it has an older claim
to fame: it was where one of the America’s greatest writers lived in his youth
and finally returned to die after years of poverty, illness and hard drinking.
That was in 1849, when Edgar Allan Poe came to the end of
his brief but productive life. It produced a lot of misery for him and a lot of
pleasure for his readers. Those readers have never gone away, because Poe is
one of the undisputed giants of American literature, influential not just on
hundreds of other writers but on American culture in general.
He was born in 1809 in Boston to two poor actors, David and
Elizabeth Poe. But his father abandoned the family and his mother died when he
was two. He was adopted into the family of John Allan, a rich tobacco merchant
from Virginia. The seeds of his later troubles were undoubtedly sown in those
early years, but they must have fallen on fertile ground. After a move to
England from 1815 to 1820, then an unsuccessful year at the University of
England, Poe enlisted in the US Army.
In 1830 he entered the famous West Point Military Academy,
where officers were trained for a life of service to the nation. But the discipline
and rigidity of the academy weren’t for Poe: he was thrown out the following
year and left the army to begin the writing he already set his heart on: that
of poet and author. At first it seemed to go well. His story “MS. [Manuscript]
Found in a Bottle” won a newspaper competition, but its dark themes of mystery
and oblivion were a forewarning of the troubles to come for its author.
Like the narrator of the story, Poe seemed trapped by
history, rushed along against his will towards his doom. He married a beautiful
young wife and lost her after a long illness; he won good jobs and was sacked
or resigned; he struggled with drink and his own ill-health. His early dreams
of wealth and literary fame were never truly realized, but perhaps without his
own suffering he would never have written such convincing stories of death and
horror or charged his poetry with such emotional and symbolic power.
During his years of struggle, he was writing poems like “The
Raven” and stories like “The Masque of the Red Death”, “The Pit and the
Pendulum”, “The Black Cat”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Murders in the Rue
Morgue”, “The Premature Burial” and “The Cask of Amontillado”. Death and doom
were constant themes of his work and in the last two stories he faced one of
his own greatest fears: that of being buried alive after a mistaken medical
At their best, his stories are like thunder-storms, full of
darkness that is suddenly split by lightning and thunder. You can read them
once and remember them for life. But many fans of Poe read his stories again
and again, never wearying of the demons he conjures and dark emotions he
evokes. His huge intelligence and inventiveness are an essential part of his
appeal. His stories about the French police-agent Auguste Dupin began the
detective genre, becoming core influences on Sherlock Holmes and a thousand
other crime-fighting heroes.
What might Poe have achieved had he lived longer? Perhaps
much less: he died young because he lived hard. Without that hard life he might
poured less passion into his poems and stories. He would certainly have had
less experience of dark emotions and sorrows. And perhaps he always knew that
he was writing against time. It’s easy to believe that when you open one of his
books and allow the thunderstorm of his imagination to burst inside your head.