Literary Giant: Edgar Allen Poe

2006-10-30 14:31:10    博士教育网  
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    Ralph Waldo Emerson called him the jingle man, Mark Twain said that his prose was unreadable, and Henry James felt that a taste for his work was the mark of a second-rate sensibility. According to T. S. Eliot, "the forms which his lively curiosity takes are those in which a preadolescent mentality delights." After notices like those, most reputations would be sunk without a trace, and yet Edgar Allan Poe shows no sign whatsoever of loosening his extraordinary hold on our imaginations. In 1959, Richard Wilbur, an elegant poet and a critic of refined taste, inaugurated the Dell Laurel Poetry Series (mass-market paperback selections from classic British and American poets) with an edition of Poe's complete poems, for which he provided a long and thoughtful introduction. In 1973, Daniel Hoffman, also a distinguished poet and critic, published a highly regarded study of Poe's writings. In 1984, two massive volumes of Poe's collected works, together comprising some three thousand pages, were published in the Library of America. In the 1990s, Poe has been the subject of a children's book and a substantial new biography, and a Halloween episode of the Baltimore-based television series Homicide: Life on the Street made very effective use of his legend and his writings, especially the poem "Dream-Land" and the stories "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado." A century and a half after his death, he is the one American author whose name is known to virtually everyone.


    Edgar Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the second of the three children of David Poe and Elizabeth (Arnold) Poe, both of whom were professional actors and members of a touring theatrical company. Eclipsed by his more famous wife, his own promising career ruined by alcoholism, Poe's father deserted the family when Edgar was still an infant; nothing conclusive is known of his life thereafter. While appearing professionally in Richmond, Virginia, Poe's mother became ill and died on December 8, 1811, at the age of twenty-four. Her three children, who would maintain contact with one another throughout their lives, were sent to live with different foster families. Edgar became the ward of John Allan, a successful tobacco merchant in Richmond, and his wife Frances, who had no children of their own. Although never formally adopted by them, Poe regarded the couple, especially Mrs. Allan, as parents, and he took their surname as his own middle name. In 1815, business reasons led Allan to move to England for what would be a five-year stay. Both in London and then in Richmond after the family's return, Poe was well educated in private academies. In 1825, he became secretly engaged to a girl named Elmira Royster. The engagement, opposed by both families, was subsequently broken off.


    In 1826, Poe entered the University of Virginia, newly founded by former President Thomas Jefferson. He distinguished himself as a student, but he also took to drinking, and he amassed gambling debts of $2,000, a significant amount of money at the time, which John Allan, although he had recently inherited a fortune, refused to honor. After quarreling with Allan, Poe left Richmond in March 1827 and sailed to Boston, where, in relatively short order, he enlisted in the United States Army (under the name Edgar A. Perry, and claiming to be four years older than his actual age of eighteen) and published a pamphlet called Tamerlane and Other Poems, whose author was cited on the title page only as "a Bostonian." This little book did not sell at all, but its few surviving copies are among the most highly prized items in the rare-book market; one accidentally discovered copy, bought for a dollar, was recently auctioned for $150,000. Poe's military career went more successfully. After two years, he had been promoted to sergeant major, the highest noncommissioned rank. He was honorably discharged in 1829, and decided to seek an appointment to West Point in the hope of becoming a career commissioned officer. He entered West Point in May of 1830, but chafed under the regimen and, after deliberately missing classes, roll-calls, and compulsory chapel attendance, was expelled in January 1831.


    In 1829, Poe had published a second collection of verse, which attracted little more attention than its predecessor. A third volume, funded through contributions from fellow cadets, appeared in 1831. Among its contents was "To Helen," which had been inspired by Jane Stanard, the mother of one his Richmond schoolmates. Poe referred to her as "the first, purely ideal love of my soul." Also in 1831, Poe went to Baltimore, where he moved in with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, his father's sister, who was to be the most deeply devoted of his several mother-figures, and her eight-year-old daughter Virginia. It was in this period that he began to achieve wider recognition as a writer. In 1832, he published five tales in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. In 1833, he entered a competition sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter (sic), winning the second prize in poetry for "The Coliseum" and the first prize in fiction for "MS. Found in a Bottle." In 1834, the publication of "The Visionary" in Godey's Lady's Book marked the first time that his fiction appeared in a magazine of more than local circulation.


    Frances Allan had died in February 1829, and John Allan, who was by this time permanently alienated from Poe, had remarried in October 1830. On Allan's death in 1834, Poe received nothing. Effectively disinherited, unsuited for business or the military, Poe turned to journalism, the one avenue likely to afford a successful career to someone of his interests and abilities. Through the recommendation of the novelist John Pendleton Kennedy, who had been one of the judges of the Saturday Visiter contest, Poe began in March 1835 to contribute short fiction and book reviews to the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger. In a period of American literature not notable for them, Poe exhibited coherent aesthetic principles and high critical standards, and within months his vigorous and uncompromising reviews began to increase the Messenger's circulation and to enhance its reputation, prompting its publisher to make Poe his principal book reviewer and editorial assistant. By the end of the year, Poe, who had moved to Richmond with Virginia and Mrs. Clemm, was named editor in chief. In May of 1836, he secretly married Virginia, his first cousin, who was then not quite fourteen years of age.


    Dissatisfied both with his salary and with limits on his editorial independence, he resigned from the Southern Literary Messenger in January 1837. Struggling to support Virginia and Mrs. Clemm through freelance writing, he moved his family first to New York and then to Philadelphia as he sought another editorial position. Despite financial difficulties, Poe was able in this period to advance his own writing career, publishing reviews, poems, and especially fiction in various journals and in several volumes. In 1839, he began to write regularly for Thomas Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, contributing a feature article and a number of book reviews each month. Once again, Poe's editorship brought dramatic advances in both quality and circulation, but he was dismissed from this position in June 1840 after once again quarreling with his publisher. Failing in attempts to found his own journal, in 1841 Poe became an editor of Graham's Magazine, a new journal formed by George Graham through a merger of his magazine The Casket with the Gentleman's Magazine, which he had bought from Burton. Once more the pattern played itself out: the magazine thrived under Poe's direction, he wanted a higher salary and a freer editorial hand, and he left his position--although this time on relatively good terms with the publisher.


    Poe's personal fortunes once more suffered reverses as his writing career advanced. In January 1842, Virginia suddenly began to hemorrhage from the mouth, the first indication that she had contracted tuberculosis. She was seriously ill for a time, and would never again be truly healthy. Poe also had renewed difficulties in his attempts to find steady employment. But in 1843 he published several works, including "The Tell-Tale Heart," in James Russell Lowell's short-lived journal The Pioneer, and in June of that year his story "The Gold-Bug" won a $100 prize in a contest sponsored by the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. Widely reprinted, it made Poe famous with a broad fiction-reading public, but he did not become financially secure. Owing to lax copyright standards at the time that allowed for widespread reprinting--a condition that Poe himself editorialized about--writers did not profit directly from the popularity of their work. In 1844, Poe moved to New York, where he lectured on American poetry and contributed articles to newspapers and magazines.


    The year 1845 would bring both triumphs and the beginning of a final downward spiral in Poe's life. His poem "The Raven" appeared in the New York Evening Mirror in January, and was an instant success with both readers and critics. He began writing for the Broadway Journal, became its editor in July, and shortly thereafter fulfilled a longstanding dream by becoming its owner as well. But a series of articles in which he groundlessly accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism did harm to Poe's reputation, and Virginia's health problems became severe. Financial difficulties, his worry over Virginia, and his own precarious physical and emotional state caused him to cease publication of the Broadway Journal after less than six months as its proprietor. He moved out of New York City to a cottage in then-rural Fordham (now a heavily urban section of the Bronx), where in the midst of poverty, ill health, and Virginia's now grave illness, he still somehow continued to earn a small income writing reviews and articles. A satirical piece on fellow writer Thomas Dunn English provoked from its subject a scurrilous personal attack in the Evening Mirror, which led Poe to sue the publication. Although he would win the suit and collect damages the following year, the whole episode was a great strain upon Poe's already fragile nervous system.


    On January 30, 1847, Virginia died, plunging Poe into an emotional and physical collapse that lasted for most of the year. In 1848, he was briefly engaged to marry Sarah Helen Whitman, a widowed poet several years his senior, but their relationship was tense and strained, and the engagement was broken off. He went to Richmond in the summer of 1849, hoping to find financial backing for yet another journal, and while there he was reunited with and re-engaged to Elmira Royster, his first love, now herself a widow. He sailed from Richmond to Baltimore, where on October 3, 1849, he was found outside a polling place (it was election day), in a state of delirium and wearing shabby and ill-fitting clothing. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he raved feverishly for several days before dying on October 7 at the age of forty. Neither the circumstances that had led to his condition nor the exact cause of his death have ever been satisfactorily determined. Poe's posthumous reputation sustained grievous and long-lasting damage from a libelous biography by Rufus Griswold, whom Poe himself had appointed his literary executor, and rumors, mostly unfounded, circulate to this day about Poe's mental state and personal habits.


    Whatever mysteries may still surround his life and character, there is no doubt of his enormous importance to American literature in several different areas. His best poems--"To Helen," "The Raven," "Annabel Lee," and others--which many can recite by heart, demonstrate him to be a master of rhythmic effect. His stories, particularly his tales of horror and terror, are equally treasured by an immense readership. Yet despite his popular association with the gothic and the grotesque, Poe was also an accomplished humorist, as shown in a number of his short stories, and was capable of hilarious satire at the expense of inferior writers. For all his interest in lurid effects and morbid states of mind, he was also fascinated by ratiocination: in his three tales featuring Auguste Dupin, he singlehandedly invented the genre of the detective story. And more than anyone else in early nineteenth-century America, he played a crucial role in shaping and elevating literary taste and in developing aesthetic theory, particularly in the field of poetry. Thus, both with critics and scholars and with the general public, Poe remains a permanent fixture of our living literary culture. 

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