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Edgar Allan Poe | Biography

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Edgar Allan Poe's life was short, troubled, and complicated. His parents were both actors. When Poe was born on January 19, 1809, his father David and mother Elizabeth already had one son, Henry. After Poe was born, they had a daughter named Rosalie. When Poe was still very young, his parents split up; then both parents died of tuberculosis before he was three. Similar losses followed Poe throughout his life. He lost both his brother, Henry, to tuberculosis or cholera, and his wife, Virginia, to tuberculosis, as well.

Soon after Poe was orphaned, he was taken in by a wealthy merchant named John Allan and his wife, Frances, who had known Poe's mother. Poe's brother and sister went to live with other families. Poe started attending the University of Virginia in 1826, but he had to leave after just a year due to drinking, gambling, and excessive debt. He joined the army in 1827, and a year later he published his first book of poems, Tamerlane, and Other Poems, followed by Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems in 1829. Neither collection brought him much attention or money. Poe entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1830, but the Academy dismissed him when he intentionally broke their rules (one longstanding rumor has it he showed up for drills wearing only a belt and a smile) and Poe never graduated.

After leaving West Point, Poe wrote for several years before landing a staff position at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia, in 1835. That same year, when he was 27, he married his cousin Virginia, who was 13.

Poe became an influential editor at the literary journal, but his real fame came from his own writing. Although his early poetry didn't win him the praise he wanted, his later poetic creations were highly respected. Works such as "Lenore" (1843), "The Raven" (1845), and "Annabel Lee" (1849) unite technical precision with vivid imagery and an exploration of the darker side of life.

Poe's work follows principles of composition he explored as a literary critic and theorist. In essays such as the 1846 "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe developed ideas about artistic creation and the short story that are still extremely influential. Chief among these are his emphasis on brevity, portraying characters truthfully—as people think, feel, and behave in real life—making sure every element in a work, from first sentence to the last, contributes to "unity of effect." For Graham's Magazine, Poe reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne's first volume of stories, Twice-Told Tales. Hawthorne was little known at the time; Poe's praise for Hawthorne's innovative writing style and "unity of effect" helped change that.

Poe also left his mark on short fiction. His stories about his fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin helped create the modern mystery and directly influenced later detectives such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Stories such as "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" (1835), which involved a trip to the moon, and "Mellonta Tauta" (1849), which included futuristic transatlantic air travel, shaped science fiction.

Finally, Poe is known as the father of modern horror, especially psychological horror. He raised Gothic fiction—fiction that combines horror, death, and sometimes romance—to high art in stories such as "The Black Cat" (1843) and "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839). His work has inspired hundreds of adaptations, imitations, and parodies.

To write "The Cask of Amontillado," which was published in the magazine Godey's Lady's Book in 1846, Poe combined several source materials to achieve a classic horror story that embraces his "unity of effect" theory. In 1844 author Joel T. Headley published "A Man Built in a Wall," a brief piece describing a church in the town of Don Giovanni, Italy, where he had been shown the skeleton of a man who had been bricked into a wall. Poe combined this account with themes and details drawn from other period works, such as English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii.

Like other stories by Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado" has had a tremendous and varied influence on later fiction, as well as other art forms. The story has been adapted for film and television, and—unsurprisingly, given the lurid imagery—many illustrated versions have been published, including comic book adaptations. Science-fiction master Ray Bradbury and horror writer Stephen King, among other authors, have referenced "The Cask of Amontillado" in their own works. Musical artists such as Lou Reed and The Alan Parsons Project have recorded adaptations and homages.

Poe fought depression and alcoholism his entire adult life. These worsened after his wife, Virginia, died in 1847. Poe died just two years later, on October 3, 1849, after being found delirious in a gutter. His cause of death remains a mystery; it has been attributed to everything from alcohol poisoning to rabies (a fairly common virus at the time) to pneumonia.

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