The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe | Biography


Early Life

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, into a tumultuous life in Boston. His parents were actors David (1784–unknown) and Elizabeth Poe (1787–1811). Edgar had lost both parents by the time he was three years old. He went to live with the wealthy and childless tobacco exporter John Allan (1779–1834) and his wife Frances Allan (1784–1829) in Richmond, Virginia. He received an elite education, excelled at his studies, and was recognized as a true poet and writer by those closest to him. Poe and Allan had an affable relationship during Poe's early years because Allan was proud of Poe's successes. Poe's increasingly emotive personality and romantic lifestyle clashed with Allan's pragmatic disposition as Poe came of age. Poe's first love Jane Stanard (1793–1824) died of a mysterious illness in 1824. A year later Poe was secretly engaged to a childhood acquaintance named Elmira Royster (1810–88). These first experiences with lost and tragic love manifest as prominent themes throughout most of his poetry and prose.

Studies and Military Career

Poe began his studies at the University of Virginia without Allan's financial endorsement. He was academically gifted but fell into the temptations of copious drinking and gambling that the unstructured college environment fostered. Poe accumulated a great gambling debt that Allan refused to help pay off. He was forced to resign from school because he was unable to financially support his studies. Poe moved back to Richmond after leaving college only to learn that his fiancée had married someone else. He left home with nothing, feeling abandoned by Allan and his fiancée. In 1827 he had no money or prospects. He moved to Boston and enlisted in the army. He began writing seriously during this time and published his first poetry collection titled Tamerlane and Other Poems: By a Bostonian (1827) after paying for the printing himself. Poe decided to pursue writing as a career. This choice prompted him to leave the army before his five-year term was complete.

Poe briefly lived with his aunt Maria Clemm (1790–1871) and cousin Virginia (1822–47) after leaving the army. He tried to reconcile with Allan, but Allan continued to shame him for what he viewed as a lack of self-sufficiency. Poe's beloved foster mother died in 1829. Poe and Allan shared a brief moment of reconciliation that was likely prompted by Frances's death. Yet when Poe asked Allan to fund his second poetry collection titled Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (1829), Allan refused. Poe managed to get his collection published from a less prestigious source.

Poe entered West Point Military Academy in 1830. He continued his lifestyle of drinking heavily and writing while in the academy and quickly lost interest in pursuing a military life. This disinterest was also fueled by disenchantment and anger. Allan remarried in October of 1830 and had biological children, so Poe knew that he would not receive an inheritance. Poe needed Allan's consent to leave the academy, but Allan wouldn't agree. Poe purposely disobeyed commands so he would be dishonorably discharged. This behavior allowed him to officially exit the academy, but it was the main reason why Allan later disowned Poe.

Later Life and Editorial Career

Poe went to live with his beloved Maria and Virginia in Boston once again after his benefactor rejected him. Around this time he developed a relationship with his estranged brother, Henry Poe (1807–31). Henry died shortly afterward from tuberculosis in 1831. Poe had no money and accumulated debt. He wrote to Allan to rekindle their relationship and ask for funds. Allan eventually paid Poe's debts and gave him a meager sum to help him financially. Allan died in 1834 and did not leave Poe an inheritance.

Poe entered a short story into a writing contest hosted by the Saturday Courier in 1831. He didn't win, but the newspaper went on to publish many of Poe's early stories. One such story was "Metzengerstein" (1832), a violent and supernaturally-themed work that displays Poe's recurrent literary style. The five stories published in the Saturday Courier and a handful of published poems comprised Tales of the Folio Club (1832–36), a collection that Poe was never able to get published. Around this time a wealthy lawyer and writer named John Pendleton Kennedy mentored Poe. Kennedy respected Poe's writing and helped him secure a job as an editor at the Southern Literary newspaper. This venture failed, and Poe became the editor of the monthly journal Southern Literary Messenger. He developed into a prolific author during this time, publishing mostly articles, critical reviews, and the occasional poetry and prose. He married his cousin Virginia in 1836. Their marriage was full of love but marked by tragedy. She was frequently ill and he drank heavily.

Influence and Works

Poe spent much of his young life immersed in a prestigious educational system that only money could afford. He was well-versed in the great writers of his time. Some critics speculate that Poe borrowed many elements of other writers, at times almost bordering on plagiarism. He was at the very least heavily influenced by the literary movements of his time, yet he wasn't defined by them. He instead used tropes that were common to the various literary movements and moved beyond them. Poe created his own unique forms, such as detective fiction and the short story.

Poe had minor successes as a poet, but he was most widely recognized for his prose. Poe's literary style was confessional and often biographical. His stories predominantly consisted of exaggerated settings and characters that reflected real places he had been and people he had known. Poe was one of the most prominent figures of Romanticism, an artistic and literary movement that highlighted fierce emotion as the true source of the artistic experience. Other artists in the movement focused on different emotions, but Poe's forte was the macabre and the horrific. His poems and stories explored the dark psyches of narrators who were plagued by crippling guilt, fear, or madness.

He was such a master of his craft that he is frequently cited as the creator of the modern short story form. Poe redefined the horror genre. He also invented detective fiction. This can best be seen in his short story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," which is fictional but reads like a factual report. It wasn't labeled as a work of fiction at the time it was published. The lack of genre definition and the story's use of medical and technical language led many readers to believe that the narrator's account was true. The gruesome details horrified readers. Critics still consider this to be one of the scariest stories of all time for this reason.

Poe published his first short story collection in 1840. It was titled Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and includes his well-known story "The Fall of the House of Usher." This collection was essentially an updated version of Tales of the Folio Club, a compilation that Poe had unsuccessfully tried to get published. In 1845 his second story collection titled Tales by Edgar Allan Poe was published. It contains many of his most well-known stories, such as "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." Yet it wasn't until his poem "The Raven" was published in 1845 that he became critically acclaimed.


Poe's wife Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1847, causing Poe to enter a downward spiral. He drank more heavily, acted erratically, and lived in poverty. On October 3, 1849, Poe walked the streets of Baltimore in an incoherent state. He was taken to a hospital and died on October 7, 1849. To this day his death remains a mystery. Some Poe biographers speculate that he died from complications of alcoholism, while others think it could have been syphilis or even rabies.

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