The Fall of the House of Usher | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe | Biography

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Edgar Allan Poe's personal life was marked by difficulties, from his earliest years until his death. However, his professional life as a writer and critic was so influential it still shapes culture today. Born January 19, 1809, he was the second child of David and Elizabeth Poe. The two were traveling actors. Poe's father left the family when he was an infant, and both parents died before he was three. Years later, Poe's wife, Virginia, would also die from disease, as would his brother, Henry. He went to live with John and Frances Allan (the source of his middle name), who provided a home and a basic education, though Poe had a contentious relationship with John Allan because of conflicting personalities and Allan's disapproval of Poe's gambling debts and his pursuit of a college education.

In 1826 Poe enrolled in the University of Virginia, but he didn't have enough money to pay his tuition, so he gambled and fell into debt. Not receiving financial support from John Allan, Poe was forced to leave the university. Poe next spent several years in the army and even attended West Point in hopes of becoming an officer. However, in 1830, he was dismissed before graduation after breaking institutional rules.

After this, Poe made his living from a range of literary activities. He published his own work—first poetry, then fiction and nonfiction. He worked for several magazines, as both writer and editor, often shifting positions in search of better financial opportunities. During his lifetime Poe's editorial work was influential, but in a historical context his editorial labors pale beside his poetry, criticism, and fiction.

As a critic, Poe was often vicious, and he became known for the scathing reviews that earned him the nickname "Tomahawk Man." The combativeness of his reviews and of his personality strained some of his professional relationships and fueled public feuds between Poe and other literary figures of his day. But despite his cut-throat criticism, he was an advocate for the rights of writers, and he spoke out in favor of higher wages and international copyright law.

As a poet, Poe is best known for his lyric poems. Critics praise them for their control and technical expertise, but readers may focus more on the imagery and subject matter. Poe often wrote about love, death, and longing. His best-known poems, such as "To Helen" (1831) and "Annabel Lee" (1849), blend all these attributes into a unified whole and are held among the greatest lyric poems in English.

As a fiction writer, Poe worked at a time when the short story was emerging as a distinct art form, and his contributions to its development were significant. He is considered by many to be the father of the detective story, as well as the father of modern psychological horror. Poe's contemporary James Russell Lowell said that if Poe hadn't written anything else, "The Fall of the House of Usher" would be enough to mark him as a "man of genius."

In his highly influential work The Fantastic (1975), Bulgarian-French literary critic Tsvetan Todorov discusses the story as balanced between the fantastic (in which an event occurs that seems to be between realms, not fully explicable) and the uncanny (which can be rationally explained, but which is upsetting, even shocking). English professor Terry Heller, author of The Delights of Terror (1987), focuses on the narrator's role in "The Fall of the House of Usher" as he analyzes the aesthetics of horror stories. The story's powerful and unified emotional effect on the reader, combined with its not-fully-explicable events, continues to generate critical reflection.

Scholars point to several possible inspirations for "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe's most celebrated story. It draws more heavily and explicitly on Gothic literature (a genre that combines horror, death, and romance) than many of his other works. It includes explicit references to Gothic architecture, and uses both a Gothic setting and Gothic trappings: a partially ruined family home, mysterious sounds, isolation, and mental instability. Existing Gothic literature may have provided some of the inspiration for this masterpiece. Poe was aware of German author E.T.A. Hoffman's work, and Hoffman's 1819 story "Das Majorat" also featured a character named Roderick. "Das Majorat" is set in a family castle and involves someone with ties to the castle coming back from the dead.

In addition, Poe read the magazine Blackwood's, which in 1828 published a translation of Heinrich Clauren's "The Robber's Tower." In that story, a young man visits his aunt in the castle where his female cousin has recently died and been buried. While he's reading, he hears strange noises and the dead girl returns. There were also possible regional influences, such as the story of the ancestral home of Hezekiah Usher, the first bookseller in the British colonies in North America. When his Cambridge house was torn down in 1830, two bodies were found in the cellar—reportedly lovers that had sought privacy. Regardless of its origins, Poe creates a classic story that exemplifies his critical theories of what a story should be, as every part of the story contributes to the overall effect of horror.

Many stories by Poe have had tremendous influence on later culture, and "The Fall of the House of Usher" is no exception. More than a dozen versions of the story have been filmed, in several languages. Musical geniuses ranging from Claude Debussy to Philip Glass have written operas based on the story. Other musicians have written songs and instrumental compositions based on it. It has been performed on the radio and on stage, both in its original form and in more modern adaptations.

Throughout his life, Poe struggled with drinking and depression. After his wife, Virginia, died in 1847, these challenges got worse. He died on October 7, 1849, under circumstances that have never been fully explained; among the many theories about the cause of his death are complications of alcoholism, rabies, and a brain tumor. Though Poe never achieved financial success as a writer in his lifetime, today he is one of America's most famous, influential, and enduring authors.

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