The Gold Bug | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe | Biography


Edgar Allan Poe's life was short and troubled. 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. Both parents were actors. Before the young Edgar turned three, his mother had died from tuberculosis and his father had abandoned the family. Similar losses followed him throughout his life. He lost both his brother Henry and his wife Virginia to either tuberculosis or cholera.

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 siblings 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, brought on in part by his foster father's refusal to provide him with the resources he felt befitting a man of his station. 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. He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1830, but the Academy dismissed him when he flaunted their rules. (One longstanding rumor has it that he showed up for drills wearing only a belt and a smile.) He never graduated.

After leaving West Point he wrote for several years before landing a staff position in 1835 as a literary critic at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia. That same year, when he was 27, he married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia. Poe became an influential editor at the literary journal, but real fame came from his own writing. Although his early poetry didn't win him the praise he wanted, his later poems were highly respected. Works such as "Lenore" (1843), "The Raven" (1845), and "Annabel Lee" (1849) unite technical precision with vivid imagery and explore themes such as unrequited love, death, and despair.

Poe's writing follows principles of composition he explored as a literary critic and theorist. In essays such as "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846), he developed ideas about artistic creation and the short story that are still extremely influential. Chief among these are his emphasis on brevity and portraying characters truthfully; exploring the ways people think, feel, and behave in real life; and ensuring every element in a work, from the first sentence to the last, contributes to "unity of effect." For Graham's Magazine, he reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne's first volume of stories, Twice-Told Tales. Hawthorne was not well known at the time, and 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 based on the fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin helped create the modern detective genre and directly influenced later fictional 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, were some of the first science fiction ever written. 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), "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), and "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842). His work has inspired hundreds of adaptations, imitations, and parodies.

Poe fought depression and alcoholism his entire adult life. These worsened after his wife Virginia died in 1847. He died just two years later, on October 7, 1849, after being found delirious in a gutter. The cause of his death remains a mystery; it has been variously attributed to alcohol poisoning, rabies (a fairly common virus at the time), pneumonia, or suicide, among other causes.
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