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Author Biography

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University talks about the life of Edgar Allan Poe and how he came to write his short story The Tell-Tale Heart.

Edgar Allan Poe | Biography


Edgar Allan Poe lived a brief, complicated, and intense life that actively shaped him to write dramatic, melancholy, and obsessive works. Born in Boston on January 19, 1809, he was the second of three children. His parents—both actors—separated when Poe was very young, and he stayed with his mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe. Elizabeth died of illness in December 1811. Poe's father, David, died that same month, also of illness.

A wealthy matron named Frances Allan had taken an interest in Elizabeth Poe and in Edgar; the boy struck her as charming and intelligent. After Elizabeth died, Allan convinced her prosperous merchant husband, John, that the couple should take Edgar in and raise him in their Virginia home. Poe started school in the United States but soon was sent to England, where he studied for five years. In 1826 Poe entered the University of Virginia. He left after only a year of classes in part due to his drinking but primarily because of some gambling debts he'd run up while trying to support himself, which John Allan refused to pay. Despite this early departure the University of Virginia's Raven Society keeps Poe's room in his honor. In 1827 Poe joined the army. He rose to the rank of sergeant major and entered the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, as an officer candidate in 1830. He was dismissed without graduating when he intentionally broke the rules after Allan refused to give consent for Poe to resign from the Academy.

After writing poetry for many years, Poe published Tamerlane, and Other Poems in 1828, followed the next year by Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. Neither collection earned Poe much money or critical attention. After leaving the military academy Poe dedicated himself to writing full time. He moved several times, often to take editorships or writing positions at various magazines. In 1831 he published a third volume of poetry, followed by several short stories. He was hired as a staff writer and critic at the Southern Literary Messenger in Virginia in August 1835 but was fired a month later for drinking. He was rehired the following month. By December he'd been named editor. He published some of his fiction as well as dozens of reviews, and he became known for his criticism. A year after he started at the literary magazine, Poe, now 27, married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia.

Starting in 1838 withThe Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe published a series of stories and poems that established him as a master of American literature. Though his earliest poems didn't win him much praise, later works such as "The Raven" (1845), "The Bells," and "Annabel Lee" (published posthumously) broke new poetic ground. These poems and his theories of composition helped to develop modern perspectives on the aesthetic value of poetry and short fiction.

In an 1846 essay called "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe said "unity of impression" was essential to a story's power; he believed in constructing stories progressively with an almost "mathematical" precision to produce a "vivid effect." Poe's comments helped shape the short story into the distinct artistic genre it is today. He certainly managed this unified impression in "The Tell-Tale Heart," even though he synthesized several sources in creating it. Poe combined the common belief in the evil eye (a curse cast with a malevolent glare) with a popular account of a period murder published in pamphlet form in 1830, and he may have drawn from a brief piece by Dickens that similarly describes a killer placing his chair over the placement of a buried body.

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was made into a silent film in 1928; after this came live-action and animated versions. It's been performed on stage, both as a play and as a dramatic monologue, and on the radio. Audio and comic book versions have been produced; even an episode of the children's series SpongeBob SquarePants was based on the story. "The Tell-Tale Heart" (and other works by Poe) helped create the contemporary school of "psychological realism," which focuses on the honest depiction of characters' feelings, thoughts, and personality traits. Poe's story paved the way for later authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky to continue the practice of exploring an individual psyche intimately.

Poe was a founding father of several fiction genres. Poe's 1841 "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is considered the first modern mystery story. It introduces his detective Auguste Dupin, who would appear in other stories such as "The Purloined Letter" (1844), which influenced later writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Stories such as "The Black Cat" (1843), "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842), and "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), as well as many others, pioneered the modern horror story, especially the psychological horror story. Poe even contributed to the birth of science fiction by writing stories about trips to the moon ("The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall," 1835) and stories set in a future where transatlantic air travel was common ("Mellonta Tauta," 1849).

Poe's artistic successes were darkened by personal trials and tragedies. He lost his wife to tuberculosis in 1847. After that time Poe's alcoholism and depression got worse. Fittingly Poe's death was somewhat mysterious. On October 3, 1849, he was found in a street, badly dressed, delirious, and unable to move. He died four days later. The death certificate listed "phrenitis, or swelling of the brain" as the cause of death. Theories about what happened to Poe in his last days include rabies, complications from alcohol, and a brain tumor. His last words were reportedly "Lord, help my poor soul."

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