The life and career of Edgar Allan Poe has been more documented, analyzed and dissected than perhaps any other figure in literary history. One can choose to critique the Poe of his choice: short story writer, novelist, poet, literary theorist, editor, critic, journalist, philosopher, astronomer and of course, Poe, the man. In terms of assessing Poe’s merits, as with all great artists, one must look no farther than the body of their work. In the case of Poe, his contributions are enormous:Father of the Gothic Horror Story
First and foremost Poe is remembered for his horror stories. He emphasized mystery, the macabre, the grotesque, and death, bringing a new art form to the short story. It is perhaps mankind’s fascination, and at the same time, dread of the unknown that has kept Poe’s fiction timeless.Father of the Detective Story
While Poe was not the inventor of this type of fiction, he was the first to introduce actual detection, that is the presentation of clues to solve puzzles by reason. In this respect, he is credited as an originator. Poe’s master detective, M. Auguste Dupin, became the model for a long line of super sleuths that were to come. Without question, Dupin became the inspiration behind Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes some 50 years later.
Poe’s tales of science fiction and adventure inspired the likes of Jules Verne ("Journey to the Center of the Earth"), H.G. Wells ("War of the Worlds"), and Robert Louis Stevenson ("Treasure Island"). During their careers, all three individuals publicly paid homage to Poe.Poe’s Psychoanalytic Interpretations
Many of Poe’s short stories deal with themes of the psychotic personality and double self, that is the split personality. These themes are forerunners of modern forms of parapsychology and the yet to be invented term, schizophrenia. His works have been subject to both Freudian and Jungian interpretations. In 1933, a biography was published by Marie Bonaparte, a literary psychoanalyst. She had studied under Freud, who wrote the forward to her book. Although excessive at times, it offers many interesting psychoanalytic perspectives on Poe’s life and works.
Poe and the Sciences
Throughout his life, Poe maintained a strong interest in astronomy. One year before his death, Poe completed Eureka, his cosmological treatise on the creation of the universe, based on mathematical and astronomical observations. It is Poe’s attempt to deal with the philosophy of death and the unification of the soul after death. Poe may have looked upon this as one of his crowning achievements. He had hoped, upon his own death that this work would be judged as a poem. In combining the physical laws of nature, along with intuition, he utilized the work of Newton, Kepler and Laplace to present the universe as a work of art.
Poe’s interpretation of cosmic origin is incredibly modern in espousing today’s black hole theory. His wrote that the universe began at some definite time in the past, and that since it is not infinite, it could not be bright at night. This explanation for the dark “night sky” conundrum is now almost universally accepted by astrophysicists. (Source: New York Times — Science Section, March 19,1991)
Poe and his Poetry
By the age of 21, Poe had already completed the majority of his fifty or so poems. He was influenced by the works of Byron, Moore and Shelley. Poe believed that a poem should represent beauty, provide pleasure and appeal to the emotions. While perhaps only a handful of his poems are remembered, those few are among the most well known and best loved poems in history.
Poe’s Critical Theories
Poe believed in art for art sake. He is recognized by many to be the first American to write seriously about criticism and produced original theories on poetry. His three lectures, "The Philosophy of Composition," "The Rationale of Verse and The Poetic Principle" provide his views on exactly what poetry should be. They include (1) the unity of effect, (2) the rejection of allegory (3) that a poem should be brief in order to reach the single effect, (4) the use of emotions. He classified the human faculties into three divisions: intellect, taste and moral sense. Common to all of these is intuition.
Poe as Critic and Editor
Poe’s strong desire to raise the quality of American literature is evident in his reputation as a literary critic. He was known as “The Man with the Tomahawk,” rightfully so because of the many scathing reviews he rendered. He went so far as to publicly accuse Longfellow of plagiarism. He was subjected to a great deal of criticism, and in some respects it was completely warranted. However, Poe believed in holding the writers of his generation to the same high standard that he imposed upon himself as a critic and as an editor. A convincing argument can be made that he was the Father of modern American literary criticism.
Poe In Contemporary Culture
The popularity of Edgar Allan Poe in our contemporary culture has reached new heights. Each year we are inundated with books, songs, operas, television adaptations and films which serve to provide new theories on Poe’s life and works.
Some examples include early films such as "The Raven" (1935), which starred Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The onset of the 1960’s marked producer/director Roger Corman’s movie, "Tales of Terror," starring Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. These adaptations were very loosely based on Poe’s works. By the second half of the decade, filmmaker, Francois Truffaut paid his personal tribute to Poe in a concluding scene of the film version of Ray Bradbury’s book, "Fahrenheit 451". The irony of Poe’s "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" is not lost in the book (1962) and movie version (1975) of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest."