When most people think Edgar Allan Poe they think drinking, depression and ravens. There is, however, a lot more to this guy. He might have had a little too much of the sauce and married his thirteen year old cousin, but neither of these were unusual in eighteenth century America.
How come Poe has such a bad rep then? It’s mostly down to one Mr Rufus Wilmot Griswold; he’d had a grudge against Poe for a few years and decided to get his own back upon the latter’s death. He published a vey unflattering biography of the author, which made him out to be a drug addicted, drunken mess, and for some reason these labels stuck.
But actually, Poe wasn’t all that bad. Sure, he was quirky, but the poor guy had a miserable life and bad luck seemed to hang around him like a cloud of flies. His parents died when he was young and he was never really on good terms with his foster father. He never finished university, didn’t have much luck with women and was always on the outside of the literary society. He was, however, a unique character who wasn’t afraid to let people know what he though and who he was.
Although his style wasn’t terribly popular – he preferred to write gothic fiction and melancholy poetry, as opposed to transcendentalist and philosophical work – he stuck with it, never bending to the will of popular culture. He dealt with the darker side of human nature and the underbelly of American culture, at a time when many were full of nationalistic sentiment and still celebrating their new found independence. He was a bit of a revolutionary when it came to his writing style; many thought his work too different and hard to relate to because of this.
No one can deny he was a talented man though; he wrote for a number of journals and publications, even editing some, and has been credited with the creation of the modern detective story. When reading his work one can see the amount of effort, planning and creative consideration that’s gone into his work, which is much more thrilling than either Emerson or Thoreau. Within his short stories he’s woven subtle comments of American society and human nature, a daring move in a conservative and religious society. His work has featured heavily in popular culture, including The Simpsons (check out their interpretation of The Raven) and there’s no denying that his name is much better known that many others who were writing at the same time as him.
So I say give Poe a chance. Find a dark, windy night and take a copy of The Raven to bed. Follow it up with The Fall of the House of Usher, Annabel Lee and, if you’re feeling brave, The Tell-Tale Heart.