Edgar Allan Poe - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Edgar Allan Poe
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The work of Edgar Allan Poe (1809—1849) revolutionised and transformed supernatural (and psychological) horror fiction in so profound and multifaceted a way that it could plausibly be maintained that the genre, as a serious contribution to literature, only began with him. In this sense, the entire Gothic movement could be considered a kind of “anticipation” of the true commencement of the field. The keenness with which Poe analysed the psychology of fear; the transcendent artistry of his tales, from construction to prose rhythm to aesthetic focus; the intense emotive power of his principal narratives—these and other elements make Poe not merely the fons et origo of supernatural literature but, in many ways, a figure unsurpassed in the breadth and scope of his work.

I intend to say little of Poe’s life, the main outlines of which are sufficiently well known: his birth in Boston to impoverished actors; his early abandonment by his father and the death of his mother in 1811, leading to his adoption and his tortured relationship with his foster father, John Allan; his spotty education in England and the University of Virginia, and his brief enrolment at West Point; his marriage to his child-cousin, Virginia Clemm, and her eventual death from tuberculosis; Poe’s own peregrinations in Richmond, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and elsewhere; and his own early death in a Baltimore gutter. What is striking about Poe’s literary career is its relative brevity: even counting his early poetic work, beginning with Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), it extended scarcely twenty years, while his career as a fiction writer lasted not much more than fifteen.

The bulk of Poe’s career was spent as an editor and journalist, and his editorial duties at such magazines as the Southern Literary Messenger (1835—37), Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (1839—40), Graham’s Magazine (1841—42), and the Broadway Journal (1845—46) occupied the bulk of his time and restricted the amount of leisure he could devote to fiction and poetry. Poe spent years attempting to found a journal precisely suited to his taste—first the Penn Magazine and then the Stylus—but the plans came to nothing. Although Poe gained distinction as an acute critic and, at times, a harsh and somewhat intolerant book reviewer, he was manifestly determined to establish himself as a poet and story writer of note. He had published three slim volumes of poetry by 1831; as early as 1833 he began to plan a story collection, Tales of the Folio Club. The collections that did emerge—Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (dated 1840 but released in December 1839) and Tales (1845)—did indeed give Poe some standing in American fiction, but brought him relatively little income. They were preceded by the curious short novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838).

The ill-health that plagued him in his final years—especially after the death of Virginia in 1847—also diminished his creative fires. But although his entire corpus of fiction can fit comfortably in one large volume in the Library of America (matched by an equally large volume of his essays and reviews), in its aggregate it launched a new era in supernatural and psychological horror that, while drawing to some degree upon its predecessors, was forward-looking in its psychological acuity and aesthetic finish. His work signaled the definitive collapse of attenuated Gothicism.