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Edgar Allan Poe

Profiled by Galen Strickland

Hailed by many to be the originator of both the horror and detective genres, Poe also wrote several stories and poems that can be considered some of the first examples of SF. His work can also be seen to have influenced the likes of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Olaf Stapledon, among many others.

Born in Boston into a professional theatrical family, Poe was orphaned at a very early age. He was raised by Richmond, Virginia merchant John Allan and his childless wife. At the age of six his new family took him to Scotland and England, where he was given a classical education. After five years they returned to the U. S. and his education resumed in Richmond. In 1826 he entered the University of Virginia, where his primary studies were in languages; Greek, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian. He was forced to leave the school during his first year due to gambling debts which so enraged his guardian that he refused to let him continue.

Returning to Richmond only to find his sweetheart engaged to another, Poe journeyed to Boston. He had already begun writing poetry, and in 1827 he published his first pamphlet, Tamerlane and Other Poems, some of which alluded to his lost love. Unable to find suitable work, poverty forced him into joining the army under an assumed name, Edgar A. Perry. In a peculiar turn of events, his foster father was able to purchase his release from the army only to help him acquire an appointment to the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. This did not last long either, as Poe found he had no interest in the math and science courses required. He was expelled from the academy due to his continued absence from classes and drills.

For the next nineteen years he would be employed, primarily as an editor, by a succession of newspapers and magazines, in Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. He took advantage of his positions to publish many of his own stories and poems in these periodicals, several of which brought him considerable fame. In between jobs he endeavored to place his work in whatever publication would accept it. In addition to his prose and poetry he also produced a large body of work of literary and social criticism.

Many of his stories and poems were published several times over the years, with Poe making various revisions between their appearances. There has been much debate among literary scholars as to the definitive versions of these works, a process made more difficult due to the mishandling of his affairs by Poe's literary executor. Rufus W. Griswold, an able anthologist with a keen eye for talent, unfortunately was also extremely jealous of those who exhibited that talent. He delayed publication of much of the work left him by Poe, and what he did publish disregarded many of the author's corrections. Thus, from the very beginning it was very difficult to assess the full stature of Poe's work, and later scholars were thwarted in their attempts to collect and edit many stories and poems, buried in obscure and defunct periodicals.

If it had not been for the continued republication of some of Poe's most memorable work it is possible his reputation would have suffered irreperable harm. But "The Raven" (possibly the most famous American poem), "The Bells" and "Lenore," along with the short stories "The Gold Bug" and "Murders in the Rue Morgue" enjoyed renewed popularity with each reprint. His influence on French literature almost rivals his effect in America. I have read that the translations by the French poet Baudelaire in some instances even surpassed the originals. His influence there was reflected back to America with the popularity of the work of Jules Verne, along with that of H. G. Wells, who had in turn been influenced by Verne.

But now let us turn our attention to Poe's science fiction and fantasy. No doubt everyone is familiar with his stories of horror and the macabre, but many are possibly not aware of the works that helped to promote the fledgling genre and that influenced the creations of many other icons of the field. The most obvious is perhaps "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall," one of Poe's frequent hoaxes, which presented in its initial fashion seemed to report of a moon voyage by balloon. Another of his balloon tales, "Mellonta Tauta," was a story dealing with time displacement. The title is Greek for "these things are in the future," and the story is also one of the first to have its action open directly in a future environment. It is a dystopia disguised as a utopia, and among other things deals with the threat of overpopulation. These and other balloon tales more than likely influenced Verne in his creation of Five Weeks in a Balloon and Around the World in Eighty Days.

The SF sub-genres of "end of the world" and "post apocalyptic" tales all derive from Poe, from the ravages of plagues in "The Mask of the Red Death," to the destruction of Earth itself (by a passing comet) in "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion." The latter definitely presaged such works as Wells' "The Star" and In the Days of the Comet, along with Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's When Worlds Collide. "Malzael's Chess Player" and "The Man Who Was Used Up" foreshadowed many other stories concerning robotics and cyborgs. Poe also utilized elements of several pseudo-sciences in many tales; astrology in "Ulalume," alchemy in "Von Kempelen and His Discovery," and mesmerism (hypnotism) in "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" and "Mesmeric Revelations," which also dealt with alternate realities.

But it is with another of his hoaxes, supposedly never completed, in which we can see the most direct influence on the greatest number of writers. "The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym" is not only Poe's longest work (it approaches the length of many novels) it is his most complex as well. It concerns a sea voyage into the far-off and unknown realm of the Antarctic, and although its supossed climax never saw print, it still featured many elements which have been utilized by a multitude of writers since. Its influence can be seen in such far-ranging work as Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island, all the way to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness and Edgar Rice Burrough's At the Earth's Core. Another of his works highly regarded is "Eureka," more of a philosophical treatise on cosmology and metaphysics, much like the later Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon.

With the possible exception of Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Poe is perhaps the most important American literary figure of the 19th Century. It is difficult to imagine the SF genre being the same as it is today without the groundbreaking work done by Poe and the many who were inspired by him. I am assuming his work lies in the public domain, for the majority of it is available on several different websites across the internet. I have linked to a couple of those below, but for those who prefer a book to hold and to cherish, you might want to check out these two titles available from amazon.com: Complete Stories and Poems and Essays and Reviews.

Related Links:
The Poe Society of Baltimore
The Poe Museum of Richmond
poedecoder.com
PoeForward.com
Poe Webliography by Heyward Ehrich

 

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Born
January 19, 1809
Boston, Massachusetts

Died
October 7, 1849

There are multiple Poe sources on the web. Check the links at the end of the article for just a sample of them.