Edgar Allan Poe is not considered a top literary figure by many critics. He was considered even less during his lifetime. He was a critic himself, and his creative works did not earn him much of a living. Some of his subject matter makes too much fascination with him seem unhealthy. Nevertheless, few writers have achieved his subtlety and expertise in the writing art. His syntax, wordplay, semantics, and narrative organization all stand the test of time. Poe suffered an obsession agonizing over the tiniest details of crafting a sentence and a story. Good examples are his most famous poem “The Raven” and the opening to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the first sentence being:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
Poe still surprises people today when they learn he pioneered genres such as detective fiction and science fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes borrows directly from Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin. That’s why the annual Mystery Writers Award, established in 1945, is named the “Edgar Award” after Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe was also a cryptologist, inviting his magazine readers to send in ciphers of which he would break the code. Historical sidenote: “William Friedman, America’s foremost cryptologist, was heavily influenced by Poe. Friedman’s initial interest in cryptography came from reading ‘The Gold-Bug’ as a child, an interest he later put to use in deciphering Japan’s PURPLE code during World War II” (Wikipedia).
Last but not least, Poe’s fascination with the macabre inspired a relentless exploration, with his famously clinical analysis, into a litany of frightening dilemmas and creepy situations. The above-mentioned Raven and Usher fit in that category. Other great examples include Loss of Breath, Berenice, The Man in the Crowd, The Premature Burial, and the list goes on. Here is a complete list where each story title is a link to the story, and each poem title is a link to the poem (or a description with a link).
To add real-life mystery to the fiction, Poe died from unknown causes at a young age (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849). The circumstances have attracted much speculation but with no definite explanation to date. He left us with a lot of food for thought, created during his brief adult writing life. So, let us not fail to toast Poe, on his 206th birthday January 19, 2015, and hope he has finally found that elusive peace of mind— or as Poe, citing his “depression of spirits,” requested: “Fail not — as you value your peace of mind hereafter” (Poe’s letter to Pendleton Kennedy, September 11, 1835).