Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Happy 207th, Edgar!

On this date in 1809 a boy named Edgar Poe was born in Boston, the second child of a couple of touring actors. His father disappeared soon after he was born and his mother died a short time later, leaving him an orphan. John Allan of Richmond, Virginia, took Edgar in as a foster son and we now know that boy by his full name: Edgar Allan Poe.

I was a huge Poe fan at the age of ten or so and read as many of his gothic horror tales as I could get my little hands on. This man knew how to tell a gripping story, one that caught and held a reader's attention, and his work certainly held my attention. I loved his poetry, as well, but it's only in recent years that I've learned another impressive fact about this important writer: Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story.

Yes, before Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie introduced us to Poirot and Miss Marple, Poe wrote about C. August Dupin, an expert in "ratiocination," as it was known then. The word "detective" did not exist at the time Poe was writing, but the ability to reason things out with a nearly-supernatural ability (ratiocination) was of great interest to readers in those days.

Arthur Conan Doyle gives Poe credit for inventing this genre: "Each [of Poe's detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed...Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?" 

Indeed, the formula used by Conan Doyle so brilliantly can be seen in its entirety in Poe's three detective stories -- "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (published 1841), "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842) and "The Purloined Letter" (1844). We have the brilliant detective, Dupin, his companion -- a "normal" fellow who is Poe himself and serves as the narrator of the story about Dupin's amazing crime-solving abilities -- and a police chief, Prefect G-, a fellow who tries hard, but needs Dupin's skills to solve tough crimes.

Poe explained his intent in writing these detective tales and a fourth story, "The Gold Bug," (which is similar and involves a code-breaking protagonist), as an attempt to arouse intellectual excitement in his readers by involving them in solving puzzles. He contrasted this with his intent in writing the Gothic horror stories I so loved as a child (such as "The Fall of the House of Usher.") These were meant to arouse emotional excitement in readers, and they certainly succeed in doing that.

His poetry, though, had a different intent altogether. To Poe, poetry was only meant to express beauty. And while his poems are, in fact, beautiful and metrical and basically like music, he never strays far from his focus on the dark and mysterious side of life.

Poe's own life ended in a mystery. He was found injured one evening on a roadside, beaten and delirious, and died in the hospital soon thereafter. It is now thought that he was involved in some sort of ballot-box-stuffing scheme and got caught and beaten for it, but the full truth remains shrouded in the past. Edgar Allan Poe died on Oct. 7, 1849, at only 40 years of age, after a brief, brilliant career as a writer who changed the course of literature forever.

I'll end with a quote from his most famous poem, "The Raven." Published in 1845, this poem is the piece that made Poe a household name. Many children (including yours truly) memorized this first stanza and can still, decades later, recite it from memory:

 Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore--
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door--
only this and nothing more."


2 comments:

  1. Love it, Raima. This is inspiring me to go back and read some Poe!

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    1. Elaine! Thanks so much...and I hope you do read some more. Sometimes the old stuff is really the best stuff.

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