Edgar Allan Poe is credited with being the very first author to try and make a living from his writing alone.
Born on 19th January, 1809 in Boston, USA, Edgar was the son of two actors. They both died before he was three years old, so he was raised by his godfather, John Allan. Poe was taken from Richmond in America to Scotland and England (1815–20) to receive a classical education. This education continued back in America, where he attended the University of Virginia. Unfortunately, once there Poe became a gambler and an alcoholic. His godfather was furious with him for running up huge debts, and refused to continue to fund his gambling losses at the university. Poe returned to Richmond and began to write the poetry for which he has become famous.
The Academy of American Poets states that “Poe’s work as an editor, a poet, and a critic had a profound impact on American and international literature…. Many anthologies credit him as the “architect” of the modern short story.”
In 1827, like so many modern authors, Poe self-published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, but Poe’s life remained troubled, and he was struggling with poverty. His dire circumstances forced him to join the army, under the name Edgar A. Perry. He stayed in the army until his foster mother died. Then, in an attempt to improve Poe’s prospects, John Allan purchased his release from the army and helped him get an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
During his time in the services Poe continued to write. In 1829 he published Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. He hated military service and deliberately got himself expelled before taking a job. His drinking and ill health meant he didn’t hold this down for long.
Poe’s only driving force was his need to write. Although his work didn’t bring him wealth in his lifetime, his legacy has been to provide us with some of the most influential pieces of literature ever produced. Influenced by the tragedies of his own life, including his poor health and the death of his wife, much of Poe’s best work is concerned with terror and sadness. A spokesman for the Poe Museum in Richmond, UA said “Most famously, Poe completely transformed the genre of the horror story with his masterful tales of psychological depth and insight not envisioned in the genre before his time and scarcely seen in it since.”
As well as his more recognised tales of horror, such as The Raven, in 1841 Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue. This was the very first published detective story; a literary innovation which earned him the nickname “Father of the Detective Story.” His concept of deductive reasoning and ratiocination inspired countless authors, most famous among them Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In 1843 Poe expanded his genre even further, when he wrote The Gold Bug, a suspense full of secret codes and hunting treasure. This won him a literary prize. Edgar Allan Poe died penniless after a lifetime of ill health on 7th October, 1849 in Maryland, USA. His gift to modern literature comes not only in the form of the excellence of his poetry and prose, but in how he highlighted the importance of stylistic focus and literary structure. His work marked the first time style and plot layout were publicly considered as much as the plot-line itself. By putting his work before his income, Poe became a forerunner of the French Symbolist movement, claiming that there should be an “art for art’s sake” movement and inspiring men such as Mallarmé and Rimbaud.
Today, Poe is remembered as one of world literature’s major historical figures. The Raven, amongst other works, is consistently cited as amongst the best of its genre, and he continues to influence modern day writers, television producers and film directors such as Stephen King and Neil Gaimen.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.