Edgar Allan Poe and his influence on American Literature

Seminar Paper, 2000

10 Pages

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1. The Romantic spirit and its influence on America

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, romanticism was the dominant literary mode in Europe. The Inspiration for the romantic approach initially came from two great creators of thought, French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. As the romantic movement spread from France and Germany to England and Europe to America, certain themes and moods became the concern of almost all Nineteenth-century writers. “Liberalism”, the new emphasis on the rights and dignity of the individual and the desire to be free of convention and tyranny, “Nature”, the “Lure of the Exotic” and “the trend toward the irrational and the supernatural”.1

The actual trigger for the romantic age was the French Revolution (1789-1799), aiming at the liberty and spirit of the human race. In reaction to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason, romanticism stressed emotion, the imagination and subjectivity of approach.

Until about 1870 romanticism influenced all major forms of American prose. As an American version of the romanticism, an intellectual movement known as transcendentalism developed in New England. Like romanticism transcendentalism rejected both, Eighteenth-century rationalism and established religion which for the transcendentalists meant the Puritan tradition in particular. Instead the transcendentalists “celebrated the power of the human imagination to commune with the universe and transcend the limitations of the material world”2. They were influenced by romanticism, especially by such aspects as self examination, the emphasis of individualism and the praise of the beauty of nature and humankind and found their chief source of inspiration in nature. Leader of the transcendental movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson, stating ideas such as the importance of being true to one’s nature.

The self-confidence and nationalism of the newly created United States of America gave a boost to historical fiction, which was an expression of romanticism and its probings of human nature and emotions as well as romanticising the American. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a master of historical fiction, was influenced to some extent by transcendentalism, but his work with its deep ethical concern about sin and punishment is less optimistic than most transcendental writing. While transcendentalism was basically optimistic, stressing human creativity and the beauty of nature, “Hawthorne demonstrated that asking questions about the nature of the universe could lead to answers illuminating the darker side of life.”3

Another writer who inverted transcendentalistic promises was Edgar Allan Poe. In his disturbing prose and poetry, Poe explored the nature of humanity and frightened readers with what he found. His tales are obsessed with death, madness and violence. To fully understand his work it is necessary to keep in mind Poe’s biography, which seems to be a story written by himself.4

2. Biography

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809. After his father has deserted the family and his mother died of tuberculosis, Edgar went to live with his uncle, John Allan, a tobacco exporter from Virginia.

In February 1826, Edgar A. Poe registered at the University of Virginia. The young student made a rather brilliant record in his studies but also began to gamble heavily, lost and used his credit with local shopkeepers recklessly. At this young age the effects of his discovering alcohol were obviously devastating as he appears to have been a brilliant, but rather eccentric and decidedly nervous youth.

Another cause of tension at this period was the unhappy "progress" of his love affair with Sarah Elmira Royster. Her Parents were evidently aware of the fact that young Poe was no longer regarded as an heir by his foster-father John Allan. Consequently they brought pressure to break off the match. Not only were Poe's letters to his sweetheart confiscated, but Elmira was also forbidden to write and finally was sent away to be kept an eye on. In the meantime Mr. Allan was informed of the financial difficulties of his ward and his anger became so extreme that, upon the return of Poe to Richmond to spend the Christmas holidays of 1826, he informed his ward that would not return to the University.

The opening weeks of 1827 were spent in Richmond in the most strained relation between young Poe and Mr. Allan. Mr. Allan refused to pay any debts of ward, which seriously reduced the proud spirit of the youngster, and used the opportunity to insist on his reading law and abandoning all literary ambitions. On this affair they finally split. Seeing that his guardian would be willing to let him return home, Poe conceived the idea of entering the U.S. Military Academy West Point. His letters to his foster-father pleaded for him to come home and at the same time Mrs. Allan prayed to see her "dear boy" before she died. When John Allan finally sent for Edgar, it was too late. Mrs. Allan died before Poe arrived home, and despite her dying request not to be buried until her foster-son returned, her husband proceeded with the funeral. “When Poe arrived at the house a few hours later all that he loved most was in the ground. His agony at the grave is said to have been extreme.”

After joining in U.S. Military Academy as an effort to reach his uncle’s respect in 1830, Poe had to realise that all hope of a reconciliation was in vain, so he forced his dismissal by deliberately breaking regulations.

In 1836 Poe married his cousin Virginia Following his marriage he worked as an editor for several magazines. After five years of suffering, Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1847 and Poe turned to alcohol to ease his despair.

In 1849, the poet became engaged to his youthful flame Sarah Elmira Royster but on the way to their wedding he stopped in Baltimore and was later found lying on the street in a horrible condition. He died in hospital four days later, cause of death unknown.5

3. Poe’s influence on literature

Edgar Allan Poe’s literary career began with poetry, where he influenced many writers. His poems are important examples for what can be done with language, as they show the calculated musical effects of language that were to characterise Poe’s poetry. His extraordinary manipulation of rhythm and sound is particularly evident in “ The Bells ” (1849):


Hear the sledges with the bells-- Silver bells --

What a world of merriment their melody foretells! How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,

In the icy air of night!

While the stars that oversprinkle All the heavens, seem to twinkle With a crystalline delight;

Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells From the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells,--

From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.


Hear the mellow wedding-bells, Golden bells!

What a world of happiness their harmony foretells! Through the balmy air of night

How they ring out their delight From the molten-golden notes! And all in tune,

What a liquid ditty floats

To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats On the moon!

Oh, from out the sounding cells,

What a gust of euphony voluminously wells! How it swells!

How it dwells

On the Future! how it tells Of rapture that impels

To the swinging and the ringing Of the bells, bells, bells -- Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells --

To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!


Hear the loud alarum bells -- Brazen bells!

What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells! In the startled ear of night

How they scream out their affright! Too much horrified to speak, They can only shriek, shriek,

Out of tune,

In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire, In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire Leaping higher, higher, higher

With a desperate desire, And a resolute endeavor, Now--now to sit or never,

By the side of the pale-faced moon. Oh, the bells, bells, bells!

What a tale their terror tells Of despair!

How they clang, and clash, and roar! What a horror they outpour On the bosom of the palpitating air!

Yet the ear, it fully knows,

By the twanging

And the clanging,

How the danger ebbs and flows; Yet the ear distinctly tells,

In the jangling

And the wrangling,

How the danger sinks and swells,

By the sinking of the swelling in the anger of the bells-- Of the bells --

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells,--

In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!


Hear the tolling of the bells-- Iron bells!

What a world of solemn thought their monody compels! In a silence of the night

How we shiver with affright

At the melancholy menace of their tone! For every sound that floats

From the rust within their throats, Is a groan:

And the people--ah, the people-- They that dwell up in the steeple, All alone,

And who, tolling, tolling, tolling, In that muffled monotone,

Feel a glory in so rolling

On the human heart a stone--

They are neither man nor woman-- They are neither brute nor human-- They are Ghouls!

And their king it is who tolls; And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls, A paean from the bells! And his merry bosom swells With the paean of the bells! And he dances and he yells; Keeping time, time, time In a sort of Runic rhyme, To the paean of the bells--

Of the bells;

Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme, To the throbbing of the bells-- Of the bells, bells, bells, To the sobbing of the bells;

Keeping time, time, time, As he knells, knells, knells, In a happy Runic rhyme,

To the rolling of the bells,-- Of the bells, bells, bells -- To the tolling of the bells, Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells,--

To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

This poem seems to echo with the chiming of metallic instruments. The basic effect is provided by sounds of the words. Apart from deliberately onomatopoetic wo rds (“tintinabulation”, line 11), the poem abounds with the repetition of vowel sounds and alliteration (“brazen bells”, line 37) which leads to a bell-like resonance and a hypnotic effect.6

Still, Poe’s main influence in America was his work as editor for several literary magazines. As an editor he was able to choose and publish certain types of literature, which was his main influence during his lifetime. He also acted as a critic to the magazines, of special importance is his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “ Twice-Told Tales ” , published in Graham ’ s Magazine in May 1842.

It was in this review that he gave his famous theory of the modern short story.

“A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents-he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.”7

Furthermore Poe claimed that the short story writer should deliberately subordinate everything in the story (characters, style, tone) to “bringing out a single, preconceived effect”.8

Poe’s own short stories follow these guidelines perfectly. His stories can be divided into three groups.: tales of terror (“The Cask of Amontillado ” , “ The Tell-Tale Heart ” ), tales of beauty (“ Shadow ”, “ Eleonora ”) and the detective tales, such as “ The Murders in the Rue Morgue ”, which helped to establish the modern American detective stories. Many of Poe’s tales are distinguished by the author’s unique inventive ness in addition to his brilliant plot construction. Such stories include “ The Pit and the Pendulum ” and “ The Tell-Tale Heart ”, where a mad murderer is subconsciously haunted into confessing his guilt.

4. Poe’s life and work in context

Under no circumstances can it be denied that Poe’s life has strongly influenced his work. The majority of literary critics see Poe’s work as a reflection of his traumatic past. According to Poe biographers such as Marie Bonaparte and Kenneth Silverman, the key events in his sad life were the successive wasting illnesses and deaths of Poe's mother, stepmother, and wife. The agonising deaths of these women, who gave him security and comfort, surely marked his imagination in ways reflected in his tales and poems. According to their point of view his fixation with death is closely related to the many personal losses he experienced during his lifetime.9

Certain connections can be seen in his short stories, for example in “ The Tell-Tale Heart ”. During his lifetime Poe was often portrayed as insane, evil or drunk, which makes him similar to the characters in his stories, such as the madman in the “Tell-Tale Heart”, who kills the old man. Poe was seen as using death as a welcoming thing when wanting to rebel against the boring routines that limit the soul, meaning everyday life can also be seen in his works. In “ The Tell-Tale Heart ” for example the madman is obsessed with death, just like Edgar Allan Poe himself. Some biographers go even further and see detailed symbolism in this story. Marie Bonaparte sees a link between the old man and Poe's adoptive father in real life, John Allan, and between the narrator in the story and Poe. There are several similarities between the old man and Allan, for

example both men had blue eyes. According to Bonaparte, much like the old man had never wronged the narrator, Allan had never wronged Poe. Similarities abound between Poe and the narrator, as well. Bonaparte suspects that the story was an outlet for Poe's bottled up aggression toward his adoptive father. The style of Poe symbolises the incomprehensible terrors and obsessions that Poe as the author must have lived through to be able to formulate such an account. Perhaps this is why Poe considered "The Tell Tale Heart" one of his best works.10

Not only do his short stories reflect much of his thoughts of death and the afterlife, but also his poems. This can be seen in, among other poems, “ Al Aaraaf ” , “ Evening Star ” , “ To Helen ” and “ The Doomed City ”. This obsession with death is hard to explain, but adults seem to learn to live with the loss of someone by gradually withdrawing their involvement with the person, while children have difficulties in understanding death and tend to look for a substitute. Edgar Allan Poe was never able to find this substitute and an underlying denial for death apparently influenced his work.11 Maybe writing was the only way Poe could balance over his problems. It seems as if he was only able to manage his life in fiction. After all his writing is clearly structured, while his life was basically insecure and highly emotional. Actually with his writing he emphasised rationality, exactly what the romantic movement rejected. He advocated classical norms and emphasised rationality while he believed in individual creativity. With these Paradoxes Poe reflects the paradoxical time: “The apocalyptic sense of doom combined with the romantic innocence of childhood.”11



Ervin, Timothy “New Forms of Literature” History of American Literature, 1999 http://www.news1.yasuda-u.ac.jp/ptervin/HAL/hamlit07.html

Hervey, Allen “Biography of Edgar Allan Poe, 1927 available at http://www.pambytes.com/poe/bio.html

Hoffman, Daniel “The Artist of the beautyful” American Poetry Review, Vol. 24, 1995, p. 2- 11

Microsoft Corporation, "American Literature: Prose," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000 http://encarta.msn.com

“Early 19th Century: Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) Perspectives in American Literature, http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap3/poe.html

“The wondering Minstrels”, available at http://www.cs.rice.edu/ssiyer/minstrels/poems/101.html


1 Microdoft Encarta Online

2 ebd.

3 ebd.

4 ebd.

5 Hervey

6 The Wandering Minstrels

7 Ervin

8 Early 19th Century: Edgar Allan Poe

9 Ervin

10 Hoffman 2

11 Hoffman 5

12 Early 19th Century

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Edgar Allan Poe and his influence on American Literature
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Laura Gandlgruber (Author), 2000, Edgar Allan Poe and his influence on American Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/97801


  • guest on 2/18/2003


    Endlich mal etwas gutes im Internet.
    Ich bin sehr positiv überrascht.
    Vielen Dank.

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