Connecting The Life With the Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The works of Edgar Allan Poe continue to be some of the most iconic pieces of American Literature to this day. He was known for his poetry, short stories, and literary criticism. It is a challenge to select which works to write about, considering there are so many of them. Naturally, most writers base varying degrees of their work on the writer’s upbringing and life experiences. There is an entire form of literary criticism devoted towards showing the relationship between the life of an author and their literary works. It is called Biographical criticism. It does not always provide definite answers to questions about the text. But, it gives insight into how the author uses their creative process in establishing things like characters, setting, and tone of the story.

Probably his most iconic work is The Raven. One aspect of the text that has been questioned with regards to its relationship with Poe’s life is it’s reference to the lost Lenore. It seems understandable that one may think Lenore could be a reference to wife Virginia Poe (Norton 733.) Virginia died just three years after the poem’s original publication in 1845. The melancholy tone of its unnamed narrator resonates with readers and poets alike. Jorie Graham indicates such in her critical piece about The Raven. She states The Raven’s uttering of nevermore serve as reminders of the fact that the death of a loved one is not only inevitable, as in without option and without another side (Jorie 238). The Raven itself is merely reminding the narrator of that fact in its croaking of nevermore. Of course, laughing at the Raven and dismissing it as a visitor turn the man into a satanic rage.

                        “Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend,” I shrieked upstarting-

“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian Shore!

Leave no black plue as a token of that lie thy soul has spoken!

Leave my lonliness unbroken! – quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.” (Poe 3.)

Of course, readers will find connections with Poe’s life in more than just his most notable poem The Raven. It is important to remember that biographical criticism is often tied in with historical criticism. The Pit and the Pendulum is set during the Spanish Inquisition. The unnamed male narrator managed to escape a brutal execution by a scythe hanging on the bottom of a pendulum. He was presumably sentenced to execution because he went against the teachings of the Catholic church. Poe published the poem just nine years after the Spanish Inquisition officially disbanded in 1834. He obviously did not live in Spain while the Inquisition was coming to an end. Therefore, the most likely explanation for such a brutal and graphic portrayal was to show the horrors of an execution, despite its lack of historical accuracy.

Reading the biography in the 9th edition to the Norton Anthology of American Literature might cause a reader to presume that he experienced abuse in the foster family he was adopted into after mother Elizabeth Poe died in 1811 and father David Poe abandoned his family. Some may say that despite lack of any specific indication inside of the text. It indicates there were “hostilities” between Poe and stepfather Allan after Allan’s law firm failed in 1824 (Norton 731.) Later in life, Poe’s struggles with alcohol abuse and his lack of financial stability plagued him throughout his life. University of Massachusetts alumni Jennifer Bouchard indicates that both Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado provide into the demons in the human brain (Bouchard 3.) There are several lines in the text which offer some autobiographical context into his writing style. One can see after reading Tell-Tale Heart that Poe was very meticulous with regards to crafting his characters and ensuring the reader catches the matter of fact style of writing Poe crafts for this unnamed male narrator who just committed a brutal, yet well thought out, act of murder.

If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.

I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye – not even his could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out – no stain of any kind – no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all – ha ha! (Poe 3.)

As stated earlier, Poe was most widely known for writing short stories. The Fall of the House of Usher is one of his few works which would be considered the length of a novella. It is unique to his writing style because it departs from his usual gory and violent stories. Due to this, it is more challenging to find biographical contexts within the story. The unnamed male narrator is visiting the home of a childhood friend. Said friend, named Roderick, has an unspecified mental disorder. Wife Madeline dies from being seriously ill and needing constant care. The characters mental state continues to dwindle as the story goes on. Literary scholars suggest that Madeline and Roderick are caricatures of Poe and his deceased wife Virginia. The Fall Of the House of Usher was published one year after Poe’s mysterious death in 1849 (Norton 733.) One can find elements of Poe’s coping with the loss of Virginia throughout the story.

Hitherto she had steadily borne up against the pressure of her malady, and had not betaken herself finally to the bed; but, on the closing in the evening of my arrival at the house she succumbed (as her brother told me at night with inexpressible agitation.) to the prostrating power of the destroyer; and I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus probably be the last I should obtain – that the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more. (Poe 4.)

It is no secret that the works of Edgar Allan Poe continue to be read and criticized to this day. They resonate with readers because they’re reminded about how reminders of how one copes with death, wrongful execution, the demons in one’s brain and mental illness. The world didn’t get to know many of his works until after his death. Therefore, one can only use the text itself to determine which aspects of his life are relevant. It shows how even the most painful experiences in one’s life can be turned into a literary masterpiece.


Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor (John Cheever)

You can find the full story on this article from the New Yorker Magazine.

It is also found in the New York Times Best Seller “The Stories of John Cheever.”

(Pages 128-136.) 

Some of my classmates at my community college may not share my interest in reading more of the works by the authors I have read about in American Literature class. In this class, I was required to read works by authors dating from the Age of Realism through to the Post Modern era. Most people my age are not entirely familiar with short stories written by the late John Cheever. “The Swimmer” remains to be his most notable short story. A wealthy suburbanite male decides to take an unconventional method of transportation home via swimming pools owned by residents throughout his classy New Jersey county. He thinks this journey is going to change all of his previous failings and win the approval of people who already dislike him.

Cheever’s stories are known for their portrayals of affluence and how pretentious it can make those who are fortunate enough to live with it. However, one particular story “Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor” introduces a man named Charlie. He works minimum wage as an elevator operator in a swanky New York City apartment building. Of course, this means he has to get up and go to work on Christmas morning. He exhibits an expression of self-pity by claiming he is “the only one” who is expected to do so. The fourth paragraph provides some insight into why Cheever chose such a title for this story. Charlie utters many variations of the following refrain when he talks with the apartment residents.

“I think Christmas is a very sad season of the year. It isn’t that people around here aint generous – I mean, I got plenty of tips—but, you see, I live alone in a furnished room and I don’t have any family or anything and Christmas isn’t much of a holiday for me.

Naturally, most people would emphasize with someone who is in a similar situation to that of Charlie’s. Christmas is a very lonely time for many people. Finding coping mechanisms for such loneliness is essential for survival in a season that is ultimately supposed to be full of good cheer. Sometimes, we deal with such loneliness by unjustifiable actions such as lying to gain sympathy from others. He does just that when he speaks to Mr. and Mrs. Fuller. He lies about having two dead children and four who are still living. All of the apartment residents who interact with Charlie are sympathetic and empathetic towards him. His feelings of loneliness and sadness do not change.

The “woe is me” feeling is all too familiar for those of us who have gone through situations where it seems like complaining is the only way to cope. It seemed to work for Charlie. Residents shower him with all kinds of gifts as acts of kindness. The above takes place all the while being totally oblivious to the reality of his children being a pigment of his imagination. Just some of the gifts include eggnog, martinis, cocktails, a dressing gown, goose, turkey, pheasant, chicken, grouse, and pigeon. He drinks some of the drinks while he is on the job. Hilarity ensues after he begins to take Mrs. Gadshill down from the twelfth floor.

“Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loopty loop!”

Mrs.  Gadshill shrieked. Then, for some reason, she sat down on the floor of the elevator. Why was her face so pale; he wondered; why was she sitting on the floor? She shrieked again. He grounded the car gently, and cleverly, he thought, and opened the door. “I’m sorry if I scared you, Mrs. Gadshill,” he said meekly. “I was only fooling.” She shrieked again. Then she ran out into the lobby, screaming for the superintendent.

Drunken Charlie is now fired from his minimum wage job. This certainly does nothing for his sadness and loneliness. 

The excess of food and presents around him began to make him feel guilty and unworthy. He regretted bitterly the lie he had told about his children. He was a single man with simple needs. He had abused the goodness of the people upstairs. He was unworthy.

The final events of the story begin when he flashes back to the landlady in his apartment building. She is eating dinner with her family when Charlie knocks on the door. He offers presents to her children. He also gives her the dressing gown that was previously given to him. She accepts the offer. But, says to her children that they have received enough gifts. She encourages her children to bring the presents to the poor kids on Hudson Street. She says this as Christmas day is nearing its end. 

“Now, you kids help me get all this stuff together. Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she said, for it was benevolence for only a single day, and that day was nearly over. She was tired, but she couldn’t rest, she couldn’t rest.” 

This story can be interpreted in a few ways. The title reminds us how sad Christmas can be for people who lack the money to buy presents for their loved ones. I especially began to notice it’s portrayal of clashes between rich and poor. Charlie works a minimum wage job. Mind you, it is inside the elevator of a luxurious New York City apartment building. He has no choice but to interact with people who can afford luxuries which he can only dream of. Cheever enlightens readers about the impact it can have on one’s psyche. It made Charlie a perpetual victim who expected everyone to know about his misfortunes. Thus, it caused him to lie in a successful attempt to win the sympathy of the wealthy apartment tenants. It only provides temporary relief for his unhealthy perpetual victim complex. 

His face was blazing. He loved the world, and the world loved him. When he thought back over his life, it appeared to him in a rich and wonderful light, full of astonishing experiences and unusual friends. He thought of his job as an elevator operator – cruising up and down through hundreds of feet of perilous space – demanded the nerve and intellect of a birdman. All the contraints of his life – the green walls of his room and months of unemployment – dissolved. No one was ringing, but he got into the elevator and shot it at full speed up to the penthouse and down again, up and down, to test his wonderful mastery of space.

Finally and most importantly, those last few sentences remind me about the irony often associated with people who spend all of their time and energy to make Christmas more enjoyable for those who cannot afford it. This season only comes once a year. Like decorations, benevolence is placed in boxes and stored in the basement until next December comes around. I have tried to come up with a way, to sum up my writing about this story. All in all, I can say that reading it and interpreting it was time well spent. Charlie is a complex character. He is a con man who takes advantage of people’s kindness. Karma does come up to him. However, he looks back on his feelings of loneliness and tries to take a step in the right direction by performing an act of kindness.

 At the very least, he teaches us the right and wrong approach towards coping with the holiday blues.