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.