On January 19th, 1809, one of the most mysterious and misunderstood figures in English literary history was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Orphaned before his third birthday, Edgar Poe lost both parents to tuberculosis and was subsequently raised by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. It is the adoption of this family’s surname alongside his own, which served to create his now legendary nom-de-plume.
I won’t dwell on Poe’s life story at this stage; it is documented eloquently elsewhere. Suffice it to say, however, that the popular image of Poe as an opium-addled alcoholic is largely a fiction, created by a jealous literary rival after his death. So, instead of recounting a biography already published countless times online, I would like to take a moment to draw attention to his literary genius and to his genre-defining achievements.
Edgar Allan Poe has been a constant companion of mine since shortly after my arrival in the English-speaking world back in 1984. As a writer, and a student of linguistics, the immaculate, flowing styles which permeate Poe’s imaginings have always reserved his writings a special place in my heart. I own all his works, some several times over, and I periodically re-read them, both for fun and to help keep my own pen as sharp as possible.
My first encounter with Poe arrived in the shape of “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall“. Penned in 1835, this little-known short story was a journalistic hoax, purporting to be a newspaper report of the first successful balloon flight to the moon. Broadly categorizable as Proto Science Fiction, the tale caught my eye in a compendium of 19th Century short stories I had purchased second-hand, not long after my move to Canada. Having grown up reading such Giants of Sci-Fi as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, I was both familiar with and fond of Victorian-Era Science Fiction. What interested me about the Hans Pfaall story, however, was that it predated both the aforementioned authors by some considerable time. Verne was not published until two years after Poe’s death, and Wells wasn’t even born until 1866.
Clearly, Edgar Allan Poe was well ahead of the science fiction curve…
And so, following this first, brief encounter, I dived headlong into the oft-macabre worlds of a man whose sheer scope of imagination and creativity still staggers me to this very day.
Credited as being one of the Fathers of Science Fiction, as well as being the Inventor of both the Modern Detective Story, as well as The Short Story itself, Poe’s breadth of style is nothing short of astounding. From his infamous “Balloon Hoax” to “The Murders of the Rue Morgue“, Edgar Allan Poe broke more pioneering literary ground than any author before him. This simple, yet monumental, fact is often lost among a readership mainly focused on such legendary works as “The Raven,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” or “The Cask of Amontillado.“
And while these works are undoubtedly Jewels in Poe’s Literary Crown, one needs to take into account ‘lesser writings‘ like “Why the little Frenchman wears his arm in a sling” to start gaining an insight into the colossal spectrum of Edgar Allan Poe’s linguistic genius. Holding this obscure little tale next to a seminal work such as “The Raven“, a reader would swear the two to have been penned not only by separate authors, but by authors from vastly disparate social backgrounds. It is not least this ability to write outside of a single, defined style, which sets Poe head and shoulders above not only his contemporaries, but of any 19th Century author I could personally name. A true Master of the Art, he was one of the few individuals who managed to outgrow simple ‘Use of language‘ to the point where he would bend the written word to his Will on a mere whim.
I can safely say that reading the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe has taught me more about writing than any other author’s portfolio, save maybe J.R.R. Tolkien. And even in making this comparison it occurs to me that Tolkien’s style, while beautifully poetic, is a far more rigid affair than Poe’s malleable approach to the English language. While Tolkien created a single, vast, fictional universe, narrated with a single melodious cadence, Poe wrought countless literary planets, each as different as Venus is from Jupiter, and each speaking to the reader in its own, gloriously unique voice.
It really is impossible to overstate the importance of Edgar Allan Poe to the development of English literature. If you have not yet done so, I would heartily recommend that you try reading a little of his work. Who knows, you might just like it.
Happy Birthday, Ed. Long may the light of your genius illuminate the road ahead for writers everywhere…