Essay – Edgar Allen Poe: What it means to be an American

This was an American Literature 1 project at University of Maryland Global Campus. I was tasked to choose a 19th century writer and explain through their writing of ‘What it means to be an American’. I’m not sure if I fully understand or how to explain the statement, but here is my take on Edgar Allen Poe. (1,500 words)

I heard of the dark and mystical Edgar Allan Poe from a young age. Mom’ would tell me, “Don’t watch or read any of his stories, because it will keep you up at night.” She also told me to eat my vegetables. I am still not a vegetable lover, but reading and watching Poe was different. He fell into an alluring category of mystery and mayhem in the same company of Boris Karloff and Alfred Hitchcock. Poe’s stories of spooky alleys and dark rooms did keep me up at night, but I blamed it on the force feeding of the horrid green beans. The Pit and the Pendulum was the first story I can remember that triggered nightmares, that story placed me stretched out on the table envisioning a big sharp blade swinging over me and getting closer and closer to my gut, before it would cut me in half. Well, enough of those terrible memories let’s move onto a little of Poe’s life and what it means to be an American, along with a few other Poe favorites such as: The Black Cat and The Oval Portrait.

Poe was considered a dark romantic and the themes of American Romanticism are emotion, individualism, and personality, but his twist came through a Gothic style. Romanticism: is an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement during the same time as Transcendentalism, and Sentimentalism. Poe might not have been a Christian, but certainly some of his writings came from a Biblical awareness. Art, music, and literature were inspired at this time in America by the concepts of the five I’s: imagination, intuition, individuality, idealism, and inspiration. It would be hard to reveal the imagination and emotions that inspired Poe on any given day. His creative fictions and who-done-it yarns created today’s detective story.

Edgar Allen Poe became an orphan when he lost his mother and father in 1811. He was a nine-tenth century American writer specializing in Gothic Romanticism. His fictions captivated America’s imagination and chilled the reader to the bone, because they could easily imagine themselves in his stories. He was born on January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts and died in Baltimore, Maryland on October 7, 1849. After the death of his parents he was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. They were an affluent couple, so they were able to give him a good education. They were not blessed with birthing their own children and even though they never legally adopted him the Allan’s loved and treated him as their own – Poe eventually took their name. In 1826 Poe went to the University of Virginia and performed well in those studies, but incurred a lot of gambling debts. He left the University and returned home to Richmond where he eventually joined the Army. He told the Army he was twenty two and joined under the name of Edgar A. Perry. He excelled nicely in the Army and reached a sergeant major rank quickly. Although, while he was there his step mother Frances died in 1829 and with a desire to mend fences with his step father, John, he quit the Army. Once home he joined West Point, but in typical Poe fashion he did not last there either. During that same year he published his first book of poetry, but it was not a financial success as he thought it would be – such is life in American. A person can plan and plan, but still fail. Years of failure and the death of two mothers taught Poe to write from a dark realistic perspective. He saw life where it was, but used his imagination to place the audience in a state of suspense. He was inspired by what he saw, felt and lived. One of his top ten stories was The Black Cat.

Professor John A, Dern reviewed several of Poe’s works including, but not limited to: Never Bet the Devil Your Head, The Murder in the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat. He relates Poe’s fiction of The Black Cat’ as, “The Black Cat treats the creation story of Genesis 1–4 remarkably fully, moving beyond allusion as it essentially retells those chapters of Genesis in macabre form, describing an ideal state, original sin, and murder—the very outline of the biblical narrative itself” (Dern pp. 1–22) America is no stranger to the effects of alcohol and Dern explains it in his review of The Black Cat. The narrator of the story is a condemned inmate on death row and is set to be executed the next day, he tells a story of an alcoholic. The alcoholic and his wife have an idyllic life enjoying a good job, home and a lot of animals. Alcoholism eventually took control of the husband and it regressed to the point of hallucinations. In a state of confusion the husband killed his favorite cat, it was a black cat. Still in the throes of addiction he believes another black cat entered into his life. His wife tries to help him as he spirals deeper into his obsessive behavior, but she is no match for his compulsive behavior. He ultimately swings an ax at the second black cat and when his wife tried to stop him she gets struck and killed. Consumed with guilt and shame the killer hides her body in a wall of their home and when the police hear of his strange behaviors they find her and arrest him. This is one of Poe’s story in a story sagas and that was a typical technique of his. The Black Cat was published in The Saturday Evening Post on August of 1843, but before that he published another master piece, The Oval Portrait on April of 1842.

The Oval Portrait is another story in a story and this one also includes death along with some vagueness. Professor James Twitchell’s review of The Oval Portrait recounts of an unnamed narrator telling a story of two men seeking shelter in an abandoned chateau. One of the men is amazed at the bounty of paintings and is especially enamored with one in particular. He finds a portrait of a beautiful young woman and a book that explains the it, “… curious to find out more about this young beauty, reads in the catalogue that her husband was the painter and that he was so wedded to his art that he did not notice that as he was painting his wife she was growing weaker and weaker.” (Twitchell pp. 387–393) The woman died while posing for the portrait. She wanted no part of what she thought was an arduous uncomfortable task anyway. This same story was published in Graham’s Magazine in 1842, but had a different name, Life in Death and it was shorter.

In 1836 Poe married his first cousin, Virginia Clemm Poe, but if that was not embarrassing enough she was only thirteen. Eleven years later she died of tuberculosis and two years after her death Poe wrote his famous poem Annabelle Lee, but it was not published till a year after he died. It was about a man who lost the love of his life and could not deal with it. It was a controversial poem because Annabelle Lee might have represented his wife Virginia. Their relationship was mired in incest and pedophilia.

I still do not like most vegetables, but now Edgar Allen Poe is by far my favorite writer and his extensive work shows me what it means to be an American. He lost his mother, his step mother and wife, so he had a reason to write darkly. As a typical American he failed at a number of jobs and schools, but he always got back up and started over again. He had love and lost it and wrote about life in America or fictional lives in America. He died young at forty, but still circulated a large library in a short twenty-one years of published writing. Many countries do not give a failed person another opportunity, but America does. After all why do so many immigrants want to come to America? They come here, because America is the land of opportunity.

Work Cited

Dern, John A. “Deadly Sins: ‘The Black Cat’ as a Macabre Retelling of Genesis 1-4.” Edgar Allan Poe Review, vol. 21, no. 1, Spring 2020, pp. 1–22.

Twitchell, James. “Poe’s The Oval Portrait and the Vampire Motif.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 14, Fall 1977, pp. 387–393.


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