For Fans of Edgar Allan Poe, a Happy 200th Birthday
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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of writer Edgar Allan Poe. The United States Postal Service is honoring him with a stamp. And several museums in cities where he lived are remembering him with plays, readings and other events. This week on our program we explore his life and the continuing influence of his work.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote stories and poems of mystery and terror, insanity and death. His life was short and seemingly unhappy.
He was born Edgar Poe on January nineteenth, eighteen hundred and nine in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents were actors. He was a baby when his father left the family. And he was two when his mother died. At that time they were in Richmond, Virginia.
Edgar went to live with the family of a wealthy Richmond businessman named John Allan. John Allan never officially adopted him as a son, but the boy became known as Edgar Allan Poe.
He attended schools in England and in Richmond. He also attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He was a good student. But he had a problem with alcohol. Even one drink seemed to change his personality and make him drunk. Also, he liked to play card games for money. Edgar was not a good player. He lost money that he did not have.
John Allan refused to pay Edgar's gambling losses. He also refused to continue paying for his education. So the young man went to Boston and began working as a writer and editor for monthly magazines.
Poe served in the Army for two years, before entering the United States Military Academy at West Point to become an officer. He was dismissed from the academy in eighteen thirty-one after six months. By then he had already published three books of poetry.
He began writing stories while living with his aunt in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. In October of eighteen thirty-three, he won a short story contest organized by a local newspaper. He received fifty dollars in prize money and got a job editing the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. He published many of his own stories.
In eighteen thirty-four, Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm, the thirteen year old daughter of his father's sister. They moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in eighteen thirty-eight. There, Poe served as editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and continued to write.
He published many of his most frightening stories during this time. These included "The Black Cat," "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Pit and the Pendulum."
Edgar Allan Poe did something unusual for writers of his time: he used a narrator in a story to describe what was happening. A good example is the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart."
The narrator claims that he is not mad, yet reveals that he is a murderer. He has killed an old man for no apparent reason. He cuts up the body and hides the parts under the floorboards of the victim's house.
Police officers arrive after getting reports of noises from the house. The murderer shows them around the house and is proud of the way he has hidden all the evidence. But he begins to hear a sound. The others in the room cannot hear it.
Yet the sound increased -- and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound -- much a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath -- and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly -- more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men -- but the noise steadily increased. Oh God what could I do? I foamed -- I raved --I swore. But the noise continually increased. It grew louder -- louder -- louder!
Edgar Allan Poe is also remembered for the kind of literature known as detective fiction. These are stories of an investigator who has to solve murders and other crimes.
In fact, Edgar Allan Poe is considered the father of the modern detective novel. His fictional detective C. August Dupin first appeared in his story "The Murders In the Rue Morgue" in eighteen forty-one. Dupin also appeared in two later stories, "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter."
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, wrote about Poe's influence on other crime writers: "Each may find some little development of his own, but his main art must trace back to those admirable stories of Monsieur Dupin, so wonderful in their masterful force, their reticence, their quick dramatic point."
Jeff Jerome is the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore. He says Poe's influence can also be seen in the work of H.G. Wells and Alfred Hitchcock, to name a few. Poe's influence extends to plays, movies, operas, music, cartoons, television, paintings -- just about every kind of art.
Poe's creation of the detective novel is recognized by the Mystery Writers of America. The writers group presents the yearly Edgar Awards to honor the best detective and suspense books, movies and TV shows.
An award also goes to an individual, organization or business for working to continue the influence of Edgar Allan Poe. The award is named for Poe's most famous work. This year, the Edgar Allan Poe Society and the Poe House in Baltimore will receive the Raven Award.
Edgar Allan Poe became famous after "The Raven" was published in eighteen forty-five. The poetry is rich in atmosphere. The rhythm suggests music.
The narrator of "The Raven" is a man whose love has died. He sits alone among his books late at night. He hears a noise at the window:
Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"
Merely this, and nothing more."
The man finds a large black bird and asks it questions. The raven answers with a single word: "Nevermore." At the end of the poem, the man has quite clearly gone mad from grief:
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted -- nevermore!
The sadness and horror in Poe's writing might lead readers to suspect a disordered mind. Yet people who knew him reported him to be a nice man. Some even called him a real gentleman.
His wife died in eighteen forty-seven. Virginia Clemm Poe had suffered from tuberculosis for many years. At the same time, Poe's magazine failed, and so did his health. He died on October seventh, eighteen forty-nine, under mysterious conditions.
He was found in a tavern in Baltimore. He did not know where he was or how he got there. He was dressed in rags. He died four days later in a hospital. He was forty years old.
Over the years, historians and medical experts have tried to explain the cause of Poe's death. Some say he killed himself with drink. Others say he developed rabies from an animal bite. Many in Baltimore believe he was beaten by local criminal gangs.
Every year about two thousand people visit Edgar Allan Poe's grave at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore. And every year on January nineteenth -- Poe's birthday -- people watch for a man dressed in black to appear. His face is covered. He places a bottle of French cognac and three roses on the grave.
No one in Baltimore really wants to know the visitor's identity. They prefer that it remain a mystery, much like Edgar Allan Poe himself.
Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. Doug Johnson was our reader. To hear the short story "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe, listen at this time Saturday for the program AMERICAN STORIES. And join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.