In human nature there exists a morbid desire to explore the darker realms of life. As sensitive beings we make every effort to deny our curiosity in the things that frighten us, and will calmly reassure our children that there aren't any creatures under their beds each night, but deep down we secretly thrive on that cool rush of fear. Despite our efforts to maintain a balance of respectable emotions, we are a society of people who slow down to look at traffic accidents and find excitement in the macabre. We turn off the lights when watching scary movies, and when it's time to go to bed, we secretly make sure the closet doors are shut. Fear keeps our hearts pumping and endorphins rushing, for it is an emotion that reminds us of our mortality. How ironic it is to experience more life in our fascination with death.
Edgar Allen Poe was a master of his craft, gifted with the talent of introducing each reader to his or her own subconscious fears. As the first writer to initiate horror, death and mystery into literature and poetry, he is blessed- or perhaps cursed- with an imagination that set higher standards in the field of writing. However morbid or dark it may be, Poe's writing continues to have an impact on the world of prose. A look into Poe's childhood might shed some light on where his fascination with death stems from.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts to drifting actor parents. Denying his parental responsibilities, his father abandoned his wife and three children, leaving her to support the family as best she could. She traveled through various cities acting in stage engagements as she could get them, but the struggle eventually took a toll on her health. Towards the end of 1811 while in Richmond, Virginia, she became ill and died. Her children were promptly farmed into homes, Edgar being placed into the residence of a well-off, yet unsupportive merchant named John Allan. Allan was emotionally detached from Poe, refusing to even legally adopt the boy. This move would begin a chain of events, eventually triggering a drinking problem that would induce the majority of Poe's psychological troubles later in life. He was raised in an affluent home, but lacked the emotional support needed to build fortitude and confidence in himself.
In Poe's youth he didn't pursue a life toward writing, probably due to his assumption that he would eventually inherit his foster father's estate. He would attend the finest boarding schools in training to be a proper gentleman, but when it came time to go to the University of Virginia in 1826, his foster father gave him a meager allowance that would barely sustain him. John Allan had always been a harsh disciplinarian, and sometimes even cruel to the orphaned boy, but this was the first time he denied Poe the means to survive outside of his home. Adding insult to injury, he also forbids Poe study of what his heart so desired: poetry. Going against Allan's orders was not an option; what little money he was given to live off of would have been taken away. In an effort to make his money stretch out while in college, Poe turned to gambling, but like so many other gamblers he lost all of his money while developing a terrible compulsion. In short, his first term in college was not a success. When the semester was over Allan removed him from the University and forced him into a military academy.
Before Poe was forced to leave the University of Virginia, he unfortunately discovered the curious effects of alcohol. "One glass of wine went to his head; very little more than that made him drunk. Alcohol was a dangerous stimulant for him- one that was eventually to bring about his ruin" (Van Doren Stern xviii). Beginning in college and continuing through the rest of his life, Poe would struggle with a drinking problem that earned him a broad reputation for being a senseless drunk. Though he frequently tried to quit drinking, it was never long...
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Van Doren Stern, Philip. The Portable Poe. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.
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