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Poe, Edgar Allan

Entry updated 24 June 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1809-1849) US poet, critic and author, born Edgar Poe; he normally wrote as Edgar A Poe, not as Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps because of bad blood between him and his foster father John Allan, whose name he never adopted legally. He was a major figure in American literature, a pioneer in the creation of the short story as a form, and as such the effective creator or significant innovator in the detective story, the horror story, and sf. His career focus on magazine work (just before magazines became a common and acceptable forum for literary success), and his exorbitant life (which gave the poisonous Rufus Wilmot Griswold [1815-1857] the chance to calumniate him in the first edition of his works [see below]), muffled his reputation in nineteenth-century America; some of Griswold's fabrications continue to be parroted in works like Valerie P Zimbaro's Encyclopedia of Apocalyptic Literature (1996). His stature was first recognized abroad, by figures like Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), whose translations of Poe in Histoires extraordinaires par Edgar Poe (coll 1856) and Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires (coll 1857), with accompanying essays [see Checklist below], strongly influenced Jules Verne and others. Later, Paul Valéry (1871-1945) characterized Poe's influence as an sf writer when he observed: "Poe was opening up a way, teaching a very strict and deeply alluring doctrine, in which a kind of mathematics and a kind of mysticism became one ..."

In twentieth-century America, Hugo Gernsback was an early advocate of Poe's work, citing him prominently in his famous description of sf, "A New Sort of Magazine", in the first issue of Amazing in April 1926: "By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H G Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story." (see Definitions of SF); partly due to this piece, Poe has, correctly, been understood as a central founder of Genre SF. More generally, as a poet, short-story writer and critic, his influence on world literature has been continual and extensive. Over and above his importance to the history of the short story, he was an innovator in the areas of psychological realism and poetic form, and in his nonfiction a precursor of the New Criticism and a strong influence on the French Symbolist movement. In recent years his works have been closely associated with various structuralist and deconstructuralist approaches to literature.

Poe's corpus is very much of a piece, and the ratiocination underlying so much of his work gives it as a whole a science-fictional aura, even though relatively few individual stories could be satisfactorily categorized as sf in any conventional sense; at the same time, central tales like The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) [see below] and "Mellonta Tauta" (1849) [see below] gain hugely from being read as sf rather than – as has often been the habit of critics – as safely framed hoaxes. In the case with these texts, and several others, to emphasize the undoubted element of hoaxing in their frame stories (whether laid down or implied) misses the emotional depth and burden of the actual tales told. Several of them may be told within frames that reveal them to be hoaxes, or allow the reader to assume that they could only be told if some hoaxing revelation was implicit; but in fact very few of Poe's sf tales are about hoaxing. He was in fact singularly indifferent to the verisimilitude of transmission: narratives may be conveyed to their readers by bottles tossed into the sea from the heart of a maelström, by missives tossed into the sea from the far future, by unreliable or demented narrators, by resort to the favourite nineteenth-century device in which the tale is revealed to have been a dream. It is dangerous to treat these devices as though they were to be understood literally; they are not, as it were, the whole story.

Poe's scanting of verisimilitude seems to follow directly from his conviction that the fabric of "reality" constitutes a "grotesque" deception imposed by limitations of time and space and by such personal impediments as human reason, and his "failure" to authenticate the believableness of his tales is therefore directly tied to his deepest and most problematic explorations, as when he conveys a sense that the true "arabesque" nature of a unified reality can be gained only through a perspective provided by the "half-closed eye" of the imagination or, in the later works, of intuition. Poe further makes clear in "The Domain of Arnheim; Or, the Landscape Garden" (October 1842 Ladies Companion) and "Mesmeric Revelation" (August 1844 Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine) that for him this visionary arabesque reality is of a material, not a spiritual, nature. It is equivalent to the alternative or additional Dimensions of sf and may be apprehended by strategies which constitute Poe's version of the spacetime warp: it is real. It shapes the Cosmology embodied in his very late summational treatise Eureka: A Prose Poem: (An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe) (1848 chap) – an ambitious scheme of remarkable prescience (to the point of explaining Black Holes) which has a precedent in Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (1791), and some parallels with the speculations of such writers as Olaf Stapledon, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur C Clarke, who were all probably conscious of the link (see also Poetry). Though its precepts are variously anticipated, whether directly, rhythmically or symbolically, in virtually everything he wrote, only in Eureka does he make its underlying bent of thought and imagery fully clear: that the persistent uncovering of grotesque, deceptive, hoaxing "reality" is a task that befits the creative mind, transcending the cartoon certainties of empiricism (Francis Bacon is here called Hog); it is an action comparable in small to the self-creation of the Universe in large as it moves from its present diastolic state of dispersion towards a glorious future state where all reality collapses centripetally into a primal unity, which may be called "Overmind" (see Omega Point; Transcendence). In the context of this encompassing argument, the mocking of verisimilitude – many of his most extravagant stories are minutely documented – is entirely consistent with an overriding conviction that the phenomenal world is maya, and that stories are veils to be pierced. If the unresolved universe is hoax, then the stories we tell are hoaxes: but a conviction this all-comprehending leaves nothing to say in particular. So we may make sublunary distinctions: some of Poe's tales are pure hoax; but others go beyond any presumption that every Poe tale must primarily work as an engine of exposé.

At the same time, it is clear that Poe is a hoaxer of brilliance. Thomas M Disch specifically grounded The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (1998), his wicked history of American sf, on a vision of Poe's sf as the shaping model for all American sf that followed: sf understood as essentially hoax. It may be more useful, however, to suggest that the hoaxing element in Poe's works creates a problematic doubleness that must be heeded: to make a clear argument is to create a procrustean model of reality; but we need in some sense to believe the tales we tell. Hard SF in particular, with its narrow conceptual intensity and naive execution, does often read as though a hoax were being perpetrated; an author like Isaac Asimov may have thought to create the kind of amalgam between sf and detective fiction that he may have conceived Poe to have been attempting, but his sense of story fatally lacked the transgressive conviction of Poe at his best. Something of the more central, metaphysical and visionary aspect of Poe's writing was captured by two different disciples, H P Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury, though neither of them were capable of sustained argument in Poe's terms. It is indeed in his oneiric embodying of the difficult negotiations between sf argument and hoax – a negotiation that, all too frequently in later writers, is papered over with fustian – that Poe's example may be most telling. The ratiocinative framing of so many of his works – perhaps most clearly articulated in the detective tales featuring Dupin – anticipates the presentation of the Thought Experiment in much modern Hard Sf, though Poe does not attempt to enforce the suspension of belief normal to a conservative mode like Genre SF.

Investigations of Poe's complex oeuvre tend to follow thematic clusters; it may be useful, all the same, to pay some attention to chronology. Poe was first a poet; three poems merit consideration. "Al Aaraaf" (in Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, coll 1829 chap) – with its focus on Cosmology and Astronomy through a convoluted description of the eponymous planet, whose sudden appearance may be connected with the apparent destruction of the planet Earth – prefigures the post-apocalyptic prose of "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" (December 1839 Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine), a Sleeper Awakes tale whose protagonist hears about how Earth has been destroyed after a passing Comet stripped the planet of nitrogen. A second poem, "The City in the Sea" (in Poems, coll 1831 chap, as "The Doomed City"; rev vt August 1836 Southern Literary Messenger as "The City of Sin"; vt April 1845 American Review as "The City in the Sea"), is related to various sf-like sunken-city myths; a film very loosely inspired by this poem is War-Gods of the Deep (1965; vt City in the Sea). "Ulalume" (December 1847 American Whig Review) makes use of astrology and, to that degree, relates to Poe's use of other Pseudosciences in some of his more overtly sf tales to generate Thought Experiments.

The sea permeates Poe's fiction from the beginning. "Ms. Found in a Bottle" (12 October 1833 Baltimore Saturday Visitor) follows its narrator into an encounter with a giant, doomed, profoundly ancient ship (see Time Abyss), which takes him to the South Pole and into, it seems, a Hollow Earth. This basic pattern is hugely expanded in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket [for further publication data see Checklist] (1838 2vols), whose anonymous publication led some to feel it was either a true story or a hoax. The tale begins in a state of unholy claustrophobia, with its stowaway protagonist trapped in a cubby-hole while the ship is looted by mutineers, progresses through shipwreck, cannibalism by lot, and other violent events, until he is picked up by another ship bound past the Equator into southern climes, where its captain expects to cheat natives (see Imperialism). At 84° south latitude, in the middle of what we now know is Antarctica, as the narrative continues to pick up speed, the protagonist (who, like almost all of Poe's protagonists, narrates his own tale) describes the mystifying savagery of a far-southern tribe of natives (their paranoia and caution seem, however, to have a simple cause: they have met whites before). Pym eventually escapes from them through narrow canyons shaped into hieroglyphics, and then by canoe farther and father south, until – in a stunningly dramatic Slingshot Ending (see also Sense of Wonder) – a giant figure seems to beckon him downwards (see Godgame), and he plummets through a sublime portal into what may again be a Hollow Earth, on the model promulgated in Captain Adam Seaborn's Symzonia (1820). The novel has persistently been treated as fragmentary, uncontrolled, as having been abandoned in mid-stream, bemusing critics as eminent as Harry Levin (1912-1994), who deprecates the abyssally maternal whiteness of its ending, or Leslie Fiedler, who argues that the circumambient blackness of the final pages involuntarily conveys Poe's fear of Black insurrection, as though Poe, who almost never mentions his native South in his fiction, had unconsciously introduced a politicized racism into a tale whose treatment of various ethnicities is genuinely complex. An sf reading of the book as fully intentional and arguably complete has at least the virtue of assuming its author's competence. A third sea tale involving vertigoes of descent, "A Descent into the Maelström" (May 1841 Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine), cites Athanasius Kircher on the Hollow Earth, but is not literally fantastic.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym has in fact been "completed" – never very satisfactorily – by various hands: Jules Verne in Le sphinx des glaces (1897 2vols; trans Mrs Cashel Hoey as An Antarctic Mystery 1898); Charles Romyn Dake in A Strange Discovery (1899); H P Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness (cut February 1936 Astounding; restored in The Outsider and Others, coll 1939; 1990 chap); and Dominique Andre in Conquête de l'Eternal ["The Conquest of the Eternal"] (1947). More interestingly, Harry Mulisch's Last Call (1985) sends its protagonist into the transcendental abyss that effectively ends Pym's narrative; and Rudy Rucker's Recursive SF The Hollow Earth: The Narrative of Mason Algiers Reynolds of Virginia (1990) transforms elements of the original novel into a tale featuring the eponymous protagonist and Poe himself, mixing in elements from the Lovecraft story. A third sea tale involving vertigoes of descent, "A Descent into the Maelström" (May 1841 Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine), cites Athanasius Kircher on the Hollow Earth, but is not literally fantastic.

The most undeniable hoax in Poe's sf is probably presented in "Hans Phaall – A Tale" (June 1835 The Southern Literary Messenger; variously revised, vt "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" in The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume 1, coll 1850), where Phaall's remarkably detailed journal of his construction of a Balloon, and of his Munchausean journey in it to the Moon (see Rudolf Erich Raspe) is explicitly disqualified, though some aspects of the tale, like his registering the curvature of the planet lit by sunrise, strongly conveys what would not be called the Sense of Wonder for another century. "Astounding News! By Express via Norfolk! The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days! Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck Mason's Flying Machine!!!" (13 April 1844 The New York Sun, Extra; vt "The Balloon-Hoax" April 1927 Amazing) is also a hoax tale; but "Mellonta Tauta" (February 1849 Godey's Lady's Book) – the title is Greek for "these things are in the future" – is not. Unlike almost any other Poe work, it is set in a realized future, even though the transmission of the narrator's account back to 1849 remains unexplained. She is a passenger on a transatlantic Balloon. She describes the world of 2848, emphasizing various marvels of Transportation and advances in Communication, though the Utopia she thinks to delineate may seem a Dystopia to some, certainly in the comments on the theme of Overpopulation. In her off-hand capsule history of the previous millennium (see Future Histories), the narrator also mentions the Moon and its inhabitants; she goes on to describe the destruction of Manhattan (see New York) in 2050, and the island's subsequent transformation into a pleasure garden, which is called Paradise. The tale may be the first to utilize a trope commonly found in Ruins and Futurity stories, and now a Cliché, the misapprehension and misrendering of historical names: identifying, for instance, the long-ago creator of the inductive method as Hog the Ettrick Shepherd (see Francis Bacon).

Several further stories include sf or sf-like elements. "Shadow – A Parable" (September 1835 Southern Literary Messenger) adumbrates "The Masque of the Red Death" (May 1842 Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine as "The Mask of the Red Death"), where humankind is destroyed by plague, as in Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) (see End of the World; Pandemic); in "The Devil in the Belfry" (18 May 1839 Saturday Chronicle), chaos (see Mysterious Stranger) destabilizes the village of Vondervotteimittiss; "The Man that Was Used Up" (August 1839 Burton's Gentleman's Magazine) jocosely spoofs Invention tales in its description of a charismatic proto-Cyborg. "William Wilson" (in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present, anth 1839 dated 1840) is a horror tale involving a sinister double or Doppelganger. "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (August 1841 Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine) addresses the fatal human hubris of refusing "to submit to the guidance of the natural laws". The narrator "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" (April 1844 Godey's Lady's Book), with mesmeric assistance (see Hypnosis), gains access through a portal into what seems to be a vividly delineated Parallel World, though the experience is rationalized; hypnosis also governs Mesmerism "In Articulo Mortis" [for full subtitle see Checklist below] (December 1845 American Whig Review as "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"; 1846 chap). "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade" (February 1845 Godey's Lady's Book) describes a Fantastic Voyage in the course of which Sinbad encounters Islands whose cultures increasingly resemble spoof versions of the nineteenth-century world, including a clear reference to Charles Babbage's Computer. The Ancient Egyptian resuscitated from Suspended Animation in "Some Words With a Mummy" (April 1845 American Review) deprecates modern life, as the Lost World of his birth had already progressed beyond the science of our time. Alchemy provides the subject of investigation in "Von Kempelen and his Discovery" (14 April 1849 The Flag of Our Union). The metaphysical implications of a fragment written in 1849, "The Light-House" (25 April 1942 Notes and Queries), were interestingly fleshed out in Joyce Carol Oates's "The Fabled Light-House at Viña de Mar" (2005 McSweeney's; rev vt "Poe Posthumous; Or, The Light-House" in Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway, coll 2008), a Posthumous Fantasy (see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below), in which the deathly isolated Poe eventually mates with a creature no longer solely of his imagination: a cyclopean sea-Monster with "her soulful eye so intense, in devotion to her hunter-husband".

Nearly all the above stories and the essay Eureka, but not the poems, appear in The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (coll 1976) edited by Harold Beaver, which has an interesting introduction and commentary. Beaver also edited a companion volume, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1975). Collected critical editions of Poe [see Checklist below] have appeared with some regularity. A great many of Poe's stories have been filmed, most famously and prolifically by Roger Corman.

The works of Edgar Allan Poe have been in fact sorted and re-sorted so frequently, and at times so confusingly, that his work can lose focus in the reader's mind. Nor are the narrative conventions of Gothic SF, which Poe helped create, designed primarily to convey anything like a paraphrasable sense of the story told, or of the storyteller himself, an imprecision of focus not much helped by some of the contrivances of hoaxing utilized. Nor does Poe's frequent indulgence in slapstick do much to put more serious twentieth century readers at their ease. Unlike Jules Verne or H G Wells, Poe and his works seem shadowy and riven, and the hard premonitions they contain, as well the sublimities they attempt to scry, can seem no more than dreams, perhaps over-articulated in the adventurous resorting of his work as Steampunk: Poe (coll 2011). Putting aside fictions where Poe appears in the character of the fantasticating quasi-magus he created (at least in part) as a kind of ongoing hoax, novels that introduce his person in an sf context include Rudy Rucker's The Hollow Earth (2002) and The Black Throne (1990) by Fred Saberhagen and Roger Zelazny. If his career had lasted longer, he might have awoken us more inescapably to his vision; as it stands, we must awaken ourselves to him. [JC/DK]

see also: Apes as Human; History of SF; Horror in SF; Medicine; Money; New Wave; Proto SF; Psychology; Space Flight; Spaceships; Time Travel; Torture.

Edgar Poe

born Boston, Massachusetts: 19 January 1809

died Baltimore, Maryland: 7 October 1849




posthumous collections (highly selected)

Posthumous standalone publications of individual tales are not listed.



Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Collected Works

Library of America

individual titles

about the author

The bibliography of Poe studies is huge; a sample from 140 years of criticism is given here, with an emphasis on authors represented in this encyclopedia.

further reading


previous versions of this entry

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