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Biography

"Edgar Allan Poe is dead," read the obituary. "This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars."2

That incredibly nasty appraisal ran six days after Poe was found, disheveled and unconscious, in the gutter of a Baltimore street. Poe lived, barely, for four more delirious days before dying of causes still unknown. The obituary was written by his greatest literary rival, a man named Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Griswold, not content with his handiwork in the obituary, also published a libelous Poe biography full of lies shortly after the poet's untimely death. Add all that to the tall tales that Poe told about himself during his lifetime, and you might begin to understand how Edgar Allan Poe has become, in death, one of the best-loved but least understood writers in American literature.

Poe was a master of the short story and narrative poem. He had a gift for suspense and delightfully twisted plots. But his real gift was his ability to understand that part of our psyche that craves the macabre. He could see into the darkest corners of the human mind. As a man who lived and died in poverty—and as a man whose loved ones perished one by one of consumption (a.k.a. tuberculosis)—it's possible that Poe knew those dark places so well because he had so often been there himself.

Not that Poe was all serious. He described his stories as "half banter, half satire."3 He wrote spooky stories in part because he knew they would sell. He sometimes veered into sensationalism for the sake of being sensational, and did so with a winking acknowledgement to readers that he was writing schmaltz on purpose. Though he professed to be in the writing business just for the money, Poe nonetheless changed American literature forever. You don't need to look much farther than today's bestseller lists to see that America still loves a good suspense story. According to Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about telling a scary story, he and his colleagues are all "the children of Poe."4

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