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Edgar Allan Poe: Writer

In December 1835, Poe was hired as the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, staving off starvation. Then, in one of the strangest twists in his biography, he fell in love with his thirteen-year-old first cousin, Virginia Clemm. "I love, you know I love Virginia passionately devotedly. I cannot express in words the fervent devotion I feel towards my dear little cousin — my own darling," wrote the 26-year-old Poe in a letter to his aunt, begging for permission to marry her. "Ask Virginia. Leave it to her. Let me have, under her own hand, a letter, bidding me good bye — forever — and I may die — my heart will break — but I will say no more."9 Instead, Poe got the answer he wanted; the two cousins were married in Richmond, Virginia on 16 May 1836. Some have speculated that Edgar and Virginia Poe had an unusual relationship that was more like brother and sister than a married couple, even that their marriage was never consummated. But everyone who saw them together noted that they seemed loving and affectionate with one another. Whatever the workings of their marriage, it seemed to be a happy one.

Poe continued to publish short stories and was beginning to hone his trademark style. He published a story in the Southern Literary Messenger called "Berenice." It was about a man engaged to his cousin (hmmm) who develops an unhealthy obsession with her teeth as she succumbs to a deadly illness (just read it, it's too gross to explain here). Readers were horrified by the story, but Poe saw commercial possibility. "The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in nature—to Berenice,"10 he wrote. It was also one of the first of Poe's stories to feature a dead or dying young woman, a theme that would later appear frequently in his work.

In 1837, Poe moved his family (which consisted of Virginia and her mother Maria Clemm, who lived with the couple) to Philadelphia. He soon published his first and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The publisher and Poe himself tried to pass off the fictional account of a whaling ship stowaway as a true story, a strategy that failed with the public. Also, the novel was not the best format for Poe's talent. In a favorable review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story collection, Twice Told Tales, Poe laid out his own argument for why short stories and narrative poems were the way to go. "The unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance … this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed at one sitting," Poe wrote. "The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length... As it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality."11 In other words, as soon as a reader sets a book aside, the effect of suspense or excitement is lost. The best stories let you keep that feeling straight through, from beginning to end.

Poe proved his theories with the 1840 publication of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, a collection of short stories that included macabre classics like "Berenice" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." The book established Poe as a master of the short story form, then a popular type of entertainment that appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines. Poe then took a job at Graham's Magazine, which published his story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." The story of detective C. Auguste Dupin was the world's first detective story, predating Sherlock Holmes. Poe spun off several more tales featuring the popular character, whom he described as "fond of enigmas, of conundrums, hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension praeternatural."12 Of course, Poe was also describing himself.

Though he still struggled with money, things seemed to be looking up for Edgar Allan Poe. Then in January 1842, while singing at the piano, his wife Virginia began to bleed from the mouth—a symptom of tuberculosis. The dreaded disease that had killed his parents and his brother now seemed poise to strike his wife as well.

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