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Poe as a Writer of Fiction

Poe’s first published tales, written in the early 1830s, were a mixture of parody, satire, burlesque, imitation and homage. He wrote these as part of a project called Tales of the Folio Club. In the tradition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, each story would be “written” by one of the members of the club, typifying a particular style or type. An introduction, setting the humorous tone, survives, but the burlesques upon criticism which were to connect the stories were apparently never written. Poe was unable to find a publisher for the work as a whole and was forced to sell the tales individually. Without the other material, their true intent and relationships were lost, as was much of Poe’s satire. Although always aware of the complimentary and contrasting effects of the tales, with an eye to publishing a collection, Poe would never again attempt something as structurally inflexible and ambitious as Tales of the Folio Club.

Poe’s early inspiration was most clearly Blackwood’s Magazine. His story “A Predicament” (1838, originally called “The Scythe of Time”) and its introductory “How To Write a Blackwood’s Article” (1838, originally called “The Psyche Zenobia”) seem to have marked a transition for Poe. Although he would still tap this vein for a few stories, such as “The Premature Burial” (1844), he began to rely more heavily on other sources. (In spite of his criticism of Edward Lytton Bulwer, Bulwer’s writings would give Poe many important concepts. Another source was Washington Irving. Poe, however, was always careful not merely to imitate his models, but to improve upon them or apply them in new ways.)

The peak of Poe’s story writing career is probably 1841-1846, and especially 1843. Here we find an astonishing series of masterpieces: “The Murders of the Rue Morgue (1841), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), “The Gold-Bug” (1843), “The Black Cat” (1843), “The Purloined Letter” (1844/1845) and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). Poe also revised and republished many of his earlier works, partly for the collected edition of Tales of 1845, and partly to fill the pages of his struggling magazine The Broadway Journal. (Poe is also believed to have revised other stories right up until his death in 1849, hoping for a more comprehensive collection of the tales. Unfortunately, this would not happen until the posthumous Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Rufus W. Griswold in 1850-1856. Although Griswold was a terrible biographer, he seems to have been a fairly reliable editor and made generally good use of Poe’s manuscripts and corrections.)

In 1847, Poe was devastated by the death of his wife, Virginia, but he was not idle. He abandoned “The American Parnassus,” and was considerably occupied by work on “The Living Writers of America” and “Literary America, all three attempts at extending the successful but troublesome “Literati” series. None of these efforts would be completed. He had also been busy with renewed efforts at founding his own 5-dollar magazine, to be called “The Stylus,” and he presented a number of lectures on “The Poets and Poetry of America” and “The Universe.” The first of these was a revision of his 1843 lecture on “American Poetry,” while the latter was a profoundly new work for Poe, one which would be printed in 1848 as Eureka. There are relatively few stories in this period, and although some are well-crafted, none has caught the public imagination as effectively as his earlier ones. Stylistically, Poe seems to have moved slowly away from the lurid details of “Berenice” (1835) the broad comedy of “Bon-Bon” (1832/1835) and the pyrotechnics of “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). His later style, typified by "Landor's Cottage" (1849) is more direct and subdued, but with no real loss of skill or finish.

If the unfinished manuscript of “The Lighthouse” is, as has been supposed, the story he was working on at the time of his death, then one might fear the passing of Poe’s great creative powers. It may be, however, that Poe was merely catching his second wind.
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