Where to Start with Edgar Allan Poe

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
January 18, 2019
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)

 Edgar Allan Poe. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, NYPL. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 483669

The Master of Macabre, the Father of American Gothic, Detective Fiction, and the Short Story, Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. Best known for his dark tales of horror, psychological terror, and madness, Poe’s own life was marked by both internal and external tragedies that undoubtedly shaped his work. 

Born to traveling actor parents as Edgar Poe, his father, David Poe Jr., abandoned the family, leaving Poe and his two siblings with their actress mother, Elizabeth “Eliza” Arnold Hopkins Poe, who died a year later from tuberculosis. While he was much too young (only two years old) to truly remember his birth mother, she was the first in a long string of women he loved that he would later lose.  

"The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” —Edgar Allan Poe, "The Philosophy of Composition”

After the death of his birth mother, Poe and his siblings were split up and sent to live with separate families. Poe was left in the care of John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do family from Richmond, Virginia. Rechristened Edgar Allan Poe, he went on to live a comfortable early life with his foster family. He was educated at private academies and even traveled abroad. By all accounts, Poe was close to his foster mother, but his relationship with his foster father worsened over time. By the time he was an adult, Poe was disowned by the Allan family altogether.

 

After a failed attempt at the University of Virginia, where Poe’s gambling left him in severe debt, he enrolled in the U.S. Army in 1827. It was around this time in his life that he began to publish poetry seriously, releasing Tamerlane and Other Poems the same year. In 1829, his foster mother, Frances Allan, died, marking the second loss of a prominent female figure in his life. That same year he published his second book of poems, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems

 

After a stint in the army, he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he was dishonorably discharged for neglect of duty in 1831. Ultimately he chose a life as a writer over military service. Most notably, he was the first American author to try to make a professional living as a writer. He published his third volume of poetry, Poems, in 1831.

 

From that point on, he worked as a writer, editor, and literary critic for several newspapers and magazines, traveling around cities on the East coast from Richmond, Virginia to Boston, Massachusetts. 

 

He published his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1839, which included one of his most famous short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher". In 1841, he released “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first modern detective story, which would later go on to inspire the author of the most famous detective of all time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

Murder, death, madness, grief, and psychological horror were common themes within his works, which fit with the dour spirit of the Victorian age. Indeed, this time period saw a rise in Gothic literature and early works of horror. He continued to publish his stories and poems in newspapers and magazines to mixed critical success. 

 

At the window. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, NYPL (1875). NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 483657

Although Poe’s work would eventually gain widespread respect, he never achieved true financial success during his lifetime and constantly struggled to earn a living. While reviews over his work were mixed, his first undeniable success came with the publication of his poem “The Raven,” which was published in The Evening Mirror in 1845 and became instantly popular among the literary crowd. The story of a man gone mad with grief over the death of his beloved is undoubtedly one of Poe’s most recognizable works. Considering the tragedy that marred Poe’s personal life up to that point, it is easy to see where he found inspiration. 

 

In 1836, Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. The marriage lasted eleven years before Virginia’s death in 1847. The couple produced no children. Poe’s most prolific writing period coincided with Virginia’s contraction of tuberculosis in 1841, the disease which ultimately claimed her life. As there was no cure, Poe had to helplessly watch his wife slowly succumb to the illness. This caused him to sink into a deep depression and, eventually, alcoholism. 

 

In a letter to George W. Eveleth, Poe wrote: 

“Six years ago, a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever & underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially and I again hoped. At the end of a year the vessel broke again—I went through precisely the same scene . . . Each time I felt all the agonies of her death—and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive—nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” New-York — Jan. 4, 1848.

Perhaps befitting of a master of mystery and horror, Poe’s death has been the cause of much speculation. On October 3, 1849, he was found in a state of delirium lying in a gutter in Baltimore, Maryland after last being seen a week earlier in Richmond, Virginia.  No one knew how he had gotten there, and no one can agree on what exactly caused his state of delirium or his death. He remained in a state of semi-consciousness for the four days leading up to his death on Sunday, October 7, 1849. To this day, no one can say what happened during Poe’s last week on Earth. 

 

Poe’s impact on literature cannot be overstated or underappreciated. He popularized and developed the short story format with works like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Cask of Amantillado.” He created the detective genre with “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” and his poems such as “Annabel Lee” are filled with hauntingly beautiful lyrics that perfectly capture the narrator’s pain and devastation. The Edgar Award, one of the most prestigious awards for works in the mystery genre, is offered by the Mystery Writers of America every year. 

 

Nearly a century after his death, a lone, anonymous figure dressed in black could be spotted at Poe's gravesite in Baltimore, Maryland every year on the poet's birthday. The “Poe Toaster” as he came to be known would leave three roses and a bottle of cognac on the Poe's grave before disappearing. This tradition went on for nearly 75 years, but the Poe Toaster was never identified. 

 

Last Halloween, NYPL released its latest edition of Insta Novels: Poe's "The Raven". This version of the classic poem was illustrated by Studio Aka (@studioaka) and is available to read on the Library's Instagram account  (@nypl).

 

In this same tradition of honoring an American Master of Literature, we’ve gathered together a list of recommendations for all those interested in walking the line between sanity and madness. 

 

Collections

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and Related Tales by Edgar Allan Poe; edited with an introduction and notes by J. Gerald Kennedy
Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is a pivotal work in which Poe calls attention to the act of writing and to the problem of representing the truth. It is an archetypal American story of escape from domesticity tracing a young man's rite of passage through a series of terrible brushes with death during a fateful sea voyage. Included are eight related tales which further illuminate Pym by their treatment of persistent themes--fantastic voyages, gigantic whirlpools, and premature burials--as well as its relationship to Poe's art and life.
 

 

The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings: Poems, Tales, Essays, and Reviews by Edgar Allan Poe ; edited with an introduction and notes by David Galloway
This selection of Poe's critical writings, short fiction and poetry demonstrates an intense interest in aesthetic issues and the astonishing power and imagination with which he probed the darkest corners of the human mind. "The Fall of the House of Usher" describes the final hours of a family tormented by tragedy and the legacy of the past. In "The Tell Tale Heart," a murderer's insane delusions threaten to betray him, while stories such as "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Cask of Amontillado" explore extreme states of decadence, fear and hate.
 

The Fall of the House of Usher: And Other Talesby Edgar Allan Poe ; with an introduction by Stephen Marlowe and a new afterword by Regina Marler
A collection of fourteen of the author's best-known tales of mystery and the macabre includes "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Fall of the House of Usher," in which a visitor to a gloomy mansion finds a childhood friend dying under the spell of a family curse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poeby Edgar Allan Poe ; edited with an introduction and notes by Benjamin F. Fisher
This anthology offers an exceptionally generous selection of Poe’s short stories. It includes his famed masterpieces, such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter," featuring Poe’s great detective, Dupin; his insightful studies of madness "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart"; "The Gold-Bug," his delightful exercise in "code-breaking"; and important but lesser-known tales, such as "Bon-Bon," "The Assignation," and "King Pest." Also included are some of Poe’s most beloved poems, haunting lyrics of love and loss, such as "Annabel Lee," nightmare phantasmagories such as "The Raven," and his grand experiment in translating sound into words, "The Bells."

 

Poetry

The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe; with an introduction by Jay Parini and a new afterword by April Bernard
Although best known for his short stories, Edgar Allan Poe was by nature and choice a poet. From his exquisite lyric “To Helen,” to his immortal masterpieces, “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” and “The Raven,” Poe stands beside the celebrated English romantic poets Shelley, Byron, and Keats, and his haunting, sensuous poetic vision profoundly influenced the Victorian giants Swinburne, Tennyson, and Rossetti.

 

Today his dark side speaks eloquently to contemporary readers in poems such as “The Haunted Palace” and “The Conqueror Worm,” with their powerful images of madness and the macabre. But even at the end of his life, Poe reached out to his art for comfort and courage, giving us in “Eldorado” a talisman to hold during our darkest moments—a timeless gift from a great American writer.

 

The Raven and Other Poemsby Edgar Allan Poe; with the classic illustrations by Gustave Doř; introduction by Brook Haley.
Lamenting the loss of a gentle but passionate woman, the narrator drinks, yet somberly dwells on her name. A local raven, with the capacity to utter like a parrot a syllable or two, repeats "Lenore," and "Nevermore." The narrator, tired and broken, believes the raven might be sent by God or even by the Devil, and tries talking with it.

 

 

 

 

Graphic Novel

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe; retold by Benjamin Harper; illustrated by Dennis Calero.
Retold in graphic novel form, the narrator tells the reader about the murder he committed, and the terrifying aftermath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poe: Stories and Poems: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Gareth Hinds
A volume of graphic novel renderings of some of Edgar Allan Poe's best-known works includes "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Illustrated

"The Raven" written by Edgar Allan Poe ; illustrated by Yanai Pery
"Once upon a midnight dreary . . . " This strikingly illustrated version of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven will haunt and thrill readers new and old.

 

Annotated 

The Annotated Poe  by Edgar Allan Poe; edited by Kevin J. Hayes; with a foreword by William Giraldi
With color illustrations and photographs throughout, The Annotated Poe contains in-depth notes placed conveniently alongside the tales and poems to elucidate Poe’s sources, obscure words and passages, and literary, biographical, and historical allusions. Like Poe’s own marginalia, Hayes’s marginal notes accommodate “multitudinous opinion”: he explains his own views and interpretations as well as those of other writers and critics, including Poe himself. In his Foreword, William Giraldi provides a spirited introduction to the writer who produced such indelible masterpieces as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Black Cat.”

 

Inspired By Poe

Mystery Writers of America Presents: In the Shadow of the Master: Classic Tales by Edgar Allan Poe; and essays by Jeffery Deaver [and others]; edited by Michael Connelly; illustrations by Harry Clarke
Collects sixteen of Poe's works, in a commemorative volume complemented by essays from twenty contemporary authors, including Stephen King, Nelson DeMille, Sue Grafton, and Lawrence Block.

 

 

 

 

Poe's Lighthouse: All New Collaborations with Edgar Allan Poe edited by Christopher Conlon
Various authors were given the task to take a little-known, unfinished story fragment written by Edgar Allan Poe near the end of his life and finish it, using Poe's language, images, and ideas.

 

 

 

DVD

Extraordinary Tales (2016)
Five of Edgar Allan Poe's best-known stories are brought to vivid life in this heart-pounding animated anthology. Murderous madmen, sinister villains and cloaked ghouls stalk the darkened corridors of Poe's imagination, as his haunting tales are given a terrifying new twist by some of the most beloved figures in horror film history. Include: The tell-tale heart; The fall of the house of Usher; The masque of the red death; The pit and the pendulum; and The facts in the case of Mr. Valedemar.

 

For the Young Ones

Interested in introducing your little one to tales of the macabre? Check out our Remembering Charles Addams: Children's Picture Book Edition and Middle School Edition recommendation list. 

Edgar and the Tattle-Tale Heart by Jennifer Adams, illustrations by Ron Stucki
What will Edgar do when he accidentally breaks a statue sitting on a dresser? Will his sister, Lenore, tattle on him? Will Edgar tell his mother the truth?
Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’sThe Tell-Tale Heart, little lit lovers will delight in this new adventure with characters illustrated in a most “poe-etic” way.

 

Who was Edgar Allan Poe? by Jim Gigliotti ; illustrated by Tim Foley ; cover illustration by Nancy Harrison
Filled with broken hearts and black ravens, Edgar Allan Poe's ghastly tales have delighted readers for centuries. Born in Boston in 1809, Poe was orphaned at age two. He was soon adopted by a Virginia family who worked as tombstone merchants. In 1827 he enlisted in the Army and subsequently failed out of West Point. His first published story, The Raven, was a huge success, but his joy was overshadowed by the death of his wife. Poe devoted his life to writing and his tragic life often inspired his work. He is considered to be the inventor of detective fiction and the father of American mystery writers. His work continues to influence popular culture through films, music, literature, and television.
 

Rare Beasts (Edgar & Ellen, Book 1) by Charles Ogden
Ages: 8+

Twins Edgar and Ellen live alone—their parents disappeared years ago, and who can blame them? —in the quaint, little town of Nod's Limbs, in a grim, gray house overlooking the cemetery and the junkyard. They spend their days avoiding Heimertz, the mysterious accordion-playing caretaker; pestering Pet, a hairy, one-eyed creature of indeterminate species and gender; and wreaking havoc on the hapless citizens of Nod's Limbs.

But wreaking havoc can incur expenses, so the twins come up with a unique fund-raising scheme: They'll nab the pets of Nod's Limbs and transform them into exotic animals they can sell for big bucks. Not a bad plan, if one of the purloined pets wasn't a lethargic python with a raging appetite . . .

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Book descriptions taken from NYPL catalog unless otherwise noted.