By Dr Oliver Tearle
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is one of the most influential writers of the nineteenth century. He had a hand in the development of the detective story and science fiction, both genres which were in their infancy during his lifetime. And he also, of course, made an indelible mark on Gothic horror literature, as well as pioneering the new form of the short story.
In Europe, too, his influence was considerable: his poetry was translated into French and helped to inspire decadent poets of the late nineteenth century, who were drawn to Poe’s vision of diseased romanticism (for want of a better term). In fact, Poe was perhaps even more influential in Europe than in the United States.
Below, we discuss some of our favourite Edgar Allan Poe facts, which help to shed a light on his curious life and remarkable contribution to literature.
1. Poe was going to be named Cordelia, if he’d been a girl.
His mother, an actress, had portrayed the Shakespeare character in a production of King Lear. But when Poe was born (in 1809), and was most definitely a boy, he was named Edgar instead. (His actor father had portrayed Edmund in King Lear, and the young Poe was named after Edmund’s brother in the play – rather than Edmund himself.
2. There is a story that, while serving as a young cadet, Edgar Allan Poe was expelled for reporting to a military march wearing nothing but a pair of white gloves.
3. His story ‘The Gold-Bug’ is one of the first stories about code-breaking.
The 1843 story involves the decoding of a document to reveal the location of the buried treasure of Captain Kidd.
4. Poe was a master cryptographer.
Poe was a keen cryptographer who liked to ask readers of Alexander’s Weekly to submit ciphers for him to solve; he was never beaten. For more on Poe’s role in the development of the literature of cryptography, we recommend Shawn Rosenheim’s excellent book, The Cryptographic Imagination.
5. He was the first person to use the term ‘short story’.
At least, Poe’s use of the term is the earliest that has yet been uncovered, from 1840 – nearly 40 years earlier than the current OED citation from 1877. This is fitting, given that Poe was a pioneer of the short story form.
Poe wrote ‘I have written five-and-twenty short stories whose general character may be so briefly defined’ in his preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. This fact was discovered by Martin Greenup – see his ‘Poe and the First Use of the Term “Short Story”‘, Notes and Queries, 60.2 (2013), 251-254.
6. He is credited with being the first person to use the word ‘normality’ in print.
Given the oddness of Poe’s life and character, it is slightly ironic that he is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with the first use of the word ‘normality’, in his work Eureka (of which more in a short while).
7. He also coined the word ‘tintinnabulation’ to describe the sound made by the ringing of bells.
This word was invented by Poe in his poem ‘The Bells’, where he writes, ‘Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme, To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells … From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.’ You can read the whole poem here.
8. Poe was one of the first to propose a solution to the cosmological problem known as Olbers’ paradox.
You can discover more about this fascinating facet to Poe here.
9. He put forward a version of the Big Bang Theory nearly a century before the theory was proposed.
His 1848 prose-poem Eureka predicts the Big Bang theory by some eighty years. Poe considered this book his masterpiece, though it is among his least-read prose works today.
10. The only book by Poe which was successful enough to be republished during his lifetime was a book on snails.
This non-fiction work on molluscs (which he didn’t so much write as put together, by editing a much longer work by someone else) was the only book which went through its initial run during Poe’s life.
11. Poe carried on writing even after he’d died.
At least, if you believe the rather outlandish claim of Lizzie Doten, the psychic medium whose 1863 book,Poems from the Inner Life, included poems which Doten claimed to have received from the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe. (We must confess to being, er,sceptical here at Interesting Literature…) Perhaps Doten spied a chance to increase the popularity of her own rather mediocre verses by attaching Poe’s name to the project!
12. Harry Houdini bought Poe’s writing desk.
13. Poe was paid just $9 for ‘The Raven’.
14. ‘The Raven’ was inspired by the works of two Victorian writers.
Specifically, it was the talking raven Grip in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841), and (for its metre) a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning called ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’. It is perhaps his single best-known work, even more famous than his short stories.
15. There is reason to believe that Poe originally planned to have a parrot, rather than a raven, utter the refrain ‘Nevermore’ in the poem.
In his ‘Philosophy of Composition’, he wrote that in his mind there ‘arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech.’
Whether Poe was merely retrospectively having us on, or whether he was being genuine here, cannot be known for sure; but we have no greater authority in this instance than Poe’s own words, and, as he says, the parrot seems the natural choice for a bird capable of mimicking human speech.
16. The American football team the Baltimore Ravens are named in honour of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem ‘The Raven’.
This is the only example of a sports team being named after a work of literature – at least, to our knowledge. We’d be interested to hear of any others…
17. Only 12 copies of his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1829), are thought to survive.
In 2009, one of these copies sold at auction for $662,500.
18. In July 2013, one of Poe’s poems sold for $300,000. A handwritten copy of a poem by Poe, ‘The Conqueror Worm’, fetched $300,000 at auction in Massachusetts.
19. Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) often gets the credit for being the first detective story, but in fact this is highly disputed.
Many believe the honour should go to German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1819 story ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi’. (Among other achievements, Hoffmann provided Tchaikovsky with his material for The Nutcracker.)
Another detective story written before Poe’s was a short tale by his publisher, William Evans Burton, called ‘The Secret Cell’ (1837), a story in which a London policeman solves the mystery of a kidnapped girl.