Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) led a short, troubled life, but managed in his forty years to make major contributions to literary form and criticism. Considered to be one of the two creators of the modern short story (the other being Nathaniel Hawthorne), Poe also invented detective fiction, wrote lyric poetry, and pioneered the psychological horror story. Poe's major innovation in the last of these literary forms was to use a technique of double meaning, whereby a tale could be read as being either about the supernatural or about the imaginings of a madman.
Few writers have had such enduring popularity and influence as Poe. As a critic, Poe offered a superb definition of the short story, which he thought of as a brief fictional work, the details of which are carefully chosen to create in the reader a single dominant impression.
Poe's tragic life was plagued with insecurity. His father deserted the family when Edgar was a year old. His mother died at the age of twenty-four, and Poe, two years old, was taken in by John Allan, a prosperous Richmond, Virginia, merchant. Poe briefly attended the University of Virginia and did well in his studies. He joined the army after publishing Tamerlane and Other Poems in 1827, and was appointed to West Point, but poor class attendance led to his expulsion from the academy. Poe's strange marriage in 1835 to his first cousin, Virginia Clemm, who was not yet fourteen, has been interpreted as his attempt to find the stable family life he lacked.
Poe later held various editorial jobs, reviewed literary works, and wrote one novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, in addition to producing numerous short stories and poems. Briefly famous and successful after the publication of his poem "The Raven," Poe nonetheless spent most of his adult life in poverty, losing one job after another due to drinking and quarrelsomeness. After his death, he was hailed as a genius, particularly in France, where he greatly influenced the Symbolist poets Paul Valéry and Charles Baudelaire. Several of his works, including his poem "The Bells," were published after his death.
Poe believed that strangeness was an essential ingredient of beauty, and his writing is often exotic. His stories and poems are populated with doomed, introspective aristocrats (Poe, like many other southerners, cherished an aristocratic ideal). Themes of death-in-life, especially of being buried alive or returning like a vampire from the grave, appear in many of his works. Poe's twilight realm between life and death and his gaudy, Gothic settings reflect the overcivilized yet deathly interior of his characters' disturbed psyches. As symbolic expressions of the unconscious, they are central to his art.
Other well-known works by Poe include the poem "Annabel Lee" and the stories "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Black Cat," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Purloined Letter," and "The Tell-Tale Heart."