Madman, pervert, addict.
That's been Edgar Allan Poe's reputation for nearly 200 years. For young American readers, when the English teacher gets to the place in the two-pound anthology where Poe begins, everyone (including the teacher!) is ready to leave behind the poems, stories, and essays that come at you like tranquilizer darts. By the time you're done with Puritan sermons and ranting political speeches and book chapters titled “Natural Sense of Propriety Inherent in the Female Bosom,” you are positively crying out for a madman, pervert, addict.
Coming back from the dead, coming back from the presumed dead, swarming rats, buried treasure, slasher apes, deafening hearts—truly, what's not to like? He gives us “the shivers.” Casting Poe the author as one of his characters adds to the fright, adds to the mystique, adds to the drama. What mixture of personal losses, shortcomings, and brilliance drove him to create such classics of American literature as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven”? Was his own life a bigger horror than anything he could write?
These words that hover around Poe dictate how we think of him: poverty, tragedy, alcoholism, drug use, mental illness—in short, the American nightmare. But if Poe was in fact a madman, pervert, addict, when did he find time to write enough stories and poetry to fill the ten books published during his brief lifetime? Writing in the mid-nineteenth century was an amusing hobby, a diverting luxury for the upper classes. Poe was the first American determined to live his life as a professional writer. He succeeded, although it all but doomed him and his dependents to a life of relentless poverty.