One-hundred and sixty-eight years ago, on January 29, 1845, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” was published in the New York Evening Mirror to instant success. Known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, he was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living solely through writing.
Born in Boston in 1809, Poe was orphaned at 3, when his mother died after his father abandoned the family. He then lived with the family of a businessman in Richmond, Virginia. He enrolled in a military academy, but was expelled for gambling. He also studied at the University of Virginia.
After enlisting in the Army and then failing as an officer’s cadet at the US Military Academy at West Point, Poe’s writing career began with a self-published collection called Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), which was credited only to “a Bostonian.”
Poe’s short story “MS Found in a Bottle” won $50 in a contest in 1933. Before the decade was out, he edited some leading literary journals, including the Southern Literary Messenger as well as Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in Philadelphia.
“The Raven,” which famously repeats the line “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’” several times, tells of a talking bird’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing the man’s slow descent into madness. Its publication made Poe widely popular, but did not bring financial success.
The narrative poem opens: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary/”Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore/”While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping/”As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
As a poet, editor, author and literary critic, Poe is considered part of the American Romantic Movement. His dark poems usually reflected his own hard, tumultuous life. He is also regarded as the inventor of the detective fiction genre.
Poe’s drinking got him fired from several jobs. His fictional work, often portraying crimes and guilt that causes mania in his characters, was an important influence on European authors like Stephane Mallarme, Charles Baudelaire and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Poe died at 5 a.m. in Baltimore on Sunday, October 7, 1849. He had been found delirious four days before on the streets “in great distress and in need of immediate assistance,” according to the man who brought him to the hospital.
He was never coherent enough to explain how he came to be in such a state. The cause of his death has been attributed to murder, cholera, rabies, syphilis, influenza, alcohol, brain congestion, heart disease, suicide, tuberculosis, and drugs.
In his memory, the Mystery Writers of America present the annual Edgar Award for distinguished work. “The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague,” Poe once wrote. “Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”