How did Poe's works relate to his time period? : LUSENET : The Work of Edgar Allan Poe : One Thread

As part of a school project, I have to research Poe, his works, and figure out how the events going on in the United States at the time of his writing (which would be the Westward Expansion movement, Civil War, etc.) related to his work. I'm at a loss, can anyone help? Please? It would be greatly appreciated.

-- Anonymous, May 08, 2000



If you have already begun your research, you must know that Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809 in Boston. He himself had indicated that he began serious writing in about 1823 at the age of 14. No one really knows if this is accurate but during this early time, his works seem to be limited to poetry and, most likely, had little if anything to do with events occurring around him. His head filled with the romantic stories of Greek and Roman mythology, I seriously doubt he gave much thought to historical events with the exception, perhaps, of those with the most profound and far reaching significance.

One caution however. While it is true that during his lifetime (1809 1849) the political environment of America was charged with the states rights issue, slavery and the abolitionist movement, north/south trade, taxation and a myriad other vicious debates, it is inaccurate to presume that the Civil War had any impact on any of his works. Edgar Allan Poe died well before the start of the War Between the States.

Poe lived through the inauguration and service of eight United States presidents from James Madison (1809-1817) to James K. Polk (1845- 1849). During Poes early period, America was flush with their victory during the War for Independence and in spite of the fact that the Declaration of Independence was signed, sealed and delivered, the United States was hardly united politically. Political parties came and went, debate raged and political intrigue and maneuvering was rampant. American expansion west had begun and in 1803, the United States purchased a tract of land that included the important port city of New Orleans as well as essential farmland, river systems, forests, plains and mountains. Sold to the United States by Napoleon for $15 million, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 kept the territory from British control and added significantly to Napoleons treasury and helped to prepare him for his impending war with Great Britain.

In literature, the transcendentalist movement was in place and gaining significant influence. American literature had not really established its own identity and many American authors were routinely accused of copying British style and techniques. They were said to be unable to offer any unique contributions to the advancement of literary art but this, as might be expected, was the view of many British critics.

Resulting from a presidential report to congress on the mistreatment of US citizens and the hijacking of American sailors into service to Britain and the perceptions by some Western and Northwestern settlers that British agents from Canada were inciting Indian attacks, the United States declared war on Britain in 1812. Im sure this had no direct impact on Poe nor directly influenced his works but by the end of the war in December 1814, Poe would have been about 5 and may have heard stories of heroic land and sea battles. His Grandfather, General David Poe, retired during this period, was a well known and admired soldier in the Revolutionary War.

One interesting bit of history that came out of this is that although the South and West favored war with Britain, New England was opposed because it would have affected their profitable commerce. Subsequently, New England federalists continued to trade with Britain throughout the war. During negotiations in Washington D.C. to settle the conflict with Britain, the federalist delegates met in Hartford, Connecticut to protest the war but by the time the committee reached a consensus on constitutional amendments to limit republican influence, the war was over. This marked the federalists as disloyal and spelled the end of the federalist party. Now, Im sure this did not affect Poe at the time but his exposure to public attitudes in this regard may have had some influence in his formative years; on his political views and shaping his opinions in his war with the New York Literati later in life.

Following this second war of independence, the grand expansion westward hit a fever pitch. The great American religious revival was in full force. American political unity was improving. By 1823, Latin America had chosen to follow in the footsteps of the United States and declare their own independence from Spain and Portugal through revolution. Recognized by the United States as sovereign nations, the US sent envoys to Mexico, Argentina and Chili. Poe was about 14 years old, well educated and well trained in the classics. He read Latin and spoke French and Spanish to some measure and was most likely exposed to the events of the day. Perhaps, the single important political event of this period was the issuance of the Monroe Doctrine in December 1823. This was simply a declaration that European interests in further expansion and settlement into the territories of the Americas would not be tolerated by the United States. It further stated that any attempt to oppress, control or in any manner alter the self determined destiny of any sovereign nation on the American continents shall not be seen in any other light,  than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States. Again, while I do not think these events had a direct literary impact on Poe, these events were occurring in his formative years and probably had more of an impact on him in adulthood. For example, later in life he may have drawn parallels between the events of his youth and tales from Greek and Roman mythology and added his own flavors to his stories or even his poetry.

As the economics of a struggling republic change and communal paradigms force shifts in belief structures, often they can result in sweeping revisions of social and political views. For example, advances in industry and technology results in cheaper manufacturing and lower costs to consumers. At the same time, the high costs of maintaining hundreds or even thousands of slaves becomes financially oppressive. Beginning as early as the late 1700s, slavery was beginning to lose favor in the US and sentiments in favor of emancipation could be heard in the North and South both. Slavery had even been banned in the Northwest territories by US law.

However, the increasing and incessant demand for three specific labor intensive crops; cotton, sugarcane and tobacco, made it exceedingly profitable to maintain slaves. This was particularly true in the South where the growing season was much longer than in the North. While attitudes in the North remained in favor of emancipation, those attitudes in the South turned sharply and solidly in favor of slave labor. Except for his years in England between 1815 and 1820, Edgar Poe was raised in Richmond, Virginia. His foster Father, John Allan, was a tobacco merchant and was known to have owned several slaves. His business was heavily dependent upon low cost tobacco production and, consequently, slavery. By the time Poe was working as an editor, he had written many essays, satires and social commentaries on a variety of subjects.

As the divergent attitudes toward slavery widened between the industrial North and the agricultural South, Poe did offer a passing reflection in critiques on the subject of slavery. It was not contained in a poem or short story but was printed in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1836 as commentary and rebuttal to recent articles supporting the abolitionist movement. According to Authur H. Quinn in his biography of Poe, the piece  is calmly and sanely written from the point of view of a Southerner who had grown up in a family which owned slaves and who has sold a slave himself.

The only glaring incident of American history of which I am aware that had a direct impact on his poems or short stories was the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill in 1848 that triggered the 1849 Gold Rush to California. In 1849, some 80,000 people went to California to seek their fortune. The vast majority would fail, of course, and Poe wrote of the desperate search for boundless wealth in his poem, Eldorado. Many have erroneously interpreted this poem to refer to a search for paradise as opposed to wealth but the legend of El Dorado, the city of gold, was well known to Poe.

Poes tale The Gold Bug is a fantasy search for pirate treasure on an island off the South Carolina coast hidden by the famed pirate Captain Kidd. Poe was stationed there at Fort Moultrie during his military enlistment. Although Captain Kidd was never known to have visited Sullivans island, it was a part of history intentionally altered by Poe for the sake of the story.

He wrote numerous other stories and essays related to the latest craze or mystery of the day such as cryptography as used in The Gold Bug, mesmerism, phrenology, astronomy, space travel and the exposure of Maelzels Mechanical Chess Player.

Best of Luck Ginnie,

-- Anonymous, May 10, 2000

< -- Tis (, May 10, 2000. >>

Thanks, Tis! :)


-- Anonymous, May 14, 2000

Tis that was an awsome response :) The best one on this message board... Thanks (even though I did not post the question, the info was useful :))

-- Anonymous, March 10, 2001

Tis, thank you so much!!! That was an amazing response but not fully answering the question. It gave me bits and pieces that I can put together for my report on Edgar Allen Poe but I would just like to say thanks for the useful info. :)

-- Anonymous, October 30, 2001

Tis, just wanted to say I used your post as well. appreciate the effort. Thank you much.

-- Anonymous, November 28, 2001


-- Anonymous, March 05, 2002


You seem to be very knowledgeable about Poe - perhaps you can tell me about the symbolism/allusions in Eldorado, as I can not find any.

-- Anonymous, April 14, 2003

Well Ginnie. Poe was a genius just like myself.I pride myself in my english knowledge and understanding of many texts as I, yes I, am his great great great niece (twice removed).If you ever need any information then I'm always willing to give you my services.Hope to hear from you soon. xxxx

-- Anonymous, February 10, 2004

Thanks a Whole lot for the Kindness of your response it is very informative about Poe thanks.

-- Anonymous, February 20, 2005

Also if you could be so kind as to Explain what events influenced his work? it would help a ton.

-- Anonymous, February 20, 2005

Moderation questions? read the FAQ