Why did Edgar write about death so much?

greenspun.com : LUSENET : The Work of Edgar Allan Poe : One Thread

i know that edgar's parents both died and that made him sorta interested in death, but why did he write so much about death?

-- Anonymous, May 07, 2001


a lot of that stuff was going on at the time. one of his recurring themes was premature burial, but that wasnt something he himself dwelt on, but he got a lot of it from newspapers and such... he was probably also manic-depressive, maybe bi-polar, so when he hit his low lows, death is something easily focused on. his wife was dying, too, and they lived in extreme poverty. death is right in your face. there's my opinion.

-- Anonymous, May 07, 2001


This question is among the more frequently asked on this forum and would probably warrant its own category listing were it not asked in different form. Why was Poe obsessed with death? Why did he write such depressing stories? Why are all his works about death and dying? Each, interesting in their own way, but with the fundamental question... Why?

Absent a face to face interview with Mr. Poe, any answers must come from what we know of Poe himself and the time in which he lived. At least, what we think we know. While Poe could be considered well ahead of his time in many respects, in others he was incredibly naive and guileless. He could be remarkably adept at analytical thinking, decipher complex puzzles, analyze and resolve the deception behind Maelzel's Mechanical Chess Player and yet had difficulty with simple character judgement.

Generally, I do not subscribe to the notion that Poe was obsessed with death, nor that he was possessed of any exaggerated fear of death, or even that he was disproportionately consumed with being buried alive. As another contributor, Mr. P. E. Murphy so aptly pointed out on another thread, imagination is not equivalent with hallucination. Neither does it find equivalence in obsession or madness. Fiction is, after all, fantasy, make believe and illusion. We are simply the beneficiaries of Poe's complete mastery of the English language, his passion for literature and his robust intellect and vivid imagination.

Curiously, there are often more people murdered, maimed or assaulted in a single television or movie script than in the all volumes of Poe's poems and prose. Are the directors, screenwriters, actors or producers to be considered obsessed or insane? If not, why not? Ask them and they will tell you, "We give the public what they want." Hmmm... if accurate, what does that say about us? I don't mean to appear flippant here, but from an entertainment perspective, I feel the analogy is justified as long as Hollywood insists theirs is an artistic form of expression. A common response to aspiring writers is often, "Write what you know." And, perhaps, for good reason. Presuming a subject is outside one's sphere of knowledge or experience, how could they possibly be imaginatively and creatively engaged. If they remain insistent, ultimately, they will surely be compelled to research the necessary subject matter, assuming of course that they wish to keep the reader engaged. I would suggest that Poe wrote of what he knew, experienced and felt he understood, perhaps, better than most.

Yet, great care must be exercised when attempting to understand Poe the man through reading the pages of his fiction. His stories and poems should not be viewed as a mirror reflection of his life but of a clever and perpetually engaged imagination. After all, is it not reasonable to assume that Jules Verne never once journeyed to the center of the earth or sailed on a submarine. Isn't it, at least, somewhat unlikely that H. G. Wells never really visited the future or that Mary Shelly, at the age of 18, was inexperienced in human reanimation. While I am confident that Poe's experiences flavored his work and even inspired some of it, so did other works and other authors. Poe was a voracious reader and much of his work comes from subjects that piqued his interest at the time and from reading books, newspapers and magazines.

The United States in the beginning of the 19th century was still in revolutionary flux and things did not begin to settle until about 1815. Political posturing and maneuvering, the rapid spread of religious fervor, the emergence of a powerful agricultural south, an accelerating industrialized north and the increasingly visceral debate over slavery; all these issues and more only served to separate and polarize American citizens regionally. The birth rate in The United States was accelerating faster than anywhere else in the world and the 1800 population of about 5.3 million exploded in twenty years to 9.6 million, of which, only twenty percent was attributed to immigration. The 1803 purchase of the Louisiana territory from France, more than 800,000 square miles, for $15 million opened a vast range of cheap land for settlement and by 1816, immigration began to accelerate with an appalling lack of control. "In the five years up to 1820, some 100,000 people arrived in America without having to show a single piece of paper." Harsh European winters, resulting starvation, religious persecution, poor pay and heavy taxation contrasted America with its broadening open spaces, cheap land ($1.25 to $2.00 and acre), absence of legalized class distinctions, no tithing to a state church, no conscription, no state police, no censorship. Add to this an incredibly low cost voyage and your decision was not difficult to make. (Paul Johnson, "A History of the American People")

The natural life expectancy for an American citizen in the early 19th century was about 45 years or less and it had increased by only 19 years since the time of the Roman empire. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the life expectancy as late as 1900 was only 47 years. It was even worse in industrialized England in the early 1800s and varied from 45 years for those living in Surrey to 26 years for those unfortunate enough to live in early 19th century Liverpool.

With this free flowing immigration to America came epidemics of disastrous proportions. From 1800 to 1850, there were no less than 15 epidemics that included Yellow Fever, Scarlet Fever, Asiatic Cholera, Cholera, Typhus and Influenza and they affected cities from New England in the north to New Orleans in the South. As late as 1870 in Chicago, an infant had only a 50% chance of reaching the age of 5 years old. Add to this the pernicious effects and spread of the "White Plague" or tuberculosis (consumption) and you begin to get a rather vivid vision of early 19th century concerns. It wasn't until 1865 that Jean-Antoine Villemin, a French military doctor demonstrated how tuberculosis was transmitted and was not, as thought, spontaneously acquired. Not until 1882 was Robert Koch able to isolate the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.

So... death and dying was neither a stranger or a strange circumstance to our American ancestors. Few families were left unaffected in some fashion or other and even a brief reading of Poe's biography will reveal his own burdens in this respect. In December 1811, his mother died in Richmond of an unknown disease suspected to be pneumonia (There is no evidence that it was consumption.) His Father died shortly after in 1812, allegedly in Norfolk, Virginia presumably from pneumonia as well but this has no basis in fact. His childhood infatuation, Ms. Jane Stanard died in Richmond in April 1824 from an unknown cause but was known to be mentally impaired before she died. His foster Mother, Frances Keeling Allan died in February 1829 in Richmond following "a long and painful illness." Poe's brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, died in Baltimore in August 1831 possibly from tuberculosis but most likely from cholera. John Allan, Poe's foster Father died in Richmond in March 1834 from dropsy, a swelling caused by kidney or congestive heart failure. Poe's Grandmother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe died in Baltimore in July 1835 following years as an invalid from paralysis. His beloved wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe died in January 1847 in Fordham, New York from tuberculosis.

It cannot be denied that these heartfelt losses throughout his life had an impact on Poe's psyche and could certainly serve as the genesis for a tendency toward depression and melancholy in anyone. However, to paraphrase Mr. Murphy, depression does not equal a fear of death. I will concede a fear of loss typically attendant with death but not necessarily for his own demise. There is an interpretive suggestion to this personal anxiety in his poem, "A Dream Within A Dream" where he wrote:

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand -

How few! Yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep - while I weep!

O God! Can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! Can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

So... why did Poe write about death so much? Well... strictly speaking, death in many of the tales is really incidental to the story and serve only to emphasize a primary theme of retribution, madness, inevitability of death or the perverseness of man. In others it simply serves as a starting point for some supernatural conclusion or some esoteric science experiment. His story "The Premature Burial" is especially interesting because it is less about the fear of dying than it is about the fear of not dying.

Who said Edgar had no sense of humor? :)

Best Regards,

-- Anonymous, May 08, 2001

It is also a curious fact that in non-fiction and letters Poe avoids speaking of real death, only relating a bit of Virginia's ordeal, if only to explain its social effects upon his behavior. Writing to a recently bereaved friend he avoids it entirely. In fact Poe, the passionate romantic in his poetry, did not particularly like to deal with death, had fear and aversion of haunting memories and tried desperately to get on with his life.

In fact, even in his stories the dead are tough to bury and keep buried. Being orphaned,brother dead, then ophaned again and dispossessed, rejected as a suitor, etc. he MAY have been in practiced denial against loss. It is his unsatisfactory life he had his argument with- and the afterlife an uncertain answer to his loneliness.

-- Anonymous, May 20, 2001

*CRIES* OMG, TIS, MURPHEY, Ok, Thats It, You Two Are Like My Gods! Ok, I Will Never Need To WRite Another Answere On This Whole Freaking Site, You've Answered Every Question I've Read, My Short And Sonceivable Summaries Seem Pointless Now, I Bow! *Bows* I Clap *CLAPS* I Worship *Worships* I Am Inlightened, And Now Feal Healthy And Apointed, You've Explained What I Feel, And I Thank You, Some Do Not Understand Edger As We Do, And You've Made It Easyer, thanks

P.E. Murphey, Tis, And Edger Allen Poe Are Now Apointed Gods

Peace Double D

-- Anonymous, November 01, 2001

I think Edgar wrote about death alot because his parents, died, and he wanted to express his feelings.I also think he wrote about death because he could have been depressed.

-- Anonymous, March 02, 2003

Yall are weirds and write way to much stuff!!

-- Anonymous, November 10, 2003

Moderation questions? read the FAQ