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Virginia's Health and Tales of Ratiocination

(Fall 1841 - April 1844)

Edgar Allan Poe 1841 or 1842


Graham's prospered with Poe and the number of copies in circulation went from 5,500 up to 40,000, and it was planned to increase to 50,000. Poe gained a good reputation from his cryptography series, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", and his criticism, as a master of German (Gothic) horror, and as a literary wizard. Even though he was such a success Poe felt that he could not express his creativity with Graham's and he still had plans of publishing his own periodical; The Penn.
A friend of Poe's, Frederick W. Thomas, offered Edgar a job as a politician, and Poe was very interested. Together they tried to get Poe a government clerkship, but their efforts and contacts did not help very much. The reason he finally quit his job at Graham's was that he was simply fed up with it and wanted to try something else. He said he might contribute to the magazine and Poe and Graham parted as friends. The "friendship" did not last long though, because Graham did not announce publicly that Poe had quit and let the readers believe that Poe was still writing. Poe was angry with this and denied that he was writing in anonymous articles in other magazines. In July 1842 Poe's resignation from Graham's was finally made public.

Virginia's Health

During this time Virginia began to feel ill. Edgar had encouraged her singing and according to Muddy she had become a "perfect musician." But in January 1842 Virginia was bleeding from her mouth when she sang. She was in the early stages of tuberculosis.
Virginia's illness took Poe very hard and he made everything he could to help her. Every cough from her made him shudder. His marriage to Virginia had meant a lot to Poe. It managed to keep him calm and kept him from drinking, and living isolated with his close relatives, like Dupin and the Ushers, made it possible for him to be in the center of attention.
While watching over Sissy, Poe wrote two Gothic tales that were published in Graham's. "Life in Death" is about a painter and his sick wife, whom strongly resembles Virginia. The painter refuses to see that his bride is dying as he paints her portrait. "The Mask of the Red Death" is about Prince Prosperto who tries to save his diseased country from this figure called "The Red Death". In Red Death Poe wrote that "the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all" which shows of an attitude that is very rare in Poe's work, because death is not normally a terminal thing for him. Both stories shows of a denial and a struggle to fight death, just as Poe refused to realize how serious Virginia's condition was.

Virginia's condition went up and down, and with it Poe's spirits. He tried to help her the best he could, and in search for a healthy environment they moved a couple of times in the spring of 1842. Poe suffered badly from seeing Virginia so weak and he turned to drinking again. Some people said he drank huge amounts while others, including Poe himself, said that he was intolerant to alcohol and a single drink intoxicated him. The truth is probably a combination of both, he got drunk after just one glass and simply couldn't stop drinking. Regardless of the amount it is no doubt that it was more than he could take, and it cost him a lot of money. Money he did not have.
Thomas once again offered his help to get Poe a job, now in the Custom House in Philadelphia. Poe missed a couple of appointments with Thomas because he was too drunk, and several misunderstandings and broken promises from politicians made everything lead to nothing. So Poe went to Washington, both to speak with the president's son and to get subscribers for The Penn which he now called The Stylus. His abuse of alcohol, probably caused by "a great deal of heartache" made him make a fool of himself, hence he had no success in either getting the job nor getting the Stylus published.

Charles Dickens

Poe tried later to improve his reputation and published some autobiographical material. He was also looking to become more popular in Europe and turned his eyes to London. Except for an English version of Pym only four tales had been published in London, all pirated by Bentley's Miscellany in 1840.
In order to get that transatlantic recognition that he wanted Poe put a lot of effort in reviewing the works of Charles Dickens, around the time of Dickens's visit in Philadelphia in 1842. Poe also wrote to Dickens at the beginning of his visit and requested a meeting. On March 7 they met and had, according to Poe, "two long interviews." They discussed American poetry and Edgar also asked Dickens to find a publisher for a revised edition of the Tales. Back in England, Dickens asked several publishers but none of them were willing to help him.

Crime and Detection

Poe published several revisions of old poems and also a few new ones. One of them, which seemed influenced by Virginia's illness, was "Lenore", which handles the subject on how you should act when a young woman dies. In "The Conqueror Worm" like in "The Mask of the Red Death" dead means really dead, and it shows of Poe's spirits during Virginia's illness.
During the last year in Philadelphia Poe published "The Pit and the Pendulum" which is an intense tale of sensation. It's about a man who is tortured by the Spanish inquisition, among other things he is close to being sliced by a razor-sharp pendulum.

Poe also continued his work with crime and detection in tales like "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Black Cat", and "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt". "The Tell-Tale Heart" is about a murder of an old man whose heart keeps beating and finally drives the narrator to confess his crime to the police. The alcoholic narrator in "The Black Cat" kills the cat several times but it keeps coming back. At one time he accidentally cleaves through his wife's head and bricks her corpse up in a wall, but the cat's howling reveals the hiding-place to the police.
"The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" is the second story about Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, who is now trying to solve the murder of a young woman. The story is based on an actual slaying that took place in 1841 of a New York "cigar girl" named Mary Rogers whose body was found in the Hudson River.
"The Gold-Bug" is another tale of ratiocination that also includes cryptography and an attempt on comedy. Poe won $100 for the story in the Dollar Newspaper. In the story Legrand decodes a cipher and with his black servant and a heavy scarab they search for a hidden treasure.
The language used in these stories is simpler and more straight-forward than the language Poe usually used, and reminds a bit of today's movies of violence. They are all innovative and adventurous and despite their simplicity Poe retained his poetic characteristics in his language.
In "The Gold-Bug" Poe uses a black servant that is superstitious and stupid and a black character in "The Journal of Julius Rodman" is described repellantly. Poe sympathized with the slavery in the South, but it has nothing to do with racial hatred. Poe considered, as many other Americans in the 1840s, that the blacks were less then human.
The tales might not have been a great financial success but they became very popular. Especially the prize-wining "Gold- Bug". Poe estimated that 300,000 copies of it was spread, many of them pirated. While living in Philadelphia Poe published 31 tales and stories, among them: "Ligeia", "The Fall of The House of Usher", "William Wilson", "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", "The Pit and the Pendulum", "The Black Cat" and "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt." It is admirable that he managed to publish so many popular tales while running from job to job, taking care of Virginia, insulting people, abusing alcohol, and so on.


Last modified: February 07 2006 19:10:06.