Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849, and no one knows how. But a much more important mystery surrounds Poe’s life and his works.
What most people think they know is way off the mark. Here’s a quiz designed to spark your interest in discovering the real Poe.
Select True or False:
1. Poe was an opium addict.
2. Poe was an alcoholic.
3. Poe’s literary executor maliciously forged letters from him.
4. “Annabel Lee” is based on a true incident involving one of Poe’s rivals.
5. Poe once published a totally fabricated story about a transatlantic balloon trip as news.
6. The first eleven stories Poe wrote were meant as parodies, but almost everyone took them seriously.
7. Poe invented the phrases, “A mere bagatelle” and “Believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see.”
8. Poe sparked a literary debate by attacking Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and kept the debate going by anonymously publishing articles that attacked his own position.
9. T.S. Eliot said that Poe had “the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty.”
10. Experts believe that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a hoax.
1. False. People think opium addiction must be true, since it fits Poe’s image so well. The image is also false. For more details visit the outstanding website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.
2. True, and his alcoholism offers a much better way to understand his “self-destructive behavior” than theories about longing for his dead mother or other supposed psychological demons. Of course, one could argue that his alcohol dependency was caused by his demons, but then what about today’s 17.6 million Americans who are alcohol dependent—are they all consumed by demons?
3. True. Rufus Griswold used the forgeries to support his portrait of Poe as a scoundrel, misfit, and madman. Griswold’s slanderous writings, picked up and repeated, created the myth of Poe that persists to this day.
4. Probably True. Of course, we cannot know what Poe was thinking when he composed the poem. We do know that Rufus Griswold, forty days after his first wife’s death, entered her vault, kissed her forehead and lips, and lay by her side for the next thirty hours, until a friend found him and took him away.
5. True. It appeared on the front page of The New York Sun, April 13, 1844. It was one of many hoaxes perpetrated by the supposedly solemn Poe.
6. True. These stories, The Tales of the Folio Club, were meant to be published together as a book. Comically-named authors, such as Mr. Horribile Dictû and Mr. Rouge-et-Noir, meet for dinner and share their writings, which Poe meant to parody well-known authors of the day. But Poe ended up publishing the tales individually without the silly names or the context that would have made his comic intentions obvious. And because his satire was subtle, it went largely unnoticed. Poe’s broadly comical introduction to the book was not published until 1902.
7. True. You’ll find them in “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” (Poe actually wrote, in the parlance of the day, “half that you see.”)
8. True. Who could make that up?
9. True. Poe is probably the most widely and severely criticized of any canonical writer. For an explanation of his “bad writing,” see the next answer.
10. True. Experts also believe that of two other supposed tales of terror, “Ligeia” and “William Wilson.” Scholars say Poe’s writing here is not bad, it’s ridiculous. And it’s not that he didn’t know better; he did it on purpose. But he did it sneakily, deliberately camouflaging his parody with his terror: he intended most readers to be taken in.
A common denominator here is this: Poe is the all-time master, not of horror, but of hoaxing.
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.