Ask The Editor

May 6, 2009

Speaking of Edgar Allan Poe …

The New Yorker has a fascinating piece about the man who is said to have invented the mystery novel (but who is probably better known for his horror stories). It paints Poe less as a visionary and more as a writer who made a point of capitalizing on the genre that was selling well in his day. He wanted to make a living as a writer of fiction and, as today’s writers often discover, that sometimes means compromising about what to write and how.

Here’s a snippet:

Poe went to New York, but, unable to support himself by writing, he left the city within three months, returning to Baltimore to live with Mrs. Clemm and little Virginia. He published his first story, “Metzengerstein,” about a doomed Hungarian baron, his gloomy castle, and his fiery steed. He won a prize of fifty dollars from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for “MS Found in a Bottle.” One of the editors, who met him, later wrote, “I found him in Baltimore in a state of starvation.” In these straits, Poe wrote “Berenice,” a story about a man who disinters his dead lover and yanks out all her teeth—“the white and glistening, and ghastly teeth of Berenice”—only to realize that she is still alive. It has been claimed, plausibly, that Poe wrote this story to make a very bad and long-winded joke about “bad taste.” Also: he was hungry.

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