While the enormous popularity of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short stories and poems continues to highlight his creative brilliance, Poe’s renown as the master of horror, the father of the detective story, and the voice of “The Raven” is something of a mixed blessing. Today, Poe is known, read, and appreciated on the basis of a comparatively narrow body of work, roughly a dozen tales and half as many poems. For the novice reader, these favored texts offer easy (but still challenging) access to Poe’s most exemplary writing, entry into his uniquely terrifying world, and intriguing connections to facets of their author’s tragically disordered life. The total effect of all this is compelling, and Poe himself would certainly approve. He wrote for the masses, using his learned artistry to reach the common people of his day and to then elevate their minds while intensifying their emotional reactions. Poe was not averse to the commercial sensationalism either: he wrote several “hoaxes” as news and later capitalized on his personal notoriety for bookings on the lecture/recital circuit. Along with Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Poe ranks among the foremost literary stars in the firmament of popular American culture. A century and half after his death, Poe is instantly identifiable, stands without rival and remains (with effort) immensely enjoyable. In his normal frame of mind at least, Poe would have been deeply amused by the widespread adulation and fame he has enjoyed in posterity.
The rub is that we may be tempted to stop here and neglect the breadth and the depth of Poe’s contributions to Western Literature. Poe, in fact, wrote nearly seventy short works of fiction. He is duly credited with creating the detective story genre and with transforming the Gothic mystery tale of the Romantic Period into the modern horror or murder stories centered in the outlying regions of human mind and experience. But he also wrote several comic and satirical pieces, literary parodies, sketches, and experimental stories, including the “Descent into the Maelstrom,” and his novella, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. His most famous poems—“The Raven,” “Ulalume,” “The Bells,” “The City in the Sea,”—were enormously influential. These famous verses were behind a powerful wave of enthusiasm for Poe that arose among the leading writers of Europe during his own lifetime, spread thereafter around the world, and was sustained through the “discovery” of existential “human condition” themes in his short stories generations later. But Poe also wrote three volumes of poetry during the first period of his literary career (1827-1831) that deserve our attention, as does his metaphysical Eureka: A Prose Poem and his verse drama, Politian. In terms of the hidden breadth of his accomplishments, during most of his career, Poe labored as an editor of literary journals and reviewer of fiction, verse, and non-fiction books. Among the later, Poe wrote reviews on books such diverse fields as medicine, natural history, archeology, philology, and economics.
As for Poe’s criticism of fiction and verse, there is an intersection with the often-overlooked depth of his work. Poe developed a theory of composition that he applied to both his short stories and his poems. Its most basic principle was that insofar as short fiction and poetry were concerned, the writer should aim at creating a single and total psychological/spiritual effect upon the reader. The theme or plot of the piece is always subordinate to the author’s calculated construction of a single, intense mood in the reader’s or listener’s mind, be it melancholy, suspense, or horror. There are no extra elements in Poe, no sub-plots, no minor characters, and no digressions except those that show the madness of deranged first-person (“I”) narrators. Ultimately, Poe took writing to be a moral task that worked not through teaching lessons, but in simultaneously stimulating his readers’ mental, emotional, and spiritual faculties through texts of absolute integrity. Poe, moreover, judged others by these same standards. By doing so, he is establishing the rules and methods common to New Criticism, the leading school of literary analysis in the twentieth century with its insistence that the text must be interpreted as a self-contained unit apart from the critic’s opinions of its author or the suitability its themes.
While you are encouraged to take this fuller measure of Poe’s importance into account, the materials at this site are geared toward his main works. Generally written in the 1840s, the last decade of his life, they comprise an inescapable introduction to Poe. Recognizing that there is more to Poe’s artistic and intellectual legacy than they hold, the individual works considered here accurately reflect the heights of his creative genius.
In his tales, Mr. Poe has chosen to exhibit his power chiefly in that dim region which stretches from the very utmost limits of the probable into the weird confines of superstition and unreality. He combines in a very remarkable manner two faculties which are seldom found united; a power of influencing the mind of the reader by the impalpable shadows of mystery, and a minuteness of detail which does not leave a pin or a button unnoticed. Both are, in truth, the natural results of the predominating quality of his mind, to which we have before alluded, analysis. It is this which distinguishes the artist.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” was first published in 1843 in the Boston Pioneer, and revised into its current form for an 1845 edition of The Broadway Journal. Like “The Black Cat,” it is a murder story told by the acknowledged killer himself. Here, however, the narrator’s stated purpose is not confession but the his desire to prove his “sanity.”
The dramatic monologue begins with the unnamed (and highly unreliable) first-person narrator issuing a challenge of sorts: “True!—nervous, very, very dreadful nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” He declares at once that he suffers from a “disease,” but implies that because it has not dulled his senses, he cannot be called mad. The narrator points out that his mental disorder has actually caused his senses, especially his hearing, to become more acute. When he claims to have heard many things in heaven and hell, we realize, of course, that his super-human sensory experiences are delusions. But having posited (and immediately undercut) the first argument in his proof,”the narrator turns to a second plank. The calm manner in which he will now tell us the whole story is in itself evidence of his sound mind.
The narrator says that he cannot recall when the idea of killing the old man “entered” his “brain.” He never discloses the exact nature of his relationship to the victim. The old man and his killer seem to live in the same house, and this would suggest a family bond of some kind, and, from here, a father-son relation with ample room for subconscious motives. But the narrator conspicuously omits direct confirmation that the old man is his father (or uncle, etc.), saying only that he loved his victim and that he did not covet the old man’s wealth. In mid-sentence, as if he just realized it (or made it up), the narrator declares that it was one of the old man’s eyes, a pale-blue, film-covered eye like that of a vulture, that he could not stand. As if jogging his own memory (or, again, making it up on the spot), the narrator further recollects that when this “evil eye” fell upon him, his blood ran cold.
The motive established, the narrator proceeds to recount the cunning deliberation, the caution, that he used in preparing to take the old man’s life, submitting it as evidence of his rationality. To allay any suspicions that his intended victim might have, the narrator greeted the old man each morning during the week before the crime with encouraging words, asking him about how he had slept the night before. But each midnight as the old man slept, the narrator carefully lifted the latch on his bedroom door, moved his head inside the room itself, and opened a lantern’s shutter so slightly that only a narrow beam of light pinpointed the “vulture” eye. For seven nights in a row, the deed could not be committed because the “accursed” eye was closed.
On the eighth night, however, an opportunity (to hear the killer tell it) arose. Moving as slowly as the hands of a clock, he opened the bedroom door and felt a sense of exhilaration at the thought that the old man did not even dream that a foul deed was afoot. Unable to suppress his glee, the narrator chuckled aloud, causing the old man to shift suddenly in his sleep, as if he were startled. But the narrator says that he was not concerned since the room was pitch black, its shutters closed tight against thieves. This time, he slipped his head in as usual, but when his thumb slipped on lantern shutter, the sound caused the old man to spring up in his bed and to cry out “Who’s there.” The narrator does not take this to be a blunder on his part. Instead, he describes his delight in being able to read the old man’s mind. Laying back down, the old man groaned, and the narrator somehow knew that this was not an expression of pain o grief, but one of mortal terror, terror of the kind that he himself had experienced. The narrator reports following the old man’s mind as he tried to reason away the sound as merely a gust of wind or a mouse moving across the floor. But the old man could not comfort himself, the narrator knows, for he could feel the presence of Death (with a capital “D”) hovering near him.
On this night, the narrator recounts, the “evil eye” is wide open, and when the lantern’s rays illuminate it, the mere sight of cloudy orb infuriates him. Through his superhuman hearing, the narrator says that he as able to detect the old man’s heart beat growing faster and louder, so loud, in fact, that the narrator feared a neighbor would be awakened. Yet after resolving that the “old man’s hour has come,” the narrator himself yells out before leaping fully into the room and causing his victim to shriek. The cunning narrator killed the old man by dragging him to the floor and pulling the bed over his victim. Whether the old man was crushed or smothered, the narrator was certain that he was dead, but that his heart continued to beat. Again, the killer is not concerned: the sound was not loud enough to be heard by neighbors. Indeed, the narrator recalls, it stopped altogether and when he placed his hand upon the old man’s chest, he concluded that his victim was “stoned dead.”
The narrator then details the perfection of his plan. He disposed of the corpse by dismembering the body, cutting off the old man’s head, legs and arms. He took some planks up from the bedroom floor, dumped all of the remains below in the space below, and then replaced the boards so that no human eye could ever detect that they had been disturbed. The narrator anticipates the listener’s objections that some blood must have been shed in the process, but he gleefully reports, “I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all—ha, ha!”
At four in the morning, three policemen came to the house. A neighbor had heard a shriek in the night, the police explained, and they wanted to search the premises. The narrator says that this did not worry him. He told the officers that the shriek was his an outburst from a bad dream. The narrator led the investigating party into the old man’s bedchamber, provided chairs for them to sit, and placed his own chair directly atop the boards concealing his victim’s remains. Although he was convinced by their light conversation that the police were satisfied by his account, when they did not leave, the narrator developed a headache, and then felt a ringing in his ears. He became even more anxious when the noise grew and convinced that it came from outside of himself. According to the narrator, his actions began to betray him: he began to pace the floor, to race, and even to foam at the mouth. He became convinced that the police could hear the sound of the old man’s heart but said nothing, thereby making “a mockery of my horror.” Unable to stand the agony of being ridiculed, the narrator called the detectives “villains,” admitted to his crime, and directed them to the source of the sound. When they picked up the planks, so the narrator tells us, they found old man’s “hideous heart” still beating away.
Patrick Thomas McGrath was born in St. John’s on 16 December 1868, the oldest son of William and Mary (Birmingham) McGrath. He received his early education at the Christian Brothers schools in the city and at the age of 14 was apprenticed to the druggists McMurdo & Co. Ill health led him to seek out outdoor employment and in 1891 he began work as a reporter for the Evening Herald. McGrath’s series of articles for foreign newspapers on the St. John’s fire of 1892 brought him to the attention of the London Times and he subsequently became Newfoundland correspondent for this and other newspapers and magazines in England, Canada and the United States.
The path to a successful career in Newfoundland journalism, however, lay in being a spokesman for local politicians and in this field McGrath proved himself most adept. In 1893 he served as interim editor of the Herald during the general election, when the paper supported the Tory opposition led by Moses Monroe and Walter Baines Grieve. The following year McGrath took over the editorship and played a prominent role in helping Conservative leader James Winter defeat William Whiteway in the 1897 general election. In 1900 he supported Liberal leader Robert Bond and his co-lieutenant, St. John’s West MHA, Edward Patrick Morris. From 1901 to 1911 he served as clerk of the House of Assembly.
When Morris split with Bond in 1907 McGrath resigned from the Herald in order to start the Evening Chronicle in support of Morris and the People’s Party. In the 1908 general election, which resulted in a tie, he did yeoman service as chief propagandist for Morris and again provided advice and editorial support when Morris won a clear victory in 1909. In 1911 he published Newfoundland in 1911, an optimistic book surveying political, social, and economic conditions in Newfoundland.
When Prime Minister Morris was absent from Newfoundland on government business, McGrath kept him informed regularly of local happenings. For the period 1911 to 1914, in particular, his letters to Morris have survived and they provide valuable insights into the political and social life of Newfoundland. For instance, for June and July 1911, McGrath informed the prime minister of fishery conditions, progress reports on the construction of branch railways by the Reid Newfoundland Company, the latest activities of William and Harry Reid to develop their land holdings, a dispute over who should captain the Stella Maris (a Labrador coastal steamer) — George Barbour or Edgar Hann — and local coronation preparations and a dispute among the local church brigades in St. John’s over whether they should all march together or separately.
In April 1914 McGrath informed Morris of the Newfoundland sealing disaster. With Morris out of Newfoundland, McGrath advised the government on what to do for the victims of the Newfoundland disaster. He wrote Morris on April 14, 1914: “As soon as the first news came in at noon on Thursday, I advised him [Colonial Secretary John Bennett] to hold an emergency meeting of the Executive Council at once and he adopted this advice and called them together at 4:30 [pm]. They appointed himself [Bennett], [Michael] Cashin, [Sidney] Blandford, and [A.W.] Piccott a committee to handle matters and they got to work promptly. Cashin came to see me in the afternoon to discuss matters and I advised him to take over the Grenfell Institute and use it for both the living and the dead and this was done. The Hospital was also cleared of the patients who could be moved and provision made there for the severe cases.”
In 1912 Morris had appointed McGrath to the Legislative Council, where he proved an able debater of public issues. He also took an active part in helping administrations he supported and was frequently called upon to write budget speeches. Noted historian and fellow journalist Daniel Prowse wrote of McGrath in 1913 that “in our public life he has shown rare political sagacity, and a remarkable foreknowledge of events and changes” in the social and political life of Newfoundland.
During World War I McGrath served as honorary secretary of the Newfoundland Patriotic Fund and finance secretary of the Newfoundland Regiment. He helped to organize the War Pensions Board and was its first chairman; he also served on a government commission which investigated the high cost of living conditions.
In 1918 he received a knighthood for his contributions to Newfoundland’s war effort. McGrath found the local response to his knighthood and the 1918 elevation of his former political boss, Morris to the House of Lords, disheartening. In a letter to a friend in England, McGrath observed concerning Lord Morris that “a prophet is without honour in his own country and it is only outsiders who see him in a true perspective. I am experiencing something of the same kind of thing myself these days, but one has to be big enough to disregard these ‘flea-bites’ to use Sir Edward’s own term.” Similar views were expressed in a letter he wrote to Dr. William Morris in 1918, a brother of the former prime minister practising medicine in the Dominican Republic. McGrath wrote that “your brother’s unique honour rather paralysed some of our people here, and I am afraid was not any more pleasing to some of them than my own recently. You will understand what I mean when I say that there is an impression in some quarters in this country that all these things should only be for a certain class or section of the community, and that others, however much brains, ability or determination that they may have, ought never be advanced beyond the scale of hewers of wood and drawers of water. However, the day is past for that sort of thing, and I look to see your brother make his mark in the House of Lords, as he made it in this country, a circumstance which I think will further confound his critics.”
Public honours justifiably did eventually come to “PT” for his historical research for Newfoundland in its legal dispute with Canada over the location of the boundary between Quebec and Labrador. He extensively researched Newfoundland’s case in British, Canadian and American archives and played a key role in forming the legal case which resulted in the dispute being decided in Newfoundland’s favour by the British Privy Council. McGrath died at John’s on 14 June 1929.