“True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully
nervous I had been and am; but why will
you say that I am mad?”
-Edgar Allan Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart"
Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809 to two actors. His biological parents didn’t play a major role in his life, as his parents separated and his mother died of tuberculosis very early in his life. Although much of what we know of Poe is false, owing to the inaccurate biography published by his rival Rufus Griswold, there are some unquestionable facts about Edgar Allan Poe. He was a talented writer, weaving haunting tales of horror and pain.1 He is one of the first American writers to achieve international acclaim and has even been called the father of detective stories and the modern short story, and has even been credited with innovating the science fiction genre.2
One of Poe’s most famous short stories is “The Tell-tale Heart”, which was first published in the magazine The Pioneer in 1843. It is a very good, and short read, which I highly recommend reading now to avoid any spoilers. The story begins with an unnamed narrator, who I will assume is a “he” for the purposes of this blog, and served as the caretaker for an elderly man. In an attempt to dispel the accusation that the narrator is mad, he carries on in a detailed explanation of the hideous crime he committed. He counters the claim that he is mad, essentially arguing that a mad man would never possess the faculty to carry out his plot so perfectly. Would a madman have the wherewithal to take an hour just to inch his head into the doorway? Eventually, the killer is moved to confess his crime because of the elderly man’s infernal heart—which he can still hear beating even after its death. The story is highly ironic, as the author attempts to explain himself and prove that he is not mad. In this attempt, the narrator only succeeds in illustrating his madness to the reader. The tale deals with the dark themes of fear, murder, and deception. Additionally, “The Tell-tale Heart” addresses the very serious issue of mental illness.
One might wonder whether Edgar Allan Poe himself, famous for stories dealing with the deterioration of the human mental state, might have experienced some madness himself. The hardships of his life did not end with the death of his mother. After witnessing his mother die of tuberculosis in a poor house, he was raised in a foster home, where he loved his foster mother and had a strained relationship with his foster father, John Allan. Allan and Poe had many difficulties over finances, and Poe had monetary problems throughout his life. As payment for his first collection of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe was only given 25 copies of his own book.3 Even after he had gained some fame as a reputable writer and literature critic, Poe lived in poverty.
Yet another contributor to the life-long depression of Poe was the women in his life. First, his biological mother died of Tuberculosis. Then, his foster mother Frances Valentine Allan also died of tuberculosis, leaving Poe without anyone to champion his cause to his foster father. Finally, his own wife (and, yes, cousin) Virginia Clemm died of tuberculosis at the young age of 24.4 Edgar Allan Poe was allegedly overly fond of alcohol, but his worst periods were often linked with the illness of the loved women in his life.
Did Poe’s deep depression contribute to his creativity? As noted in “I Bask In Dreams of Suicide: Mental Illness, Poetry, and Women” by John Baer and James Kaufman, in a study comparing creative writers and demographically-similar non-writers, creative writers had a much higher incidence of mental illness. Additionally, historiometric studies found that poets in particular had the highest rates of depression compared to even other creative professions. Kaufman and Baer speculate this might be because the types of people who are attracted to poetry might be more likely to be mentally unstable, or even because poetry does not help mental illness as other writing styles can. Given a consideration of Poe’s unfortunate childhood, I would suspect he was depressed before he began writing poetry seriously, and perhaps took up poetry as a way of venting those emotions. Perhaps, as Kaufman and Baer suggest, poetry was not enough for Poe to vent his depression, which is why he took to drinking instead?