Jan. 14, 2002
-- Edgar Allan Poe is easily remembered for such stories as "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."
But late in his career "The Raven" made Poe so popular that children would chase the author until he would turn around, raise his arms and yell "Nevermore." Yet despite the popularity of that dark and haunting poem, Poe remained a poor man.
Jeffrey Savoye works for the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Md., and has been studying Poe for nearly 20 years. He says one of the reasons the author was so poor is that he would often spend months working on a poem, only to be paid a few dollars from the reviews or newspapers that would publish it. Poe sold "The Raven" in 1845 for around $15.
But how and when Poe wrote the poem remains a mystery, Elizabeth Blair reports for Morning Edition
in the first installment of Present at the Creation
. The new NPR series explores the origins of American cultural icons.
"He told different stories to different people," Savoye says. "He told someone he'd written it in a feverish passion over a couple of days... and someone else that it had lain on his desk for 10 years."
In an essay called "The Philosophy of Composition," written a year after "The Raven" was published, Poe implied that writing the poem was a methodical process, like solving a math problem, and that he wrote the end of it first. But Savoye says he and other scholars doubt that "that cold mechanical approach" was used.
"He doesn't seem to have written anything that way," Savoye says. "Writing was a more difficult process than that. It's interesting we have very few manuscripts that are working drafts. We only have final copies. It's almost like he didn't want anyone to see all the work that went into it."
And it has been speculated that the poem's Lenore, the narrator's deceased lover, is actually a reference to Poe's wife Virginia, who was dying of tuberculosis at the time of the poem's writing. But Savoye is convinced that's not the case.
"There's this incredible dogged optimism in Poe... how could you possibly have gotten up and faced another day under his circumstances without some incredible strength of 'today will be better'? Opportunity was always just around the corner for Poe and he just never quite got there."
Just four years after "The Raven" made him an international celebrity, Poe died, nearly broke.
The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore
"The Philosophy of Composition,"
an 1846 essay in which Poe discusses "The Raven"
Text of "The Raven"
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum
in Richmond, Va.
The Poe Decoder
, a series of essays on the author