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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Where was Edgar Allan Poe born?

A: Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19th, 1809.

Q: How did Poe come to Richmond, Virginia?

A: Poe was orphaned in Richmond at the age of 2. He lived in Richmond until he went to college at the age of 17, with a five year stint in London from age 6 to 11. Poe always considered himself a Virginian and a Southerner, and returned to his hometown of Richmond throughout his life.

Q: So he’s not from Baltimore?

A: No. Poe lived in Baltimore for about four years in the 1830s, but did not grow up there.  He died in Baltimore on a trip in 1849 and thus was buried there.

Q: Did he live anywhere other than Richmond and Baltimore?

A: Yes. In addition to the five years he spent in London, England as a child, he also lived in and around Philadelphia and New York. He also briefly lived in Boston and while in the U.S. Army was stationed there and also near Charleston, South Carolina and Hampton, Virginia. 

Q: Did Poe really marry his 13 year old cousin?

A: Yes. When Poe was 27 years old he married his 13 year old first cousin Virginia Clemm.

Q: Why did Poe write such dark stories?

A: Poe wrote for magazines which demanded stories that would appeal to a mass audience, so he gave them what they wanted. In fact, he only wrote about fifteen horror stories out of a total of seventy tales. Poe actually produced far more comedies than terror tales. He also wrote science fiction, mysteries, adventure stories, scientific essays, and a book about seashells. Today’s readers tend to prefer his horror stories, but in Poe’s time, his audience liked the mysteries better. He last book of short stories, Tales of Edgar A. Poe (1845), only contained one horror story among a collection of mysteries and science fiction. Although he suffered bouts of depression after his wife’s death, Poe wasn’t a terribly morbid or melancholy person. Mary Bronson, who, as a young girl, visited Poe with her father, later recalled, “We saw Mr. Poe walking in his yard, and most agreeably was I surprised to see a very handsome and elegant appearing gentleman, who welcomed us with a quiet, cordial, and graceful politeness that ill accorded with my imaginary sombre poet. I dare say I looked the surprise I felt, for I saw an amused look on his face as I raised my eyes a second time…” (LeDuc, Mary Elizabeth Bronson, “Recollections of Edgar A. Poe,” Home Journal, whole no. 754, July 21, 1860, p. 3).

Q: What contributions did Poe make to world literature?

A: Poe revolutionized literature in a number of ways. He invented the detective story, made important contributions that shaped the modern science fiction genre, and developed the tale of psychological terror. In his criticism and essays, he championed the cause of Art for Art’s Sake at a time when most critics believed art existed to instruct, edify, or propagandize. He thought that it was enough for a poem to be beautiful even (and especially) if it did not try to teach the reader anything. European writers and critics of the time, like Charles Baudelaire in France, praised Poe for this stance.

Q: What did Poe contribute to the mystery genre? 

A: Poe made several important contributions to the mystery story. With only a handful of precedents, he developed a new kind of fictional character—one who solves mysteries using reason, analysis, and keen observational skills. Poe also gave his detective a sidekick, whose role in the story is to narrate the events and to make the detective look good by acting astonished by the detective’s feats of reasoning. This is the same purpose Dr. Watson would serve in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries half a century later.

After inventing these primary characters, Poe continued by developing the standard mystery plots. Since each of his detective stories was the first of its kind, he developed several different prototypes. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is the first “locked door” or “locked room” mystery, a subgenre of detective fiction in which someone is murdered inside a room which is locked from the inside when the police break down the door to find there is no visible way the murderer could have escaped. “The Mystery of Marie Roget” is the first detective story based on a true crime. “Thou Art the Man” is the first comic detective story. “The Gold-Bug” is the first major treasure hunt mystery and the first use of a secret code in a mystery.

Several of the standard mystery plot devices also originated with Poe. In “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “Thou Art the Man,” we see an innocent person wrongfully accused with the detective tasked with proving their innocence. In “Thou Art the Man,” we see the first use of the culprit being the “least likely suspect,” and we see the first use of this villain scattering false clues to frame somebody else for the crime. In “The Purloined Letter” we see the detective “profiling” the villain and trying to anticipate both his actions and the police department’s actions in searching for the letter. He finds the letter because he anticipates the villain has already anticipated how and where the police will look for the letter. In “The Man of the Crowd,” we see the use of surveillance to uncover the facts about a mysterious unknown man. “The Gold-Bug” is the first mystery in which the solution involves decoding a cryptogram, and this important work is also the first treasure-hunt mystery (another popular subgenre of detective fiction).

Q: Did Poe write "The Monkey's Paw?"

A: No, that was W.W. Jacobs (1863-1943), one of many writers whose work was influenced by Poe. When museum guests ask questions like this, it only reminds us how many different authors Poe has inspired. In fact, the genres of detective fiction, psychological terror, and science fiction wouldn’t be what they are without his contributions.

Q: What inspired Poe to write his stories? 

A: Poe found inspiration all around him, especially in newspapers or history books. Some of his stories were based on actual events—like the headline-generating murder cases that Poe transformed into “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Other stories were inspired by historical events like the final days of the Spanish Inquisition, which provided the setting for “The Pit and the Pendulum,” but Poe used the true story as a jumping off point for his own thrilling tale of a prisoner trying to escape a series of strange tortures that never really existed outside Poe’s imagination. Poe sometimes used places he lived as settings for stories, so readers will find Richmond in “Premature Burial,” Sullivan’s Island in “The Gold-Bug,” and Charlottesville in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.”

Q: What did Poe contribute to poetry?  

Even though he composed only about fifty poems, many of these are among the best-known ever written. Works like “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells” have inspired countless authors, visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians. “The Raven” is so popular there have been several plays, a few ballets, and at least fifteen feature films derived from it. Today “The Raven” is the only poem to have a National Football League team named after it. Even more importantly, you can travel just about anywhere and find someone who can quote at least a line or two from this very memorable composition.

A: If we remember and enjoy Poe’s poetry today, that was his intention. Even though many other poets of his time thought a poem was “good” if it taught the reader something. Poe said it was far more important for a poem to entertain people. He said his readers or listeners should be able to feel the beauty of his poetry by their musical qualities alone—even if they didn’t understand the words.

Q: What else did Poe do besides writing? 

A: When he wasn’t writing, Poe enjoyed spending time at home with his family, playing the flute, and taking long walks through the countryside. He also owned many pets, including cats and songbirds. He also expressed a great interest in astronomy.