(The following is a guest blog post written by Elizabeth Gettins, Library of Congress digital library specialist.)
Halloween is upon us and what better time to recount some of the classic gothic stories by American writers? Henry James’ ghostly tale “The Turn of the Screw” (1898) and Washington Irving’s headless horseman from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) may readily come to mind. Some may even think of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931). However, it stands to reason that many would think of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” as a quintessential American gothic tale.
Poe published the poem in January 1845, and it became an overnight success. It still remains one of the most famous poems ever written. Poe became a household name almost immediately and is widely known as a founding father of Romanticism in American literature. He can also boast being one of the first American writers to work with the short story genre, helping to invent detective fiction, as well as creating the genre of science fiction.
There are many publications of “The Raven” that include artwork by well-known illustrators, including the likes of John Tenniel and Édouard Manet. Here we feature an edition of “The Raven” with illustrations by the French national Gustave Doré (1832-1883).
Known as an oversized edition, it measuring 47 centimeters and features 28 finely detailed woodcuts depicting the scenes from the poem. Paging through the digital copy, one can see the poem come alive with haunting portrayals of the scenes that Poe describes. The tome was published in 1884 by Harper & Brothers, shortly after the Doré’s death. Doré was a child prodigy and began carving in cement by the age of seven. At the age of 15 he began his career of printmaking for books for famous authors including Rabelais, Balzac, Milton and Dante and Byron. Doré was self-taught and his art quite prolific. His engravings are considered to be some of the finest examples ever made.
“The Raven” is a story of a raven’s visit to a man distraught over the death of his loved one named Lenore. The poem becomes more dark and ominous by the last line, as the narrator descends into madness seemingly with the bird’s full awareness and intention. The raven first appears as he taps upon a chamber door on a cold December night while the narrator laments the death of Lenore. He begins a half-hearted conversation with himself and the mysterious bird to which the bird always responds with, “Nevermore.” Throughout the story, his questions and responses become more anguished. He concludes that he is never to stop thinking of his lost love and will be forever entrapped in reliving his memories and mourning her death. Eventually, the narrator becomes quite unnerved and angry, calling the raven a “thing of evil” and a prophet. His final question inquires if he will be reunited with Lenore in Heaven. “Nevermore,” replies the raven to which the narrator concludes that his soul is trapped beneath the raven’s shadow and shall be lifted “Nevermore.”
It is ironic that Poe has come to represent the gothic genre, not only with his life’s work but his life itself. His life took on the color of mystery, suffering, mourning, death, (especially that of beautiful women) and even madness. Born in Boston to two actors, Poe was orphaned early in his life due to desertion by his father and the death of his mother. Poe spent his childhood being cared for by the Allan family of Richmond and published his first work “Tamerlane and Other Poems” in 1827. He subsequently went on to publish more than 40 gothic tales, including some of his more popular titles, “The Murders of Rue Morgue,” “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell Tale Heart.” In 1836, he married Virginia Clemm, who happened to be his 13-year-old cousin.
Poe’s life was not an easy one as he strove to support himself and his wife entirely on his writing. He moved to and from many cities looking for work and struggled to make ends meet. After six years of marriage, his wife developed consumption. He noted its first appearance while she was singing and playing the piano, commenting that she broke a blood vessel in her throat. Apparently, she never fully recovered, dying in
1947 1847 after 11 years of marriage. Poe, who was always a drinker, drank more heavily to cope with the stress of his wife’s illness and became unstable after her death. Two years later, on Oct. 7, 1849, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore. He allegedly was dressed in someone else’s clothing and totally incoherent. He slipped away, never gaining consciousness. It is assumed he died of some alcohol related illness, although there is no formal record. He was 40-years-old.
A rival writer and suitor by the name of Rufus Wilmot Griswold unwittingly helped to cement Poe’s fame. Both were at different times employed by Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia and fought over a position, as well as a beautiful poet by the name of Frances Sargent Osgood. Griswold nursed his grudge, attempting to destroy Poe’s reputation after his death with an article on Poe he titled “Memoir of the Author.” He depicted Poe as a drug-fiend, a drunk and a madman, supported by letters from Poe, which later turned out to be letters written by Griswold himself. Much of the article was eventually discredited, but it was accepted as truth at the time. Instead of being repelled, readers thrilled at the idea of reading works by a bona fide “evil” man and purchased Poe’s works in great numbers.
Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908) who wrote the forward to this edition of “The Raven” remarks that ultimately, Griswold’s malintent backfired: “The world still thinks of Poe as a ‘luckless’ man of genius. I recently heard him mentioned as ‘one whom everybody seems chartered to misrepresent, decry or slander,’ but it seems to me that his ill-luck ended with his pitiable death, and that since then his defense has been persistent, and his fame of as steadfast growth as a suffering and gifted author could pray for in his hopeful hour.’ Griswold’s decrial and slander turned the current in his favor.”
Most will collectively agree with Stedman’s statement. Poe’s writing and reputation have become the stuff of American legend.
You can see more illustrations from “The Raven” in our newest Pinterest board. Also, the Library holds a French translation, “Le Corbeau”, which is also available digitally from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division with both page-turner and pdf displays.