Edgar Allan Poe is one of my favorite authors. The Gold-Bug only encouraged my love of puzzles and codes. C. Auguste Dupin captured my heart before Sherlock Holmes. The Tell-Tale Heart… well, thanks to a friend, I sleep with that story. Literally. There is something about the flavor of darkness Poe brought to his work that I’ve always found compelling and, at times, quite relatable. So, today, in celebration of his 210th birthday, I want to take a slightly different track from last year and, instead of trying to compile a biography, share with you four facts about Poe that I find fascinating.
He was named for a character from King Lear – but probably not Shakespeare’s King Lear
Both of Poe’s parents were actors and, during the year he was born, they both performed in a production of King Lear in Boston. His mother played the role of Cordelia and his father was cast as Edgar, had Poe been assigned female at birth, his parents planned to name him Cordelia. In the version of King Lear they most likely performed in—The History of King Lear, by Nahum Tate, which supplanted Shakespeare’s King Lear as “standard” until 1838 in Britain and remained standard in American theatres until 1875—King Lear regains his throne and Cordelia and Edgar end up marrying. So, whether he was assigned male or female at birth, it seems his parents were determined to name their child after characters considered kind and truthful.
80 years before it was proposed, Poe described some fundamental aspects of the Big Bang
One year before his death in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published what he considered to be his magnum opus: Eureka—A Prose Poem. In Eureka, Poe’s purpose was to present his theory of the cosmos, which is no small undertaking for someone with no formal training in the sciences. Nevertheless, he put forth proposals that, while not encompassing all elements of the Big Bang theory, described some of the fundamental assumptions of the theory nearly a century before its proposal:
“My general proposition, then, is this: In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation. … The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.”
In this profound, if obscure, work, Poe asserted that the universe has a finite age, that stars were composed of different elements, and that all of those elements were present in one place before dispersing. Each of those ideas were validated eighty years later with Georges Lemaître’s “hypothesis of the primeval atom” and the further work by Edwin Hubble and other astronomers and astrophysicists coalescing into a unified theory now known as the Big Bang.
The very first detective
Before there was such a thing as a “detective,” there was C. Auguste Dupin. Poe introduced the world to Dupin in The Murders in Rue Morgue—which was actually the first story by Poe I ever read—widely considered to be the first detective story. Reprising his role in The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter, C. Auguste Dupin is a hobbyist who combines his intellect, powerful imagination, and love of enigmas in his approach to the mysteries brought to him by police prefect “G.” Poe and his creation, Dupin, laid the groundwork for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
A novel, a shipwreck, cannibalism, and a Monty Python sketch
Poe only wrote one novel in his literary career, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In this work that Poe himself described as “very silly,” a ship’s crew finds themselves lost at sea with no food or water and, in an effort to keep as many alive as possible, draw straws to determine who will be killed and eaten. A former mutineer, Richard Parker, draws the short straw and … well, you know.
The 19th century master of the eerie would, himself, be spooked at the fact that nearly fifty years after the publication of his “silly” story, a yacht sailing from England to Australia sank in a storm. The four-person crew escaped in a lifeboat, but without provisions. Like their fictional counterparts, they caught a sea turtle and ate it but it was not enough to sustain him. When a crewmember fell overboard and fell ill after drinking seawater to slake his thirst, his fellow crewmembers decided, because the ill sailor was not going to make it, to kill and eat him. That poor sailor’s name was Richard Parker. The surviving crewmembers were rescued a few days later and actually faced criminal charges for their actions.
Nearly a century later, those hilarious and cheeky minds of Monty Python were inspired by the incident to create this irreverent sketch.
Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe! Thank you for sharing your flavor of darkness with us!