Edger Allen Poe, and the “The Fall of House of Usher”
One aspect of Poe’s life that may have been very influential in “The Fall of the House of Usher” was his drinking habits (Wagenknecht 30). Like many dimensions of Poe’s lifestyle, the severity of his drinking problem is often debated (30). It has been said that a single glass of wine would get Poe drunk and although this may not be exactly accurate, it can be said that one drink would affect him visibly (30). Poe was raised in a drinking society and an inclination for alcohol also seems to have been prevalent in his family (31). Although Poe was certainly a drinker, he did not a revel in the bars or taverns (32). According to Edward Wagenknecht, author of Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind The Legend, Poe “had neither the virtues nor the vices which flourish in the tavern atmosphere” (32). The immediate effect of such drinking habits was the endangerment to Poe’s health, but it also “made him an easy target for his literary enemies throughout the 1840s” (Peeples 77). Thomas Dunn English, in his temperance novel, The Doom of the Drinker, portrays a dishonest drunk evidently based on Poe (77).
In addition to his drinking practices, Poe’s use of opium has also been an issue of suspicion. Much of this suspicion is directly connected to “The Fall of the House of Usher” when Poe likens Roderick’s voice to that of an “irreclaimable eater of opium.” According to Wagenknecht, this is “one of the most widely believed legends about American writer’s,” but he asserts “the evidence is quite unconvincing” despite the arguments of other biographers to the contrary (41). Wagenknecht bases his position on the testimony of “friends and associates” and the fact that “no medically-trained person who ever saw Poe supports the hypothesis of drug addiction” (42). Arthur Quinn, author of Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, shares Wagenknecht’s position that “Poe was not a drug addict,” and supports his argument with an account of an alleged suicide attempt by Poe in 1848 (Wagenknecht 43; Quinn 693). Poe is professed to have taken an ounce of a drug, which was rejected by his stomach. Quinn asserts that if Poe was a drug addict, he would have correctly calculated the proper lethal dosage (694). Quinn also notes the fact that opium was “frequently given in small doses for pain, and Poe may well have taken it in that form” (694).
Yet, another area of Poe’s life scrutinized by critics and readers was his psychological and emotional wellbeing, which also may have been influential in the writing of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Wagenknecht contends that “if Poe was mad, his whole generation was mad with him. Fascination with death was typical of the Romantic movement; so was the attraction of incest; so was the association of death with love” (57). Therefore, the historical context in which Poe published his work must be taken into consideration. Scott Peeples argues that Poe’s works were “written to appeal to popular tastes, and some elements that seem bizarre and grotesque to modern readers were in fact conventional” (77). They were written “for a mid-nineteenth-century American audience, whose frames of reference were in many respects different from those of late-twentieth-century readers” (77). Wagenknect then contends that in addition to the cultural understanding of Poe’s subject matter, an exploration of the methods by which Poe presents this material must also be considered (57). Poe’s material and subject matter may have often been aberrant, but his methods were not according to Wagenknect (57). “His heroes analyze their obsessions in a sane, perfectly logical way, and he presents the analysis in terms of a highly finished style” (57). Therefore, Poe’s work is less a reflection of his psychological state and more a reflection of his “immersion in his own place and time” (Peeples 77).
Finally, the theme of death in much of Poe’s work, including “The Fall of the House of Usher,” may have been a direct reflection of Poe’s personal encounters with death. According to Peeples, “even the briefest biographies of Poe emphasize the impact that the deaths of loved ones – women especially – had on his work…” (46). His natural mother died when Poe was only two and his stepmother, France Allan, died in 1829 when Poe was twenty, but the most influential experience of death for Poe was that of his wife, Virginia in 1847 (Wagenknecht 19). Virginia contracted tuberculosis in 1842, which was followed by five years of “physical exhaustion and nervous collapse” for Poe (19). In addition, Peeples examines the cultural shift in general attitudes towards death during the nineteenth century from a focus on the finality and grimness of death to the hope of everlasting life (46). Nineteenth century America “emphasized the hope of keeping alive a person’s spirit and in some ways denied the physical fact of death” (46). Peeples contends that amid this shift, “Poe constructed allegories that explored the death experience” (46).
Poe’s work, including “The Fall of the House of Usher,” was influenced by many experiences throughout his life and also by the culture in which he lived. His employment at Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine and Graham’s Magazine in the early 1840’s proved to be one of the most prosperous times of his publishing career, yet Poe faced many obstacles in his private life during this time including poverty and alcohol abuse. Although his alleged alcohol and drug addictions are issues yet to be settled, they were clearly an influence in his life and work. In addition to his habits regarding alcohol and drugs, his psychological stability has also been called into question. The impact of death, which was prevalent throughout his life, was tremendous. Regardless of the many struggles Poe encounter, he has emerged as one the greatest Romantic writers in American history.
Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: Coopers Square Publishers, 1969.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: Oxford UP, 1963.
Edger Allen Poe, and the “The Fall of House of Usher”