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Picture of poet Edgar Allan Poe, author of The Murders in the Rue Morgue; nineteenth century American Literature and poetry

April 1, 1841
Edgar Allan Poe   (1809 - 1849)
Poe and the "Rue Morgue"
by Steve King

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On this day in 1841, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was published in Philadelphia's Graham's Magazine. It is generally considered to be the first detective story, called "a tale of ratiocination" by Poe as the word "detective" did not yet exist. Poe realized that he had "something in a new key," but he could not have known that he was giving the nascent genre many of its prototypes: the 'locked-room' crime, the sidekick-narrator, and the gentleman-amateur detective, from whom no orangutan can hope to escape:
    . . . If now, in addition to all these things, you have properly reflected upon the odd disorder of the chamber, we have gone so far as to combine the ideas of an agility astounding, a strength superhuman, a ferocity brutal, a butchery without motive, a grotesquerie in horror absolutely alien from humanity, and a voice foreign in tone to the ears of men of many nations, and devoid of all distinct or intelligible syllabification. What result, then, has ensued? What impression have I made upon your fancy?"
Impressed by Dupin's display of deductive logic, one contemporary critic thought the story "proves Mr. Poe to be a man of genius," a view which Poe also liked to promote. Like Dupin, he was "fond of enigmas, of conundrums, hieroglyphics," and he liked to display "a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension praeternatural." This might manifest itself as a declaration to his readers that he could solve any cryptogram, or as a parade of languages and learned quotations. It might also emerge as his Eureka lecture on "the cosmology of the universe," a wild hodgepodge of science and speculation, much of it cribbed -- a lifelong habit with Poe, though the fact that he was among the first, struggling generation of professional writers in America might explain it.

Ever conflicted, Poe combined these three talents -- self-praise, sleuthing and pirating --in an odd article entitled "A Reviewer Reviewed," written about 1846 under the pseudonym of Walter G. Bowen. "Bowen" praises Poe's "scholarship" and "analytic talent," and then goes on to point out numerous examples of "willful and deliberate literary theft" that he had detected in Poe's writing. Poe did not finish or publish the article, the need to make a living presumably winning out over the risk involved in the joke of self-accusation.

One of Poe's most famous ratiocinations was fictional in the other sense: while Dickens's Barnaby Rudge was still in serialization, Poe deduced the killer, a feat which amazed and could not have pleased the author. Poe also criticized Dickens for not making more use of the talking raven, Grip, in the novel, and then went on to borrow him for his famous poem. Dickens's bird and his writing desk are now displayed in The Free Library in Philadelphia, as is the manuscript of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

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Related authors:  Agatha Christie, Charles Baudelaire, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Saturday Evening Post
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