Edgar Allan Poe, American writer, poet, editor, and literary critic, is born
Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Biographers
In dying under such mysterious circumstances, the father of the detective story has left us with a real-life mystery which Poe scholars, medical professionals, and others have been trying to solve for over 150 years."
—From "Death Theories" on the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum of Richmond, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia
"[The passing of Bierce was] terribly beautiful and fitting [and the mystery of his disappearance a] tragically appropriate conclusion to a life of erratic adventure and high endeavor" (pp. 49-50).
—From Ambrose Bierce (Starrett, Vincent. New York: Kennikat Press, 1969.)
Both Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce wrote stories with—as Poe noted in "The Philosophy of Composition"—the "consideration of a novel effect … a vivid effect" on the reader as a central goal. Ironically perhaps, the lives and especially the deaths of Poe and Bierce have also had a vivid effect on readers, spawning a cottage industry of theories and biographies, some of questionable reliability. We are, naturally, curious about the authors and the mysterious demises that seem to some observers "tragically appropriate" to their lives and art; biographical and first-hand accounts of Poe and Bierce are undeniably fascinating. But do they—should they—add in any way to our understanding or appreciation of their work? Can we really know the truth about Poe and Bierce? How can we gain insight into how they created? The stories of Poe and Bierce, far from being autobiographical confessions, are works of art deliberately and carefully crafted to evoke a response in readers. Such conscious crafting must make us wonder about the relevance and significance of details about their lives—whether mundane or intriguing—to our understanding of their work.
Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a sequel to the complementary EDSITEment lesson Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Unreliable Narrator; although designed for a younger audience (grades 6–8), many of the activities and resources in Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Unreliable Narrator can be adapted for high school students as well.
Analyze primary and secondary sources to construct a biography and context for an author's writing.
Identify text-based examples of craft, perspective, and other literary elements.
Construct a position on whether materials outside of the texts, such as biographies and letters, should influence the way readers understand Poe's texts (and, by implication, any artist's work).
What is the relationship between the narrators of literary compositions and their authors?
How do we distinguish between biographical and other material interesting for its own sake and information that might provide insight into the work of Poe and Bierce?
Literature & Language Arts
Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Narrator
… someone is always between the reader and the action of the story. That someone is telling the story from his or her own point of view. This angle of vision, the point of view from which the people, events, and details of a story are viewed, is important to consider when reading a story."
—From Exploring Point of View on the EDSITEment resource Learner.org
"There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story … I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect."
—Edgar Allan Poe in "The Philosophy of Composition", Graham's Magazine, April 1846, pp. 163-167.
(Bierce) is a most uncomfortable writer; so ravenous is his appetite for the horrible, and so keen his delight in keeping his readers' hair erect and their eyes bulging out of their sockets.
—From Californian Literature by Arthur Inkersley (1897) on the website of the Museum of the City of San Francisco,
a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library
Both Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe wrote stories with—as Poe noted in "The Philosophy of Composition"—the "consideration of a novel effect … a vivid effect" on the reader as a central goal. One way to accomplish such an effect is by controlling, through the narration, the information available to the reader and the veracity of that information. The narrator of Poe's "Tell Tale Heart" assures us "how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story," a statement later belied by the content and style of the tale. The narration in Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" reveals at the last moment that the action in Part II took place only in the mind of the dying prisoner. Help your students consider a variety of narrative stances as they analyze how Bierce and Poe utilize narration in two stories.
Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a prequel to the complementary EDSITEment lesson Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Biographers. Although designed for grades 9-12, many of the articles and resources in Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Biographers can be adapted for younger students as well.
Define the term "unreliable narrator" and provide examples from Poe and/or Bierce texts for support
Cite examples of different points of view (e.g., limited and omniscient, subjective and objective) from Poe and/or Bierce texts
Contrast points of view in narrative text and explain how they affect the overall theme of the work.
In the stories under consideration in this lesson, how did Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe use narration to create their intended effect in the reader?