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.


Guiding Questions

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?

Learning Objectives

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).