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National Theatre Blog

The Tell-Tale Heart: 10 things you didn't know about Poe

A black and white portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is an American author famous for his tales of mystery and macabre. The Tell-Tale Heart, playing now in the Dorfman Theatre, is a contemporary reimagining of his classic tale of a haunted conscience. His other well-known works include The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher

Poe's life has as many twists and turns as the fiction he writes. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Edgar Allan Poe.

1. His obituary was written by his rival

The popular image of Edgar Allan Poe comes from a memoir by Rufus Griswold. The memoir depicts Poe as an alcoholic, womanising, amoral weirdo. This was Griswold's attempt at creating a negative public opinion of Poe. Unfortunately for Griswold, it had the opposite effect.

2. He is often credited with inventing the short story

Short stories in one form or another existed before Edgar Allan Poe, but he's often credited with refining the form and making them popular. A respected literary critic, Poe believed that writing should be brief, focus on eliciting a single effect, and that writers should calculate every detail of their work. He didn't like literature with obvious meanings or messages either. You can see all of these things at play in The Tell-Tale Heart.

3. He invented detective fiction

The Murders in the Rue Morgue, published in 1841, is a murder mystery set in Paris. You can see elements of the central character C. Auguste Dupin in many famous literary detectives, including Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

4. He made being a professional writer a thing

In the 1880s writing was something the nobility did. It didn't really pay very well (if it paid at all) and wasn't considered a way for 'ordinary people' to make a living. Poe had a go at doing it anyway. It didn't make for an easy life and he often found himself in difficult financial situations. However, he is widely regarded as America's first professional writer.

5. He was a science fiction pioneer

Edgar Allan Poe lived during the industrial revolution. He was a fan of technology and had a keen interest in science. In 1848 he wrote Eureka, a non-fiction prose-poem which seeks to explain the universe and where it came from. It wasn't received very well.

6. He was a prodigy

Poe published his first work, Tamerlane and Other Poems, when he was 18. He also swam six miles up the James River in Virginia when he was 15. An all-round achiever.

7. He married his teenage cousin

Virginia Clemm was 13 when she married Poe, who was 27. Virginia died of tuberculosis when she was 24. It is suggested that her death influenced much of Poe's writing, particularly tragic dead women such as Lenore in The Raven.

8. He died in mysterious circumstances

On 3 October 1849Edgar Allan Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in a state of distress. He was not wearing his own clothes. Around 5am a stranger took him to hospital. Four days later, he was dead. He is said to have cried out the name Reynolds a number of times in the days before he died. No one knows how Poe came to be in such a state or how he died. The medical records have been lost. Perhaps we'll never know...

9. After his death a psychic claimed to have received poems from him

He might have liked this one. In 1863, a clairvoyant named Lizzie Doten published Poems from the Inner Life. She said some of these were channelled to her by Poe. Mostly they're reworkings of Poe's existing work. She also claimed to receive poems from Robert Burns. 

10. He loved cats

Edgar Allan Poe had a much loved cat called... Catterina. Some sources say that Catterina would sit on Poe's shoulder while he wrote.


The Tell-Tale Heart is playing in the Dorfman Theatre until 9 January.