Edgar Allan Poe did not have a happy childhood or life. The torment that he faced in his lifetime is reflected in his works. His father (David Poe Jr.) had abandoned the family when he was just 2 years old and his mother died soon after. He was placed in the care of a childless couple, John and Frances Allan, who doted on him but he was never legally adopted. He was to lament the loss of his parents by remarking, "The want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials." (Poe "Letter to Judge Beverly Tucker.")
The situation at the time that he wrote "MS. Message in a Bottle" at the age of 24 in 1933 was no different. Before that age, Poe had already gone through much in his life. He had been an unpopular figure at school, often taunted as son of actors (which was considered to be a disreputable profession at the time) and an un-adopted son. ("Poe's Life and Works") He had been alienated from his stepfather when he ran up huge gambling debts while at college that his stepfather refused to pay. A woman, mother of a classmate whom he had looked upon as his idealized mother died when he was 15 years old and Poe suffered an extended period of psychological depression. Poe courted a fifteen-year-old woman named Sarah Elmira Royster who got engaged to someone else. His stepmother died in 1829 to make matters worse for Poe.
After leaving college in 1827 following the gambling debts episode, Poe went back to the city of his birth, Boston, where he wrote the first poems under the pseudonym of Henri Le Rennet. He joined the army at the age of eighteen under the fictitious name of Edgar A. Perry and while still in the Army had his first volume of verses, Tamerlane and Other Poems, published. He entered West Point in July 1830, but was dismissed from West Point in March 1831 for drinking heavily and deliberately neglecting his duties. Poe then started to stay in Baltimore with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her young daughter Virginia Clemm who later became his wife. Shortly afterwards he published a slim volume of romantic poems but failed to attract much attention. During this time Poe applied repeatedly for editorial and teaching positions, but was unsuccessful in his effort to gain regular employment. (Ibid.)
In 1831, adjusting himself to the changing taste of the reading public he tried his hand at humorous and satirical prose. In 1833 Poe got his first literary break of sorts when he wrote a serious short story called "MS Found in a Bottle" (the first of his sea tales) and won a prize of $100 offered by a Baltimore periodical for the best prose story. This brought him to the notice of the literary world and landed him a job as a staff member of Southern Literary Messenger. (Ibid.)
Part 2: Composition and Publication
MS. Found in a Bottle" was first published in the Baltimore Saturday Visitor on Oct. 19, 1833. The story was published on the front page of the newspaper as the prize-winning tale of a contest sponsored by the newspaper. ("MS Found in a Bottle")
This prize-winning tale was published again in the December 1835 issue of The Southern Literary Messenger. At the time Poe was working on the staff of The Southern Literary Messenger and got the opportunity to publish many of his poems, tales and much of his literary criticism that were full of his unique sarcasm, wit, and exposure of literary pretension.
In 1836 and 1840, "M.S. Found in a Bottle" once again appeared in The Southern Literary Messenger titled "From the Gift." The story was edited by a certain Miss Leslie but the text showed few differences from the original. "M.S. found in a Bottle" was also published in Broadway Journal in 1845. (Ibid.)
The tale was appropriate for the time, as apart from exploring a new direction in the genre of short story writing, it was a 'sea tale.' Long distance travel in the nineteenth century was almost exclusively by sea and the mysteries of the ocean had not yet been fully explored. The tale is, however, not dated and has withstood the test of time. It is still read and analyzed today just as it had caught the eye of the literary judges who considered it worthy of a prize when it was first offered for publication more than 150 years ago.
Part 3: Sources and Influences
William Gilmore Simms' "A Picture of the Sea" (1828) published in the Southern Literary Gazette I (December 1828) is often cited as the major source of inspiration for Poe's writing of "MS." (Hammond). Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and in particular John Cleves Symmes' hoax, Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery seem to be obvious inspirations for "MS. Found in a Bottle." Symmes, a former American soldier in the War of 1812, seriously believed in a strange theory that the earth was hollow and habitable from within. He said that the earth had openings at its poles from where one could enter the hollow. The book Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery appeared in 1820, purportedly written by a "Captain Adam Seaborn" but widely believed to have been authored by Symmes himself. The book describes an actual journey into the hollow earth and is considered to be a "hoax." The link between Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery and "MS." is further confirmed by the part in "MS. Found in a Bottle" in which the narrator of the tale writes the word "DISCOVERY" on the sail of the ship that is apparently drifting toward the opening at the pole from where it would enter the 'hollow of the earth.' Symme's ideas also provided the inspiration for another of Edgar Allan Poe's work -- his 1838 novella, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym ("Symzonia.").
Apart from these direct influences on the idea behind the writing of "MS." Poe also shows the influence of the European Gothic literature of the 18th and 19th century that he as a young but precocious boy had picked up when his stepfather took him to on an extended trip to England in 1815. "MS." is also one of the earliest short stories written by Poe, which became the precursor for the unique style of writing 'short stories' that he developed, and which has been adopted by almost all later day writers.
Part 4: Criticism
The nature of criticism that "MS. found in a Bottle" evoked when it was first published is best reflected in the remarks of the judges of the contest that deemed this tale to be worthy of the first prize of $100. They remarked, "These tales are eminently distinguished by a wild, vigorous and poetical imagination, a rich style, a fertile invention, and varied and curious learning. Signed John P. Kennedy, J.H.B. Latrobe, James Miller." (Allen 349).
At the time Poe had submitted six stories in a volume for the contest out of which "MS." was selected to be the best. "Our only difficulty," one of the judges went on to say "was in selecting from the rich contents of the volume." (Ibid.)
The importance of "MS. Found in a Bottle" is not that it is the best or even one of the best works by Edgar Allan Poe. Its main importance lies in the fact that it was Poe's first published work to appear under his own name and proved to be the catalyst that put him on the path of literary recognition, if not monetary success. Poe considered his poetry writing to be his forte and he took to prose writing only for economic reasons. Moreover, some of his later works such as the famous poem "The Raven," and his stories such as "Berenice," "Morella" (1835), "Ligeia" (1838), "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) and "William Wilson" (1840) became more famous and are recognized by critics to be of greater literary merit.
Poe himself did not agree with the interpretations of his work by most critics of his time except for a few notable exceptions. This is reflected in the following extract from one of his letters addressed to Beverly Tucker:
Your opinion of "The MS. found in a Bottle" is just. The Tale was written some years ago, and was one among the first I ever wrote. I have met with no one, with the exception of yourself & P.P. Cooke of Winchester, whose judgment concerning these Tales I place any value upon. Generally, people praise extravagantly those of which I am ashamed, and pass in silence what I fancy to be praise worthy. The last tale I wrote was Morella and it was my best.
Poe. "Letter to Judge Beverly Tucker.")
The critics have interpreted the "MS." In different ways over the years. It is, of course, quite clear that the work contains some of the essential…