Widely regarded as an originator of horror and detective genres as well as a pioneer of the modern short story with reoccurring images of murder, madmen, vivisepulture and mysterious women who rise from the dead came an American writer, poet, editor and literary critic who led a fascinating life full of financial hardships and mystery, but remains one of America’s important figures in world literature.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, January 19th 1809, the second child to traveling actor parents, David and Elizabeth (Eliza) Arnold Hopkins Poe. Born into poverty, instability, and speculative hearsay, early life was not easy for Edgar and his two siblings, older brother Henry and young sister, Rosalie and soon became dire when their father abandoned the family when Edgar was only two years of age, leaving Elizabeth alone with no help. Things soon turned worse for the Poe family a few months later when she contracted tuberculosis and died in Richmond, Virginia with a final devasting blow when news travelled that their father David had also contracted the disease and died a few days soon after.
Orphaned at such young ages, the siblings were shipped off to different families with Henry taken in by their paternal grandparents, and Rosalie to a prominent wealthy family, the Mackenzie’s in Richmond, while Edgar was taken in by the family of John and Frances Allan, also of Richmond who were unable to have children of their own. Edgar soon added his foster family’s name to his own, officially becoming Edgar Allan Poe.
Worlds apart from the impoverished life bestowed upon him, Edgar’s foster father, John was a successful tobacco merchant and his foster mother, Frances Allan showered Edgar with considerable affection, perhaps to make up for the difficult relationship between John Allan and Edgar and the bond that never was. Despite this and the fact that Edgar was never officially adopted by them, they treated him as their biological son making sure he was educated in private academies outside London where the family lived from 1815 to 1820. Reared by John to become a businessman and Virginia gentleman, Edgar dreamed of following in his childhood hero’s footsteps, the British poet, Lord Byron, further widening tension between father and son. By age thirteen, Edgar was becoming a prolific poet and ledger sheets of John’s reveal early poetic scrawls in young Edgar’s handwriting showing how little interest he had in the tobacco industry, preferring poems over profits much to the discouragement from not only John, but Edgar’s Headmaster at school despite his academic excellence.
On February 14th 1826, Edgar enrolled in the University of Virginia, founded, designed and planned in 1819 by the Declaration of Independence author, Thomas Jefferson and only one year after opening its doors to students, it was already one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the nation, in part due to its progressive curriculum concerning students personal choice to create their own study and enrol in whichever courses they wished. With the intention to take mathematics but with access to only basic college expenses with limited funds purposely provided from his foster father it was here that Edgar could only attend two classes in the Schools of Ancient (Greek and Latin) and Modern Language (French, Italian and Spanish) taught by professors, George Long and George Blaettermann.
Interestingly, despite the University’s high calibre of teachings, Blaettermann proved to be one of the most unpopular faculty members who in spite of his skilled linguistics regularly insulted students and displayed crude, insensitive and ungentlemanly behaviour towards everybody causing a massive drop in enrolments in his classes. One of the few students to overlook and benefit from the professor’s pedagogy was in fact, Edgar. Although not known for spending long hours in these classes, he proved to be an excellent student with a phenomenal memory that allowed him to read ahead in class, recite correctly even when unprepared and went on to receive top honours in French and Latin.
With ample spare time outside the classroom, Edgar had other opportunities to pursue his passion for literature and joined the Thomas Jefferson Society where members discussed books read, recommendations for readings and shared writings of their own compositions. At university, and later in life, Edgar was a brooding, lonely genius with finely marked features who was sensitive to criticism but was fearless in attacking other authors and their work. He dressed well and neatly but wore a sad, melancholy face and seldom smiled, however he was generally well liked amongst his peers despite his oddities, and often troubled relationship with alcohol that could bring on unpredictable, sometimes violent mood swings. With his excitably artistic but pugnacious temperament one incident in particular, recounted from those who had witnessed it showed how volatile his mood could be when one evening he read aloud a witty tale to entertain a few friends. When given some mild criticism, he became instantly incensed and threw the manuscript into a fire and stormed out of the room, thus losing forever a story that showed much promise and was entirely free from his usual sombre demeanour.
Financial difficulties and recklessness would soon end his only semester at University, and since he had only been given sufficient funds that would pay for his two classes, he was forced to start borrowing on credit from Charlottesville merchants for textbooks and other supplies, eventually turning his hand to gambling in an attempt to pay his bills. He should have had the makings of a good gambler with his excellent memory, the ability to read what others were thinking and his mathematics skills but unfortunately one crucial part of his personality prevented him from any gambling success; his inability to back down from a challenge. As soon as ‘Double or nothing’ and other words to that effect were mentioned he could not resist and it led him to incur a huge gambling debt of around two thousand dollars that his foster father refused to pay and therefore withdrew him from university in December. Regardless of his foolishness, on his last night at his residence in Room 13, West Range, Edgar had spoken sincerely with the University Librarian, William Wertenbaker of his gambling regret, declaring he was honour bound to pay every cent he had lost at his earliest opportunity. However, he was resentful towards his foster family by what he considered neglect and was forced to return to Richmond where he found many of his friends avoided him and he soon discovered that his sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster had become engaged during his absence.
Heartbroken and temporarily disillusioned, he was put to work in the counting room at his foster father’s mercantile firm, Ellis and Allan where he was made to learn accounting, book keeping and commercial correspondence, much to the aspiring poet’s disgust. It only resulted in further deterioration of his relationship with his foster father and after one final, vicious quarrel in March 1827, Edgar angrily fled the Allan home for good but not before writing one final letter listing the reasons for his departure stemming from the earlier quarrel and announcing his determination, “to find some place in this wide world, where I will be treated- not as you have treated me.”
To be continued...