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.”
Edgar swiftly moved to Boston with a manuscript verse, an unrealistic quest to become a great poet and to find adventure. Although he needed work, he spent his first few weeks making last minute revisions to his poetry in preparation for publication and within the following month he was able to achieve the former when he met a young printer, Calvin F. S. Thomas who was eager to expand his printing business. It was a big risk to publish a collection of verses from the then unknown poet but after hearing Edgar talk about his work, his enthusiasm was infectious and Calvin soon became enthralled and agreed to print fifty of his slender volume of work titled, ‘Tamerlane and other poems’. While the book was in press, Edgar worked a variety of jobs including clerking for a paltry salary at a wholesale merchandise warehouse and as a reporter for an obscure commercial newspaper, The Weekly Report, but things did not go as planned and despite his high hopes of instant success with his newly published volume of work, Edgar piled the publishing costs on top of his already significant gambling debt. Furthermore, despite his best efforts and investments the book received poor distribution and was not reviewed by local papers which wasn’t helped by the fact he had simply given author’s credit to ‘a Bostonian’ perhaps thinking that the book would get more attention since Boston was a literary mecca. With only a year of higher education and skill in a single trade that had cost him the last of his savings, Edgar was broke and essentially unemployable. In a twist of irony, ‘Tamerlane and other poems’ is now one of the world’s rarest first editions in American literature and today it is believed only twelve copies of the collection still exist, with one of those copies on display at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. Though other copies do not circulate often, when found they command high prices with one believed to of sold at auction for US198,000.
With no choice but to turn to the Government for help, Edgar enlisted in the Army for five years on May 26th 1827 under the alias of Edgar. A. Perry, describing himself as ‘five foot eight inches tall, grey eyes, brown hair, fair complexion and his age and occupation as a ‘twenty-two-year-old clerk from Boston’ although he still was only eighteen. Accustomed to his upbringing of boarding schools and his stint at university but overwhelmed by the strain of surviving on his own for the previous two months, he was attracted to the certainty, structure, order and discipline of regimented life and was relieved that the Army would alleviate his poverty and provide the basic necessities of life and he could achieve the latter of what he sought to find when he arrived in Boston; a sense of adventure. He also reasoned that by enlisting in the ranks he could escape his ambiguous social status, acquire a definite position by belonging to a group and bitterly, use it as an excuse to punish his foster father for his ‘cruel treatment’ and ruination of his own career caused by his gambling debts at university.
He first served at Fort Independence in Boston Harbour and was later moved to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, and then Fort Monroe, Virginia, earning around US$5 a month. The Atlantic Coastline would define the geographical limits of his adult life and it wasn’t long before officers recognised his superior education and gave him more interesting work. He excelled under military discipline by setting himself apart from his peers in the eyes of his superiors and had even started corresponding with his estranged foster father, although things were still tense between the two. Edgar was reasonably content with his light duties as company clerk and assistant where he prepared routine papers of his artillery unit, wrote letters dictated by his officers, prepared the payrolls and served as a messenger between his company and regimental headquarters. He was soon promoted to an artificer- a tradesman position that involved prepping artillery shells, then to sergeant major for artillery and lastly, regimental sergeant major- the highest rank an enlisted man could attain and all within nineteen months. Despite his fast success, after nearly two years served, he wanted out of his five-year enlistment and came up with a plan that would not only enable him to leave the army, but would utilize his experience and propel him towards a new career. He had by now wrote to his foster father to ask for help to secure an appointment as a cadet at the Military Academy, arguing (incorrectly as it turned out) that his experience in the Army “would be a great advantage at West Point, having already passed through the practical part of the higher portion of the artillery arm and my cadetship would only be considered as a necessary form which I am positive I could run through in six months” all the while attempting to escape his father’s disapproval by excusing his past behaviour while at the same time falsely claiming he had never meant to excuse it. Matters between them would soon reach an impasse when Frances Allan, Edgar’s foster mother died in Richmond at age forty three and Edgar, in part with permission from his foster father, was granted leave and his eventual discharge from the Army.
Although he did not reach home until the day after her funeral, both he and his foster father achieved an emotional reconciliation, as they both grieved for the woman they loved, perhaps also fulfilling her dying wish. On April 15, 1829 Edgar was finally released from the United States Army and spent a brief fourteen months living mainly in Baltimore, Maryland, with his Aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter, Virginia, reading, writing and vainly looking for work. Around this time he started to sell short stories to magazines and in 1834 discovered that John Allan had died, with no mention of Edgar in his will, leaving the poet with nothing but largely painful memories he carried with him for the rest of his life. In 1835 he returned to Richmond where he became editor of The Southern Literary Messenger where he successfully increased its circulation from 500 to 3,500 copies. Despite this, he left the paper in 1836 complaining of the poor salary. Later that same year he married Virginia, his cousin when he was twenty seven, and she thirteen, and briefly moved to New York but could not find any financial success so they moved to Philadelphia where he wrote the poems, ‘Ligeia’ and ‘The Haunted Palace’. His first volume of short stories, ‘ Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque’ was published in 1839 and while he received the copywrite and twenty copies of the book, he received no money from it. Over the next few years, Edgar would go on to edit a number of literary journals at Gentleman’s magazine and Graham’s magazine in Philadelphia and The Broadway Journal in New York. It was during these years he would establish himself as a poet, short story writer and an editor and published some of his best known stories and poems including, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, and perhaps his most favoured narrative poem, ‘The Raven’.
A year after becoming editor at The Broadway Journal, the magazine ran out of money and Edgar was once again out of a job, forcing he and Virginia to move to a small cottage. With declining health, in 1847, Virginia succumbed to tuberculosis and Edgar collapsed from the stress with his lifelong struggle with depression, and alcoholism worsening, although he gradually returned to better health later that year. In June 1849 Edgar left New York and returned to Philadelphia where he visited his friend, John Sartain. Upon returning to Richmond he stayed at the Swan Tavern Hotel and joined Sons of Temperance - a brotherhood of men who provided mutual support against temptations, in order to curb his drinking. He also renewed his boyhood romance with Sarah Elmira Royster with plans to marry that October.
There is much mystery surrounding Edgar’s final days and the circumstances, including theories that he was mugged and beaten, poisoned and even contracted rabies, the latter supposedly supported by evidence by medical practitioners that rabies may have been evident, but what is definite is he returned to Philadelphia to visit friends and to comply with a request of a Mrs Leon Loud to edit her collection of poems for which he was to be paid $100. For reasons unknown on October 3rd, an incoherent and distressed Edgar was found in Ryan’s 4th Ward Poll, also known as Gunner’s Hall, a tavern also used as election polls in Baltimore and was quickly admitted to the Church Home and Hospital where he died in a delirium four days later on October 7th of ‘acute congestion of the brain’
He was forty years old.