Edgar Allan Poe’s career as an author, poet, editor and critic contains a number of firsts; as one of the earliest practitioners of the short story, the invention of the detective fiction genre is widely attributed to him, while he also contributed to the newly-emergent science fiction genre. Moreover, he was the first of the well-known American writers to attempt to earn a living solely through his writing, ensuring a life and career which were fraught with financial difficulty and stress. A proponent of the American Romantic Movement, much of his writing involved mystery and the macabre, and he is famed for his work in the Gothic style, a genre which was in high demand by the public and in which his attention to the question of death, decay, reanimation and mourning is considered some of the finest of the genre. While much of his attention to these recurrent themes was at the behest of the reading public to whose literary tastes he, as a professional writer, had to cater, it also stood in opposition to the popular notions of transcendentalism with which he strongly disagreed.
He was born Edgar Poe on January 19th, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts. Both his parents, David Poe, Jr. and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, were actors, and he was the second of three children, between his elder brother William Henry Leonard and his younger sister Rosalie. Of Irish descent, the Poe lineage began in America after the children’s grandfather, David Poe, Sr., had emigrated there from Cavan sometime around the year 1750. It is likely that Edgar was named after the namesake character in Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play which the thespian couple were performing at the time of his birth. A year later, however, his father abandoned the family. Though the exact reason is unclear, it is conceivable that it was due to unfavourable comparisons between his acting talent and that of his wife, for he was widely considered inferior. Indeed, one critic said of the two, "the lady was young and pretty, and evinced talent both as a singer and actress; the gentleman was literally nothing." After having Edgar, the family’s financial situation became somewhat precarious, prompting David Jr., a hot-headed, impatient alcoholic to flee, both from the family and from historical record. Eliza sustained the family for a time while pregnant with Rosalie, to whom she gave birth in 1810, though she died shortly thereafter from consumption. Poe was then taken into the care of John Allan, a successful Scottish tobacco, cloth and wheat merchant in Richmond, Virginia. Alongside this business, he made further financial gain trading in tombstones and slaves. Acting as a foster family, the Allans looked after Poe, though they never formally adopted him.
In 1812 the Allans had Poe baptised in the Episcopal Church. John would proceed to alternately spoil and discipline Poe until 1815 when the family sailed for Britain, landing briefly in Irvine, Scotland, where Allan was born, before rejoining their extended family in London in 1816. While in Irvine, Poe attended the grammar school, though on their arrival in London he boarded in Chelsea until 1817, whereupon he was sent to the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School in Stoke Newington, a suburb which then was four miles north of London. The Allans returned, with Poe, to Richmond in 1820, where he continued his education. Notably in 1824 Poe served as the Lieutenant of the Richmond youth honour guard during the celebrated visit to Richmond of the Marquis de Lafayette, part of his tour of the 24 States of the United States of America, marking the nation’s 50th anniversary and intended to instill the spirit of 1776 in a new generation of free Americans. In March 1825, John Allan’s uncle and business benefactor, one of the richest men in Richmond, died, leaving Allan several acres of real estate. This inheritance was estimated at $750,000, and Allan marked the sudden and considerable expansion of his wealth by purchasing a two-storey brick home, named Moldavia.
Poe now became engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster, despite her father’s disapproval and endeavours to intercept and destroy all love letters between the pair. He would later write that his disapproval was more because of their young age than his estimations of Poe himself, though he did consider him poorly suited due to his social and financial status as an orphan. Poe subsequently registered at the newly established University of Virginia in February 1826, to read ancient and modern languages. The University was, at only one year old, still very much in its infancy, and had been established on the ideals of its founder, Thomas Jefferson, though its strict rules against gambling, tobacco and alcohol, guns and horses were largely ignored. One of Jefferson’s influences was the enactment of a system of self-government, whereby students chose their own studies, made their own boarding arrangements and held themselves responsible for their wrongdoings, expected to act honestly and decently towards their peers and their superiors. While here Poe lost touch with Royster, owing to her father’s interference, and became estranged from Allan, owing to the gambling debts he accumulated. Claiming that Allan had not given him enough money for class registration, the purchasing of educational materials and furnishings for his dormitory, Poe’s debts continued to increase, even after Allan send additional money and clothes. Meanwhile Royster, who had come to believe that Poe had forgotten her since their loss of contact, proceeded to marry Alexander B. Shelton, whose strong business connections and wealthy family rendered him favourable to Royster’s father. The combination of this rejection from his sweetheart, his foster father’s disapproval and the general feeling of unwelcomeness he had while in Richmond, caused him to abandon his education, travelling to Boston in April 1827, taking odd jobs as a clerk and newspaper writer to sustain himself.
However, this employment was too irregular and, on May 27th 1827, unable to support himself, Poe enlisted as a Private in the United States Army. He used the name Edgar A. Perry and claimed to be 22, though he was in fact only 18. Earning five dollars per month while serving at Ford Independence in Boston Harbour, he released his first book, a collection of poetry entitled Tamerlane and Other Poems, that same year, attributed with the byline “by a Bostonian”. It printed only 50 copies and received no critical attention. Poe’s regiment was then posted to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina, travelling there on November 8th 1827 by ship on the brig Waltham.
He was promoted to the position of ‘artificer’ as an enlisted tradesman preparing shells for the artillery, and with this promotion his monthly pay doubled. After two years in service he had achieved the rank of Sergeant Major for Artillery, the highest rank achievable by a noncommissioned officer, and he now sought to curtail his five year enlistment some three years early. Revealing his true identity and circumstances to his commanding officer, Lieutenant Howard, he would only be allowed early discharge on the condition that he reconcile with Allan. Poe subsequently wrote to Allan, though he received little sympathy; Poe wrote several times only to be met with the same position. It is thought that Allan didn’t even write to Poe to inform him of the illness of his foster mother, Frances. She eventually died on February 28th, 1829, and Poe visited the day after her burial. Conceivably softened by her death, Allan relented and assented to support Poe in his endeavours to achieve discharge in order to receive appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Having secured a replacement to complete the terms of his enlistment for him, Poe was discharged on April 15th, 1829. Prior to entering West Point he moved back to Baltimore for short time to stay with his recently widowed aunt Maria Clemm, her daughter Virginia Eliza, his brother Henry and his invalid grandmother Elizabeth Cairnes Poe. During this time he published his second book, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, in Baltimore in 1829. Matriculating as a cadet in West Point on July 1st, 1830, he was eventually disowned by the Allan family following John Allan’s remarriage and the bitter quarrels which ensued over the children born to Allan out of affairs. He chose to leave West Point by getting intentionally court-martialed, tried for gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend classes, church and formations. Pleading not guilty, knowing that he would be found guilty and that this would result in dismissal, he was released from the military on February 8th, 1831. Following this he made for New York that same month, releasing a third book, simply entitled Poems, financed with the help of many of his fellow cadets at West Point, many of whom donated 75 cents towards a total amount of $170 on the expectation of verses similar in nature to those satirical lines he had been writing at the time about his commanding officers. It was printed by Elam Bliss of New York, labeled as a second edition, and included a page with the dedication “To the U.S. Corps of Cadets this volume is respectfully dedicated”. it included a further reprint of the long poems ‘Tamerlane’ and ‘Al Aaraaf’ alongside six previously unpublished poems including early versions of ‘To Helen’, ‘Israfel’ and ‘The City in the Sea’. Again he returned to the family in Baltimore in March 1831, though his elder brother Henry, whose ill-health due in part to alcoholism had been steadily worsening, died on August 1st 1831.
It was only after his brother’s death that Poe began in earnest to develop his career as a writer, though at the time the state of American publishing would make it continuously difficult for him, with a lack of international copyright law meaning publishers often pirated copies of British work, rather than commissioning new work by Americans, while the Panic of 1837, a financial crisis and major recession which saw the collapse of banks and businesses, made publishers very cautious in their commissions and publication; indeed, although there was a boom in journals and periodicals fuelled by new technology which seemed out of context with the recession, many of these lasted but a few issues. Publishers would often either underpay their writers, pay them late or sometimes even not at all. Throughout this career, then, Poe often found himself humiliated by the need to plead for money and assistance.
The continued failure of his early attempts at poetry saw him turn his attention to prose, placing a few stories in a Philadelphian publication and in 1833 gaining recognition and receiving a prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for his short story MS. Found in a Bottle. The success of this story garnered the attention of John P. Kennedy, a Baltimorean of considerable wealth, importance and influence. Kennedy helped Poe with placing his stories while introducing him to Thomas R. White, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger based in Richmond. As a result of this introduction, Poe became editor of the periodical in August 1835, though he was discharged only a few weeks later after having been caught drunk at work by White. Before this dismissal, however, he was working on what would be his only drama, Politian, though he did not complete the work. Its first half was published in 1835 in the Southern Literary Messenger under the title ‘Scenes from an Unpublished Drama’, and the second half was designed to follow in the same publication, though it would never materialise. Again, it received poor reviews, and, along with the failure of his earlier long poems, pointed him towards the short story form which had brought him success two years earlier. Following his removal from the periodical he returned to Baltimore and, in secret, married his cousin, Virginia. She was 13 and he was 26, though her age is listed as 21 on the marriage certificate.
Poe, having promised good behaviour to White, was subsequently reinstated at the periodical, returning to Richmond with Virginia and her mother, and he remained with the Southern Literary Messenger until January 1831. Poe claimed that, during his time there, the periodical’s circulation increased from 700 to 3,500, and within these pages were published several of his poems, book reviews, works of criticism and short stories. Midway through this period of success, he had a second wedding ceremony to publicly marry Virginia, on 16th May, 1836. 1838 saw the publication of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which saw wide and largely favourable reviews. In summer of the following year, he received the post of assistant editor at Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a publication in which he placed several articles, stories and reviews, which furthered the reputation he had established for himself at the Southern Literary Herald as a vigorous critic. Alongside this editorial work, he published his collection Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque in two volumes, though it made little money and received mixed reviews. After almost a year Poe left Burton’s and took a position as an assistant at Graham’s Magazine.
In June 1840 Poe had the intention of starting his own journal, The Stylus, and he published his prospectus accordingly. Its title was initially intended to be The Penn, a pun on its location in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He bought advertising space for the prospectus in the June 6th, 1840 issue of the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post, writing “Prospectus of the Penn Magazine, a Monthly Literary journal to be edited and published in the city of Philadelphia by Edgar A. Poe”, though the journal was never actually produced before his death. Seeking to secure a position with the Tyler administration by pretending to be a member of the Whig party, he hoped to be appointed to the Custom House in Philadelphia with support from President Tyler’s son Robert, an acquaintance of his his friend Frederick Thomas. However, he failed to show up for a meeting to discuss the appointment with Thomas in mid-September 1842, claiming to have been sick, though Thomas knew it to be more likely that he had been drunk. He was promised an appointment, though all positions were eventually filled by others.
On an evening in January 1842, Virginia began to show early signs of consumption, while she was singing and playing the piano, which Poe would later describe as breaking a blood vessel in her throat. Her recovery was only partial, and the stress of her illness led Poe to drink more and more heavily. He also left his position at Graham’s in the hope of achieving a position within the government, returning to New York where he briefly worked at the Evening Mirror before he took the position of editor at the Broadway Journal, of which he would later come to be sole owner. It was here that he alienated himself from other writers by publicly accusing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet, of plagiarism, though Longfellow would never respond. ‘The Raven’, arguably Poe’s most successful work, appeared in the Evening Mirror on January 29th 1845, quickly becoming a popular sensation. Despite it making him a household name almost instantaneously, he received a mere $9 for the work, even though it was concurrently published in The American Review: A Whig Journal under the pseudonym ‘Quarles’.
The Broadway Journal collapsed in January 1846, and Poe moved to a cottage in the Fordham section of The Bronx, New York, where Virginia died on January 30th, 1847. Her death left him increasingly unstable, and Poe attempted the courtship of the poet Sarah Helen Whitman who lived in Providence, Rhode Island, which failed owing to his excessive drinking and erratic behaviour, though there is clear evidence that her mother’s intervention did much to sabotage the relationship. Following this, in 1848 Poe returned to Richmond and resumed a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster, to whom he had been engaged and whom he had subsequently lost while at the University of Virginia to Alexander B. Shelton, but who had died in 1848. Royster remembers his arrival, writing “I was ready to go to church and a servant told me that a gentleman in the parlor wanted to see me. I went down and was amazed to see him—but knew him instantly”. She had become very religious, and was very beautiful. She is remembered by a friend;
Her eyes were a deep blue, her hair brown, touched with grey, her nose thin and patrician ... Her voice was very low, soft and sweet, her manners exquisitely refined, and intellectually she was a woman of education and force of character. Her distinguishing qualities were gentleness and womanliness.
They fell in love after she attended a lecture he gave in Richmond, and though they discussed marriage they resolved not to, due in part to her children’s disapproval and owing to the stipulation in Shelton’s will that her $100,000 inheritance from his estate would be reduced by three-quarters.
Only a few weeks after he left Royster, he was found on 3rd October 1849, delirious, “in great distress, and ... in need of immediate assistance”, as stated by Joseph W. Walker, who found him. Though he was immediately taken to Washington Medical College, he died on Sunday October 7th, 1848, at 0500. At no point between being found and his death was he sufficiently coherent to explain exactly what had happened to him, though he was wearing clothes which were not his own and is said to have repeatedly uttered the name ‘Reynolds’ on the night before he died; however, nobody could establish to which Reynolds he was referring. His final words were, allegedly, “Lord help my poor soul”, though all records of his death, including his death certificate, have been lost. His death was reported by newspapers at the time as ‘congestion of the brain’ or ‘cerebral inflammation’, both common euphemisms for death from such disreputable causes as alcoholism, though this was speculation and the actual cause of his death remains a mystery. Various suggestions have been made, including rabies, syphilis, cholera and epilepsy, or the more sinister accusation that he was killed as a result of a particular political vote. On the day of his burial, a long obituary appeared in the New York Tribune, signed ‘Ludwig’, beginning “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it”. Shortly thereafter ‘Ludwig’ was identified as Rufus Wilmot Griswold, a fellow editor and critic who had borne a grudge against Poe since 1842. He managed to become Poe’s literary executor and sought to destroy his reputation, writing a biographical article entitled ‘Memoir of the Author’ in 1850, in which he made various unsupported claims about drug-use and alcoholism which, though Poe’s friends vehemently refuted the article, became the popularly accepted posthumous portrait of the man. Griswold went so far as to forge letters which evidenced his smears, and Poe’s readership were eager to accept this image of the man for the excitement of reading such macabre work written by someone so ‘evil’. Despite Griswold’s attempts, though, the genius of Poe’s narrative vision and style would outlive this negative portrayal of him, and he is widely remembered as one of the American Romantic Movement’s most prominent writers, and certainly one of the most significant proponents of the Gothic style.