Poe, Edgar Allan
- Kenneth Silverman
Edgar Allan Poe
Poe, Edgar Allan (19 January 1809–07 October 1849), fiction writer, poet, and critic, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the second son of David Poe, Jr., and Elizabeth Arnold, actors. During an engagement in New York, David Poe deserted his family. Within two years, Eliza gave birth to a daughter—by another man, it was rumored—and fell seriously ill, perhaps from an infectious fever. Likely with her children present, she died in Richmond, Virginia, on 8 December 1811, at the age of twenty-four.
Then barely three years old, the orphaned Poe was separated from his siblings and became the ward of a childless Richmond couple, the Allans. Materially his situation was comfortable. Profits from the merchandising firm known as “The House of Ellis and Allan” enabled John Allan to buy up real estate, supply his sideboard with venison, and maintain three slaves. Emotionally Allan provided less richly. Narrowly trained in commercial affairs, he resented others who had been raised more liberally and preached a demanding code of manly independence.
At the age of six and a half Poe accompanied the Allans to London, where Allan opened a branch of his prospering house. Poe had his first rigorous education at boarding schools in Chelsea and in Stoke Newington, an experience he later remembered as lonely and unhappy. With the collapse of the London tobacco market, Allan’s firm became indebted for nearly $223,000. Unable to pay his rent, he returned with his family to America in July 1820.
The Allans moved several times in Richmond as Poe became a teenager. Continuing his education at local private academies, he showed a gift for languages and began writing verse. Lithe and sinewy, he became an outstanding leaper, boxer, and, especially, swimmer. He swam six miles in the James River under a hot June sun, against the tide, a feat he often referred to in later years. For all his ambitiousness, however, he evinced a need for motherly succor. He became infatuated with Jane Stanard, the mother of a schoolmate. Perhaps in reaction to her death, he began quarreling with John Allan, who complained of his behavior as sulky and thankless.
In February 1826 Poe was enrolled at the University of Virginia. He excelled in Latin and French but suffered a romantic disappointment. Before leaving Richmond he had become engaged to a girl named Elmira Royster. Her father opposed the match because of their youth. He intercepted Poe’s letters to Elmira from the university, which as a result received no answer from her. Poe had money problems, too, which he blamed on John Allan. Allan’s own financial woes had been ended, forever, by an inheritance worth an estimated three-quarters of a million dollars. Poe charged that Allan nevertheless sent him to Charlottesville with insufficient funds, forcing him to borrow money to buy necessaries, then to gamble to pay his debts. He returned to Richmond from his first (and only) year at the university reportedly owing some $2,000.
Threatened with jail for his debts, which John Allan refused to pay, Poe left home in March 1827. He returned to his birthplace, Boston. Around June he published there, anonymously, a forty-page booklet entitled Tamerlane and Other Poems. The title poem dramatizes the Faustian conflict between ambition and the search for personal contentment that would trouble Poe throughout his life. By the time the volume appeared, Poe was already a private in the U.S. Army. Using the name Edgar A. Perry, he prospered under army discipline, rising to sergeant major, the highest possible rank for noncommissioned officers. At the end of two years he wished to resign but had enlisted for a five-year term. A sympathetic commanding officer agreed to discharge him on condition of his reconciliation with John Allan. That was effected by the death of Allan’s wife, Frances, in February 1829, at the age of forty-four. The event enough softened Allan that he agreed to support Poe’s plan to leave the army and to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The elaborate application procedure for becoming a cadet dragged on for about a year, however. In the interval, lingering distrust over each other’s intentions erupted in renewed quarreling between Poe and his guardian. Poe also used the time trying to get his new work into print, resulting in the publication in December 1829 of Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. Admitted at last to West Point in the spring of 1830, he soon stood among the “Best” cadets in French and in mathematics. But his studies were jarred by news that John Allan had been remarried, to a woman twenty years Allan’s junior. Poe’s fear that he was becoming shut out of his guardian’s life was confirmed when Allan sent what he called his final letter, declaring that he desired “no further communication with yourself on my part.” Poe replied by contriving to have himself court-martialed out of the academy.
From West Point, Poe made his way to New York City for a few months; there he published a new volume, Poems by Edgar A. Poe. It contained early versions of significant works he perfected later, such as “To Helen.” But its most marked feature is a preoccupation with death and the afterlife, or more accurately with death-in-life and life-in-death, for throughout Poe’s works death would remain an ambiguous presence, invariably intermingled with life. Exiled from Richmond, Poe settled in Baltimore with his indigent, widowed aunt, Maria Clemm (David Poe’s sister), and her nine-year-old daughter, Virginia. He found it nearly impossible to support himself, but he began writing more busily than ever before. His name first appeared in print as a writer of tales on 14 January 1832, when the Philadelphia Saturday Courier published his “Metzengerstein,” a narrative of supernatural revenge with strong autobiographical overtones.
Poe’s stay in Baltimore marked not only his entrance into professional literary life, but also the end of a decisive part of his past. John Allan died on 27 March 1834, leaving his second wife and the two children he had fathered by her an estate that included whole or part of three plantations, worked by more than 200 slaves. To Poe, whom he had never formally adopted, he left nothing. Poe did not forget his disinheritance. Many of his tales feature persons who discover or are bequeathed vast wealth, and although he became known as Edgar Allan Poe, he rarely used his guardian’s name. He almost always signed himself “Edgar A. Poe.”
A dependable income now greatly mattered to Poe, for he had fallen in love with his cousin Virginia and wished to marry her, although she was barely past the age of thirteen. The chance of a livelihood came from the Richmond printer Thomas Willis White, who in August 1834 had launched a new magazine, the Southern Literary Messenger. He hired Poe to assist him with editorial duties. On 22 September, Poe and Virginia took out a marriage license and perhaps were privately married. He pledged himself to support “Sissy,” as he called his young wife, as well as “Muddy”—his Aunt Maria, whom he brought to Richmond and thereafter lived with his entire life.
Poe’s work on the Messenger gave him his first literary prominence. While proving himself a first-rate editor, he published in the magazine such Gothic tales of the strange and horrible as “Berenice” and “Morella”—concerning the deaths of deeply beloved young women—and became noted as a critic to be feared. In dozens of slashing book reviews, he cut down the reputations of prominent American writers and exposed the literary politics that shaped the production of American literature. His recurrent drinking bouts, however, led to angry arguments with White.
Early in 1837 Poe broke with the Messenger. Little is known about his life of the next two and a half years. He took Sissy and Muddy to live in New York City for perhaps fifteen months, then left for Philadelphia, where their existence was apparently bleak. He tried to scratch a living out of literary odd jobs, and to fight off a need for alcohol. His main works in this period were the psychologically complex tale “Ligeia” and the 200-page Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, relating a perilous voyage to the South Seas, backward in psychological time to early stages of civilization.
After two and a half years of hand-to-mouth freelance writing that left him wanting to give up literature, Poe found steady although insufficient income as an assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, beginning in June 1839. It led off the most productive period of his career, immersing him in work over the next six years. He contributed to Burton’s what became two of his most famous tales, creating in “William Wilson” a model psychological thriller and in “The Fall of the House of Usher” the definitive tale of horror. Late in 1839 he also brought out a two-volume collection of his short fiction, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, which in the eyes of some contemporary reviewers established Poe on the national literary scene.
Poe quarreled with Burton as he had with White and left the Gentleman’s. In February 1841 he joined the staff of the widely circulated Graham’s Magazine. Writing prolifically, he contributed nearly a tale a month to Graham’s, including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in the April 1841 issue. Such “tales of ratiocination,” as he called them, inaugurated one of the most popular forms of fiction ever conceived, establishing modern detective fiction. He also contributed three essays that remain classics of American literary criticism. In “Exordium” he demanded that critics address not the moral, political, or philosophical meaning of a work, but its formal qualities. In a review of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow he defined poetry as the attempt to anticipate what Eternity may be like. In reviews of Nathaniel Hawthorne he presented criteria for judging the prose tale in aesthetic terms, according to its “unity of effect.”
Poe’s work on Graham’s swelled his reputation, and the $800 annual salary brought him more money per month than he had ever earned before. Still he scorned the magazine’s vapid tone, balked at being a hired hand, and hoped to launch his own periodical: he resigned in April 1842. To overcome his chronic financial problems, he for a while sought a post in the Philadelphia Custom House, unsuccessfully. Another incident fueled Poe’s unhappiness and oppressed the rest of his life. By his intimate bond with his mother-in-law and his cherubic wife, he had become the center of an exclusive, doting attention. Around mid-January 1842, Sissy began to bleed from her mouth as she sang, hemorrhaging in an early stage of tuberculosis. Reawakening sensations of earlier loss, her cycles of recovery and relapse agonized Poe. He began drinking seriously.
In April 1844 Poe and his family left Philadelphia and settled in New York, at first on a large farm five miles outside town. For $15 a week he began working for the New York Evening Mirror as a “mechanical paragraphist.” A comedown, the job mostly meant composing anonymous fillers, but ironically, through the Mirror he attained a new height of celebrity. On 29 January 1845 the newspaper published one of the most famous poems ever written. A deeply personal work about the unforgettable loss of a beloved woman, “The Raven” was reprinted at least ten times within a month after its appearance.
Early in 1845, Poe, Sissy, and Muddy moved to New York City proper, where he assisted in editing a new weekly, the Broadway Journal. The venture brought nearer his dream of publishing his own magazine, for it gave him a financial stake in the Journal itself. In its pages he conducted a vitriolic crusade that became known as the “Longfellow War,” again and again accusing the popular Longfellow of plagiarism. Whether or not justified by Longfellow’s literary sins, Poe’s war also sprang from his worsening emotional situation. Depressed by current financial need and past woes and despondent over Virginia’s failing health, he estranged his friends and had difficulty writing. In this state, he took over as publisher of the Journal. But after years of hoping to conduct his own magazine, he found himself scrambling for loans to carry it. After scarcely five weeks in control he signed over half his interest; a month later, the magazine folded.
The turmoil within and around Poe also fed on his dalliance with Frances Sargent Osgood, a well-known poet then thirty-four years old, married, and the mother of two. Indiscreetly he printed in the Journal their exchange of flirtatious poems. Gossip about them turned scandalous when the wealthy writer Elizabeth Ellet visited Poe at home, saw a supposed love letter to him from Fanny Osgood, and urged Osgood to get the letter back. Poe retaliated by alleging that Ellet too had written him indiscreet letters. The messy affair drew him into a fistfight, in which his face was cut, and made him unwelcome in New York’s literary salons.
Amid speculation in the press that he had become deranged, Poe left New York around March 1846. Hoping to find a more healthful environment for Sissy, now racked by coughing fits, he moved to a cottage in the rural village of Fordham, about thirteen miles from the city. Some of his distress he vented in more tempestuous literary warfare. He published thirty-eight sketches entitled “The Literati of New York City,” candidly evaluating not only his contemporaries’ writings, but also their character and physique. The series provoked many attacks against him in the press, leading him to sue a newspaper editor for libel.
Poe won his suit but found little pleasure in the award of over $300. On 30 January 1847 Virginia died painfully of tuberculosis. Something of Poe’s despondency registers in “Ulalume,” perhaps his best poem, which dramatizes the speaker’s enthrallment to the past. It also tells in Eureka, a grandiose treatise on the origin and destiny of all things that demonstrates how, in the annihilation of the cosmos, the self does not perish but instead grows exalted, ultimately recognizing its existence as “that of Jehovah.”
In the summer of 1848, frantically trying to stabilize himself by remarrying, Poe became seriously involved with three women at the same time. During a visit to Lowell, Massachusetts, in July, he became drawn to Nancy Richmond, wife of a well-to-do paper manufacturer and mother of a three-year-old girl. After returning from Lowell, he journeyed to Richmond, hoping to enroll subscribers to the “Stylus,” the magazine he still dreamed of publishing. He called on Elmira Royster, now a well-off widow, to whom he had been engaged in his youth. He considered proposing marriage, but while in Richmond he received a sensual, beckoning poem from a third woman, Sarah Helen Whitman of Providence, Rhode Island. He immediately returned to New York, intending to meet Helen, as she was known, in the flesh.
Poe arrived at her comfortable house on 76 Benefit Street on 21 September 1848 and found her to be a pale, blue-eyed widow with sophisticated literary interests and a perhaps imaginary heart ailment, which she eased with ether, whose odor was said to waft about her. During his four days in Providence, he declared his love and proposed marriage. Helen said she needed time to decide. Bitterly disappointed by Helen’s balking, Poe developed his relation to Nancy Richmond. But while visiting her again in Lowell, early in November, he received a note from Helen which so much disturbed him that he left for Providence the following day. Instead of calling on Helen, by his account, he bought two ounces of laudanum and took a train to Boston, where he swallowed about half the drug, a fatal dose. His suicide attempt sickened but did not kill him, and he went back to Providence on 7 November. A few days later he won Helen’s consent to what she called a “conditional” engagement—one condition being that he stop drinking.
In Providence again on 20 December, Poe delivered a talk, “The Poetic Principle,” his most coherent statement of aesthetic ideas he had been fostering for a decade. Helen sat in front of him as he spoke; a day or two later she at last agreed to marry him. On the evening of 22 December, however, he arrived at her house tipsy, violating the terms of their engagement. During a climactic row the following afternoon, Poe explained and complained while Helen began having chills, inhaled ether vapors, and fell into a stupor. Her mother insisted that he leave.
With his parting from Helen, Poe tried to revive his stagnant literary career. But with such few exceptions as the nihilistic “The Bells” most of what he managed to publish was stale or inferior. “Nothing cheers or comforts me,” he wrote in the spring of 1849. “My life seems wasted—the future looks a dreary blank.”
An unexpected chance to launch the “Stylus” arrived from Edward H. N. Patterson, an Illinois editor who offered financial backing. Planning to round up southern subscribers before meeting with Patterson out West, Poe set off for Richmond at the end of June, having also kept in mind the possibility of marriage to Elmira Royster. He fell ill en route, however, and was detained almost two weeks in Philadelphia, where he became, he said, “totally deranged.” He reportedly raved of a plot to kill him and of being forced to watch the amputation of Muddy’s legs. Poe reached Richmond on Saturday, 14 July, and managed after a few days to compose himself. He sought out Elmira Royster and proposed marriage. Perhaps to impress her with his sobriety, he joined the Sons of Temperance. Although he went so far as to buy a wedding ring, he remained gloomily indefinite: “my heart,” he confessed to Muddy, “sinks at the idea of this marriage.”
Poe left Richmond on 27 September, presumably planning a stay in New York to settle his affairs before returning to Richmond to be married. Nothing is known of what happened to him over the next week, but on 3 October he was identified at a Baltimore tavern, in dingy trousers and crumpled shirt, semiconscious. He was admitted to the hospital of Washington Medical College. According to the resident physician, Dr. John Moran, he became delirious and began speaking to spectral objects. He died at three o’clock on Sunday morning, by most accounts the victim of a lethal amount of alcohol.
For decades after Poe’s death his reputation suffered from the smears of the editor Rufus Griswold. Over the years the two men had developed an outwardly respectful relationship, with undercurrents of mutual fear, envy, and loathing. In a scurrilous obituary article and a late memoir of Poe, Griswold alleged or implied that his competitor had been expelled from the University of Virginia, had deserted the army, and had tried to seduce John Allan’s second wife. Although many of Poe’s admirers defended him in print against Griswold, nothing has spoken so convincingly for his importance as has the influence of his works. His detective fiction and his macabre treatment of the uncanny and the disgusting pervade twentieth-century popular culture. Among the foundations of modernism is the analytic attitude he brought to literature, his determined separation of the man who suffers and the artist who creates.
Important collections of Poe’s letters and manuscripts survive at the Boston Public Library, the Valentine Museum (Richmond), the Henry E. Huntington Library (San Marino, Calif.) and the libraries of Indiana University, the University of Texas, the University of Virginia, and Harvard University. His letters have been edited by John Ward Ostrom as The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (rev. ed., 1966). His career is massively reconstructed in Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson, comps., The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809–1849 (1987). Narrative biographies include Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1942), and Kenneth Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance (1991). Other essential biographical information appears in John Carl Miller, ed., Building Poe Biography (1977) and Poe’s Helen Remembers (1979). The standard editions are James A. Harrison, ed., The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (17 vols., 1902), and Thomas Ollive Mabbott, ed., Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (3 vols., 1969–1978), supplemented by Burton R. Pollin, ed., Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (4 vols., 1981–1986). Rufus Griswold’s obituary, pseudonymously signed “Ludwig,” is in the New York Daily Tribune, 9 Oct. 1849.
- The Sesquicentennial of the Death of Edgar Allan Poe: A Commemorationhttp://etext.lib.virginia.edu/poe/From the University of Virginia.
- Edgar Allen Poe, Tales, 1845http://metalab.unc.edu/docsouth/poe/menu.htmlFrom the Documenting the American South Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- White, Thomas Willis (1788-1843), printer and publisher
- Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth (1807-1882), poet and professor of modern languages
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1804-1864), author
- Osgood, Frances Sargent Locke (1811-1850), poet and editor
- Ellet, Elizabeth F. (Oct. 1812 or 1818–03 June 1877), historian and poet
- Whitman, Sarah Helen (19 January 1803–27 June 1878), writer and spiritualist
- Griswold, Rufus Wilmot (1815-1857), editor and anthologist