Edgar Alan Poe – Biography

The Life Of Edgar Alan Poe
a Biography
1809 — 1849
He gained some fame from the publication in 1845 of a dozen stories as well as of
The Raven and Other Poems, and he enjoyed a few months of calm as a respected critic
and writer. After his wife died in 1847, however, his life began to unravel even faster as he
moved about from city to city, lecturing and writing, drinking heavily, and courting several
older women. Just before marrying one, he died in Baltimore after being found
semiconscious in a tavern – possibly from too much alcohol, although it is a myth that he
was a habitual drunkard and drug addict.
Admittedly a failure in most areas of his personal life, he was recognized as an
unusually gifted writer and was admired by Dostoevsky and Baudelaire, even if not always
appreciated by many of his other contemporaries. Master of symbolism and the macabre,
he is considered to be the father of the detective story and a stepfather of science fiction,
and he remains one of the most timeless and extraordinary of all American creative artists.
Edgar Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the second of
the three children of David Poe and Elizabeth (Arnold) Poe, both of whom were
professional actors and members of a touring theatrical company. Eclipsed by his more
famous wife, his own promising career ruined by alcoholism, Poe’s father deserted the
family when Edgar was still an infant; nothing conclusive is known of his life thereafter.

While appearing professionally in Richmond, Virginia, Poe’s mother became ill and died on
December 8, 1811, at the age of twenty-four. Her three children, who would
maintain contact with one another throughout their lives, were sent to live with different
foster families. Edgar became the ward of John Allan, a successful tobacco merchant in
Richmond, and his wife Frances, who had no children of their own. Although never
formally adopted by them, Poe regarded the couple, especially Mrs. Allan, as parents, and
he took their surname as his own middle name. In 1815, business reasons led Allan to
move to England for what would be a five-year stay. Both in London and then in
Richmond after the family’s return, Poe was well educated in private academies. In 1825,
he became secretly engaged to a girl named Elmira Royster. The engagement, opposed by
both families, was subsequently broken off.
In 1826, Poe entered the University of Virginia, newly founded by former
President Thomas Jefferson. He distinguished himself as a student, but he also took to
drinking, and he amassed gambling debts of $2,000, a significant amount of money at the
time, which John Allan, although he had recently inherited a fortune, refused to honor.

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After quarreling with Allan, Poe left Richmond in March 1827 and sailed to Boston,
where, in relatively short order, he enlisted in the United States Army (under the name
Edgar A. Perry, and claiming to be four years older than his actual age of eighteen) and
published a pamphlet called Tamerlane and Other Poems, whose author was cited on the
title page only as “a Bostonian.” This little book did not sell at all, but its few surviving
copies are among the most highly prized items in the rare-book market; one accidentally
discovered copy, bought for a dollar, was recently auctioned for $150,000. Poe’s military
career went more successfully. After two years, he had been promoted to sergeant major,
the highest noncommissioned rank. He was honorably discharged in 1829, and decided to
seek an appointment to West Point in the hope of becoming a career commissioned
officer. He entered West Point in May of 1830, but chafed under the regimen and, after
deliberately missing classes, roll-calls, and compulsory chapel attendance, was expelled in
January 1831.
He gained some fame from the publication in 1845 of a dozen stories as well as of
The Raven and Other Poems, and he enjoyed a few months of calm as a respected critic
and writer. After his wife died in 1847, however, his life began to unravel even faster as he
moved about from city to city, lecturing and writing, drinking heavily, and courting several
older women. Just before marrying one, he died in Baltimore after being found
semiconscious in a tavern – possibly from too much alcohol, although it is a myth that he
was a habitual drunkard and drug addict.
Admittedly a failure in most areas of his personal life, he was recognized as an
unusually gifted writer and was admired by Dostoevsky and Baudelaire, even if not always
appreciated by many of his other contemporaries. Master of symbolism and the macabre,
he is considered to be the father of the detective story and a stepfather of science fiction,
and he remains one of the most timeless and extraordinary of all American creative artists.
In 1829, Poe had published a second collection of verse, which attracted little
more attention than its predecessor. A third volume, funded through contributions from
fellow cadets, appeared in 1831. Among its contents was “To Helen,” which had been
inspired by Jane Stanard, the mother of one his Richmond schoolmates. Poe referred to
her as “the first, purely ideal love of my soul.” Also in 1831, Poe went to Baltimore, where
he moved in with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, his father’s sister, who was to be the
most deeply devoted of his several mother-figures, and her eight-year-old daughter
Virginia. It was in this period that he began to achieve wider recognition as a writer. In
1832, he published five tales in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. In 1833, he entered a
competition sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter (sic), winning the second prize in
poetry for “The Coliseum” and the first prize in fiction for “MS. Found in a Bottle.” In
1834, the publication of “The Visionary” in Godey’s Lady’s Book marked the first time
that his fiction appeared in a magazine of more than local circulation.
Frances Allan had died in February 1829, and John Allan, who was by this time
permanently alienated from Poe, had remarried in October 1830. On Allan’s death in 1834,
Poe received nothing. Effectively disinherited, unsuited for business or the military, Poe
turned to journalism, the one avenue likely to
afford a successful career to someone of his interests and abilities. Through the
recommendation of the novelist John Pendleton Kennedy, who had been one of the judges
of the Saturday Visiter contest, Poe began in March 1835 to contribute short fiction and
book reviews to the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger. In a period of
American literature not notable for them, Poe exhibited coherent aesthetic principles and
high critical standards, and within months his vigorous and uncompromising reviews
began to increase the Messenger’s circulation and to enhance its reputation, prompting its
publisher to make Poe his principal book reviewer and editorial assistant. By the end of
the year, Poe, who had moved to Richmond with Virginia and Mrs. Clemm, was named
editor in chief. In May of 1836, he secretly married Virginia, his first cousin, who was then
not quite fourteen years of age.

Dissatisfied both with his salary and with limits on his editorial independence, he
resigned from the Southern Literary Messenger in January 1837. Struggling to support
Virginia and Mrs. Clemm through freelance writing, he moved his family first to New
York and then to Philadelphia as he sought another editorial position. Despite financial
difficulties, Poe was able in this period to advance his own writing career, publishing
reviews, poems, and especially fiction in various journals and in several volumes. In 1839,
he began to write regularly for Thomas Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, contributing a
feature article and a number of book reviews each month. Once again, Poe’s editorship
brought dramatic advances in both quality and circulation, but he was dismissed from this
position in June 1840 after once again quarreling with his publisher. Failing in attempts to
found his own journal, in 1841 Poe became an editor of Graham’s Magazine, a new journal
formed by George Graham through a merger of his magazine The Casket with the
Gentleman’s Magazine, which he had bought from Burton. Once more the pattern played
itself out: the magazine thrived under Poe’s direction, he wanted a higher salary and a freer
editorial hand, and he left his position–although this time on relatively good terms with
the publisher.

Poe’s personal fortunes once more suffered reverses as his writing career
advanced. In January 1842, Virginia suddenly began to hemorrhage from the mouth, the
first indication that she had contracted tuberculosis. She was seriously ill for a time, and
would never again be truly healthy. Poe also had renewed difficulties in his attempts to
find steady employment. But in 1843 he published several works, including “The Tell-Tale
Heart,” in James Russell Lowell’s short-lived journal The Pioneer, and in June of that year
his story “The Gold-Bug” won a $100 prize in a contest sponsored by the Philadelphia
Dollar Newspaper. Widely reprinted, it made Poe famous with a broad fiction-reading
public, but he did not become financially secure. Owing to lax copyright standards at the
time that allowed for widespread reprinting–a condition that Poe himself editorialized
about–writers did not profit directly from the popularity of their work. In 1844, Poe
moved to New York, where he lectured on American poetry and contributed articles to
newspapers and magazines.
The year 1845 would bring both triumphs and the beginning of a final downward
spiral in Poe’s life. His poem “The Raven” appeared in the New York Evening Mirror in
January, and was an instant success with both readers and critics. He began writing for the
Broadway Journal, became its editor in July, and shortly thereafter fulfilled a longstanding
dream by becoming its owner as well. But a series of articles in which he groundlessly
accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism did harm to Poe’s reputation, and
Virginia’s health problems became severe. Financial difficulties, his worry over Virginia,
and his own precarious physical and emotional state caused him to cease publication of the
Broadway Journal after less than six months as its proprietor. He moved out of New York
City to a cottage in then-rural Fordham (now a heavily urban section of the Bronx), where
in the midst of poverty, ill health, and Virginia’s now grave illness, he still somehow
continued to earn a small income writing reviews and articles. A satirical piece on fellow
writer Thomas Dunn English provoked from its subject a scurrilous personal attack in the
Evening Mirror, which led Poe to sue the publication. Although he would win the suit and
collect damages the following year, the whole episode was a great strain upon Poe’s
already fragile nervous system.

On January 30, 1847, Virginia died, plunging Poe into an emotional and physical
collapse that lasted for most of the year. In 1848, he was briefly engaged to marry Sarah
Helen Whitman, a widowed poet several years his senior, but their relationship was tense
and strained, and the engagement was broken off. He went to Richmond in the summer of
1849, hoping to find financial backing for yet another journal, and while there he was
reunited with and re-engaged to Elmira Royster, his first love, now herself a widow. He
sailed from Richmond to Baltimore, where on October 3, 1849, he was found outside a
polling place (it was election day), in a state of delirium and wearing shabby and ill-fitting
clothing. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he raved feverishly for several days
before dying on October 7 at the age of forty. Neither the circumstances that had led to his
condition nor the exact cause of his death have ever been satisfactorily determined. Poe’s
posthumous reputation sustained grievous and long-lasting damage from a libelous
biography by Rufus Griswold, whom Poe himself had appointed his literary executor, and
rumors, mostly unfounded, circulate to this day about Poe’s mental state and personal
habits.