Profile: Edgar Allan Poe
After vanishing from the public’s eye for five days, Edgar Allan Poe was found in the bar room of a public house, half drunk, and half dead. He was taken to Washington College Hospital in Baltimore, MD where after four days he silently died alone and unhappy. His death remained unknown to his family until it was announced in newspapers soon after. But by then, Poe’s body had already been dumped and buried unceremoniously.
Even after years of triumph in the literary world, Poe would never be loved, only respected from afar. Slanderous obituaries would distort his true image and immortalize him as a man without scruples or a heart. Today, the name Edgar Allan Poe has become synonymous with the gruesome and bizarre, more a character from one of his stories than the man himself. But was this true? Was the man that everyone remembered as a disturbed and cynical misanthrope, always like this? More importantly, was he ever like this? On January 19, 1809, Edgar was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the second child of three children. Edgar’s real parents were travelling actors who died when he was three.
The orphan was taken in by John Allan, a wealthy tobacco merchant, and his wife, Frances Valentine Allan. Despite Allan’s attempts, to make an heir out of Edgar, the boy was a born writer. Indeed, as his foster father would lecture him on the importance of tobacco, the child would surreptitiously scribble verses of poems on the backs of leftover ledger sheets. As his foster father’s lectures of disappointment became more frequent, Edgar’s poems proliferated, enough for him to publish a collection of poems by age thirteen if desired. But of course, his achievements remained unrecognized by an unsupportive father, and the poems remained unpublished.
Edgar’s lack of interest in the tobacco business created animosity between the father and son. The friction between the two would slow Poe down in the future. When Poe left to attend the University of Virginia in 1826, his father had paid less than a third of the tuition, and Poe was left to come up with the rest by his own means. By day, the aspiring writer excelled in all classes. By night, Poe gambled in hopes of raising enough money to pay his debts. Unfortunately, Poe proved to be unlucky.
In his destitution and out of desperation, Poe began to burn his furniture in order to keep warm at night. In the end, Poe dropped out of the University of Virginia after less than a year. Although college had left him, his debts did not. Seeking comfort, Poe visited his fiance, Elmira Shelton, in Richmond, only to discover that she had become engaged to someone else in his absence. With only a future to look forward to, Poe turned to an unlikely place for respite – the army.
Even as a cadet in the US Army, writing still stayed by his side. Poe’s time away from the battlefield was spent writing and publishing his first book, Tamerlane. For the next two years, Poe clung to his writing and thirst for adventure in an effort to not be swept away by waves of grief. But of course, not all storms can be weathered. In 1828, Poe received news that his foster mother, Frances Allan, the only real mother he had ever known, was dying of tuberculosis. Poe rushed to his home in Richmond hoping to speak to his mother before she passed away.
But upon arriving, he was greeted with the sounds of a eulogy instead. In the midst of tragedy, Poe and his foster father, Allan, reconciled. In a rare, fleeting instant of kindness, Allan set up an appointment for Poe at West Point Military Academy. Gathering his courage, Poe resumed his previous life; hoping that routine, familiarity, and time would heal him. But unfortunately, Poe would have to suffer again in order to become a true writer.
Later that year, Allan remarried without Poe’s knowledge or consent. Allan’s disrespect was the final blow to the sound structure of Poe’s life. Out of spite and even more out of fury, Poe wrote a final letter to Allan announcing his true hatred for the man before shutting him out of his life forever. In many ways, Poe had exploded. Duties were ignored in an effort to be thrown out of West Point.
After eight months, his wish was fulfilled, and Poe was free. In need of a home, Poe found shelter with his Aunt Maria Clemm who provided everything from a warm bed to rest in to dry paper to write on. With his strength renewed, Poe published another volume of poetry in a matter of months. With routine and reason out of the way, Poe dedicated his life to writing. Although his stories gained more and more notoriety, Poe’s financial status remained the same.
When Allan died, his will left no inheritance for him. It was clear that even as a dead man, Allan still hated Poe. Finally, a door opened. One of Poe’s short stories won a contest sponsored by the Saturday Visitor. The prize money amounted to $500 which translates today as more than $10,000.
But even more valuable than the money was the offer Poe received soon after. The Southern Literary Messenger was a fledgling publication in a world of giants. But even with this in mind, every issue boldly proclaimed “Devoted to every department of literature and fine arts.” The dedication and optimism of the magazine’s founder, Thomas Willis White, was finally answered when Poe was added to the team as a staff writer and co-editor. Poe was a godsend for the magazine.
With him, Southern Literary Messenger became the most popular magazine in the south within a year. Surprisingly, the magazine imputed its appeal and charm to the dark short stories and scathing book reviews of Poe. As a critic, Edgar spared no one. In his reviews, every flaw was exposed, whether it was about a shallow character in the story or an author’s bad taste in fashion. However, Poe would later regret building a successful career from the remains of the ones his reviews had destroyed.
Now twenty-seven years old and financially stable, Poe decided to bring his aunt and cousin, Virginia to Richmond. There, Poe and Virginia happily married. Life in Richmond was brief. A lack of editorial control and a low salary led Poe to leave the magazine in 1837. And so, the writer set off to New York in search of opportunity.
However, work proved to be a rare visitor in New York City. An economic crisis dubbed “The Panic of 1837” had swept Poe away along with the rest of the city. After a year, Poe moved to Philadelphia where he became the handyman of the magazine world. His list of odd jobs included being a special contributor, editor, poet, short story writer, critic, and novelist. But despite his success, Poe’s financial status still did not improve.
When Poe published his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, he was paid with twenty-five free copies of his own book. The injustice led Poe to become the hero of a revolution of writers who demanded better pay and copyright laws. When the battle was won, Poe could add literary insurgent to his resume. Poe’s moment of pride came to an end when he arrived at his home in Richmond to find that his wife, Virginia had contracted tuberculosis. For the next two years, the brilliant writer, Poe became the devoted husband, Edgar in order to care for a dying Virginia.
But debts began to pile, and so Poe went to New York once more for more opportunity. Using a pen, his forgotten friend, Poe wrote and published his greatest masterpiece, The Raven and Other Poems. The work publicized his mastery of finding elegance in the macabre, and made Poe a celebrity outside the world of writing. Failure, rumors, and marital commitments brought Poe back to Richmond. Poe brought his wife to the countryside where she died at the age of twenty-four.
With his wife gone, Poe could no longer be a husband or a writer. For months, Edgar could not write and his work disappeared from the world. It seemed Poe’s career had been taken along with his wife, and it would not be long before his life would join the two. A return to Poe’s love life came before a return to his career. A brief infatuation with the lovely Nancy Richmond inspired some of Poe’s greatest poetry. But Poe soon discovered that Nancy belonged to another, and thus the relationship ended.
Then, after twenty years of separation, Poe reunited with his former fiance, Elmira now a widow, and the two became engaged. But before the wedding, Edgar stopped in Baltimore and vanished from the public’s eye for five days. After Poe’s death, Rufus Griswold, who had been targeted by Poe in his days as a critic, exacted his revenge in a libelous obituary that conjured images of Poe as a womanizing, unscrupulous savage. Perhaps more disturbing than Griswold’s distorted account of Poe was the fact that the public seemed to prefer it over the actual man. The false image only drove up sales of Poe’s work, and immortalized Griswold as Poe’s first biographer.
But a world that preferred a story over the truth did not deserve to know the true Edgar Allan Poe. And with this, the public would never discover Poe’s greatest story of all– his own.