Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849) was an American poet, short story writer, playwright, editor, critic, essayist and one of the leaders of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of the macabre and mystery, Poe was one of the early American practitioners of the short story and a progenitor of detective fiction and crime fiction. He is also credited with contributing to the emergent science fiction genre. Poe died at the age of 40. The cause of his death is undetermined and has been attributed to alcohol, drugs, cholera, rabies, suicide (although likely to be mistaken with his suicide attempt in the previous year), tuberculosis, heart disease, brain congestion and other agents.
Life and career
Poe was born Edgar Poe to a Scots-Irish family in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the son of actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and actor David Poe, Jr. The second of three children, his elder brother was William Henry Leonard Poe, and younger sister, Rosalie Poe. His father abandoned their family in 1810. His mother died a year later from "consumption". Poe was then taken into the home of John Allan, a successful Scottish merchant in Richmond, Virginia who dealt in a variety of goods including tobacco, cloths, wheat, tombstones, and slaves. Although his middle name is often misspelled as "Allen" (even in encyclopedias), it is actually "Allan," which he had chosen as a sign of respect towards this family, though he was never formally adopted.
The Allan family baptised young Edgar as Episcopalian in 1812 and John Allan alternatively spoiled and aggressively disciplined his foster son. The family, which included Allan's wife Frances Valentine Allan, traveled to England in 1815, and Edgar sailed with them. He attended the Grammar School in Irvine, Scotland (where John Allan was born) for a short period in 1815, before rejoining the family in London in 1816. He studied at a boarding school in Chelsea until the summer of 1817. He was then entered at Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School at Stoke Newington, then a suburb four miles north of London. Bransby is mentioned by name as a character in "William Wilson."
Poe moved back with the Allans to Richmond, Virginia in 1820. In 1825, John Allan's friend and business benefactor William Galt, said to be the wealthiest man in Richmond, died and left Allan several acres of real estate. The inheritance was estimated at three quarters of a million dollars. By the summer of 1825, Allan celebrated his expansive wealth by purchasing a two-story brick home named "Moldavia." Poe may have become engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster before he registered at the one-year old University of Virginia in February 1826 with the intent to study languages. The University, in its infancy, was established on the ideals of its founder Thomas Jefferson. It had strict rules against gambling, horses, guns, tobacco and alcohol; these rules were generally ignored. Jefferson had enacted a system of student self-government, allowing students to choose their own studies, make their own arrangements for boarding, and to report all wrongdoing to the faculty. The unique system was still in chaos and there was a high drop-out rate. During his time there, Poe lost touch with Royster and also became estranged from his foster father over gambling debts. Poe claimed that Allan had not given him sufficient money to register for classes, purchase texts, and procure and furnish a dormitory. Allan did send additional money and clothes, but Poe's debts increased. Poe gave up on the University after a year and, not feeling welcome in Richmond, especially when he learned of his sweetheart Royster having married Alexander Shelton, he traveled to Boston in April 1827, sustaining himself with odd jobs as a clerk and newspaper writer. At some point, he was using the name Henry Le Rennett as a pseudonym.
Reduced to destitution, Poe enlisted in the United States Army as a private, using the name "Edgar A. Perry" and claiming he was 22 years old (he was 18) on May 26, 1827. He first served at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor for five dollars a month. That same year, he released his first book, a 40-page collection of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems attributed only as "by a Bostonian." Only 50 copies were printed, and the book received virtually no attention. Poe's regiment was posted to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina and traveled by ship on the brig Waltham on November 8, 1827. Poe was promoted to "artificer," an officer who prepared shells for artillery, and had his monthly pay doubled. After serving for two years and attaining the rank of sergeant major for artillery (the highest rank a noncommissioned officer can achieve), Poe sought to end his five-year enlistment early. He revealed his real name and his circumstances to his commanding officer, Lieutenant Howard, who would only allow discharged if Poe reconciled with John Allan. Howard wrote a letter to Allan, but he was unsympathetic. Several months passed and pleas to Allan were ignored; Allan may not have written to Poe even to make him aware of his foster mother's illness. Frances Allan died on February 28, 1829 and Poe visited the day after her burial. Perhaps softened by his wife's death, John Allan agreed to support Poe's attempt to be discharged in order to receive an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Poe finally was discharged on April 15, 1829 after securing a replacement to finish his enlisted term for him. Before entering West Point, Poe moved to Baltimore, Maryland to stay with his widowed aunt, Maria Clemm, her daughter, Poe's first cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm, and his brother Henry. Meanwhile, Poe published his second book, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems in Baltimore in 1829.
Poe traveled to West Point, and took his oath on July 1, 1830. John Allan married a second time. The marriage, and bitter quarrels with Poe over the children born to Allan out of affairs, led to the foster father finally disowning Poe. Poe decided to leave West Point by purposely getting court-martialed. On February 8, 1831, he was tried for gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, or church. Poe tactically plead not guilty to induce dismissal, knowing he would be found guilty. He left for New York in February 1831, and released a third volume of poems, simply titled Poems. The book was financed with help from his fellow cadets at West Point, many of whom donated 75 cents to the cause, raising a total of $170. They may have been expecting verses similar to the satirical ones Poe had been writing about commanding officers. Printed by Elam Bliss of New York, it was labeled as "Second Edition" and included a page saying, "To the U.S. Corps of Cadets this volume is respectfully dedicated." The book once again reprinted the long poems "Tamerlane" and "Al Aaraaf" but also six previously unpublished poems including early versions of "To Helen," "Israfel" and "The City in the Sea."
He returned to Baltimore, to his aunt, brother and cousin, in March 1831. Henry died from tuberculosis in August 1831. Poe turned his attention to prose, and placed a few stories with a Philadelphia publication. He also began work on his only drama, Politian. The Saturday Visitor, a Baltimore paper, awarded a prize in October 1833 to his The Manuscript Found in a Bottle. The story brought him to the attention of John P. Kennedy, a Baltimorian of considerable means. He helped Poe place some of his stories, and also introduced him to Thomas W. White, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. Poe became assistant editor of the periodical in July 1835. Within a few weeks, he was discharged after being found drunk repeatedly. Returning to Baltimore, he secretly married Virginia, his cousin, on September 22, 1835. She was 13 at the time.
Reinstated by White after promising good behavior, Poe went back to Richmond with Virginia and her mother, and remained at the paper until January 1837. During this period, its circulation increased from 700 to 3500. He published several poems, book reviews, criticism, and stories in the paper. On May 16, 1836, he entered into marriage in Richmond with Virginia Clemm, this time in public.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was published and widely reviewed in 1838. In the summer of 1839, Poe became assistant editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. He published a large number of articles, stories, and reviews, enhancing the reputation as a trenchant critic that he had established at the Southern Literary Messenger. Also in 1839, the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in two volumes. Though not a financial success, it was a milestone in the history of American literature, collecting such classic Poe tales as "The Fall of the House of Usher", "MS. Found in a Bottle", "Berenice", "Ligeia" and "William Wilson". Poe left Burton's after about a year and found a position as assistant at Graham's Magazine.
The evening of January 20, 1842, Virginia broke a blood vessel while singing and playing the piano. Blood began to rush forth from her mouth. It was the first sign of consumption, now more commonly known as tuberculosis. She only partially recovered. Poe began to drink more heavily under the stress of Virginia's illness. He left Graham's and attempted to find a new position, for a time angling for a government post. He returned to New York, where he worked briefly at the Evening Mirror before becoming editor of the Broadway Journal. There he became involved in a noisy public feud with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. On January 29, 1845, his poem "The Raven" appeared in the Evening Mirror and became a popular sensation.
The Broadway Journal failed in 1846. Poe moved to a cottage in the Fordham section of The Bronx, New York. He loved the Jesuits at Fordham University and frequently strolled about its campus conversing with both students and faculty. Fordham University's bell tower even inspired him to write "The Bells." The Poe Cottage is on the southeast corner of the Grand Concourse and Kingsbridge Road, and is open to the public. Virginia died there on January 30, 1847.
Increasingly unstable after his wife's death, Poe attempted to court the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island. Their engagement failed, purportedly because of Poe's drinking and erratic behavior; however there is also strong evidence that Miss Whitman's mother intervened and did much to derail their relationship. He then returned to Richmond and resumed a relationship with a childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster.
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore delirious and "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance," according to the friend who found him, Dr. E. Snodgrass. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died early on the morning of October 7. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own. Poe is said to have repeatedly called out the name "Reynolds" on the night before his death. Some sources say Poe's final words were "Lord help my poor soul". Poe suffered from bouts of depression and madness, and he may have attempted suicide in 1848.
Poe finally died on Sunday, October 7, 1849 at 5:00 in the morning. The precise cause of Poe's death is disputed and has aroused great controversy.