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Edgar Allan Poe

American Romantic Balladeer and Teller of Tales


Edgar Allan Poe
Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Edgar Allan Poe was an American Romantic, the image of the individualist artist who struggled his whole life to support himself so that he could create his work. He was a journalist and a writer in the populist genres. He invented the modern horror and detective tales and he wrote melodic narrative ballad poems that are still recited today.

Poe’s Childhood:

The second son of two actors, Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston in 1809. He was orphaned before he was 3, in Richmond, Virginia. He was in the room with his older brother when his mother died, and he spent more than two days with the corpse before someone else showed up, so it may be said that he had an intimate relationship with death from very early in his life. His father died under mysterious circumstances a few days later. After his parents’ deaths, Edgar was taken in by a wealthy tobacco exporter and his wife, John and Frances Allan, who sent him to boarding schools and took him to live in England for 5 years.

Out of College and Into the Army:

In 1826, Poe was sent to the University of Virginia, but was forced to leave college the next year because of gambling debts. This may have been the cause of his alienation from his foster family, because John Allan refused to pay the debt for Poe, who felt honor-bound to pay although he may have been cheated. Having found out that his first love at home, Elmira Royster, was engaged to someone else, and feuding with his foster father, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army as “Edgar A. Perry” in the spring of 1827. That year also saw the publication of his first book (actually a paperbound pamphlet), Tamerlane and Other Poems.

Early Military and Publication Careers:

In 1829, Poe’s foster mother, Frances Allan, died in Richmond, and though he was given leave from the Army, he was not able to get there until a day later. Soon after, he won release from his enlistment obligation by providing a substitute, applied to enter West Point, and ended up moving in with an aunt in Baltimore. His second book, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, was published in Baltimore in 1829. He spent part of the next year at West Point, but deliberately got himself courtmartialed and dismissed in 1831. That year his third book, Poems, appeared in New York, supported by subscriptions from fellow cadets.

Marriage and Journalism:

When his foster father (who had never formally adopted him) died in 1834, Poe was not named in the will and received nothing from the estate. He began to support himself by writing essays, reviews and short stories and established a career as an editor of literary journals, beginning with the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835. He married his much younger cousin Virginia from Baltimore in 1836, and they moved to New York in 1837, Philadelphia in 1838. Later he edited William Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, then Graham’s Magazine, which featured his “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first modern detective tale, in 1841.

Struggles and Acclaim:

Poe left Graham’s in 1842, telling a friend that “My reason for resigning was disgust with the namby-pamby character of the Magazine.” Never again would he have a steady source of financial support. He struggled with depression and alcoholism, applied for a government job, considered studying law, gave lectures on American poetry—but most of his efforts to generate income went for naught. His best-known poem “The Raven” appeared in The Evening Mirror to great acclaim in 1845, but he was paid very little for it. He became editor and later owner of The Broadway Journal, but it folded under a mountain of debt in 1846.

Starting Over Again:

In 1847 Poe’s wife Virginia died of tuberculosis at home in Fordham, New York. After her death, his struggles only increased. He courted New England poet and widow Sarah Helen Whitman, but she broke off their engagement when he was unable to quit drinking. In 1849, while on a Southern lecture tour seeking subscription support for The Stylus, a new magazine he hoped to found, he met his childhood love, Elmira Royster Shelton, and discovered that she had been widowed. When she agreed to marry him, Poe joined a temperance society in Richmond, then went to New York and Baltimore to prepare for moving back to Virginia.

Poe’s Mysterious Death:

On October 3, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found near death in a public house in Baltimore and several days later succumbed to “congestion of the brain.” There is no definitive record of his movements in the several days before he died, and there are many theories as to the cause of his death. Some say it was alcohol poisoning, some say it was some other illness or heart disease that killed him. Because it was election day in Baltimore and he was not wearing his own clothes when he died, others suspect that he was a victim of “cooping,” having been taken prisoner by a political gang, beaten and forced to vote repeatedly.

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