One of the most notorious horror writers in history, Edgar Allan Poe produced a voluminous collection of work before his untimely death at the age of forty.
His life was a series of sad events and lost opportunities. From being orphaned before he could walk, to losing the love of his life to the same disease that killed his mother, it is no wonder Poe took to writing about the dark and creepy to help get him through the trauma.
But just who was Poe? And was he is as spooky and aloof as he is sometimes portrayed? Tune in this week to find out.
“Historical Vignette 139: Edgar Allan Poe and West Point.” US Army Corps of Engineers. (LINK)
Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. United States: Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Soniak, Matt. “How Poe Got Himself Kicked Out of the Army.” Mental Floss. July 30, 2013. (LINK)
Staff, Harriet. “Between Popular and Literary: Remembering Edgar Allan Poe 165 Years After His Death.” Poetry Foundation. October 18, 2014. (LINK)
Tragic Life of Edgar Allan Poe. Documentary Film. Biography. Accessed via YouTube. (LINK)
“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire, I think it was his eye! Yes it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture - a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees - very gradually - I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.” Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
If you Google American horror writers, you will find the usual big names such as Stephen King and Anne Rice. You will also see a name that I imagine would surprise no one: Edgar Allan Poe.
One of the most widely read and praised American authors, Edgar Allan Poe crammed a lot of beautiful literary work in his short life. In reviewing the forty years he spent on this planet, one could be forgiven for comparing his life to a country song.
In continuing the spooky season vibe, I thought it was time to dive into the life of one of the most well known macabre writers in American history. So - just who was Poe? What prompted him to write his dark stories? And what exactly was the controversy surrounding his death?
Grab your pumpkin spice latte - yup I said it - and let’s do this.
Edgar Poe was born on January 19th, 1809 to traveling actors Eliza and David Poe. As an infant, his father decided to leave his family, which included two other children in addition to young Edgar, forcing Poe’s mother to try to find a creative way to earn a living to support herself and her small children. An actress was not a well respected position during this time period, but as a poor mother of three without any status or family name to trade on, Eliza had little choice. She showed no signs of slowing down, traveling far and wide to star in as many productions as she could physically bear.
Perhaps it was her intensive traveling or just bad luck, but soon after his father deserted the family, Eliza became sick with consumption, known today as tuberculosis, and passed away at just 24. Poe was still a toddler. In a time before any state managed foster care system, Poe and his siblings were split up and young Edgar found himself under the care of Mr and Mrs John Allan. The Allan’s had no children of their own and it appears as though Mrs. Allan was a big fan of Poe’s mother’s acting.
John Allan was a tobacco merchant and as such, Edgar benefited from growing up in an aristocratic family. He received a robust education and was brought up to take on the mannerisms of a southern gentleman. He was considered pretty athletic in his younger years, partaking in a six mile swim in the James River, swimming against the current. But though his foster mother was a caring, compassionate and doting parental figure, the same could not be said about the main of the house. Mr. Allan seemed ambivalent towards the young orphan and never took the steps to officially adopt him. Always yearning to be wanted and accepted, Edgar incorporated his foster families’ surname, becoming the Edgar Allan Poe we know today.
Speaking of the Poe we know today - he was not the reclusive and quiet mad man he is sometimes portrayed as. Raised with southern charm, Poe was taught to be social, affable and courteous. He even became temporarily engaged to a young woman, Elmira Royster. However, life would get in the way, causing the young man to ask for Elmira to exercise a bit of patience before they could make their union official.
On the home front, tensions seemed to escalate when Mrs. Allan also became ill with tuberculosis. Her illness was prolonged and made her very weak. Apparently a man without a pronounced bedside manner, Mr. Allan took to having numerous affairs, often bringing his paramours home, which angered the young Edgar. He idolized Mrs.Allan and was incensed at his foster father’s treatment of his wife. Perhaps a ploy to get him out of the house, John Allan sent Edgar off to the University of Virginia.
However Allan failed to provide sufficient funds. It seems as though Allan gave Poe just enough money to get to UVA, with no provisions provided for things like tuition, lodging, food or clothing. After arriving in the city, Poe had just over one hundred dollars. Realizing he would require more money, he reached out to his foster father for assistance. However, Allan apparently got what he wanted - Poe out of the house - and was not interested in helping him further. Panicked, Poe made the questionable call to try to turn his one hundred dollars into a sufficient nest egg and took to gambling. Unfortunately if it wasn’t for bad luck, Poe would have no luck at all and instead of winning big, he found himself in debt to the tune of two thousand dollars. Unable to meet the costs of university life, Poe left school shortly after he arrived.
Despite his short tenure, Poe seemed to be a popular student known for his artistic abilities. While we may know Poe today because of his voluminous writing catalog, his fellow students at UVA enjoyed visiting the young artist in his room, where the walls were covered with his drawings. Aware of his writing talent, his friends and fellow students weren’t sure exactly which talent would propel Poe into success - his writing or his artwork. Upon his return from school, the young Poe learned his fiance Elmira had not kept her word and had taken up with another man. He’d also returned home to discover that his foster father had not only continued to host a variety of women in the family home, but may have also had illegitimate children as a result. The two apparently had more confrontation that only further served to break the already weakened relationship.
In the midst of losing his foster mother to tuberculosis, ending his education early due to lack of funds and an ever growing estrangement from the father figure in his life, Poe also had to face the fact that the love of his young life, the woman whom he had expected to spend the rest of his life with, had fallen for another. Do you see why I call his life a sad country song?
As I mentioned, Poe left shortly into his first semester heavily in debt. And given this was still a period of jailing individuals for no other sin than failure to pay one's debts, Poe was fearful of potential imprisonment should his debt collectors ever find him. Desperate, he decided to join the army; however in an effort to evade his creditors, Poe joined under the alias of Edgar Perry. It was during his tenure that he produced the first of several collections of his work self-publishing a book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, under the pseudonym “A Bostonian.” He was just 18.
The military seemed to be a sunny spot in Poe’s otherwise tumultuous life. Perhaps it was the structure; or perhaps it was the fact that he was surrounded by strong commanding figures. Whatever the reason, Poe enjoyed a successful, though brief, military career. In just two years of service the young artist managed to attain the rank of Sergeant Major. Admittedly I know very little about the hierarchy of the armed forces, however upon a cursory google review, Sergeant Major seems to be a pretty impressive post considering the amount of time Poe served as it is listed as the highest rank a non commissioned officer can achieve. Though he was successful and had initially signed up for a five year term, Poe seemingly tired from the military and decided he wanted to end his enlistment early.
He approached his commanding officer and revealed his true identity. Hearing Poe’s story, Lieutenant Howard agreed to allow Poe to defer the rest of his enlistment on the condition he reconcile with his foster father. Several overtures followed, first by Howard and then again by Poe. Poe tried to explain to his foster father he had grown up since the last time he was home and hoped to make a go of it at the military academy West Point. Their letters went unanswered.
The estrangement remained in place until February 1829, when Fanny Allan, the doting foster mother and wife of the tobacco merchant, finally succumbed to her illness and passed away. Perhaps feeling sentimental at her death, Mr. Allan decided to lend a hand to his young charge and helped secure a replacement for Poe’s remaining enlistment term.
As promised, Poe enlisted into West Point and began his studies. However, his school career would end abruptly when Poe’s finicky foster father remarried one of his young parmours and wrote to Poe stating he no longer wished to communicate with him. The released a bevy of emotions from the young writer who wrote a long, angry letter sharing his true feelings. He wanted out of West Point, he wrote, and if Mr. Allan would not give his permission as was required, Poe promised he would find a way to get himself removed. He did just that, racking up several demerits before he was eventually court martialed for extreme dereliction of duty.
Defeated and without a home to return to, Poe made his way to Baltimore where he stayed with his aunt and her young daughter. Living with the widow and his young cousin seemed to bring a calming influence over Poe, who began the shift to earning a living on his writings. Initially a poet, Poe shifted to writing short stories and published his first horror tale The Metzengerstein METS en GER STINE in 1831. The story was considered so graphic that several periodicals refused to publish it. His work managed to earn him a literary prize in 1833 and the publicity from this helped Poe secure a position with the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia. His work tenure was brief, as he was soon fired for being drunk on the job.
Poe had grown incredibly close to his young cousin Virginia. So much so that when he received word that she was due to be shipped off to live with other relatives, he was bereft. Writing a letter to her mother Maria Clemm in 1835, Poe said quote, “I am blinded with tears while writing this letter. My last, my last, my only hold on life is cruelly torn away,” end quote. Despite their relation and the significant age difference, Poe and Virginia were married on May 16th, 1836. He was 27; she was not yet 13. As uncomfortable as it may make a 2022 audience, it wasn’t unheard of for close familial relations to marry and, of course, significant age differences between the bride and groom was pretty common. It seems as though the marriage was a happy one. He taught her math and how to the play the flute, she provided a sense of calm and comfort.
Now that he had a family to care of, Poe put himself to work, getting his job back at the Southern Literary Messenger where he stayed until 1837. He also published several poems and book reviews where he was often scathing in his critiques. Poe later moved to Philadelphia in 1838 and it was during this time period that he wrote some of his most celebrated works, including The Red Death, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Tell Tale Heart. The Murders in the Rue Morgue is significant as literary historians point to this as being the first modern detective story. Murders tells the tale of an eccentric genius who solves crimes; this may sound familiar to any Sherlock Holmes fans out there.
Though he is known as one of the best horror writers in American history, he actually wrote several genres, including comedy and science fiction. In fact, when looking at this large catalog, most of his early work was in the comedy genre. However, if you’ve read Poe, then you may understand why he is held in such esteem as a horror writer. Poe was the first author to step into what we call today psychological horror. He expertly created stories that humanized the darker parts of society. Just take the Tell Tale Heart a story about a man who decides to murder a friend because he didn’t like his eye. Who expects to die at the hands of our friends over something so seemingly benign?
Despite it being one of his most well known stories, Poe actually struggled quite a bit to get The Tell Tale Heart sold. Perhaps it was the haunting text that scared off potential buyers, quote: “If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs,” end quote.
Poe continued to work in literary circles, having brief tenures at the New York Mirror, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and Dogey’s Lady Box. As I mentioned earlier, Poe was a harsh critic and this made him no friends with fellow authors. He further alienated fellow writers by accusing famed author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. Longfellow is likely best known today for his poem Paul Revere’s Ride. Longfellow chose not to engage the writer in the attacks, but it became salacious enough to be known as the Longfellow War.
As the country entered the 1840’s, Poe tried to secure a more consistent position, lobbying for a job at the United States Customs House under the John Tyler administration. But Poe was prone to self destruction and he showed up to his initial initerview in 1842 very intoxicated. In a bit of good fortune, Poe was intercepted by Tyler’s son who suggested he go home and come back when he was more presentable. Poe listened and returned a few days later completely sober; however during his attempt to secure the position, he also foolishly tried to get the president to subscribe to his magazine. He did not get the job.
The 1840’s also saw some of his best known work such as the Pit and the Pendulum and of course, The Raven. However, this was also a devastating time period for Poe, who was slowly, but surely, losing his wife to tuberculosis. The illness had already taken his mother and foster mother away from him. Now it was coming for his wife and he was utterly distraught. In yet another ironic twist for the macabre writer, Poe lost both his mother and wife to the same disease when they were the same age - just 24.
Adding insult to injury, Poe struggled to make enough money to care for his wife in her time of need. Even the poem that would make him a household name, The Raven, earned him just $14. The sudden fame could do nothing to lift Poe’s spirits as his wife finally lost her extended battle with tuberculosis, dying on January 30, 1847. This seemed to be the metaphorical nail in Poe’s coffin. Though he outlived his wife by a couple of years, her death seemed to send him on a spiral he never truly rebounded from.
He held vigil at Virginia’s grave at all hours of the day and night and fell heavy into alcoholism. While Poe had always struggled with the drink, it seemed to go off the rails for an extended period after he lost his wife. He tried to exercise his grief through writing, even penning a poem many believed was in tribute to his late wife. The poem, Annabel Lee, tells of a man remembering the love of his life. His words are both poignant and haunting as he wrote quote, “I was a child and she was a child, in this kingdom by the sea: but we loved with a love that was more than love - I and my Annabel Lee; with a love that the winged seraphs of heaven coveted her and me,” end quote.
Poe couldn’t be alone and so he spent his remaining years wooing several women, including fellow poet Sarah Hellen Whitman, to whom he proposed marriage. However his reputation for erratic behavior and strongles with alcohol were well known and it is believed Whitman’s mother intervened, asking Poe to sign a document relinquishing his claim in Whitman’s estate. Gravely offended, Poe refused and ended their engagement. He wrote love letters to several other women, but it was the woman from his childhood, the now widowed Elmira, who recaptured his heart. The two planned to wed, however Poe would die mysteriously before the wedding could take place.
The details surrounding his death remain a mystery to this day, however we do know that Poe was making plans to relocate permanently to Richmond, but had business up north that needed attention. He went missing on September 27th, only reappear quite inebriated several days later on October 3rd. He was delirious and dressed in soiled clothing that didn’t belong to him. He spent the next several days in and out of consciousness, only to pass away on October 7th. His final words? God help my poor soul.
While there have been several crazy theories put forth about his untimely death, the fact is we will likely never know how he died. His story was further thrown into mystery thanks to the obituaries written about him after his death. These epitaph, written by Poe’s enemies, painted a story of a man who was crazed and unwell. While I think it is easy enough to see Poe struggled with mental illness, given the overview of his life, I for one, doubt he was insane.
And why did he write about such dark things? To me, it seems as though he was trying to understand the world around him. He saw a lot of death and never acheived a sense of normalcy and I think his writing is where he tried to analyze and assess the chaos that seemed ever present in his life.
Edgar Allan Poe was the first american writer to earn his living by his pen and wrote some of the most creepy, yet titillating stories in history. A tortured man who never quite figured out how to calm his demons, he remains one of the most celebrated, yet misunderstood, writers in american history.
To end his story, I’ll give the final words to the man himself. From his epic poem, the raven quote: “But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling, straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust an door; then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore - what this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore meant in croaking “nevermore,” quote.
Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
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