The Early Years
Edgar Allan Poe born Edgar Poe January 19, 1809, Boston, Massachusetts. Poe was the child of two actors. He was the second of three children, William Henry Leonard Poe and Rosalie Poe. His father abandoned the family in 1810 and his mother died in 1811. Separated from his siblings, Poe went to live with John and Frances Allan, a successful tobacco merchant and his wife, in Richmond, Virginia. They never formally adopted him, but Poe was with them well into young adulthood. He and Frances seemed to form a bond, but he never quite got along with John.
Tension continued to develop as John Allan and Edgar repeatedly clashed over debts, including those incurred by gambling and the cost of a secondary education for Poe. When Poe went to the University of Virginia in 1826, he did not receive enough money from Allan to cover all of his costs. Poe turned to gambling to cover the difference, but ended up in debt. Poe left the University of Virginia after one semester due to lack of money.
When Poe returned home he learned that his neighbor and fiancée Elmira Royster had become engaged to someone else. Heartbroken and frustrated, Poe left the Allan’s and enlisted in the army under an assumed name, Edgar A. Perry, claiming that he was 22, (although he was only 18 at the time). Poe wanted to go to West Point, a military academy, and won a spot there in 1830. Poe excelled at his studies, but was kicked out after a year for his poor handling of his duties. It is speculated that he intentionally sought to be court-martialed.
After the death of Frances Allan in 1829, Poe and John Allan parted ways.
After leaving the academy, Poe focused on his writing full time. He moved around in search of opportunities, living in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Richmond. From 1831 to 1835, he stayed in Baltimore with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, her daughter Virginia, his brother Henry and his invalid grandmother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe. His young cousin, Virginia, became a literary inspiration to Poe as well as his love interest. The couple married in 1836 when she was only 13 (or 14 as some sources say) years old. They were married for 11 years before Virginia’s death due to tuberculosis on January 30, 1847.
Poe chose a difficult time in American publishing to try and start his career as a writer. He was the first well known American to try to live by writing alone and was hampered by the lack of international copyright law. Publishers often produced unauthorized copies of British works rather than paying for new work by Americans. Throughout his attempts to live as a writer, Poe repeatedly had to resort to humiliating pleas for money and other assistance.
Returning to Richmond in 1835, Poe went to work for a magazine called the Southern Literary Messenger. There he developed a reputation as a cut-throat critic, writing vicious reviews of his contemporaries. Poe also published some of his own works in the magazine, including two parts of his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. His tenure there proved short, however. Poe’s aggressive-reviewing style and sometimes combative personality strained his relationship with the publication, and he left the magazine in 1837. His problems with alcohol also played a role in his departure, according to some reports. Poe went on to brief stints at two other papers, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and The Broadway Journal.
Poe became a literary sensation in 1845 with the publication of the poem “The Raven.” It is considered a great American literary work and one of the best of Poe’s career. In the work, Poe explored some of his common themes—death and loss. An unknown narrator laments the demise of his great love Lenore. That same year, he found himself under attack for his criticisms of his fellow poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poe claimed that Longfellow, a widely popular literary figure, was a plagiarist, and this written assault on Longfellow created a bit of backlash for Poe.
Poe was overcome by grief after the death of his beloved Virginia in 1847 and became increasingly unstable. Poe attempted to court poet Sarah Helen Whitman who lived in Providence, Rhode Island, but their engagement failed, allegedly due to Poe’s drinking and erratic behavior. In Richmond, Poe found his first fiancé Elmira Royster Shelton, widowed, and began to court her again. Before he left for Philadelphia he considered himself engaged to her.
While he continued to work, he suffered from poor health and struggled financially. His final days remain somewhat of a mystery. He left Richmond on September 27, 1849, and was supposedly on his way to Philadelphia. On October 3, Poe was found in Baltimore in great distress. He was taken to Washington College Hospital where he died on October 7. His last words were “Lord, help my poor soul.”
Death of Edgar Allan Poe
At the time, it was said that Poe died of “congestion of the brain.” But his actual cause of death has been the subject of endless speculation. Some experts believe that alcoholism led to his demise while others offer up alternative theories. Rabies, epilepsy, carbon monoxide poisoning are just some of the conditions thought to have led to the great writer’s death.
The Cooping Theory is another theory in Poe’s death. Coincidence or not, the day Poe was found on the street was election day in Baltimore and the place near where he was found, Ryan’s Fourth Ward Polls, was both a bar and a place for voting. In those days, Baltimore elections were notorious for corruption and violence. Political gangs were willing to go to great extremes to ensure the success of their candidates. Election ballots were stolen, judges were bribed and potential voters for the opposition intimidated. Some gangs were known to kidnap innocent bystanders, holding them in a room, called the “coop.” These poor souls were then forced to go in and out of poll after poll, voting over and over again. Their clothing might even be changed to allow for another round. To ensure compliance, their victims were plied with liquor and beaten. Poe’s weak heart would never have withstood such abuse. This theory appears to have been first offered publicly by John R. Thompson in the early 1870s to explain Poe’s condition and the fact that he was wearing someone else’s clothing. A possible flaw in the theory is that Poe was reasonably well-known in Baltimore and likely to be recognized.
Shortly after his passing, Poe’s reputation was badly damaged by his literary adversary Rufus Griswold. Griswold, who had been sharply criticized by Poe, took his revenge in his obituary of Poe, portraying the gifted yet troubled writer as a mentally deranged drunkard and womanizer. He also penned the first biography of Poe, which helped cement some of these misconceptions in the public’s minds. Griswold’s attacks were meant to cause the public to dismiss Poe and his works, but the biography had the opposite effect and instead drove the sales of Poe’s books higher than they had ever been during Poe’s lifetime. Griswold’s distorted image of Poe created the legend that lives to this day while Griswold is only remembered, if at all, as Poe’s first biographer.
While he never had financial success in his lifetime, Poe has become one of America’s most enduring writers. His works are as compelling today as they were more than a century ago. A bright, imaginative thinker, Poe crafted stories and poems that still shock, surprise and move modern readers.