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Life and Works

 

Poetry is only one component of Edgar Allan Poe’s considerable literary accomplishment. He was, first and foremost, a brilliant short-story writer. Poe can be said to have invented the genre of detective fiction with this tales of ratiocination and their hero, the mercurial French detective, M. August Dupin. In addition, his gothic “arabesques” are still among the most complex studies of human psychology the gothic has to offer. He was also one of the most perceptive and intelligent literary critics of his day. His reviews of contemporary writers such as William Cullen Bryant, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow revealed a depth of vision unequalled among his contemporary critics and his theories on the genre of the short story are still influential in our supposedly post-modern age. In fact, poetry was perhaps the field in which Poe was least original and innovative; but even so, he wrote a handful of poems, such as “To Helen”, “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven”, that have become staples of the American canon.

It is no surprise that the author of so many tormented tales should have such a tormented life. His parents were both actors, a profession considered at the beginning of the 19th century to be disreputable. His father, David Poe, Jr., had become an alcoholic by the time Edgar, their second child, was born on January 19, 1809. He abandoned the family one year later. His mother, Elizabeth (Eliza) Arnold Hopkins Poe, died before Edgar’s third birthday, while acting in Richmond, Virginia.

 


Portrait of Eliza Poe

 

Soon after her death, Edgar was taken in (but not legally adopted) by John Allan, a prosperous Richmond businessman. For the next few years, Poe experienced emotional stability in the Allan family, growing particularly close to his godmother, Frances Allan. The family lived in England for five years, from 1815 to 1820, where “Master Allan” attended good English schools. On their return to Virginia, the boy continued to attend the best academies of Richmond, but now under his own surname.

Poe entered the newly-founded University of Virginia in 1826. In what was, in effect, a snobbish club for the sons of wealthy southern families, Poe, who received a relatively small amount of financial support from John Allan, felt slighted and inferior. He had already begun to drink (a typical pastime among southern “gentlemen”), and, on the pretext that his allowance from Allan was too small, started to gamble with his classmates. He lost little time in accumulating a two-thousand-dollar debt that – as a gentleman – he was obliged to repay.

 

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John Allan

 

Allan had recently inherited a very large fortune and could have repaid the debt easily. But, perhaps with the intention of teaching Poe a lesson about self-control, refused to do so. This led to a bitter quarrel between the two and Poe, feeling once more that he was being “abandoned” by a parental figure, broke with Allan.

Under the name of “Edgar A. Perry” he joined the army in May of 1827. During this time he found the money to pay for the printing in Boston of Tamerlane and Other Poems (signed only by “A Bostonian”). Mrs. Allan, who had always been affectionate with Poe, died in early 1829, an event which brought about a partial reconciliation between Poe and Allan. As a result, when Poe was released from the army at about this time, with the rank of sergeant major, he requested Allan’s help in gaining admission to the army’s military academy, West Point. During this time he revised Tamerlane and added some new poems to constitute a second book, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, published in Baltimore in December, 1829.

Poe entered West Point in 1830, but as had happened at the University of Virginia, he felt that he needed more money from Allan in order to fit in with his fellow cadets. Allan, however, had recently remarried and was expecting children of his own from his new wife. This was another emotional blow to Poe, effectively destroying any hopes he may have had of becoming Allan’s heir. He was soon expelled from West Point for various disciplinary infractions; but before he left, a group of supportive friends among the cadets contributed enough money for the publication of his third book, Poems, in 1831.

For most of the rest of his life, Poe lived in conditions of abject poverty. He first went to Baltimore, where he had relatives: his father’s mother, his aunt, Maria Poe Clemm, and her young daughter, Virginia.

 


Maria Poe Clemm

 

This small family managed to subsist on Grandmother Poe’s modest pension (as a Revolutionary widow) of 240 dollars a year until her death, in 1835. During this time, Poe seemed to enjoy an emotional security he had never had before. This yearning for emotional stability, and to hold on to the important women in his life, may explain why he secretly married his cousin Virginia in 1836, when she was only thirteen years old.

For the next ten years Poe devoted his energies primarily to writing stories and criticism as he worked in various editorial capacities for a number of literary journals.

In 1835 he returned to Richmond to work as assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe did not get along with the journal’s editor, T. C. White. The Messenger published stories, reviews and critical articles by Poe and brought him a national reputation. But Poe felt slighted by White’s treatment of him and White felt that Poe’s drinking was excessive.

White finally dismissed him in 1837, and Poe took his small family (Virginia and Maria) to New York, where they managed to subsist in poverty while Poe continued writing and publishing the occasional story. They moved to Philadelphia in 1838, living there under similar circumstances.

That same year his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, was published. But, since Poe claimed only to be its editor, rather than its author, it brought him neither money nor recognition.

In 1839 he was offered another steady job as co-editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, in which he published “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson”, as well as many book reviews. In 1840, Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published, in two volumes, in Philadelphia. However, it was not a success with the public.

Over the next few years he worked as co-editor of Graham’s magazine and then as a contributor to the Saturday Museum, a Philadelphia weekly, while trying to develop his plans to edit his own magazine, to be called The Stylus.

In 1844, the family moved back to New York where Poe may have worked as an assistant editor on the Sunday Times. His reputation was boosted when “The Raven” appeared in the American Review in February, 1845. As a consequence of its success, Poe was invited to lecture on “Poets and Poetry in America” and became a reviewer for the Broadway Journal. He now became a significant figure in the literary life of the city. Wiley & Putnam published a collection of his stories in June and a volume of poetry, The Raven and Other Poems, in November. He also became the owner of the Broadway Journal, for which he had great hopes.

Unfortunately, either in spite of or because of his successes, Poe continued to drink (although it is unclear whether Poe drank excessively or suffered from a very low tolerance to alcohol, and that only a small amount inebriated him).

The last four years of his life saw a rapid decline from the professional high-point of 1845. With his increased fame came more drinking, new arguments with literary rivals and flirtatious relationships with literary ladies. In 1847 Virginia, who had been ill for four years, died of tuberculosis, devastating Poe; and he spent much of that year suffering from an unidentified illness. He worked intensely on his long metaphysical treatise Eureka and, in November, 1848, became engaged to Sarah Helen Whitman. One month later, however, she broke off with Poe because he was unable to maintain the complete abstinence she demanded of him. Poe later claimed to Mrs. Nancy Richmond that he had attempted to kill himself with an overdose of laudanum.

 


Daguerreotype of Poe taken in 1949


Clearly his emotional, mental and physical health were all declining rapidly. Living in Richmond, in 1849, he once again became engaged, this time to a childhood sweetheart, Elmira Royster Shelton, and joined a temperance organization. Poe’s death is one of the great unsolved mysteries in the history of American letters.

On his way to Philadelphia to accept one hundred dollars to edit a book of poems by yet another amateur literary lady, Mrs. John Loud, he stopped off at Baltimore and apparently, under still unknown circumstances, began to drink again. He was found unconscious in the street on October 3, taken to hospital, and died four days later of what the local newspapers described as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation”. It is still unknown whether the cause of death was a lethal intake of alcohol, overexposure to the wintry weather of the time or a combination of both.

 


The Washington University Hospital, where Poe died.

 

Poe was buried on October 8 in the Presbyterian cemetery in Baltimore, in a ceremony so hastily arranged that only a small number of mourners (excluding Elmira Royster and Maria Clemm) were able to attend. Because of the terrible weather, the funeral lasted less than five minutes.

 


Poe’s Gravestone

 

 

Paul Scott Derrick (Universidad de Valencia)