Born in Boston in the year 1809, Edgar Poe was the second child of David Poe and Elizabeth Arnold. His father was an amateur actor with Irish Protestant roots and carried a severe drinking addiction. His mother was a talented stage actress who garnered much praise for her performances across the country. As a young child Edgar and his siblings were abandoned by David Poe. In poor health, Elizabeth died shortly after her husband’s departure. Edgar and his brother and sister were put into foster care. For the remainder of his life he would have very little contact with his siblings. Edgar was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia where he would spend his childhood and the majority of his life. In fact, he considered himself a Southerner and never recognized Boston as his home. John Allan, a stern and self-righteous man, oversaw Edgar’s education making sure the boy went to the very best schools. Although John Allan never formally adopted Edgar the boy took it upon himself to take his foster father’s last name as his own. The two often quarreled and John Allan showed little affection towards young Edgar. Allan disapproved of Edgar’s literary ambitions while Edgar, who had a somewhat healthier relationship with Frances, frowned upon John Allan’s philandering which produced at least one illegitimate child. In the end, Edgar chose to tolerate Allan’s infidelities in order to remain in his good graces.
COLLEGE AND THE ACADEMY
At the age od seventeen in 1826, Edgar entered the University of Virginia. For the most part he was a fine student with plenty of potential. However, while at the university he developed a serious drinking problem, one that would plague him for the rest of his life. He also managed to get himself into some deep gambling debts. Always one for charity, Edgar wrote to John Allan often to ask for more money than the small allowance he was provided by his foster father. Eventually Allan discovered the truth behind Edgar’s plight and refused to help him. After only a year at the university Edgar withdrew from his studies and ran off to the city of his birth to seek his fortune as a writer. While there he published a volume of poems titled “Tamerlane” but it failed to make him any money. To add to this failure Edgar, now using his original last name, never believed he fit in with the Boston people. He saw himself as a Southerner and could not accept the ways of the Bostonians which included the Abolishionist Movement. Looking for another fresh start Poe enlisted in the army and rose to the rank of sergeant major. By all acounts he was a good soldier but quickly grew bored with the life of an enlisted man. He contacted John Allan once more to assist him this time in getting into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Perhaps feeling a degree of his sympathy for his helpless foster son, Allan interceded for Poe and the young man entered the academy in June 1830. Again, Poe showed great potential as a student but his drinking and gambling created financial and personal problems. A year into his studies, Poe learned that John Allan had remarried (Frances Allan, in poor health, had passed away). Allan’s new wife was young enough to have children. Believing his chances of becoming Allan’s heir were now crushed Poe neglected his duties at the academy and was dismissed in 1831.
EDITOR, WRITER, HUSBAND
Poe would spend the rest of his life bouncing from job to job. He worked at numerous magazines and other publications working as an editor to support himself (mainly his drinking) and his family which included his aunt Maria Poe Clemm and her daughter Virginia who became Poe’s wife. This brought him to various cities such as Richmond, New York City, and Philadelphia. In 1835, he married his cousin Virginia. Only thirteen and never in good health, Poe waited until the girl was sixteen before consumating the marriage. Unfortunately, Virginia was a frail creature and never in good health. This made for an awkward, unsatisfying marriage for the couple. When he wasn’t working or drunk, Poe wrote poems and short stories. His only full-length novel was titled “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” and bore an uncanny resemblance to experiences in his own life. His best efforts he saved for his short stories. Although he never made any real money as a writer, Poe single-handedly invented the detective story as well the horror story. His sleuth C. Auguste Dupin in “The Purloined Letter,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” inspired British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle some years later to invent a character called Sherlock Holmes. Poe’s work often centered around the psychological rather than the supernatural. His best stories (as they were later recognized) were “The Tell-Tale Heart” about a murderer with a conscious, the revenge tales “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Hop Frog,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Many critics today consider “The Fall of the House of Usher” to be the greatest American short story ever written. His work often featured doomed heroines and heroes and scenes that could actually happen (remember, the psychological not the supernatural) which made Poe’s work all the more frightening. Sadly for Poe he did not live to see himself transformed into a pop culture icon.
In the year 1845, Poe wrote and published what would become his most famous work, “The Raven.” Always a man obsessed with death, the narrator in Poe’s rhyme longs for his lost love and welcomes death in the form of a raven. The poem was a success and made Poe a household name. Unfortunately, he was paid only ten dollars for the piece. Famous but not rich, Poe slipped deeper into depression and alcoholism. In 1847, his wife Virginia died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. By 1849, the final year of his life, Poe had developed a brain lesion. With little time to live he set out to find another wife (although she would have not doubt acted more as a caretaker than spouse). While in Virginia on his latest pursuit for matrimony Poe disappeared. Nearly a week passed before he surfaced in Baltimore, drunk and delirious. An atheist for most of his life (he was baptized Episcopalian), Poe was overheard asking God for help. Four days after his sudden appearance in Baltimore, Poe died at the age of forty. He was buried in a cemetary in Baltimore. Oddly, it was an appropriate ending to the life of a man stricken by loss, heartache, and abandonment.
If he were alive today Poe’s fortunes would easily be in the millions. His work has been translated into almost every language and adapted for the screen by several filmmakers including cult favorite Roger Corman. He has inspired numerous authors everyone from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Feodor Dostoevsky (“Crime and Punishment”) to Stephen King. Every year the Mystery Writers of America honor the best achievements in mystery writing with the “Edgar,” an award with almost the same prestige as the Pulitzer and the Oscar. He recognized by critics and fellow writers as the master of the American horror story. Somewhere, perhaps from his grave in Baltimore, Poe is looking upon his legacy and…grinning.