Edgar Allan Poe’s Life and Writing Career
Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, editor, and literary critic. Poe is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. He is widely regarded as a central figure of Romanticism in the United States and of American literature as a whole, and he was one of the country’s earliest practitioners of the short story. He is generally considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. He was the first well-known American writer to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in financially difficult life and career. His father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died the following year. Thus orphaned, the child was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. They never formally adopted him, but he was with them well into young adulthood. Tension developed later as John Allan and Edgar Poe repeatedly clashed over debts, including those incurred by gambling, and the cost of Poe’s secondary education. He attended the University of Virginia but left after a year due to a lack of money. Edgar Poe quarreled with John Allan over the funds for his education and enlisted in the Army in 1827 under an assumed name. It was at this time that his publishing career began with the anonymous collection Tamerlane and Other Poems, credited only to ‘a Bostonian’. Edgar Poe and John Allan reached a temporary rapprochement after the death of Frances Allan in 1829. Poe later failed as an officer cadet at West Point, declaring a firm wish to be a poet and writer, and he ultimately parted ways with John Allan.
Poe switched his focus to prose and spent the next several years working for literary journals and periodicals, becoming known for his own style of literary criticism. His work forced him to move among several cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. He married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, in 1836. In January 1845, Poe published his poem ‘The Raven’ to instant success, but Virginia died of tuberculosis two years after its publication.
Poe planned for years to produce his own journal The Penn, but he died before it could be produced. He died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849, at age 40; the cause of his death is unknown and has been variously attributed to alcohol, ‘brain congestion’, cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, suicide, tuberculosis, and other causes. Their grandfather David Poe Sr. emigrated from County Cavan, Ireland around 1750. Edgar may have been named after a character in William Shakespeare’s King Lear which the couple was performing in 1809. His father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died a year later from consumption. Poe was then taken into the home of John Allan, a successful merchant in Richmond, Virginia who dealt in a variety of goods, including tobacco, cloth, wheat, tombstones, and slaves. The Allans served as a foster family and gave him the name ‘Edgar Allan Poe’, though they never formally adopted him.
The Allan family had Poe baptized in the Episcopal Church in 1812. John Allan alternately spoiled and aggressively disciplined his foster son. Poe moved with the Allans back to Richmond, Virginia in 1820. In 1824, he served as the lieutenant of the Richmond youth honor guard as Richmond celebrated the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette. In March 1825, John Allan’s uncle and business benefactor William Galt died, who was said to be one of the wealthiest men in Richmond, leaving Allan several acres of real estate. The inheritance was estimated at $750,000. By summer 1825, Allan celebrated his expansive wealth by purchasing a two-story brick home named Moldavia.
Poe may have become engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster before he registered at the University of Virginia in February 1826 to study ancient and modern languages. The university was in its infancy, established on the ideals of its founder Thomas Jefferson. It had strict rules against gambling, horses, guns, tobacco, and alcohol, but these rules were generally ignored. Jefferson had enacted a system of student self-government, allowing students to choose their own studies, make their own arrangements for boarding, and report all wrongdoing to the faculty. The unique system was still in chaos, and there was a high dropout rate. During his time there, Poe lost touch with Royster and also became estranged from his foster father over gambling debts. He claimed that Allan had not given him sufficient money to register for classes, purchase texts, and procure and furnish a dormitory. Allan did send additional money and clothes, but Poe’s debts increased. He gave up on the university after a year but did not feel welcome returning to Richmond, especially when he learned that his sweetheart Royster had married Alexander Shelton. He traveled to Boston in April 1827, sustaining himself with odd jobs as a clerk and newspaper writer, and he started using the pseudonym Henri Le Rennet during this period.
Poe was unable to support himself, so he enlisted in the United States Army as a Private on May 27, 1827, using the name ‘Edgar A. Perry’. He claimed that he was even though he was 18. He first served at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor for five dollars a month. Poe’s regiment was posted to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, and traveled by ship on the brig Waltham on November 8, 1827. Poe was promoted to ‘artificer’, an enlisted tradesman who prepared shells for artillery, and had his monthly pay doubled. He served for two years and attained the rank of Sergeant Major for Artillery; he then sought to end his five-year enlistment early. He revealed his real name and his circumstances to his commanding officer, Lieutenant Howard. Howard would only allow Poe to be discharged if he reconciled with John Allan and wrote a letter to Allan, who was unsympathetic. Several months passed and pleas to Allan were ignored; Allan may not have written to Poe even to make him aware of his foster mother’s illness. Frances Allan died on February 28, 1829, and Poe visited the day after her burial. Perhaps softened by his wife’s death, John Allan agreed to support Poe’s attempt to be discharged in order to receive an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Poe was finally discharged on April 15, 1829, after securing a replacement to finish his enlisted term for him. Before entering West Point, Poe moved back to Baltimore for a time to stay with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, her daughter Virginia Eliza Clemm, his brother Henry, and his invalid grandmother Elizabeth Cairnes Poe. Meanwhile, Poe published his second book Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems in Baltimore in 1829.
Poe traveled to West Point and matriculated as a cadet on July 1, 1830. In October 1830, John Allan married his second wife Louisa Patterson. The marriage and bitter quarrels with Poe over the children born to Allan out of affairs led to the foster father finally disowning Poe. Poe decided to leave West Point by purposely getting court-martialed. On February 8, 1831, he was tried for gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, or church. Poe tactically pleaded not guilty to induce dismissal, knowing that he would be found guilty.
He left for New York in February 1831 and released the third volume of poems, simply titled Poems. The book was financed with help from his fellow cadets at West Point, many of whom donated 75 cents to the cause, raising a total of $170. They may have been expecting verses similar to the satirical ones that Poe had been writing about commanding officers. It was printed by Elam Bliss of New York, labeled as ‘Second Edition,’ and including a page saying, ‘To the U.S. Corps of Cadets this volume is respectfully dedicated’. The book once again reprinted the long poems ‘Tamerlane’ and ‘Al Aaraaf’ but also six previously unpublished poems, including early versions of ‘To Helen’, ‘Israfel’, and ‘The City in the Sea’. He returned to Baltimore to his aunt, brother, and cousin in March 1831. His elder brother Henry had been in ill health, in part due to problems with alcoholism, and he died on August 1, 1831.
After his brother’s death, Poe began more earnest attempts to start his career as a writer, but he chose a difficult time in American publishing to do so. He was one of the first Americans to live by writing alone and was hampered by the lack of international copyright law. American publishers often produced unauthorized copies of British works rather than paying for new work by Americans. There was a booming growth in American periodicals around this time, fueled in part by new technology, but many did not last beyond a few issues. Publishers often refused to pay their writers or paid them much later than they promised, and Poe repeatedly resorted to humiliating pleas for money and other assistance.
After his early attempts at poetry, Poe had turned his attention to prose. He placed a few stories with a Philadelphia publication and began work on his only drama Politian. The Baltimore Saturday Visiter awarded him a prize in October 1833 for his short story ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’. The story brought him to the attention of John P. Kennedy, a Baltimorean of considerable means. He helped Poe place some of his stories and introduced him to Thomas W. White, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia. Poe became assistant editor of the periodical in August 1835, but White discharged him within a few weeks for being drunk on the job. Poe returned to Baltimore where he obtained a license to marry his cousin Virginia on September 22, 1835, though it is unknown if they were married at that time. He was 26 and she was 13.
He was reinstated by White after promising good behavior, and he went back to Richmond with Virginia and her mother. He remained at the Messenger until January 1837. During this period, Poe claimed that its circulation increased from 700 to 3,500.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was published and widely reviewed in 1838. In the summer of 1839, Poe became assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. He published numerous articles, stories, and reviews, enhancing his reputation as a trenchant critic which he had established at the Southern Literary Messenger. Also in 1839, the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in two volumes, though he made little money from it and it received mixed reviews. Poe left Burton’s after about a year and found a position as an assistant at Graham’s Magazine.
In June 1840, Poe published a prospectus announcing his intentions to start his own journal called The Stylus, although he originally intended to call it The Penn, as it would have been based in Philadelphia.
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