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Madman or Literary Genius? Edgar Allan Poe?s life is almost as strange
as his writings. Poe is, perhaps, best known for his bizarre tales of
terror, death, decay and madness. “To a world fascinated by the bizarre
and the macabre, Poe has often seemed an embodiment of the satanic
characters of his own fiction, the archetype of the neurotic
genius.”(McMicheal 727). He was equally as talented at poetry, detective
stories, and as a literary critic. Many controversies surrounded Poe in
death as well as in life. Some answer we may never know. Here?s what we
Edgar Poe was born on January 19,1809 to Eliza and David Poe,Jr in
Boston. Edgar was the second son of Eliza and David, whose sole income
was obtained from acting. In the summer of 1809 the Poe?s moved from
Boston to New York. Although Eliza often got great reviews and was
offered some good parts, critics didn?t like David. Frustrated by this
David walked out on Eliza and their two sons leaving her alone and
desolate. In 1910 Eliza gave birth to a baby girl, named Rosalie.
Shortly after that Eliza became ill. On December 8, 1811 Elizabeth Poe
died leaving behind three young orphaned children.
Rosalie was taken in by a family named Mac Kenzie and the oldest son,
William, was taken in by David?s family. As David?s family had no
intention of taking Edgar in, Fanny Allan convinced her husband that
they should give Edgar a home. Fanny had helped in Eliza?s sickroom
before she died and so was familiar with Edgar. Although the Allan?s
didn?t adopt Edgar they did change his name to incorporate their last
name into it. They christened him Edgar Allan Poe on January 7, 1812.
This arrangement meant a big change for Edgar. John Allan was a wealthy
business owner. So with the death of his mother Edgar literally went
from rags to riches.
When Edgar was six and a half the Allan?s moved to England. Enrolled in
boarding school using the name Edgar Allan, he received his first formal
education here. The Allan?s lived in England for five years . When the
tobacco market took a nose dive, John Allan?s business took a nose-dive
also. With no business and no reason to stay in England the Allan?s left
for New York. They ultimately settled in Richmond, Virginia. Here
Edgar continued his schooling where his gift for languages and writing
was discovered. Upon moving to Richmond Edgar also started using the
name Edgar Poe instead of Edgar Allan. With the death of an Uncle the
Allan?s once again came into money.
In 1826, Edgar began classes at the University of Virginia. He continued
to excel in his studies of languages and worked on developing his
writing skills. It was also during this time that Edgar fell in love.
The girl, Elmira Royster, was fifteen and her father objected to their
relationship. So Poe experienced both love and heartbreak.
While away at school arguments with John Allan grew more frequent. Edgar
felt that Allan wasn?t giving him enough money to live on. Therefore in
order to survive he gambled to try and get more money. More frequently
then not this lead to him being out of more money instead. When Edgar
approached Allan for the money to cover his gambling debts, Allan
refused to pay them. Instead Poe was required to take a job at Allan?s
firm. With the relationship between the two men being so strained Edgar
left the home in March of 1827 to make his own way.
Edgar went to Boston and got a job working for a small newspaper. It was
here that Edgar had his first published work. “Tamerlane and Other
Poems” was published and said to be written by “A Bostonian”. As ”
Tamerlane” was coming out in print Poe was enlisting in a five year
stint in the Army. He enlisted under the name of Edgar Perry and by
overstating his age to 22.
Edgar did well in the Army and in 1828 he became “assistant to the
A.C.S. (Assistant Commissary of Substance).” By 1829 He was promoted to
Sergeant Major. Although he was doing well in the Army Edgar wanted to
leave it. He enlisted the help of a friend — Lieutenant Howard– to
reach this objective. Howard agreed to help Edgar but only if Edgar
would reconcile with John Allan. Edgar wrote several letters explaining
the situation to John Allan and trying to reconcile. Allan, however, did
not reply to Edgar requests. Edgar wrote once again explaining that he
wanted to enter West Point to advance his career as a soldier. Whether
or not he received an answer is not known as a more important event took
Fanny Allan , who had been sick the majority of Poe?s life was ailing
rapidly. Although she asked to see Edgar, he was unable to arrive before
she died. Her death lead the way for a reconciliation between Edgar And
John. In addition to reconciling Allan offered his help in securing
Poe?s entrance into West Point. Although Poe left the army in 1829, a
waiting list prevented him from entering West Point until one year
During this time Edgar again pursued his writing. Once again money
problem besieged him. Repeated request for money from Allan brought
argument and dissent between the two men. During this time Poe had one
of his poems published in American Monthly. It was then published again
by The Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette. John Neal, editor, “described
Edgar?s efforts as “though nonsense, rather exquisite nonsense” and he
thought good of Edgar?s future as a poet.”(poedecoder)
By November, Edgar was having a volume of poems published. The book
called “Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems” was published under the
name Edgar A. Poe. The main poem “Al Aaraaf” was unfinished and hard to
understand. “A Baltimore reviewer wrote: “all our brain-cudgelling could
not compel us to understand it.” This book, however, unlike Tamerlane,
brought Edgar some small public attention, it was reviewed in at least
four different publications and some of the criticism was good, and the
work was even described as “highly creditable to the
Finally in the spring of 1830 Poe was admitted to West Point. Here he
excelled in classes in French and Math, placing 17th in math and 3rd in
French. In addition to his academic studies, Poe became the sort of
class clown. He amused the other cadets be writing poems about their
instructors. One such poem was written about Joseph Locke, whose duty it
was to report cadet?s violation of regulations:
John Locke was a notable name
Joe Locke is a greater; in short
The former was well known to fame,
But the latter?s well known “to report”
Allan remarried and once again the two were at odds. Edgar felt that
Allan didn?t provide well enough for him and that he drove Edgar into
debt. Although Edgar began writing to Allan to ask his permission to
leave West Point, Allan didn?t answer his letters. Finally, Edgar
decided to get thrown out of West Point. To do this Edgar began
violation the regulations –In 1831 he had 66 offences and a court
martial was convened. He was found guilty and dismissed. He stayed long
enough to get money from the other cadets to print a new edition of
This edition, published as “Poems By Edgar A. Poe…Second Edition” was
dedicated to the cadets. He revised “Tamerlane”, and “Al Aaraaf” and
added new poems such as “To Helen”. “Edgar?s new poems showed his
preference on mixing past and present, dream and reality and myth and
It was around this time that Edgar got back in touch with his
father?s(David Poe) relatives. This also led to him spending time with
his brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, better known as Henry. Edgar
sometimes tried to turn to Henry when he needed help. Unfortunately
Henry drank and was often unable to offer any assistance. In a strange
twist of fate Henry also wrote. Both Henry and Edgar named characters in
their story after each other. Strangely enough they both published a
poem that was almost identical.
The happiest day- the happiest hour
My sear?d and blighted heart has known,
The brightest glance of pride and power
I feel has flown–
The happiest day — the happiest hour
My sear?d and blighted heart hath known,
The highest hope of pride and power,
I feel hath flown
In addition to this poem, there was a poem published in Edgar?s 1827
edition that both men seem to claim part of. Unfortunately Henry meet
his fate on August 1, 1831. It was said the cause of his death was his
fondness for drinking. This is ironic because eighteen years later
doctor?s would say the same of Edgar.
Edgar would fall in love with Mary Starr, a seventeen year old. Mary?s
brother disapproved of Edgar because Edgar couldn?t support a wife. It
has been suggested that losing Mary because of money was part of the
reason Edgar switched from writing poetry to try his hand at fiction. On
August 13,1831 the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post published a story,
The Dream, believed to have been written by Poe. “Whether Edgar wrote
the story or not is uncertain, it was published with the signature “P”
but the circumstances around the story and the character of the story
suggests that he did”(poedecoder)
Although Poe did not win the Saturday Courier?s contest, it was through
this contest that he had published his first acknowledged story –
Metzengerstein. This was just the beginning. In 1832 four more stories
were published — Duke de L? Omelette, A Tale of Jerusalem, A Decided
Loss, and The Bargain Lost.
Edgar also entered a contest in the Saturday Visitor. No contest Edgar
won hands down. This led to the publication of MS. Found in a Bottle and
a week later of his poem The Coliseum. Then in 1834 Henry Carey got
Edgar?s manuscript published. This time in a magazine with a national
During this time Edgar kept in contact with John Allan only through his
requests for money. Finally in 1833 Edgar went to live with his Aunt,
Maria Clemm. In 1834, John Allan died leaving three quarters of a
million dollars. Edgar was not even in the will.
White, a Richmond printer and owner of the Southern Literary Messenger ,
began publishing Poe?s tales. White eventually offered Poe a job. The
timing of this was excellent since Edgar had fallen in love again. This
time with his thirteen year old cousin Virginia. Poe was successful at
his new job. However despair still haunted him. It is said that he
turned to drinking and even talked of suicide.
Leaving his job, Poe returned to Baltimore to marry Virginia. “Whether
married or only engaged Poe hoped to return to Richmond and wrote White
and asked to get his job back.”(poedecoder) White consented on the
grounds that Edgar Refrain from drinking.
Not only did Poe work as the editor but he still published stories of
his own. Poe?s stories had a very gothic influence. “Poe especially
liked the kind of personal narration called “tale of sensation” where
the persons are usually solitary victims of a life threatening
predicament, about to be executed, or about to have a fatal accident.”
Poe also devoted a large section of the Messenger to the critical
department. He was a force to be reckoned with in this capacity. “Poe
became a critic to be feared and was not afraid of giving bad criticism
to respected authors. One of his reviews started with:
The most remarkable feature in this production is the bad paper on which
it is printed.”(poedecoder)
Poe gave credit where credit was due. In 1842 in Graham?s Magazine Poe
reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne?s Twice Told Tales. Poe had this to say:
“The style of Hawthorne is purity itself. His tone is singularly
effective –wild plaintive, thoughtful, and in full accordance with his
themes.” (early criticism)
Again in 1847 in Goldy?s Lady Book Poe does a lengthier review of
Hawthorne. In this review Poe gives his opinion of Hawthorne.
“Now my own opinion of him is, that although his walk is limited and he
is fairly to be charged with mannerism, treating all subjects in a
similar tone of dreamy innuendo, yet in this walk he evinces
extraordinary genius, having no rival either in America or elsewhere;
and this opinion I have never heard gainsaid by any one literary person
in the country.”(early criticism)
Also in Goldy?s Lady Book, this time in 1846 was this review:
“The most favourable estimate of Miss Fuller?s genius (for high genius
she unquestionably possesses) is to be obtained, perhaps, from her
contributions to The Dial and her Summer on the Lakes.”(Sarah Margaret
In addition to critical review Poe spent time working on his own
writings. On May 16, 1836 Edgar and Virginia were officially wed. In the
summer of this year White officially acknowledged Poe as editor of the
Messenger. However by fall Poe?s work was slipping, possibly due to
alcohol. Poe was to leave the Messenger and White was to take over as
Little is known about the next two years. Poe moved to New York for a
while and then on to Philadelphia. In 1838, Harper and Brothers in New
York published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket, his
first book of fiction.
Poe next took a job at Burton?s Gentlemen Magazine as assistant editor.
Although the format of the magazine didn?t suit him, the steady income
was irresistible. Poe and Burton had a falling out Burton “wished to
mollify the tone of Poe?s attacks on some of the authors he criticised.
Poe seems to have written a bitter letter, meeting Burton on his own
ground, and suggesting that slashing reviews brought subscribers to the
( Ransome 29) So Poe and Burton parted company and Poe moved on to
Graham?s Magazine. The magazine did well with Poe at the helm.
It was during this time that Virginia started showing signs of
tuberculosis. Hoping to give Virginia some relief Poe moved around in
search of a healthier environment. There are conflicting reports as to
whether or not Poe turned to alcohol for solace at this time. Poe
continued his writing and had two tales published in Graham?s Magazine.
One of them was his cryptography series, The Murder in the Rou Morgue.
Next Poe tried his hand at autobiographical material. He also reviewed
the works of Charles Dickens in order to gain recognition in England in
1842. He also left Graham?s at this time. He went to Washington,
supposedly to find subscribers for his own magazine. He drank too much
and fell further into desperate straits. He tried his hand at lecturing.
“During the summer of 1843, he began lecturing with a fierce attack on
Griswold?s Poets and Poetry of America.” (Ransome 33)
After that he tried his hand at Graham?s Magazine again, but this was
short-lived. In 1844 he moved to New York, penniless. He lived on
whatever he could make free lancing and this barely put food on the
table. In 1845 he published one of his most famous works –The Raven. It
was published in the paper he was currently working for — The Evening
Mirror and reprinted in The American Whig Review.
From here he went on to work at the Broadway Journal and was quickly
acknowledged as editor. Ultimately as “Edgar A. Poe, Editor and
Proprietor”. (Ransome 36) Unfortunately, the paper collapsed. Poe moved
out of New York to the cottage at Forham. They sank deeper into poverty
and needed to rely on the help of friends to get by. Virginia died on
January 30, 1847.
Following Virginia?s death, Poe rapidly disintegrated, returning to
Richmond in 1849 still preoccupied with the goal of his lifetime: owning
his own journal. Setting off for New York shortly thereafter to visit
Mrs. Clemm, his hopes still high for the future. Poe travelled no
further than Baltimore. There he died in delirium of “acute congestion
of the brain” and was buried near his grandfather in the Presbyterian
cemetery.”(NHS Park Brochure)
There are a few different theories as to the cause of Poe?s death. Dr. J
Evans Snodgrass, who was the physician on when Edgar was brought in ,
believes he died from complications of alcoholism. Dr John Moran, Poe?s
own physician, believes he was set upon by thugs and beaten. Dr R.
Michael Benitez has yet another theory. He has reviewed the evidence and
published his findings in the September issue of the Maryland Medical
Journal. “No one can say conclusively that Poe died of rabies, since
there was no autopsy after his death.” (Gugliotta) “But the historical
accounts of Poe?s condition in the hospital a few days before his death
point to a strong possibility that he had rabies.” (Gugliotta) As with
many things about Poe perhaps we?ll never know the full truth.
The City In The Sea
The Conqueror Worm
A Dream Within A Dream
The Happiest Day, The Happiest Hour
The Haunted Palace
The Lake to ?
Spirits Of The Dead
To — –
To F?S S. O?D
To My Mother
To One In Paradise
To The River ?
The Valley Of Unrest
The Murders In The Rue Morgue
The Mystery Of Marie Roget-A Sequel to “The Murder In The Rue Morgue”
The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket
The Angel Of The Odd-An Extravaganza
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