Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809. Poe was a writer of poetry and short stories. He died young with relatively little literary success during his lifetime, but he became one of America’s most influential writers, central to the development of mystery and detective stories.
Poe was born in Boston, the child of actors. His father abandoned the family shortly after his birth, and his mother died of tuberculosis when Poe was 2. He was taken in by John and Frances Allan; John was a successful merchant in Richmond, Virginia. The Allans gave him their family name as a middle name and raised him to adulthood, though he was never formally adopted.
The Allan family lived in England from 1815 to 1820, and Poe got his elementary education in British boarding schools. The family had been back in Virginia for several years when Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia to study languages. The University of Virginia was still a young institution, and founder Thomas Jefferson had some novel ideas, including a system that allowed students to design their own course of study.
Poe did not deal well with the lack of structure and discipline. He ran up significant gambling debts, putting a strain on his relationship with his foster father. Poe dropped out of school after a year. The tense relationship with Allan, and the news that his high school sweetheart had married, made returning to Richmond an unattractive option.
Instead, Poe went to Boston, where he enlisted in the United States Army. He published his first book of poetry anonymously, credited simply to “A Bostonian.” Only 50 copies were printed, and there was virtually no critical reaction to the book.
After two years in the Army, Poe wanted to end his 5-year enlistment early. His commanding officer would only agree to do so if Poe reconciled with John Allan. Allan was initially unsympathetic and did not respond to Poe’s letters. The evidence suggests that he may not have even informed Poe that Frances Allan was ill, because Poe did not return to Richmond until the day after Frances’s burial. After her death, John agreed to support Poe’s discharge from the Army and his enrollment as a cadet at West Point. Poe entered West Point in 1830.
Neither the familial reconciliation nor the new academic endeavor went well. Poe and Allan argued about Allan’s remarriage, and the financial burdens of supporting his several illegitimate children; the arguments grew heated enough that Allan disowned Poe. And within a year of enrolling at West Point, Poe was dismissed for gross neglect of duty for his failure to attend church, military exercises, or classes. He had apparently been popular with his fellow cadets, though; many of them chipped in to fund the publishing of another volume of poetry in 1831.
Poe set out to support himself as a writer, but it was an awkward moment in the American publishing industry. The lack of international copyright laws meant that it was more profitable for publishers to published pirated editions of British work than to pay American authors for their writing. And while it was a busy era for literary magazines, many of them died quickly, and publishers tended to pay their authors late when they paid them at all.
Poe managed to get some stories published during these years, but that didn’t provide enough money to support him. And after his 1836 marriage to his cousin, Virginia, he was even more in need of income. (Virginia was 14 when she married the 27-year-old Poe; the witness at their wedding lied about her age, saying that she was 21.)
He worked in a series of editorial jobs at various literary magazines, but had trouble holding any position for very long, often because of his drinking. He announced plans to create his own literary magazine, to be called The Stylus, but the project never came to fruition.
His only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (e-book | e-audio | print), was published in 1838. It begins as a fairly straightforward adventure of life at sea, but gradually grows stranger and harder to classify. It was not well received by contemporary critics, but it appears to have been an influence on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Jules Verne liked the book so much that he wrote his own sequel to it.
In 1841, Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” often cited as the first modern detective story. His fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, would appear in two more stories, and established traits that would be common in later detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
His last great literary success came in 1845 when the poem “The Raven” was published. It was a national sensation, and Poe became a household name as a result. The success did not bring much financial reward, though; Poe had been paid only $9 for the poem.
Poe’s wife, Virginia, died in 1847, after several years of declining health from tuberculosis. Her illness had been difficult for Poe, and his drinking problem had gotten even worse. On October 3, 1949, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore. He was delirious and not wearing his own clothes. He was taken to the hospital, where he died on October 7.
The medical records from Poe’s final days have been lost, and we don’t know exactly what happened. Some newspaper reports of his death used the phrase “congestion of the brain,” a common euphemism at the time for alcohol-related deaths. Speculation as to the actual cause of his death ranges from epilepsy to rabies. One theory suggests that he may have been taken prisoner in the form of election fraud known as “cooping,” in which people were grabbed off the street and forced to vote multiple times for the chosen candidate of the gang that had taken them prisoner. If they refused, they would be severely beaten, sometimes even killed.
Poe has frequently been used as a fictional character by authors. The London schoolboy Poe shows up in Andrew Taylor’s historical mystery The American Boy (e-book); West Point cadet Poe is involved in a murder mystery in Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye (e-book | e-audio | print). Poe turns up as a detective in mystery series by several authors—Harold Schechter’s Nevermore (e-book | print), Randall Silvis’s On Night’s Shore (e-book | print), and Karen Lee Street’s Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster (e-book | print) are the first volumes in ongoing series; Street’s series teams Poe as a detective with his own creation, C. Auguste Dupin.
Matthew Pearl offers a solution to the mystery of Poe’s death in The Poe Shadow (e-book | e-audio | print | audio); Kim Newman imagines Poe (along with many other historical figures) as a vampire in The Bloody Red Baron (e-book | print); in Kingsley Amis’s alternate-history The Alteration (e-book | print), Poe is a minor character, a general in the army of the Republic of New England.
For Poe nonfiction, John Evangelist Walsh offers his own solution to Poe’s final days in Midnight Dreary (print); J.W. Ocker visits Poe homes and other historical sites in Poe-Land (e-book); and Kristy Robinett explains how the ghost of Poe has aided her in her work as a medium in Forevermore (e-book).
The Edgar Award, named for Poe, is given by the Mystery Writers of America to honor each year’s best mystery writing. The anthology In the Shadow of the Master (e-book | print) collects some of Poe’s mystery stories, each accompanied by an essay from a current mystery writer talking about Poe’s importance to their own writing.
We’ll continue our look at Edgar Allan Poe in Friday’s “Music Memories” post, when we look at the large assortment of musical works based on Poe’s poems and stories, or written in honor of him.
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