Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, to traveling actors David Poe Jr. (a Baltimore, Maryland, native) and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins (an emigrant from England). Poe was the couple’s second of three children. His brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, was born in 1807, and his sister, Rosalie Poe, was born in 1810. On December 8, 1811, when Poe was just two years old, his mother died in Richmond. His father, who had left the family in 1810, died of unknown circumstances. Henry, as William Henry Leonard was known, lived with his grandparents in Baltimore, while Rosalie and Edgar remained in Richmond. William and Jane Mackenzie adopted Rosalie, and Edgar became the foster son of John and Frances Allan. Poe received his middle name from his foster parents.
In 1815 Allan, a tobacco merchant, moved with his wife and foster son to England in an attempt to improve his business interests there. Poe attended school in Chelsea until 1820, when the family returned to Richmond. John Allan had always hoped that Poe would join his own mercantile firm, but Poe was determined to become a writer and, in particular, a poet. In 1826, he attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Although he distinguished himself academically, Allan denied him financial support after less than a year because of Poe’s gambling debts and what Allan perceived to be his ward’s lack of direction. Without money, Poe returned briefly to Richmond, only to find that his fiancée, Sarah Elmira Royster, under the direction of her family, had married an older and wealthier suitor, Alexander Shelton.
Disheartened and penniless, Poe left Richmond for Boston where, using the name “A Bostonian,” he authored Tamerlane and other Poems (1827), a collection of seven brief, lyrical poems. In particular, “The Lake” employs what would become typical Poe-esque symbolism, with calm waters representing the speaker’s repressed emotions, always threatening to dangerously swell. The book’s sales were negligible.
Still unable to support himself, Poe enlisted in the United States Army on May 26, 1827, under the pseudonym “Edgar A. Perry.” (He was eighteen at the time but claimed to be twenty-two.) During his military service, he was stationed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston, South Carolina—a site he would later appropriate as the setting for his story, “The Gold Bug”—and then at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. On February 28, 1829, while Poe was in Virginia, his foster mother, Frances Allan, died.
Despite having been promoted to sergeant major, Poe became dissatisfied with army life and appealed to his foster father for help in releasing him from his five-year commitment. In a December 1, 1828, letter to Allan, Poe worried that “the prime of my life would be wasted” in the army and threatened “more decided measures if you refuse to assist me.” During this tumultuous period, Poe compiled a second collection of verse, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (1829), but it, too, received little attention. Critics described the poems in terms ranging from “incoherent” to “beautiful and enduring.”
With Allan’s help, Poe left the army and was admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point, which he attended from 1830 until 1831. Poe thrived academically, but again experienced financial problems, this time running afoul of both his foster father and school officials. Expelled from West Point and disowned by Allan, Poe traveled to Baltimore to reside with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her young daughter, Virginia. The events of Poe’s life from 1831 until 1833 remain relatively obscure.
Out of Obscurity
While living in Baltimore, Poe turned in earnest to his literary efforts. His third volume of verse, Poems (1831), hints at the Gothic sensibility—in particular, a preoccupation with death and psychological instability—that would become his trademark. For instance, “Irene” (revised as “The Sleeper”) features a distraught young man who, at midnight, mourns over his lover’s corpse: “Strange is thy pallor! strange thy dress, / Strange above all, thy length of tress, / And this all solemn silentness!” Poe received some help and encouragement from the literary editor and critic John Neal, but his poems continued to attract scant notice.
In an effort to improve his financial position, Poe turned to fiction. Because they sold the best, he wrote mostly Gothic-style horror and suspense stories and, in 1831, entered five of them in a contest sponsored by the weekly newspaper, the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. Although he won no prize, the tales were published anonymously during 1832. In October 1833, Poe’s story “MS. Found in a Bottle”—about a midnight accident at sea and a mysterious ship that appears out of the “watery hell”—won a competition sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. His poem “The Coliseum” would have been awarded best poem, as well, but the judges preferred not to offer both prizes to a single author.
One of the competition’s judges was John Pendleton Kennedy, apolitician, literary editor, and author of Swallow Barn, or a Sojourn in the Old Dominion (1832). In 1835, Kennedy encouraged Poe to apply for an assistant editor position at the Southern Literary Messenger, a Richmond-based magazine founded the previous year by Thomas Willis White. Poe received the job and was soon promoted to editor despite clashing with White over his—Poe’s—excessive drinking.
In May 1836, for the first time feeling financially secure enough to marry, Poe wed his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. Historians disagree over whether they consummated their marriage. Virginia’s mother, Poe’s aunt, kept house for the couple and continued to do so for Poe after Virginia’s death.
Poe’s work at the Messenger helped him climb out of literary obscurity. Under his direction, the journal’s circulation increased and Poe began to develop contacts with the northern literary establishment. He turned these successes to his advantage, publishing revised versions of his own stories and poems. Still, he became best known for his caustic literary criticism, such as a December 1835 review of Theodore S. Fay’s novel, Norman Leslie: “We do not mean to say that there is positively nothing in Mr. Fay’s novel to commend—but there is indeed very little.” And about Morris Mattson’s Paul Ulric, he wrote, in February 1836: “When we called Norman Leslie the silliest book in the world we had certainly never seen Paul Ulric.”
That Fay was a darling of the New York literary establishment helped provoke a long-running feud between Poe and Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of New York City’s Knickerbocker Magazine and an ardent defender of northern literary sensibilities. Poe and Clark insulted one another in print for years, with Clark, in 1845, calling Poe “‘nothing if not critical,’ and even less than nothing at that.”
A New Literary Sensibility
Poe’s sharp-tongued criticisms may have won him lifelong enemies, but they also served to articulate an important new literary sensibility. Poems should be short, he argued, and poems should be beautiful. In his “Letter to Mr. B—,” published in the Messenger (July 1836), Poe mocks William Wordsworth for his “long wordy discussions by which he tries to reason us into admiration of his poetry,” and then, after quoting the poet on the subject of a “snow-white mountain lamb,” sarcastically rejoinders: “Now, we have no doubt this is all true: we will believe it, indeed we will, Mr. W. Is it sympathy for the sheep you wish to excite? I love a sheep from the bottom of my heart.”
True literature, meanwhile, should celebrate beauty for its own sake and not be burdened with the sort of purposefulness one might find in a Sunday morning sermon. Here, Poe both echoes Nathaniel Hawthorne—who famously complained of those inclined “relentlessly to impale the story with its moral, as with an iron rod”—and pokes fun at his Puritan sensibilities: “I see no reason, then, why our metaphysical poets should plume themselves so much on the utility of their works, unless indeed they refer to instruction with eternity in view; in which case, sincere respect for their piety would not allow me to express contempt for their judgment … ”
Poe did not limit his fiction to Gothic tales, however. From 1833 until 1836, he attempted and failed to find a publisher for his collection of satirical stories, Tales of the Folio Club. In the book, club members meet monthly to critique each other’s stories, all of which turn out to be caricatures of the styles of popular writers from Poe’s day. His critical ax never dull, Poe still managed to place a number of the stories in journals such as the Messenger and the Philadelphia Saturday Courier.
After years of battling the northern literary elite, Poe left the Messenger in January 1837 and moved north himself, working in various editorial posts, most notably at Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia. Sometime between November 1839 and January 1840, his two-volume collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published, providing a broader audience to many of his previously published stories. In stories such as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe rebutted charges of “Germanism and gloom,” Germany being a preferred literary source for his Gothic sensibility. “If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis,” he wrote, “I maintain that terror is not of Germany but of the soul—”
His famous opening to “Usher” suggests that he more than walked the walk of his literary philosophy, expertly compressing Teutonic gloom into a single storm cloud of a sentence: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”
Graham’s, meanwhile, featured some of Poe’s most assertive original fiction. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (April 1841), for instance, Poe introduced the detective story prototype that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would make so famous with his Sherlock Holmes episodes: an uncannily observant detective solves the crime while accompanied by his friend, who also narrates the events. In “The Masque of the Red Death” (May 1842), Poe traded the hyper-logic of detectives for the psychological horror of disease and inevitable death, describing a masquerade ball set in a plague-stricken Italian castle.
By 1844, Poe had relocated to New York, home of any number of his most bitter literary enemies and where he became the editor and then owner of the literary weekly, Broadway Journal. In January 1845, the New York Evening Mirror published his poem, “The Raven,” a disturbing account of its grief-stricken narrator’s encounter with a bird that knows but one word: “Nevermore.” The poem’s opening lines— “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary / Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,”—are among the most famous in the English language and brought Poe wide and almost instant acclaim. Nevertheless, they failed to deliver him from his persistent financial troubles.
Nor did Poe’s unpredictable moods and pugilistic criticism help him make friends in literary circles. In October 1845, he annoyed a Boston audience prepared for a talk about poetry by instead reciting his long and obscure poem “Al Aaraaf.” He continued to lampoon in print his fellow writers, including Thomas Dunn English, whom he worked with in Philadelphia. Some critics have even suggested that Poe used his feud with English as motivation for his revenge fantasy in “The Cask of Amontillado.”
When Broadway Journal went under in January 1846, Poe lost the most reliable venue for his attacks. And having alienated so many of his fellow writers and editors, he found it difficult to publish and, therefore, to make money. Then, in January 1847, his wife Virginia died of tuberculosis, sending Poe into bouts of depression and torturous grief, during which he reportedly sought the comforts of alcohol. Some historians have speculated that his alcohol use was complicated by either diabetes or hypoglycemia, which would have resulted in violent mood swings. This, in turn, might help to explain later portraits of Poe—in particular from the pen of Rufus W. Griswold, who had succeeded him as editor at Graham’s—as an irreclaimable alcoholic.
In 1849, Poe traveled to Richmond to read his poetry and lecture on “The Philosophy of Composition,” which had been published in the April 1846 issue of Graham’s as a critical explication of his writing of “The Raven.” While there, he reunited with his one-time fiancée, Elmira Shelton, who was now widowed and wealthy. Poe decided to marry her and move to Richmond, and late in September departed for Fordham, New York, where he would arrange to move his aunt Maria to Virginia.
Poe had given Griswold a memorandum from which to write a biography of him, but the editor’s use of this work was distinctly unflattering—even treacherous. Griswold quickly produced a polemic obituary and soon after undertook to publish a multivolume edition of Poe’s writings, The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (1850–1856), as well as an unjust and inflammatory fifty-page memoir detailing Poe’s life. This sketch, subsequently used by many later biographers, helped in part to create the caricature of Poe that has survived in American literary legend—as a death-obsessed, drug-addled debaucher.
Poe’s room on the West Range at the University of Virginia is open for viewing by the public. In Richmond, the Poe Museum, which first opened in 1922, features a large collection of the writer’s manuscripts, letters, first editions, and personal belongings.
- Tamerlane and Other Poems: By a Bostonian (1827)
- Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (1829)
- Poems, By Edgar A. Poe (1831)
- The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket (short novel, 1838)
- Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840)
- Prose Romances: The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Man That Was Used Up (1843)
- The Raven and Other Poems (1845)
- Tales (1845)
- Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848)
- The Literati (1850)
- Politan: An Unfinished Tragedy (1923)