Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)

Edgar Allan Poe was a poet, short story writer, editor, and critic. Credited by many scholars as the inventor of the detective genre in fiction, he was a master at using elements of mystery, psychological terror, and the macabre in his writing. His most famous poem, "The Raven" (1845), combines his penchant for suspense with some of the most famous lines in American poetry. While editor of the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger, Poe carved out a philosophy of poetry that emphasized brevity and beauty for its own sake. Stories, he wrote, should be crafted to convey a single, unified impression, and for Poe, that impression was most often dread. "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), for instance, memorably describes the paranoia of its narrator, who is guilty of murder. After leaving Richmond, Poe lived and worked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York, seeming to collect literary enemies wherever he went. Incensed by his especially sharp, often sarcastic style of criticism, they were not inclined to help Poe as his life unraveled because of sickness and poverty. After Poe's death at the age of forty, a former colleague, Rufus W. Griswold, wrote a scathing biography that contributed, in the years to come, to a literary caricature. Poe's poetry and prose, however, have endured. MORE...

 

Early Years

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, a Whig Party politician, 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 … "

Over the years, Poe also argued that the short story was the supreme form in fiction, meant to be tightly constructed and convey a single, unified impression. In Poe's case, that impression was most often fear, foreboding, and dread, as evidenced in short stories like "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), which describes an excruciatingly slow plan of revenge. And for such unified impressions to take hold, brevity—a term Poe calculated to mean a work that took no longer than ninety minutes to read—was crucial. "As the novel cannot be read at one sitting," he wrote in 1842 in an admiring review of a Hawthorne collection, "it cannot avail itself of the immense benefit of totality. Worldly interests, intervening during the pauses of perusals, modify, counteract and annul the impressions intended."

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 Richmond

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.

Later Years

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.

The move never happened, however. A few weeks later, Poe was found unconscious and dangerously ill outside a Baltimore tavern. He died in the hospital on October 7, 1849, and received a swift burial in his grandfather Poe's cemetery lot in the Westminster Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Baltimore. Historians have long disagreed about the exact cause of his death, suggesting everything from rabies to alcoholism.

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.

Perhaps the legend was justice for Poe's sometimes unfair treatment of his fellow writers. Regardless, Poe's work—unlike so many others'—has survived. His poems and short stories, while varied in theme and subject matter, have nonetheless come to occupy a genre unto themselves—one forever identified by the heart-stopping screams of "The Tell-Tale Heart" or the dread-inducing "Nevermore" of "The Raven."

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.

Major Works

  • 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)

Time Line

  • January 19, 1809 - Edgar Poe is born in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • December 8, 1811 - Edgar Poe's mother dies in Richmond. His father had deserted the family earlier in the year. Edgar, at the age of two, becomes the foster son of John and Frances Allan, from whom Poe receives his middle name.
  • 1815–1820 - John Allan, Edgar Allan Poe's foster father, moves with his wife and foster son to England. Poe attends school in Chelsea until 1820, when the family returns to Richmond.
  • 1826 - Edgar Allan Poe attends the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Although he distinguishes himself academically, financial troubles cause him to withdraw and return to Richmond, where he discovers that his fiancée, Sarah Elmira Royster has married an older and wealthier suitor, Alexander Shelton. Poe then moves to Boston.
  • 1827 - Under the name "A Bostonian," Edgar Allan Poe publishes his first collection of poems, titled Tamerlane and other Poems.
  • May 26, 1827 - Edgar Allan Poe enlists in the United States Army under the pseudonym "Edgar A. Perry."
  • December 1, 1828 - Edgar Allan Poe writes a letter to his foster father, John Allan, expressing his dissatisfaction with the army, in hopes that Allan can help release Poe from his five-year commitment to the service.
  • December 15, 1828 - While in the U.S. Army, Edgar Allan Poe is ordered to Fort Monroe.
  • 1830 - Edgar Allan Poe, after leaving the United States Army, attends the United States Military Academy at West Point.
  • 1831 - Edgar Allan Poe is expelled from West Point and disowned by his foster father. He moves to Baltimore, Maryland, to live his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter, Virginia.
  • 1831 - Edgar Allan Poe enters five Gothic-style horror and suspense stories in a contest sponsored by the weekly newspaper, the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. Although he does not win a prize, the tales are published anonymously during 1832.
  • October 1833 - Edgar Allan 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"—wins a competition sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. His poem "The Coliseum" would have been awarded best poem, but the judges prefer not to offer both prizes to a single author.
  • 1835 - John Pendleton Kennedy encourages Edgar Allan 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 receives the job and is soon promoted to editor.
  • May 1836 - Edgar Allan Poe weds his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm.
  • January 1837 - Edgar Allan Poe leaves his job as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger and moves north, working in various editorial posts, most notably at Graham's Magazine in Philadelphia.
  • 1845 - Edgar Allan Poe relocates to New York and becomes the editor and then owner of the literary weekly, Broadway Journal.
  • January 1845 - The New York Evening Mirror publishes Edgar Allan Poe's poem, "The Raven," a disturbing account of its grief-stricken narrator's encounter with a bird that knows only one word: "Nevermore."
  • January 1846 - The literary weekly Broadway Journal, which Edgar Allan Poe edits and owns, goes under.
  • January 1847 - Edgar Allan Poe's wife Virginia dies of tuberculosis, sending Poe into bouts of depression and torturous grief, during which he reportedly seeks the comforts of alcohol.
  • 1849 - When Edgar Allan Poe travels to Richmond for a poetry reading and lecture, he reunites with his one-time fiancée, Elmira Shelton, who is now widowed and wealthy. Poe decides to marry her and move to Richmond.
  • September 1849 - Edgar Allan Poe departs for Fordham, New York, where he plans to arrange to move his aunt Maria to Virginia. He never makes it to New York.
  • October 3, 1849 - Edgar Allan Poe is discovered unconscious and dangerously ill inside a Baltimore, Maryland, tavern.
  • October 7, 1849 - Edgar Allan Poe dies in the hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and receives a swift burial in his grandfather Poe's cemetery lot in the Westminster Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Historians have long disagreed about the exact cause of his death, suggesting everything from rabies to alcoholism.
  • 1850–1856 - Rufus W. Griswold publishes The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, as well as an unjust and inflammatory fifty-page memoir detailing Poe's life. This sketch helps in part to create the caricature of Poe that has survived in American literary legend—as a death-obsessed, drug-addled debaucher.
  • 1922 - The Poe Museum opens in Richmond, and features a large collection of the writer's manuscripts, letters, first editions, and personal belongings.
  • 1958 - A monument to Edgar Allan Poe is erected in Capitol Square in Richmond, Virginia.
Further Reading
Fisher, Benjamin F. Ed. Poe and His Times: The Artist in His Milieu. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990.
Hayes, Kevin J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: Appleton-Century, 1941; reprinted with a new foreword by Shawn Rosenheim. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Thomas, Dwight, and David K. Jackson. The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809–1849. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Fisher, B. F., IV Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). (2014, July 1). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Poe_Edgar_Allan_1809-1849.

  • MLA Citation:

    Fisher, Benjamin Franklin, IV. "Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 1 Jul. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: November 10, 2008 | Last modified: July 1, 2014


Contributed by Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, a professor of English at the University of Mississippi.