Sunday, May 19, 2013

Edgar Allan Poe -- the Biography

Short Bio: 

The following biography is a summation of the Wiki article on  Edgar Allan Poe ( and a biography by Peter Ackroyd, (Poe, A Life Cut Short – Nan A. Talese, an imprint of The Doubleday Printing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, 2008).

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809, to Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and David Poe, Jr.  – the second of three children  (brother William Henry Leonard Poe and sister Rosalie Poe) to these two actors. His father abandoned the family in 1810 and his mother died a year later from consumption. Poe was fostered, though never adopted, by John and Francis Valentine Allan of Richmond, Virginia.

During his school years, he attended a number of institutions, some in the U.S. and some in England (most notably – as it pertains to my blog entry on Griswold and Ingram – the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School in Stoke Newington), ultimately attending the University of Virginia in February of 1826.  However, his college career ended after only one year, when mounting gambling debts that his foster father refused to pay, found him at odds with the ideals of the university. Soon after he moved to Boston where he started working as a clerk and newspaper writer, using the pseudonym of Henri Le Rennet.  However, quickly finding that he was unable to support himself, he enlisted in the US Army in May of 1827, where he remained for two years and published his first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, under the name “by a Bostonian”. After obtaining an early dismissal in April of 1829, he published his second book, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems  before entering West Point, where he successfully matriculated as a cadet one year later.  However, after numerous quarrels with his foster father and a growing disinterest in the military, he purposefully conducted himself in such a way as to be court-martialed and thus left West Point in February of 1831.

He moved to New York City and published a third volume of poems called Poems, financed by donations from his fellow cadets at West Point.  It was a republication of his first two works with six new poems in it. He then moved back to Baltimore in March of 1831 to live with his aunt (Maria Clemm), cousin (Virginia Clemm) and brother, who, on August 1, 1831, died from complications brought about by alcoholism. Up to this time in his life, he was a relative unknown, but in October of 1833 he won a prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for his short story “MS. Found in a Bottle”, which was noticed by John P. Kennedy.  Kennedy helped him to place more of his stories and introduced him to Thomas W. White, the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia. White hired him as an assistant editor in August 1835 where he remained employed until Jan 1837, though his tenure was a bit rocky due to his penchant for drink.  During this time he honed his skills as a literary critic.

On Sept. 22, 1835, he secretly married Virginia Clemm, then 13 years old but claiming to be 21.  Later that year he published The Narragive of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and in 1839 became the assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine where he continued his career as a literary critic. In 1839 he published “The Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque” and left Burton’s for a job as assistant at Graham’s Magazine.

In June 1840, he announced his intentions to start his own literary journal, originally slated to be called The Penn and later The Stylus, however, he was unable to accomplish this endeavor during his lifetime. In 1842, he moved back to New York City where he eventually became the editor, then sole owner, of the Broadway Journal, however after accusing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism, he was soon ostracized from the literary community. He regained popularity, though not financial security, in January 1845, when his poem, “The Raven”, was published.

In 1846, The Broadway Journal failed and Poe moved into a cottage in the Bronx, New York ,where on January 30, 1847, Virginia died of tuberculosis. Poe’s mental health deteriorated after this and he was increasingly drawn to drink.  He attempted to court the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, and then his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster, but was unable to regain any sense of normalcy with either

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore in a state of delirium and wearing someone else's clothes. He was taken to Washington Medical College where he died on October 7, 1849.  On the night before he died he is reported to have repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds”.  Unfortunately, all of the medical records, including his death certificate, have been lost. Speculations as to what caused his death include alcoholism, heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, menigeal inflammation, cholera and even rabies.  One theory states that he was a victim of vote-rigging or cooping – a process whereby someone was drugged and forced to vote in multiple jurisdictions after which they were sometimes beaten or killed.


Due to the plethora of information collected by John Ingram and all the subsequent biographers who followed him, the information on Poe’s life, though in some ways still sketchy, is vast.  That said, I found it very hard to condense this into a truly “Short Bio” and thus a review of one of his stories will appear in a separate post rather than appended to this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment