Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Author/Context
Born in the Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, Edgar Allan Poe was the son of actors David Poe, Jr. from an aristocratic family in Baltimore and Elizabeth Hopkins Poe, who had immigrated with her actress mother from England as a child. Edgar's elder brother, William Henry, had been born two years earlier in 1807, and his younger sister would be born in December of 1810. After David Poe presumably died in 1810, Eliza continued to perform on her own in Richmond and Charleston, South Carolina. Her eldest son was entrusted with grandparents in Baltimore to ease the cost of supporting her family for this reason, but Eliza soon became ill, presumably from tuberculosis, and died on December 8, 1811. William was taken in by the Mackenzie family, and the three year old orphan Edgar Poe was raised by John and Frances (Fanny) Allan, from whom he would take his middle name. The Allans had become wealthy from John's tobacco business, and they lived contentedly in Richmond, where Poe was sent to a local school at an early age. In spite of the tragic circumstances surrounding his biological parents, it would be the world of opportunities made available primarily by John Allan, which would provide Edgar with the experiences and training that he needed to become a unique literary master.
This American life was suddenly disrupted in 1815, when the Allans took Poe to visit relatives in Scotland and soon moved to London, England, where John was seeking to expand his business. Edgar attended various grammar schools there at the insistence of John and Fanny Allan, and much of the European figures discussed there would manifest themselves later on in his writing. Often, nearby Paris, France or Italy or Norway are chosen as settings for his most popular stories. Had Poe not been exposed to this new place, it is questionable if he would have incorporated such European elements into his writing. However, in the spring of 1820 John Allan was forced to return his family to America after the collapse of the tobacco market, and he would grapple with his resulting debts for many years afterward. Edgar would never have another opportunity to travel abroad again, yet these experiences formed a lasting impact upon his psyche, shaping his artistic style in such a way that distinguished him from his contemporaries.
Upon returning to Richmond in 1820, Poe was nevertheless enrolled at a private academy, where he became very attached to Jane Stannard, the mother of his schoolmate Robert. Stannard died in 1824, pushing Poe into a depression at having lost someone whom he had cared about yet again. In early 1826 he entered the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he excelled in his studies at first but later became a gambler and drank excessively, due to the sudden lack of financial support imposed by John Allan, who had inherited a fortune in 1825 and had plenty of money at this point. Edgar's behavior led to his dismissal after only a year and, after a heated falling out with John Allan after it was revealed that he had engaged in an extramarital affair without Fanny's knowledge, Poe boarded a ship destined for Boston in hopes of pursuing his literary talents. There, he worked for a short while for a newspaper and published Tamerlane and Other Poems, his first book of verse, although it did not sell very well due to Poe's obscurity. Disenchanted by his life on Boston, Poe joined the United States Army under the name of "Edgar Perry" in May of 1827, because he was too young to legally enlist. Stationed first at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor, Poe was transferred to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, where he gained the inspiration to later write "The Gold-Bug."
Poe eventually grew tired of army life and, despite his successes there, wished for a discharge early in 1829, craving instead the more academic atmosphere of West Point. Discharged soon after Fanny Allan died early in 1829, Poe lived for awhile with his Aunt Maria Clemm (David Poe's sister) in Baltimore and young cousin Virginia, who would later become his wife. He was eventually entered New York's West Point Academy in June of 1830, but as John Allan continued to distance himself from Edgar, Poe lashed out by purposely getting into trouble, with the intention that he be expelled from the Academy. Having realized that John Allan's refusal to formally adopt him as his own son would ban him from claiming any right to John Allan's fortune, Poe decided to focus upon his own dreams. After his disgraceful exit from West Point early in 1831, Poe returned to Baltimore where he lived again with his Aunt Clemm, sister Virginia, and his brother William Henry, who had begun to drink excessively and was quickly dying, presumably from the same disease that had killed Eliza Poe: tuberculosis. Freed from the stresses of living in the Allan household or the military, Edgar Allan Poe then pursued his writing much more intensively, winning first prize in a contest with "MS Found in a Bottle," which led to a relationship with the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, where he had also submitted his stories for publication. John Allan died a year later, in 1834, and left no inheritance to Poe, thus severing Poe's entire connection to the surrogate family that had offered him so many benefits as a child.
This man, Thomas White, later offered Poe a job in Richmond as assistant editor of his magazine, which the young Poe eagerly accepted. Then at the age of twenty-six, Poe excelled at his responsibilities at first, and secretly married his cousin Virginia a few months later, in September of 1835; Aunt Clemm soon joined them there. In spite of Edgar rambunctious social life, he excelled as assistant editor, increasing the publication's circulation considerably during his tenure, until his abrupt dismissal in 1837 due to his continued substance abuse, principally due to alcohol. He then relocated his family to New York City for about a year and a half, where Poe continued to write fervently and was published in several magazines of his day. In August of 1838, he moved his family again, this time to Philadelphia, where they would spend the next four years. Poe supported his wife and aunt this time primarily through his work as an editor first for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and then Graham's Magazine afterward, the latter of which became widely popular under Poe's leadership. A collection of short stories entitled Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was released successfully in December of 1839. Although Edgar Allan's work at Graham's would come to a close in 1842, he continued to publish fervently in the next two years. He was also greatly troubled by the declining health of Virginia, who had begun spitting blood while singing in 1842, revealing the early stages of tuberculosis.
Seeking new opportunities, the Poe family relocated to New York City yet again on April 6, 1844, where "The Balloon-Hoax" earned Poe some fast cash. Poe then composed hi infamous poem, "The Raven," said to lament the dying state of Virginia. Several months later, Poe worked at the New York Evening Mirror but became restless due to the lack of responsibility and control over publication that was placed upon him, and sought more challenging opportunities with The Broadway Journal in 1845. Purchasing this periodical in October of 1845, Poe was given the chance to prove the abilities that he was restricted from at the Mirror, and he failed, because of his excessive drinking that caused him to miss a printing deadline. The Journal discontinued circulation early in 1846, and a depressed Poe decided instead to focus upon his writing and increasingly gave lectures about various literary topics. He also moved a declining Virginia Poe to the farming community of Fordham during the summer of 1846. That fall brought with it a harsh cold, however, and Poe was unable even to afford coal to heat their cottage, no doubt accelerating the impending death of this twenty-five year old woman at the end January, 1847. Poe's life afterward is one of attempted recovery and gradual decline. He wrote little in the months following Virginia's death and desperately sought to marry again, replacing the continued desire for a female figure in his life that had persisted since he was a young child.
Recovering somewhat professionally, Poe went on a lecture circuit to reestablish himself. Throughout 1848, he had written many critical essays, rather than creative pieces, and his role seems to have been transitioning from that of a writer to a literary critic, analyzing the work of his contemporaries. Having reacquainted himself with a childhood sweetheart named Elmira Shelton in Richmond and eventually set marriage plans for October of 1849, and overcome by repeated periods of illness and heavy fits of drinking, begins the trip by ferry steamer back to New York to bring Maria Clemm back down to Richmond for his wedding, made a rest stop in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 29, 1849. There, Poe mysteriously disappeared before being found, delirious, in front of "Ryan's Saloon" in the building known as "Gunner's Hall," a polling place since there was a political election in progress. Common perceptions assume that Poe was manipulated and purposely made drunk by the locals and forced to vote multiple times in support of a political candidate.
However, given that there is no evidence that he was drunk at all, the location of his collapse is more than likely, a mere coincidence. The fact that it was a polling place suggests that people were probably congregating in the area, and the Saloon, being the closest public place, would have been the obvious location to which Poe would be brought. It does not automatically reveal that Poe was there getting drunk, and lapsed into an alcohol-induced comatose. Following his stay at this place, Poe was transported to Washington College Hospital, where he refused to drink any alcohol, since it was merely assumed that he was going into alcohol withdrawal. Edgar Allan Poe's final words were "Lord help my poor soul" before he expired on October 7, 1849. His remains are buried beside his beloved Virginia (who was moved from New York following Edgar's death) in Baltimore, Maryland in Westminster Burying Ground.
Although the common perception is that Poe died as a result of some alcohol-related disease, such as cirrhosis of the liver, a more modern interpretation of the recurring bouts of sickness in the months preceding his death suggests that Poe possibly died as a result of rabies. The physicians even ruled Poe's exact cause of death to be "congestion of the brain," which is consistent with victims of rabies; the fact that he declined alcohol while in the hospital further refutes the possibility that alcohol had been the cause of his death, since had he been the raging alcoholic at the end of his life as is often portrayed, then he surely would have guzzled the liquor down. Rabies is a viral infection affecting the central nervous system, or which the brain is the chief organ. Given that the cause of death was located in his brain suggests again that rabies may be a more plausible cause of death.
Whatever the exact circumstances, Edgar Allan Poe's life of forty years that stretched from Boston to Richmond to London, and back to Richmond again, then ended. The pain that he carried with him throughout his life, balanced by those occasioned moments of joy, is something that Poe's readers still detect all too well in reading Poe's stories. It is something all too human that we can all recognize, but Edgar Allan Poe was one of those few people who knew how to capture these feelings, and encase them down upon paper beneath his words. The persisting fear of death that is recounted numerous times in his writing thus became a demon which he was forced to face in those final noble moments, at last venturing there where so many loved ones had gone before: Eliza and David Poe, Fanny Allan, his brother William Henry, Jane Stannard, and of course his beloved Virginia. October 7, 1849 was finally Edgar Allan Poe's day to die.
Poe, Edgar Allan. 18 Best Stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Vincent Price and Chandler Brossard. New York: Dell Publishing, 1965.
"Biography and General Information"
"The Black Cat"
"The Fall of the House of Usher"
"The Masque of the Red Death"
"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"
"The Premature Burial"
"MS Found in a Bottle"
"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains"
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue"
"The Tell-Tale Heart"
"The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether"
"The Man That Was Used Up"
"A Descent into the Maelstrom"
"The Purloined Letter"
"The Pit and the Pendulum"
"The Cask of Amontillado"