Quoth the Raven “Nevermore”
Appreciation article time! I’m a self-professed lover of horror and all things Edgar Allan Poe, arguably one of the most famous classic American writers of all time. I have several editions of his, read his stories and poetry regularly, and may have named one of my cats after him…. so yeah, I’m a fan. And when you’re a fan of someone, you tend to do a little research about them. Given Poe’s writing style, I wasn’t overly surprised to discover that he didn’t have the easiest or happiest life. And a man like him having a strange and mysterious death only adds to the dark and gloomy nature of his work and influence as a writer. Edgar Allan Poe was a man who wrote about his demons – it just so happens that they earned him international recognition that remains to this day.
Who was Edgar Allan Poe?
Born simply Edgar Poe in January of 1809 in Boston, he was the middle child of Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and David Jr, both actors. Poe’s beginnings were not easy; his father abandoned the family when Poe was only a year old, and the following year his mother succumbed to consumption. He was subsequently taken in by John Allan, a successful merchant in Richmond, Virginia. The Allans never officially adopted him, but instead added the ‘Allan’ to his name, which he would keep for the remainder of his life.
Poe pursued different avenues in his life, originally attending the University of Virginia and studying modern languages. While at the school – which apparently had a student governed system of all things – and promptly accumulated gambling debts which eventually caused him to have a falling out with his foster father, who was furious at Poe for squandering the money being sent to him while studying. He dropped out after a year, and subsequently took on odd jobs as a newspaper writer in order to earn a living.
Newspaper writing salaries being what they were at that time, Edgar Allan Poe had no choice but to enlist in the US army in 1827, fudging his age in order to do so. That same year came his first – and probably least well known – publication, Tamerlane and Other Poems, a 40 page poetry collection. It was published anonymously simply by “a Bostonian”, and there were only about 50 copies printed in total, so obviously it didn’t gain him any sort of attention whatsoever. He was in and out of service until 1831, when he found a way to have himself purposely court-martialed and was dismissed.
Later that year Poe went to Maryland, where he had previously stayed with his aunt, brother and cousin Virginia Clemm – I’ll get to her in a minute. His brother Henry had been struggling with health issues, mostly due to alcohol abuse, and died on August 1st 1831. It was at this time that Edgar Allan Poe began to focus entirely on his writing career, and fun fact, he was actually one of the first American writers to make a living solely by writing alone.
What paper did Edgar Allan Poe work for?
In 1833, Poe’s short story MS. Found in a Bottle brought him to the attention of editors, and started him on a tangent of editorial work as well as his own writings. However, he struggled with alcohol problems and regularly caused issues and tensions for him in these posts. In September of 1835, he obtained a license to marry his cousin Virginia, who was 13 at the time. Poe himself was 26. His publication history that followed was basically this:
- In 1838, he published his one and only full length novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, about a boy who stows away on a whaling ship and experiences all manner of adventures
- In 1839, he published two volumes of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, which contained stories such as The Fall of the House of Usher and Ligeia
- Also in 1839, Poe left his editing position at Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine to join Graham’s Magazine, where he published several stories including The Masque of the Red Death
- Graham’s Magazine was also where he first published The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a story widely considered to be the first detective story ever written, and inspired dozens of writers who would follow with detective fiction
- The early to mid 1840’s saw publication Edgar Allan Poe staples such as The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat among others
- In January of 1845, The New York Evening Mirror published The Raven, easily Poe’s most famous and influential piece, though he never received much financial compensation for it’s publication
Having first shown symptoms of consumption (tuberculosis) as early as 1842, Virginia’s health steadily dwindled over the years, causing Poe to fall into a deep depression, and prompting one of his most famous quotes as written in a letter to a friend,
I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.
In May of 1846, the family (Poe, VIrginia and her mother) settled in a small cottage in Fordham, New York, now known as the Bronx. This cottage is still standing and can be visited by the public. Virginia succumbed to her illness on January 30th, 1847 at the cottage. Many feel that the deaths and illnesses of the women in his life are the inspiration for his works about beautiful women dying tragically, such as Annabel Lee and The Raven. Poe was unable to write for several months after Virginia’s death, and many assumed that he would not live much longer himself. Turns out they were right…
How did Edgar Allan Poe Die?
This is one of the most debated theories of any event in Poe’s life. On October 3rd 1849 Joseph W. Walker, a compositor for the Baltimore Sun, found a man lying in the gutter, dressed in dirty clothes and completely delirious. He quickly realized that the man was Edgar Allan Poe, and reached out for help in order to have him brought to hospital. He spent four days there in and out of delirious fits, and was never coherent enough to explain how he’d arrived in Baltimore from Virginia – he’d been on his way to Philadelphia the last anyone had seen him – why he was wearing clothes that weren’t his, or what had happened to him. He died on October 7th 1849, and his attending doctor indicated that he called out for someone named “Reynolds” the night before he passed; no one has ever figured out who this may have been.
There were – and still are – several theories as to what may have caused Poe’s death. Everything from carbon monoxide poisoning, rabies, alcohol poisoning or withdrawal from alcohol, even a brain tumor or just flat out murder has been speculated. No one theory seems to have enough evidence to be sure, so some feel that possibly several factors were involved. Even Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia has stated that Poe’s death is still largely a mystery and it’s difficult to pinpoint one single cause.
His untimely death adding to the mystery of it all, Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the most celebrated American authors of all time. Funny enough, his editorial work seems to have been what he was most famous for during his life, and like many others his contributions to literature were not properly appreciated until after his death.
Ironically Rufus Griswold, a rival of Poe’s, published a scathing obituary in the New York Tribune, and attempted to make Poe out to be a lunatic without morals. He hoped that this would discredit Poe’s work, but it had the exact opposite effect: sales of Poe’s works soared and he began to be touted as the excellent writer that he was.
Whether he’s celebrated for his contributions to mystery, gothic horror, or simply literature itself, there’s no denying that Edgar Allan Poe has had a profound effect on readers and writers alike. His stories touch on a great many fears, taking root in your imagination. The Richmond Museum is a testament to his legacy, as is the Fordham cottage, which is still standing to this day. From this reader’s perspective Poe’s work has always and will always be a favourite, as will the man himself, shrouded in struggle and a mysterious end.
Sources: https://www.poemuseum.org/index, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/