Edgar Allan Poe was a 19th century American writer, editor and literary critic who is regarded as one of the greatest poets and short story writers of his era. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died, Poe was raised by his foster parents, John Allan and his wife Frances Allan. Though Poe wanted to become a writer from an early age, circumstances forced him to join the army at the age of 18. It was only in the early 1830s that Poe was able to dedicate his time to a full time writing career. He went on to work for a number of newspapers including Southern Literary Messenger, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, Graham’s Magazine and Broadway Journal. On January 29, 1845, Poe’s poem The Raven appeared in the New York Evening Mirror. It became an immediate popular sensation making Edgar Allan Poe a household name. Despite this success, Poe struggled financially throughout his life. Moreover, his life was marred by tragedies including the death of his wife Maria Clemm in 1847. Poe died two years later under mysterious circumstances. Know about the family, education, career, marriage and death of Edgar Allan Poe through his biography.

 

Early Life And Family

Eliza Arnold Poe
Eliza Arnold Poe – Mother of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Poe was born on 19th January 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. Both his parents, David Poe Jr. and his wife Elizabeth Hopkins Arnold Poe, were professional actors. He also had an elder brother named William Henry Leonard Poe and a younger sister named Rosalie Poe. Poe never got the chance to know his parents since his father abandoned the family in 1810 and his mother passed away the following year after suffering from Pulmonary Tuberculosis. At this time Poe was only three years old. Following this, Poe was separated from his brother and sister; and was taken to Richmond, Virginia where he lived with a rich tobacco merchant John Allan and his wife Frances Allan. Though he was never formally adopted by them, they served as his foster family and gave him the name Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe had a close relationship with his foster mother Frances Allan but he could never get along with his foster father John Allan. John wanted Poe to follow him into his family business but Poe preferred poetry and writing from an early age. In fact, by the age of 13, he was a prolific poet. However, his writing talent was discouraged by his headmaster and his foster father.

 

Education

The Allans moved to Britain in 1816 and, for a brief period, Poe attended the grammar school in Irvine, Scotland. He joined them in London in 1816. In London, Poe attended a boarding school in Chelsea till 1817 and then entered the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School at Stoke Newington. In 1820, Poe moved back with his foster parents to Richmond and continued schooling there.

Manor House School in Stoke Newington
Manor House School, Stoke Newington – One of the schools Poe attended

In February 1826, Poe enrolled in the University of Virginia to study ancient and modern languages. He excelled at his curriculum but due to his differences with John Allan, he did not receive any financial support to cover his costs. Poe tried to gamble himself out of this situation but instead ended up in debt. All this forced Poe to drop out of college. Another setback greeted Poe when he returned home as he learned that his neighbor and fiancee, Sarah Elmira Royster, had become engaged to someone else. Depressed and heartbroken, Poe moved to Boston in April 1827. At Boston, he sustained himself with odd jobs including that of a clerk and a newspaper writer. During this period, he also started using the pseudonym Henri Le Rennet, possibly out of embarrassment.

 

Early Years In The Army

Tamerlane and Other Poems - Edgar Allan Poe
Front cover of Tamerlane and Other Poems – The first published work of Edgar Allan Poe

At the age of 18, on May 27th 1827, Poe enlisted in the United States Army as a private to support himself. His service commenced at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor at a remuneration of $5 a month. This was also the year when he published his first collection of poetry, a 40-page book title called Tamerlane and Other Poems. It turned out to be a failure and only 50 copies of it were ever printed.

Poe served for two years in the army attaining the rank of Sergeant Major for Artillery. He then tried to end his five-year enlistment early. His commanding officer agreed to discharge him only on the condition that he reconciled with his foster father. However John Allan ignored his letters. Around this time, Poe learned that his foster mother was dying of tuberculosis. Unfortunately by the time he returned to Richmond, she had already passed away. The death of Francis was followed by a brief period of peace between Poe and John Allan. This allowed Poe to be discharged from the army on April 15, 1829.

In 1829, Poe published a second collection of poetry titled Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems but it was also unsuccessful. Following this, Poe was admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. In October 1830, John Allan remarried. This led to bitter quarrels between Poe and his foster father; and ultimately John Allan disowned Poe. This was followed by Poe leaving West point by purposely getting court-martialed in 1831.

 

Career

MS Found in a Bottle - Edgar Allan Poe
December, 1835 issue of The Southern Literary Messenger – Which included Poe’s short story MS Found in a Bottle

After leaving West Point, Poe decided to focus on writing full-time. In February 1831, Poe left for New York and released a third volume of poems, simply titled Poems. This volume too couldn’t get Poe the success he desired. In March 1831, Poe returned to Baltimore to live with his aunt Maria Clemm, her daughter Virginia and his brother Henry Leonard Poe. Another tragedy befell on Poe as his brother died on August 1, 1831.

After his brother’s death, Poe decided to re-focus on his writing career. He traveled extensively in search of new opportunities, living in multiple cities such as New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Richmond. Apart from poetry, Poe also turned his attention to prose. He submitted a few short stories to the Philadelphia Publication House while simultaneously working on his drama Politian. He was finally able to create substantial buzz around his work when Baltimore Saturday Visiter awarded him a prize for his short story titled MS. Found in a Bottle in October 1833. In August 1835, Poe was also able to secure the position of editor in the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia and he remained at the magazine till January 1837.

Edgar Allan Poe in 1849
Edgar Allan Poe in 1849

Over the next ten years, Edgar Allan Poe edited a number of literary journals including the Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia; and the Broadway Journal in New York City. He also sold his work to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, among other journals. As an editor and writer, Poe developed a reputation of a ruthless critic due to his vicious reviews of his contemporaries.

The Raven - Edgar Allan Poe
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

On January 29, 1845, Poe’s poem The Raven appeared in the New York Evening Mirror and became an immediate popular sensation. It was soon reprinted, parodied and illustrated; and it made Edgar Allan Poe a household name. The Raven is one of the most famous poems in English literature and it influenced numerous later works including the famous painting Nevermore by Paul Gauguin. Interestingly, Poe was only paid $9 for the publication of The Raven.

Despite finally achieving fame and becoming a popular writer, Poe continued to struggle financially. Among other things, he advocated for higher wages for writers and an international copyright law. Furthermore, Poe publicly accused the popular writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. This resulted in a backlash against Poe and alienated him from other writers.

 

Marriage And Death

In the early 1830s, while Poe was living in his aunt’s house, his cousin Virginia became his literary inspiration as well as his love interest. On 16th May 1836, Edgar Allan Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm in Richmond. Poe was 27 years old at the time. Although Virginia was only 13, a witness falsely attested her age to be 21. In 1847, at the age of 24, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe died due to tuberculosis. This was the same age at which Poe’s mother and brother had died.

Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe
Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe – Poe’s wife

Poe was devastated after his wife’s death. His lifelong struggle with depression and alcoholism worsened; and he was known to be increasingly unstable with bouts of heavy drinking and erratic behavior. Around a year after his wife’s death, Poe re-started a relationship with his childhood sweetheart, the widowed Sarah Elmira Royster. However, her children disapproved and her dead husband’s will stipulated that remarriage would remove three-quarters of her estate. Poe pressed Sarah to marry him before he left Richmond but she wanted time to consider his proposal.

Statue of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore
Statue of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore

Poe left Richmond on September 27, 1849. On October 3, 1849, he was found in an acutely disturbed state of mind in the streets of Baltimore. Joseph W. Walker, the person who found him, described Poe to be “in great distress and in need of immediate medical assistance.” Poe was admitted at the Washington Medical College and he died four days later on October 7, 1849. He was 40 years old.

Edgar Allan Poe grave
Grave of Edgar Allan Poe

The cause of Edgar Allan Poe’s death remains a mystery. At the time of his death, newspapers reported that he had died of “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation”. These phrases were common euphemisms to report a death from disreputable causes such as alcoholism. However, it is difficult to confirm this fact and no one knows his actual cause of death. A range of theories to explain his death have been proposed since then, including rabies, epilepsy, alcoholism, delirium tremens, heart disease, syphilis, cholera, carbon monoxide poisoning and even murder.

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