Poe, Edgar Allan

Born: 1809-01-19 Boston, Massachusetts

Died: 1849-10-07 Baltimore, Maryland

Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, and literary critic. Orphaned at the age of three, Poe became the ward of the Allan family of Richmond, Virginia. At the age of six and a half, he accompanied the Allans to London, where Poe received his early education at various boarding schools. Moving back to Richmond in 1820, Poe continued his education at private academies, where he excelled in languages, writing, and such sports as boxing and swimming. In 1826, Poe enrolled in the University of Virginia. He returned to Richmond after one year, however, having suffered a romantic disappointment; Elmira Royster, to whom he had become engaged before leaving for Charlottesville, had not responded to his letters, effectively ending their relationship. (Her father, who disapproved of the match, had intercepted her letters). Poe also had financial problems, accumulating gambling debts, which John Allan, his guardian, refused to pay. Facing jail for failure to pay his debts and estranged from John Allan, Poe left Richmond for Boston, where in June 1827, he published anonymously a small volume of poems entitled Tamerlane and Other Poems. At the time of this publication, Poe was a private in the U.S. Army, having enlisted for a five-year term. He rose to the rank of sergeant major, but after two years wished to resign. A sympathetic commanding officer agreed on the condition that Poe reconcile with John Allan. The death of Allan's wife in February 1829 facilitated the reconciliation, and Allan agreed to support Poe's plan to leave the army and enroll in the U.S. Military Academy. While waiting for the application procedure to be completed, Poe, in December 1829, published Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. Admitted to West Point in the spring of 1830, Poe excelled in French and mathematics, but John Allan's remarriage prompted Allan to cut off any further communication with his ward. Poe responded by contriving to get himself court-martialed out of the academy. Making his way to New York City, Poe published Poems by Edgar A. Poe, which contained early versions of works he would perfect later. After a few months, he settled in Baltimore, living with his Aunt Maria and eking out a meager living writing fiction. Having fallen in love with his cousin Virginia, and wishing to marry, Poe needing a steady income, and in August 1834, he accepted an offer to help with the editorial duties of the Southern Literary Messenger. In September he and Virginia married. Poe proved a first-rate editor at the Messenger, but his frequent drinking led to frequent arguments with Thomas Willis White, owner and principal editor of the Messenger. He left the Messenger in early 1837, and for the next two and a half years, he, Maria, and Virginia lived out a meager existence, first in New York City and later in Philadelphia, as Poe sought to make a living with the odd writing assignments, all the while battling to control his addiction to alcohol. In June 1839, he found steady employment as an assistant editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. His contributions to Burton's included "William Wilson" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," and in late 1839, he published Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, a two-volume collection of short fiction that established him as a leading figure on the American literary scene. Leaving Burton's, Poe joined Graham's Magazine in February 1841. He wrote prolifically, contributing nearly a tale a month to Graham's, including "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in April 1841. Unhappy with his status at Graham's and hoping to start his own literary magazine, Poe resigned in April 1842. Failing to launch his own magazine and solve his chronic financial problems by obtaining a post at the Philadelphia Customs House, Poe's unhappiness grew as his wife, affectionately referred to as "Sissy," began suffering symptoms of tuberculosis. Her recurring bouts of relapse and recovery increased Poe's alcoholism. In April 1844, Poe moved his family to a farm just outside New York City, where he took a job writing anonymous fillers for the New York Evening Mirror. Though a comedown from his previous literary posts, Poe's job with the Evening Mirror saw his fame increase, as the paper, in January 1845, published "The Raven," perhaps Poe's most famous poem. In early 1845, Poe and his family moved into New York City proper, and he began editing the Broadway Journal. He would eventually take over as publisher of the Journal, but financial woes forced the magazine to fold. Emotional turmoil over Sissy's worsening condition, feuds with other writers, and accusations of extra-marital dalliances added to Poe's troubles, and made him unwelcome in New York City literary circles. Fleeing the city in March 1846 seeking a more healthful environment for Sissy, Poe settled in Fordham, New York, but Sissy's condition worsened, and she died in January 1847. Hoping to stabilize and rehabilitate himself through re-marriage, Poe pursued three women simultaneously before Sarah Helen Whitman, a rich widow from Providence, Rhode Island, agreed to an engagement in November 1848, on the condition that he stop drinking. In December, Helen agreed to marry him, but Poe later arrived at her house drunk, violating the terms of their engagement. Separating from Helen, Poe ventured south in 1849 seeking subscribers for a new journal. He returned to Richmond, where, in July, he proposed marriage to Elmira Royster, now a wealthy widow. Royster accepted his proposal, and Poe returned to New York City in September to settle his affairs. He would be found in a Baltimore tavern on October 3, semi-conscious, and would die a few days later, most likely due to lethal amounts of alcohol.

Gravestone, Westminster Burial Ground, Baltimore, MD; Kenneth Silverman, "Poe, Edgar Allan," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17:608-11.