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Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and in his many restless moves, lived in half a dozen Eastern cities. His true home was always in the misty mid region of Weir of his own fertile and troubled imagination. His father was David Poe, a Baltimore actor. His actress mother, Elizabeth, born of English parents, had come to the United States as a child.
The two were not notably talented; they played minor roles in rather third-rate theatrical companies. Between them they barely managed to make a living. Edgar was the second of their three children. About the time the third child was born, the father died, or disappeared, and Mrs. Poe came to Richmond with the two youngest children.
The older boy, William Henry, had already been left with relatives in Baltimore. Mrs. Poe was in the last stages of tuberculosis. Ravaged by the disease and worn out with the struggle to support her children, she died. Edgar, two years old, and the infant, Rosalie, were orphaned.
It was on a visit of charity that Mrs. Frances Allan, the wife of a rising merchant in Richmond, learned of the plight of the Poe babies. She had no children of her own and so was the more attracted to handsome little Edgar. She took him home with her, and another family took Rosalie.
This was in 1811, long before Juvenile Courts and official custody of orphaned children. John Allan Mrs. Allan would have liked to adopt Edgar, but her husband was unwilling to commit himself to a step of such permanence. The acting profession was despised at that time and even considered immoral. John Allan could not help regarding the little son of actor parents as a questionable person to inherit his name and the fortune he was busy accumulating. He was willing however, to support the child, and in time came to be proud of Edgar's good looks and intelligence.
England and Home Again When Edgar was six years old, Mr. Allens business took him to Scotland, the country from which he had come originally. The family stayed in Scotland and England for five years. Edgar went to school for a time at the Irvine Grammar School in Irvine, Scotland, and for several years at the Manor House School in Stoke Newington. Stoke Newington was later absorbed into expanding London, but when Edgar was in school there, it was an ancient village, rambling along an old Roman road with old Tudor houses lining its streets.
The school itself was a large white mansion with additions in various architectural styles. Inside, it was a labyrinth of corridors with unexpected, shallow flights of stairs from one room to another. To a small boy, even finding his dormitory was a journey of mystery. The school may have been reproduced in some of the darkly romantic houses of Poe's later stories.
Edgar was eleven when the Allan's returned to Richmond. Richmond in the 1820 s was a good place for a boy to live. It was still a small enough town for the fields, swamps, and woods to be close by. Boys swam in the river and in the little creeks, they fished, they tramped through the thick woods, looking for wild muscadines and chinquapins. Along the river ran the docks where the sailing vessels cast anchor.
In the river were the mule-drawn canal boats. In other ways, it was not so good for Edgar. Richmond preserved its aristocratic traditions more than most other places. Family was of the greatest importance.
Mr. Allan entered Edgar in the English and Classical School attended by sons of the more fashionable families in Richmond. Edgar began to feel the difference between these boys and himself. His foster fathers unwillingness to adopt him rankled in him.
He bitterly resented chance, slighting references to his actress mother. His response was to be more arrogant than his supposed betters. His sense of injury made itself evident at home in fits of temper and rebellion for which there seemed to the family no justification. Mr. Allan was a hard-headed business man with no patience for such vagaries. He handled the situation without tact by reminding the boy of his disreputable parentage; he reproached him for his lack of gratitude for his home.
In spite of the growing antagonism between foster father and son, Mr. Allen was willing to send Edgar to the University of Virginia. Edgar, in turn, was eager to go, to escape the Allen household if for no other reason. The student life of the University was more social than academic.
The young men drank too much, gambled too much, fought for the sheer enjoyment of violence, and rampaged over the campus at all hours. This was the worst possible environment for young Poe with his emotionally unstable temperament. He was unusually susceptible to alcohol; one mild drink sent him into a state of wild excitement. He gambled recklessly, incurring debts he could not begin to pay.
Mr. Allan's pride and thrift could not tolerate such conduct. Without ceremony, he pulled Edgar out of the University and set him to work at a lowly, routine job in his counting house. This was a humiliation Edgar could not bear; his answer was to leave home. He went to Boston, where he managed to publish a collection of his poems in pamphlet form, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Desperate for money, he joined the army under the name of Edgar A.
Perry. Army barracks were no place for a young aristocrat. Poe turned to his foster father with penitent letters, pleading for a reconciliation. Mr.
Allen yielded sufficiently to purchase his release from the army, which was possible at that time. Shortly afterward, a new volume of his poems was published in Baltimore, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems. A little more than a year after his release from the Army, the young poet turned again to the idea of a military career. He passed entrance examinations and gained admission to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Poe was of two minds about the Academy: an army career was suitable for a Virginia gentleman he longed to be, but the discipline was uncongenial. The second mind won, and Poe deliberately provoked expulsion by cutting all drills and classes.
This was the last straw for Mr. Allan. Mrs. Allan's death had removed Poe's friend in the house. Mr. Allan had remarried and had no intention of further entangling himself with his troublesome foster son.
In the two years after his final rupture with Mr. Allan, Poe lived for a considerable time in Baltimore with his aunt, Mrs. Maria (Poe) Clemm. She was a poor seamstress, but she welcomed Poe into her home and took care of him. Outwardly, it was a do-nothing period for him, but inwardly it was significant. He wrote a group of unpublished short stories.
Even more importantly, he began to dramatize himself as one whom unmerciful disaster followed fast and followed faster. He probably had an inherited emotional instability which fed his feeling of persecution. In this period the year was 1833 The Saturday Visitor of Baltimore announced a literary contest with prizes of fifty dollars for the best short story, and twenty-five dollars for the best poem. Poe submitted a group of stories, Tales of the Folio Club, and a poem, The Coliseum. One of the stories, MS. Found in a Bottle, won the story prize, and his poem would have won the poetry prize except that the judges decided not to award both prizes to the same contestant.
The prize money was meager, but one of the judges, novelist John P. Kennedy, took an interest in Poe and befriended him by helping him sell a story to the new Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond. Poe joined the editorial staff of the magazine and soon became its editor. A number of his own stories appeared in its pages. Once established in his job, he brought Mrs.
Clemm and her daughter, Virginia, to live with him. A little later he married his cousin, Virginia, who was some years younger than he. From that time on, the three formed a household. He was an able editor and a discerning literary critic.
He made a name for both himself and the magazine. Poe, however, had his own private demon. Drinking was the bane of his life. He was dismissed from the Messenger for intoxication, taken back, and again dismissed for the same reason. He and the family moved to New York. Mrs.
Clemm opened a boarding house to support the three, while Poe looked for work in a publishing house or with a magazine. This was during the 1837 financial panic when various magazines were compelled to cease publication Poe was unable to find employment, but he was successful in publishing a long sea story, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. This story was so convincing in its detail that some critics were sure it was the record of an actual voyage. After two years in New York, Poe moved on to Philadelphia and began editing Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. A contract for a monthly feature set him to writing some of his stories of horror and the supernatural. These stories were collected and published under the title, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840, followed by The Prose Romances of Edgar Allan Poe.
The same year Burton's was sold, and Poe became editor of its successor, Grahams Magazine. Under his management, it became perhaps the most important American magazine of its day. In it was printed his first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which attracted wide attention for his creation of the detective During, and his method of logical deduction. The story was translated into French and discussed in French journals. Poe was accepted more readily in France than in the United States. The French poet, Baudelaire, was particularly sympathetic with him and translated much of his work.
In 1843, his story, The Gold Bug, won a $ 100 prize from the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. This brought him considerable publicity because of his novel use of the cryptogram. The next year, he left Grahams Magazine and once more moved to New York. Soon after, his poem, The Raven, was published in the New York Evening Mirror. It was reprinted in a number of magazines, and at once became extremely popular. The Raven is not by any means Poe's best poem.
It has not the haunting, other-worldly beauty of his best work, but it has a theatrical quality, which lends it to drawing-room reading. Poe himself often read it to groups, with the lamps turned down until the room was almost dark, while his voice took on an appropriately eerie tone. With The Raven, Poe reached the height of his fame. Nevertheless, his reputation brought him little money, and the family remained desperately poor.
Few free-lance writers can make a living by writing only; most depend upon editorial and other positions. Poe worked briefly on the Evening Mirror, the Broadway Journal, and wrote a series of sketches for Goes Ladys Book. he was successful in getting such editorial jobs, but he never held them long. Alcoholism and mounting mental disorder made Poe quarrelsome and unreasonable, given to outbursts of senseless rage. The title of one of his stories was The Imp of the Perverse. Such an imp seemed to possess Poe himself.
His childish tantrums and his rancorous verbal attacks offended the very persons who could have helped him most in his career. Throughout all his vicissitudes, the two women, his wife, Virginia, and her mother were unfailingly devoted to him. Much of the time, Mrs. Clemm kept boarders to make a home for Poe and Virginia. Mrs.
Clemm found no fault in him; at his worst, to her he was poor Eddie. Her motherliness cradled all his weaknesses and eccentricities. (He called her Middle. ) In her way, Virginia was equally devoted. She was sweet and gentle, but rather simple-minded. She could not follow the wild flights of Poe's erratic genius, but she gave him an adoring, unquestioned admiration which was incense to his spirit. She found a childish pleasure and absorption clipping and pasting the long scrolls on which he wrote. Poe, in turn, showed his best self to them.
Here, where there was no will beside his own, where two loyal satellites revolved about the central sun of his ego, he was at his best and gentlest. He was affectionate toward Mrs. Clemm and increasingly tender and loving to Virginia, an invalid who was slowly dying of tuberculosis. The pathetic little family made its last move to a tiny cottage in Fordham, then a village about thirteen miles from New York. Mrs.
Clemm set about making the place habitable, setting aside the best room of four as dear Eddies study. They managed through the summer, but as autumn came on, there was not even fuel to warm the house. Virginia grew steadily worse. Poe sank deeper into melancholia. In the depth of winter, Virginia died. With the loss of his wife, Poe's last hold on reality vanished.
He worked feverishly at writing a book, Eureka, which he believed would be an expression of profound truth. It was more nearly a curious hodge-podge of unproven scientific statement and wild imagining, springing from his disturbed state. He wandered from one city to another, drifted back to Richmond and on to Baltimore, where he died. Poe was the originator of the American short story.
There had been other short works of fiction, but Poe perfected the short story as an art form. Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, and Conan Doyle were influenced by him, particularly in their early writing, before each had found his individual style. Poe led in his methods of analysis in his detective stories. No one has outdone him in creating an atmosphere of morbid horror in such tales as The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell-Tale Heart. The best of his poetry is pure magic.
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