Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Classic Corner: Story of a Madman

By JccKeith

Totally Valid Picture
  • *I would like to say that I never met the guy, so none of this information was given to me first hand - so you decide for yourself whether he was crazy or just some poor schlub with a tough life*

Most people know Edgar Allan Poe from his dark tales such as The Raven or The Tell-Tale Heart.  He is portrayed as the tortured artist, the madman or just that creepy looking guy who writes weird stuff.  Honestly, the pictures we have of him do make him look a little scary.  In his defense, I doubt they had retakes for pictures back then in the early 1800s. 

Poe was born to a couple of actors in Boston on January 19, 1809.  A year after he was born, his father abandoned the family (sounds like a real stand up guy).  The family at the time was his mother, himself, an older brother and a younger sister.  A year after his father left, his mother died of pulmonary tuberculosis.  So, at the ripe old age of 3, Poe was an orphan. He and his siblings were split up to different families.

Luckily for Poe, he was taken in as a youngster by a wealthy foster family, the Allans.  They never adopted him, and there is no listed reason as to why, but did add the Allan to his name anyway.  
Although there is no official reason, John Allan would later writer to Edgar's brother and say, "...for he does nothing... The boy possesses not a Spark of affection for us, not a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness toward him."  
He was now officially Edgar Allan Poe.  He went with the family to Britain in 1815 then attended a grammar school in Scotland for about a year before meeting back up with the family in London.

Lord Byron
This may be the time period where Poe was introduced to the writings of his childhood hero, Lord Byron (notably also a man known to be quite crazy).  This fascination with Byron’s works compelled Poe to desire to be a writer rather than a businessman or Virginia Gentleman as the Allan’s wished him to be.  Poe had written enough poetry by the age of 13 to be compiled into a book but the world was against him.  His headmaster at school advised him against publishing.

Poe moved back to Richmond, Virginia with the Allans in 1820 and at some point between 1820 and 1826 became engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster.  After this is where things get a little uncertain.  In 1826 Poe attended the newly created University of Virginia. He was doing great in his classes but also accumulating a huge gambling debt on the side.  The uncertain part is that Poe claimed his foster father, Allan, had only given him a third of the money needed to enroll for classes, buy books, pay rent, eat, etc.  Allan claims he not only provided enough but sent more after becoming aware of the debt but Poe continued to gamble it away.

In support of our poor Mr. Poe, we’ll believe him and say his terrible, unsupportive foster father skimped on the college fund.  Poe was so desperately poor at the University that he was forced to gamble to raise money to pay for classes and books.  At one point, things were so bad he had to burn his furniture to stay warm.  It was humiliating for Poe and he couldn’t take it so he moved back to Richmond.

Not Poe,
Emily Dickinson
Has Nothing to Do
with this article
Upon returning home to the Allan house, Poe discovered his fiancée Elmira had become engaged to another man.  In his absence at the University, she had left him and shortly later, married Alexander Shelton.  Poe was devastated, understandably, and things became worse in the Allan house.  After numerous fights and increasing hostility, Poe left to pursue his dream of becoming a poet.

Poe moved to Boston in 1827 and worked at odd jobs to support himself.  At some point, he used the pseudonym Henri Le Rennet.  He published his first book Tamerlane  when he was eighteen but it was ignored by the public.  Unable to support himself, he then enlisted in the United States Army under the name Edgar A. Perry.  Although only 18, he claimed to be 21.  There are no given reasons for his little charade. 

Two years after enlisting and being promoted, doing quite well, Poe heard his foster mother; Frances Allan was dying of tuberculosis.  Poe was very attached to her as she was the only mother he had ever known.  He wanted to see her before she died so he attempted to end his 5 years enlistment early.  He revealed his charade and real name and circumstances to his Lt.  The Lt. refused to discharge him without a letter from his foster father Allan.  Allan at first refused to send the letter but with the death of his wife looming, he ultimately conceded.  Poe made it home to Richmond the day after Frances Allan was buried.

Allan and Poe briefly tried to work things out and Allan helped him get into West Point. Before going to West Point, Poe published another set of his works, Al Araaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, which was also ignored.  During this time he was staying in Baltimore with his aunt and her daughter Virginia Eliza Clem, who was Poe’s first cousin. 

Edgar Allan Poe
After entering West Point, Poe was informed his foster father, Allan, had remarried.  Allan had not written to tell Poe nor had he invited him to the ceremony.  Poe wrote Allan to tell him all of the wrongs he had committed against Poe and threatened to get himself kicked out of West Point.  After 8 months, Poe deliberately got himself court martialed and was indeed, kicked out of West Point.

Apparently, Poe had been popular with his fellow cadets because they helped him get together the money to publish his third book, Poems.  Poe at this point was broke and alone.  Returning to Baltimore to seek out family, Poe was robbed by one of his cousins.  Shortly after, in August 1831, his older brother, whom he had communicated with sporadically throughout his life, died from tuberculosis.  Poe was eventually taken in by his aunt and her daughter Virginia Eliza Clem. 

Allan also died during this time period and left Poe completely out of his will, although providing for an illegitimate child Allan had never met.  Poe began publishing his short stories, one of which won a prize by the Saturday Visitor.  This provided connections which secured him an editorial position at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. 

His time at the Messenger finally allowed him to be a magazine writer.  Within a year, Poe’s presence at the magazine increased sales.  His fantastic stories and brutal literary reviews were extremely popular.  Fellow critics called him “Tomahawk Man” because he was fearless in his critics, attacking both the author’s work, the author and the literary world in general. 

Poe brought his aunt Maria and her daughter Virginia to live with him in Richmond.  He then married Virginia, his first cousin, who was 13 at the time.  Poe was 26 and on the marriage certificate, listed Virginia as 21.  She was only 13.  Their marriage, however, was a happy one as indicated in a poem by Virginia some time later.

Poe was eventually dissatisfied with his pay at the Messenger and moved to New York for a year.  Unable to make ends meet with the financial Panic of 1837 going on, Poe moved to Philadelphia in 1838.  There he wrote for several magazines, serving as editor at Burton’s and Graham’s.  He also sold articles to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger and others.  It still wasn’t enough t make ends meet.  His first book of short stories was published, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, but he was paid only with 25 free copies.

Walt Whitman
Poe really disliked
this guy's work
Unhappy with the low wages paid to writers, unable to make ends meet, Poe decided to start up his own magazine.  He was a vocal supporter of higher payments to writers and an international copyright law.  In his time, publishers were just stealing works from Britain and publishing them in America thus allowing them to not have to pay American writers for new works.  Unfortunately, Poe’s journal, The Stylus, never found enough funding and wasn’t published until after his death.

Tragically, in 1842, his wife Virginia began to show the first signs of tuberculosis.  Poe began to drink heavily and behave erratically.  In 1844, he moved to New York again and succeeding in a grand hoax.  He published a story about a balloon trip across the ocean and people rushed to read all about it.  Poe eventually revealed it all to be a lie, there was no balloon trip over the ocean. 

In 1845, he found large success with the publishing of The Raven.  Oddly, The Raven was concurrently published in The American Review: A Whig Journal under the pseudonym "Quarles." People took notice of Poe as a writer and he began drawing large crowds to his lectures.  He was then able to buy out the owners of the Broadway Journal.  The journal failed, Virginia’s health worsened, and rumors spread of Poe’s involvement with a married woman in 1846.  Leaving the city, he moved to a tiny cottage in The Bronx.  Virginia died in 1847 at the age of 24.  Poe was devastated and unable to write for months.

After a while, he began traveling from city to city.  He met Nancy Richmond, in Lowell, Massachusetts and fell in love.  She was already married and thus the relationship went nowhere.  Afterward he attempted to marry a poet Sarah Helen Whitman in Providence, Rhode Island.  The relationship was cut off after only a month by Whitman’s mother.  Poe returned home to Richmond and found Elmira was a widow.  He began a relationship with her.

Poe left Richmond for Baltimore and letters between himself and Elmira indicate they considered themselves engaged.  Unfortunately, Poe disappeared for five days in Baltimore.  He was found in a bar room of a public house used for polling in elections.  He was delirious and “in great distress… and in need of assistance.”  Magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass sent Poe to Washington College Hospital where Poe spent his last days alive among strangers.  His fiancée didn’t even know what had happened to him until she read it in the papers.  Poe died at the age of 40 on October 7, 1849 of unknown causes. 

His death certificate was lost and the cause of his death remains a mystery.  Speculated causes range from congestion of the brain, alcoholism, meningeal inflammation, rabies, syphilis, heart disease and even cholera.  There are even conflicting stories about his last words. 

There you have it, the tragic life of Edgar Allan Poe.  Tormented artist, demented madman, maybe, I guess we’ll never really know.  All we have for certain are his many works and a lot of hearsay for history.  There was also a ruthless campaign by critic Rufus Griswold to slander Poe’s name after his death.  It was eventually proven that many of the letters Griswold claimed were written by Poe and illustrate his depraved mindset were forged.  Much of the information Griswold presented in his biography and writings about Poe were false.  As with all things, however, the damage had been done and to this day, many still believe a lot of what Griswold wrote about Poe.

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