This Day In Literary History
On January 19th, 1809, the legendary American writer Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents, Henry Leonard Poe and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, were both actors.
At the time of his birth, they were in a production of Shakespeare's King Lear, and Edgar may have been named after the character in the play.
When Edgar was a year old, his father abandoned the family. A year later, his mother died of tuberculosis. He was adopted by Scottish merchant John Allan, who changed his name to Edgar Allan Poe and had him baptized in the Episcopal Church.
As a parent, John Allan proved to be a man of extremes; he was both an incredibly doting father and a ferociously strict and aggressive disciplinarian. In 1815, the Allans sailed to England.
At six, Poe briefly attended a grammar school in his adoptive father's hometown of Irvine, Scotland. By 1816, he rejoined his family in London, where he attended a boarding school in Chelsea until 1817.
By 1820, Poe and his family had moved back to the United States, settling in Richmond, Virginia. In 1824, Poe, then fifteen years old, served as a lieutenant in the Richmond youth honor guard during the celebrated visit of the Marquis de Lafayette.
Two years later, Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia, where he majored in languages. The university had been founded just a year earlier by Thomas Jefferson.
The experimental college had strict rules against such things as tobacco, alcohol, and gambling, yet it also employed an honor system of student self-government.
Poe found the system chaotic and dysfunctional, adding to the stress he was already under. His engagement to his childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster had been broken off, and he became estranged from his father after his gambling debts cut into his college finances.
A year later, still struggling to pay for his education and unhappy with the honor system, he left university. After he learned that Sarah had married another man, Poe believed there was nothing left for him in Richmond.
So, in 1827, he moved to Boston, where he worked as a clerk and a newspaper writer. He began writing poetry and fiction under the pseudonym Henri Le Rennet.
In May of 1827, unable to support himself, Poe enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army, using the alias Edgar A. Perry. He claimed he was 22 years old, though he was really 18. He was stationed at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor and earned $5 a month.
That same year, his first book was published. It was a poetry collection titled Tamerlane and Other Poems. The byline read "by a Bostonian." Only 50 copies of the book were printed, and it went practically unnoticed.
Poe's regiment was posted to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, where he won a promotion and his monthly pay was doubled. After serving for two years, he was promoted to Sergeant Major for Artillery.
Then he decided that he wanted to end his five-year enlistment early and enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He revealed his real name and age to his commanding officer, Lieutenant Howard.
Howard would only discharge him if he agreed to reconcile with his adoptive father, John Allan. He wrote to John repeatedly, but received no reply. When he visited him in February of 1829, Poe found that his father hadn't even bothered to tell him that his mother had died.
Despite this, Poe and his father did reconcile, and John Allan supported his decision to leave the Army. Before entering West Point, Poe moved to Baltimore to stay with his widowed aunt Maria, her daughter Virginia, his brother Henry, and his grandmother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe.
His second poetry collection, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems was published. In October of 1830, Poe's father remarried. Poe disapproved of both the marriage and the illegitimate children sired as the result of John Allan's philandering.
This led to bitter quarrels between the two men, and Poe's father disowned him. Poe left West Point by deliberately getting himself court martialed. In February of 1831, he moved to New York City.
There, he released his third poetry collection, Poems. The book was financed in part by Poe's fellow West Point cadets, who loved the satirical poems he wrote that made fun of their commanding officers.
In Poe's third book, his long poems Tamerlane and Al Aaraaf were included again. The book also featured early versions of To Helen, Israfel, and The City In The Sea.
A month after he arrived in New York, Poe returned to Baltimore to stay with his aunt, cousin, and brother. His older brother Henry died five months later from complications due to alcoholism. Afterward, Poe decided to try and make a living as a writer.
Unfortunately, copyright laws were practically nonexistent in the early 19th century, and pirated editions of literary works were common. Undaunted, Poe put his poetry on the back burner and turned to prose. He sold a few short stories and began work on his only play, Politian.
In 1833, Poe's short story MS. Found In A Bottle won him a prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. It also brought him to the attention of John P. Kennedy, a novelist and prominent Baltimorian.
Kennedy helped him sell some more stories and land a job as assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond in August of 1835. He was fired a few weeks later for being drunk on the job.
Poe returned to Baltimore, where he secretly married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia. After he promised to behave, Poe was reinstated at the Messenger. He and Virginia and her mother moved to Richmond. Poe and Virginia later had a second, public wedding ceremony.
By 1838, Poe's only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, was published. It was widely reviewed and praised. In the summer of 1839, Poe became the assistant editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine.
There, he published numerous short stories, reviews, and articles, building his reputation as both a writer and a critic. That same year, his classic short story collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, was published in two volumes.
Regarded today as one of the all time great works of American literature, the collection received mixed reviews and he made little money from it. In 1840, Poe became assistant editor of Graham's Magazine.
He made plans to start his own literary magazine, The Stylus, but his plans fell through. Two years later, his wife Virginia was stricken with tuberculosis. As her illness worsened, he began drinking heavily.
He left Graham's and returned to New York, where he worked for the Evening Mirror, which would publish his celebrated poem, The Raven, in January of 1845.
Poe was paid only $9 for it, but the poem became a huge hit and made him a household name. Children would follow him as he walked down the street, and he would caw "Nevermore!" at them. They would scream and pretend to run away, then laugh and follow him until he cawed "Nevermore!" at them again.
Poe later become editor and then owner of The Broadway Journal. Still drinking, Poe would alienate himself from his fellow writers when he publicly accused poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. Longfellow never responded to the charge.
After The Broadway Journal failed, Poe moved into a cottage in The Bronx, which is known today as Poe Cottage. Not long after he moved in, his wife Virginia died of tuberculosis. Poe was devastated and plunged into a quagmire of alcoholism and mental illness.
Later, he dated poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island. Their engagement was called off as a result of Poe's drinking, his mental instability, and the interference of Sarah's mother, who did all she could to sabotage the relationship.
Poe returned to Richmond and resumed his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster. He returned to Baltimore, then mysteriously disappeared. On October 3rd, 1849, he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore by a man named Joseph W. Walker.
Severely ill, incoherent, and wearing someone else's clothes, Edgar Allan Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he died four days later at the age of 40. His death certificate and medical records were lost, so the actual cause of his death remains a mystery.
Newspapers reported that he died of "congestion of the brain" or "cerebral inflammation," which were common euphemisms used when a person died of illicit causes such as alcoholism, drug addiction, or venereal disease.
Before his disappearance, Poe had given a manuscript to a friend of his. It was something he'd written a while back, a poem he described as "a little trifle that may be worth something to you." It was the manuscript for his last great poem, Annabel Lee, which would be published two days after he died.
Rufus Griswold, an enemy of Poe's, somehow became his literary executor. He wrote a biography of Poe called Memoir of the Author, where he described Poe as a depraved madman addled by drink and drugs.
Most of Griswold's claims were lies or half-truths; for example, although Poe was an opium user and wrote about it, he was a casual user and never became addicted to the drug.
Griswold's biography was virulently denounced by those who knew Edgar Allan Poe. The letters that Griswold presented as proof of his claims were later revealed to be forgeries.
Edgar Allan Poe's writings, especially his classic horror stories such as The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, The Cask Of Amontillado, and The Fall of the House of Usher continue to inspire new generations of writers.
Quote Of The Day
"Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality." - Edgar Allan Poe
Today's video features a complete reading of Edgar Allan Poe's classic short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. Enjoy!