Edgar Allan Poe at 207
Today marks the 207th anniversary of the birth of author and poet extraordinaire, Edgar Allan Poe. This author is best remembered for his haunting poems, such as Annabel Lee and– most famously– The Raven, as well as such macabre short stories as The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe dabbled in early science fiction (The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall) and is considered to be one of the “inventors” of the modern detective story (The Murders in the Rue Morgue). Oddly enough, the versatile writer never completed a full-length novel. He began writing one, a Western, entitled The Journal of Julius Rodman, which appeared in serialized form in a periodical called Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine. After the sixth installment, Poe was fired, and he refused to complete the novel. He might have changed his mind, had premature death not interrupted his creative flow. Perhaps, if he had lived longer than forty years… If his life had not been so suddenly, mysteriously interrupted… Well, we can only imagine what additional masterpieces he might have left behind.
Born in Boston on January 19, 1909, Edgar was an orphan by the time he was a toddler. He and his siblings were separated and adopted out to different families. Edgar moved to Richmond, VA, with his adoptive parents. His new father, John Allan, was a wealthy tobacco merchant, who sent young Edgar to England to receive a good education. This is where he learned the Latin he’d later incorporate into many of his stories. He showed an early affinity for writing. Reportedly, young Edgar had composed enough poetry by the age of thirteen, to make a book. However, his adoptive father (who wanted Edgar to follow him into the tobacco industry), as well as the headmaster of his school discouraged this.
Edgar spent time as a college student at the University of Virginia. However he soon found himself in debt, receiving little or no assistance from John Allan, and having developed a gambling habit. This, coupled with romantic frustrations, were perhaps catalysts that led Edgar to join the United States Army. There, he eventually achieved the rank of Sergeant Major. He then went on to West Point, but was kicked out for disobeying rules and neglect of duty.
Throughout the next few years, Edgar moved around frequently, living in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Richmond. He published some poetry, but was mostly faced with rejection when it came to his short stories. Poe’s first breakthrough came in 1833, when he won a contest with his short story The Manuscript Found in a Bottle. Not only did he win $50 in prize money, but the victory also lead to a job at Southern Literary Messenger, a periodical where he served as a staff writer and critic. Eventually, Edgar was fired due to his alcoholism.
In 1835, Poe famously married his first cousin, Virginia Clemm. He was 27 at the time; she was 13. Their marriage produced no children, and ended tragically, when Virginia died at age 25 of tuberculosis. Edgar’s drinking worsened after this. Although Edgar could not bear to look upon his poor dead wife’s face (strange, since he wrote many tales of beautiful dead women), he commissioned an artist to paint a portrait of her corpse, since no photographs of Virginia existed.
Other journalistic jobs fell came and went, with Edgar inevitably finding himself right back where he started from: poor, and without steady work. Incredibly, the majority of Poe’s writings were not well-respected during his lifetime. His short story, The Gold Bug earned him a $100 prize in 1843. This is believed to have been the highest amount Poe was ever paid for a single one of his works. In 1845, his most famous poem, The Raven, was published. While it was wildly popular, it brought Poe fame, but not fortune.
On October 3, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found “in great distress” in a public house in Baltimore. He was rushed to a nearby hospital. There, he lingered for a few days, slipping in and out of consciousness, but he was never coherent enough to explain what had happened to him. He died on October 7. Speculation on the cause of death ranged from brain inflammation, to heart disease, to poisoning (either by alcohol or something more illicit), and even rabies. Another strange theory was that Poe had been the victim of a crime known as “cooping.” This was a horrific act practiced by shady political gangs of the period. They would kidnap innocent bystanders, somehow drug them, and force them to go from poll to poll, repeatedly voting for a candidate under different false identities. The criminals would even change the victim’s clothes as they shuttled him from place to place, as a cheap attempt at “disguising” them. Outrageous as it sounds, this theory makes sense, as Poe was found wearing clothes that apparently weren’t his own… in a bar that was doubling as a polling place on Election Day. No death certificate exists.
If you are a Poe fans with a travel budget, you might want to visit The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore. The small. two-story, brick structure retains much of the original woodwork from when the author resided there. While in the city, one must also stop at Poe’s original burial site, where an elegant monument is erected in his honor.
Meanwhile, in Richmond, Virginia, the Poe Museum is a must-see. Located a few blocks from where the author lived, the building houses an extensive collection of Poe’s handwritten manuscripts, letters, and personal belongings. While there, you might meet one of the two resident black cats, Edgar and Pluto, who serve as mascots. Some couples even get married in the so-called Enchanted Garden on the property (this costs roughly $1,000 to book).
Poe would certainly be shocked and amused that he is so revered, two centuries after he walked the earth. Who knows, maybe his ghostly figure mingles among the partygoers at one of the many celebrations held in his honor around the country, both on his birthday and towards Halloween, seamlessly blending in with the costumed revelers. Keep an eye out for a mysterious gent, slight of build, sipping on a glass of absinth…