Updated: Dec 18, 2022
Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, poet, editor and literary critic. That’s what Wikipedia will tell you. However, the real story of the real man is almost as disturbing as one of his dark short stories, drenched in tragedy, dripping in sardonic irony interspersed with fits of manic laughter. Poe spawned a new genre with his detective fiction built around the ever-suffering Auguste Dupin, there was no denial of the influence he had from later giants of the genre.
“Edgar Allan Poe, who, in his carelessly prodigal fashion, threw out the seeds from which so many of our present forms of literature have sprung, was the father of the detective tale, and covered its limits so completely that I fail to see how his followers can find any fresh ground which they can confidently call their own.” Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series.
He opened up a seam of chaotic, macabre pleasure that repurposed the gothic genre and focused on sanity, the heavy burden of existence, and the mechanics and ultimate corruption of the soul.
“I became insane, with long periods of horrible sanity.” - Poe
But what made this ordinary man plunge so far into the abyss in search of ink for his pages?
Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1810, in Boston to his half Irish Father David and English mother Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Poe. They were both actors, this early exposure to the portrayal of people as characters and life through the Thespian lens may well have influenced him, although only as a story told him by his guardians. His Father left them both in 1810, his mother died the following year. Poe, now an orphan was unofficially adopted by John and Frances Allan, who raised him as their own until it became something of a burden.
Poe, like his natural father, was drawn to the darker forms of entertainment and as a young man, drank and gambled himself into debt that caused endless confrontations between himself and Allan.
“The boy possesses not a spark of affection for us, not a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him.” Letter from John Allan to Henry Poe (Edgar Allan Poe’s brother) 1824
Allan refused to continue paying for his education at the University of Virginia where he was studying classical and modern languages, in an act of defiance and through financial necessity in 1827 Poe enlisted in the United States army. At the same time, he published his first work Tamerlane and other Poems, as he began to dream of being a writer, a profession that made a living for perhaps a handful of people in the US during the 1800s, partly due to the lack of international copyright laws. This would be an issue that kept Poe in poverty throughout his life, despite consistently producing content that was not only genre-defining but greatly received. When Dickens would visit the US he would make many speeches in New York against the common practice of mass reproducing creative content, leaving the writer with next to nothing. These were the writers striving for keep in an era of free print reproduction, and so, Poe, like many before him would be a writer for the craft, fame and fortune would allude him during his lifetime.
During his time at University, Poe became romantically involved with Sarah Elimira Royster, a woman he adored and intended to marry. Although in a fashion characteristic of his literature, desire would be diverted by fate or circumstance, she would marry someone else in his absence and his heartbreak would become eternal.
“There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.” - Poe
Along with his mounting debt, the news of Royster’s engagement forced his decision to quit University and in 1827 he joined the US military under an assumed name as it offered housing and steady pay. Meanwhile, he produced his first literary venture titled Tamerlane and other poems, 50 copies were printed and it produced no interest. After two years, Poe had doubled his pay and achieved the highest rank available to a non-commissioned officer, he sought to end his five year service early. In doing so, he revealed his true name and circumstances to his commanding officer. They made an agreement that in order for his early release from service he must make contact with Allan and assume his name, at which point he officially became Edgar Allan Poe.
In September 1829 Poe received “the very first words of encouragement I ever remember to have heard” from renowned critic John Neal, who had reviewed his poetry. Poe was so taken aback, he dedicated one of the poems in his second book to Neal and his dream of becoming a writer was renewed.
Poe moved to West Point and matriculated as a cadet, as per Allan’s wishes. Allan remarried, the arguments that ensued between Poe and Allan regarding his new marriage would lead to Allan disowning him, leaving him truly, financially dependent on his own means. He decided to leave West Point and intentionally got himself court-martialled for gross neglect of duty and disobedience. He left for New York in 1831 and released a third volume of poems financed by his fellow cadets from West Point who had donated 75cents each, raising $170.
Later that year he returned home to Baltimore, where his brother Henry had been in poor health due to his alcoholism, he died later that year.
“Never to suffer would never to have been blessed.” - Poe
Following his brother's death, he focused more seriously on a writing career. A few of his short stories got him noticed and in 1835 he was given the opportunity to be assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, a position he held for two weeks before being discharged for being drunk on the job.
He returned to Baltimore, where he obtained a license to marry his 13 year old cousin Virginia Clemm, they were married in 1836 with a witness falsely claiming her age to be 21. They would stay happily married for 11 years until her death.
Poe was given a second chance at the Southern Literary Messenger under the promise of good behaviour and he returned, working as a critic and publishing his own work for the next couple of years.
Poe attempted to enter politics within the administration of President John Tyler, he was even promised a position through a contact but failed to turn up to the interview due to being drunk. Around this time, his wife Virginia was struck with consumption, the stress of her condition would drive him to drink even more.
In 1845 he published his poem ‘The Raven’ in the Evening Mirror and it became an instant hit, although he was only paid $9 for its publication. He moved, with his wife, to a cottage in what is now the Bronx in New York. In 1847 Virginia died and Poe’s behaviour became ever more erratic, drinking and unpredictable.
It wouldn’t be long before Poe would follow his wife, on October 3, 1849, he was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore "in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance", according to Joseph W. Walker, who found him. He was not coherent enough to explain how he had ended up in this condition or why he was wearing clothes that didn’t belong to him, although he repeatedly cried out the name ‘Reynolds’ and sources say his last words were “Lord help my poor soul.” All medical records including his death certificate disappeared.
“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.” - Poe
His most famous work includes:
The cask of Amontillado
The Masque of the red death
The pit and the pendulum
A descent into the Maelstrom
The premature burial
The black cat
And many more… check out his work for free, at the Gutenberg project.