Edgar Allan Poe was born January 19, 1809, and died October 7, 1849; he lived only forty years, but during his brief lifetime, he made a permanent place for himself in American literature and also in world literature. A few facts about Poe's life are indisputable, but, unfortunately, almost everything else about Poe's life has been falsified, romanticized, slanderously distorted, or subjected to grotesque Freudian interpretations. Poe, it has been said at various times, was a manic depressive, a dope addict, an epileptic, and an alcoholic; moreover, it has been whispered that he was syphilitic, that he was impotent, and that he fathered at least one illegitimate child. Hardly any of Poe's biographers have been content to write a straight account of his life. This was particularly true of his early biographers, and only recently have those early studies been refuted. Intrigued with the horror and mystery of Poe's stories and by the dark romanticism of his poetry, his early critics and biographers often embroidered on the facts of his past in order to create their own imaginative vision of what kind of man produced these "strange" tales and poems. Thus Poe's true genius was neglected for a long time. Indeed, probably more fiction has been written about this American literary master than he himself produced; finally, however, fair and unbiased evaluations of his writings and of his life are available to us, and we can judge for ourselves what kind of a man Poe was. Yet, because the facts are scarce, Poe's claim to being America's first authentic neurotic genius will probably remain, and it is possible that Poe would be delighted.
Both of Poe's parents were professional actors, and this fact in itself has fueled many of the melodramatic myths that surround Poe. Poe's mother was a teenage widow when she married David Poe, and Edgar was their second son. Poe's father had a fairly good reputation as an actor, but he had an even wider reputation as an alcoholic. He deserted the family a year after Poe was born, and the following year, Poe's mother died while she was acting in Richmond, Virginia.
The children were parceled out, and young Poe was taken in as a foster-child by John Allan, a rich southern merchant. Allan never legally adopted Poe, but he did try to give him a good home and a good education.
When Poe was six years old, the Allans moved to England, and for five years Poe attended the Manor House School, conducted by a man who was a good deal like the schoolmaster in "William Wilson." When the Allans returned to America, Poe began using his legal name for the first time.
Poe and his foster-father often quarreled during his adolescence and as soon as he was able to leave home, Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia. While he was there, he earned a good academic record, but Mr. Allan never allowed him the means to live in the style his social status demanded. When Poe tried to keep up with his high-living classmates, he incurred so many gambling debts that the parsimonious Mr. Allan prevented his returning for a second year of study.
Unhappy at home, Poe got money somehow (probably from Mrs. Allan) and went to Boston, where he arranged for publication of his first volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). He then joined the army. Two years later, when he was a sergeant-major, he received a discharge to enter West Point, to which he was admitted with Mr. Allan's help. Again, however, he felt frustrated because of the paltry allowance which his foster-father doled out to him, so he arranged to be court-martialed and dismissed.
Poe's next four years were spent in Baltimore, where he lived with an aunt, Maria Clemm; these were years of poverty. When Mr. Allan died in 1834, Poe hoped that he would receive some of his foster-father's fortune, but he was disappointed. Allan left him not a cent. For that reason, Poe turned from writing poetry, which he was deeply fond of — despite the fact that he knew he could never live off his earnings — and turned to writing stories, for which there was a market. He published five tales in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier in 1832, and because of his talent and certain influential friends, he became an editorial assistant at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond in December 1835.
The editor of the Messenger recognized Poe's genius and published several of his stories, but he despaired at Poe's tendency to "sip the juice." Nevertheless, Poe's drinking does not seem to have interfered with his duties at the magazine; its circulation grew, Poe continued producing stories, and while he was advancing the reputation of the Messenger, he created a reputation of his own — not only as a fine writer, but also as a keen critic.
Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, in 1836, when she was fourteen years old. He left the Messenger the following year and took his aunt and wife to New York City. There, Poe barely eked out a living for two years as a free-lance writer. He did, however, finish a short novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and sold it to the Messenger, where it was published in two installments. Harper's bought out the magazine in 1838, but Poe never realized any more money from the novel because his former boss had recorded that the Narrative was only "edited" by Poe.
From New York City, the Poes moved to Baltimore, and for two years, the young family lived in even more dire poverty than they had in New York City. Poe continued writing, however, and finally in May 1839, he was hired as a co-editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. He held this position for a year, during which he published some of his best fiction, including "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "William Wilson."
Because of his drinking, Poe lost his job the following year. This was unfortunate because his Tales of the Grotesque, which had been published several months earlier, was not selling well. Once again, Poe and his wife found themselves on the edge of poverty, but Poe's former employer recommended Poe to the publisher of Graham's, and once again Poe found work as an editor while he worked on his own fiction and poetry.
In January 1842, Poe suffered yet another setback. His wife, Virginia, burst a blood vessel in her throat. She did recover, but Poe's restlessness began to grow, as did the frequency of his drinking bouts, and he left Graham's under unpleasant circumstances. He attempted to found his own magazine and failed; he worked on cheap weeklies for awhile and, in a moment of despair, he went to Washington to seek out President Tyler. According to several accounts, he was so drunk when he called on the President that he wore his cloak inside out.
Shortly afterward, Poe moved his family to New York City and began working for the Sunday Times. The following year was a good one: James Russell Lowell praised Poe's talent and genius in an article, and Poe's poem "The Raven" was published and received rave reviews. Seemingly, Poe had "made it"; "The Raven" was the sensation of the literary season. Poe began lecturing about this time and, shortly afterward, a new collection of his short stories appeared, as well as a collection of his poetry.
Most biographers agree that Poe died of alcoholism — officially, "congestion of the brain." However, in 1996, cardiologist R. Michael Benitez, after conducting a blind clinical pathologic diagnosis of the symptoms of a patient described only as "E.P., a writer from Richmond," concluded that Poe died not from alcoholic poisoning, but from rabies. According to Dr. Benitez, Poe had become so hypersensitive to alcohol in his later years that he became ill for days after only one glass of wine. Benitez also refutes the myth that Poe died in a gutter, stating that he died at Washington College Hospital after four days of hallucinating and shouting at imaginary people.