By Liam Nolan
The biggest mystery surrounding Edgar Allan Poe is Edward Allan Poe himself. His was an erratic, confusing and chaotic life, and the cause of his death remains a mystery to this day.
Nobody knows what he died from – was it tuberculosis, which had killed his parents, his brother, and his wife? Or alcoholic poisoning? Or a brain tumour? Or epilepsy? Or diabetes? All, and more, have been speculated on.
Had he been beaten up and left to die in the gutter? The truth will never be known.
Why was he wearing ill-fitting, dirty clothes that were clearly not his own? It was macabre – fitting for a man who is still referred to as the ‘Master of the Macabre’, and who, as a writer, liked to mislead his readers.
Born in Boston in 1809, Poe was orphaned at the age of two. His travelling-actor impoverished parents died of consumption within months of each other.
A successful merchant named John Allan who lived in Richmond, Virginia, with his wife, fostered Edgar. They never formally adopted the boy, but to all intents and purposes he became their son. He even added their name to his own and became Edgar Allan Poe.
John Allan never grew to love Edgar, and Edgar never loved John Allan.
Despite the dearth of affection between them, John Allan ensured that the boy received a decent education. He eventually enrolled Edgar in the new Jefferson University in Charlottestown, Virginia.
Poe felt an outcast at his junior schools, bullied because of his habit of repeatedly speaking in French, and incessantly quoting Horace in front of his classmates.
Within a short time of going to university in 1826, he amassed big gambling debts, and had become a heavy drinker. John Allan refused to settle the debts, and ignored the whinging letters (“For God’s sake pity me, and save me from destruction.”) Poe sent to him.
After a few months Poe left the university and went to Baltimore to stay with relatives.
He joined the U.S. Army, under the name Edgar A. Perry, and attained the rank of sergeant-major. That prompted him to try to become a commissioned army officer. West Point was the U.S. Army’s military academy, and Poe managed to get himself accepted.
He was hardly in when he wanted to get out. A life in military service was not what he really wanted. He decided to become a full-time writer.
He had already had two books of poetry published. So he got himself court martialled – the upshot was that he was kicked out of West Point.
At the age of 26, when he was editing the Southern Literary Messenger, he fell in love with Virginia Clem. The problem was: she was only 13. Another problem was that she was his first cousin!
Poe’s aunt, Virginia’s mother, relented, and the couple were married in May 1836. It was believed that the marriage was never consummated.
Between bouts of depression and drinking binges, Poe periodically hit emotional rock bottom. He began writing perfectly crafted short stories that explored the darker side of the human psyche – horror stories — and he developed an obsessive preoccupation with all things macabre. And yet he once described his stories as “half satire, half banter”.
The year after he was married, he wrote his one and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The fictional character Pym was a stowaway on board one of the many wind-driven whaling ships that every year sailed south out of Nantucket in the hunt for sperm whales. But both Poe and the publisher attempted to hoodwink the public into thinking it was a true story about a real person. It wasn’t.
The book got a mixed reception. Some accused Poe of plagiarising other works that dealt with whaling and the sea. Others said the story was too gruesome.
But over the course of the last century or so it has been hailed as one of the greatest books ever written in the English language, and Poe has been posthumously granted literary genius status.
Think of such stories as The Fall of the House of Usher, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and his long poem The Raven, the most famous of his works.
During his lifetime, although he was recognised as a fine narrative poet, a master of the short story, and the inventor of the detective tale, he struggled with poverty and depression.
He was unconscious when they found him in a Baltimore gutter on 28th September, 1849, an election day. He died in hospital four days later. He was 40 years of age. His last words were, “Lord, help my poor soul.”
Every year on Poe’s birthday, a night-time visitor to his grave leaves a half bottle of cognac and three red roses beside the headstone.
This article was the last in Liam’s One Book Authors Series. He will return with a new series on ‘The Saints’ in June’s Summer Special. His Stories Behind the Songs series will also continue in monthly issues.