By Paula Redmond
The author Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston on January 19th 1809. His great-great – grandfather was David Poe from Co. Cavan. Edgar’s father, a former lawyer, David Poe Junior, and his English born mother, Elizabeth Arnold, worked as travelling actors. By the time Poe was three years old his father had left and his mother had succumbed to tuberculosis.
Following this, Poe was adopted by a childless couple, John Allan and his wife, Frances Valentine, in Richmond, Virginia. Poe’s two siblings were placed with other families. Allan had been born in Scotland, but had emigrated to America where he had become a wealthy tobacco merchant. The couple christened Edgar and gave him their surname.
Allan wanted Poe to become a Virginia businessman and gentleman but Edgar was more interested in writing and by the age of thirteen he had enough poetry compiled to have a book published. However, his school headmaster advised against this stating that it could make the young man too full of himself.
In 1815, just three years after the Allans had adopted Poe, their business ran into difficulty. As a result, Allan set sail with his wife and six-year-old Edgar for England. The family spent time back in Allan’s native Ayrshire before settling in London. Edgar attended the Manor House School in Stoke Newington until 1920 when the family returned to Richmond Virginia.
In 1826 Poe enrolled in the University of Virginia. He did not have enough money to survive as Allan had refused to provide for him. Poe ran up considerable gambling debts in an effort to keep himself. He was in such dire straits that he had to burn the furniture in his lodgings to keep warm. After he returned to the family mansion in Richmond, hostility grew between Poe and his stepfather.
In March 1827, Edgar finally left the Allan’s home determined to become a writer. With debtors chasing him, he enlisted in the army under the name Edgar A. Perry. Later the same year, he published his first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems.
Just two years after enlisting into the army and despite having reached the rank of Sergeant Major for Artillery, Poe decided to leave. He was informed that his adopted mother, like his biological mother, had contracted tuberculosis and wished to see him before she died.
By the time Poe got back to Richmond she was buried. Allan and Poe briefly reconciled and Allan arranged for him to enrol in West Point Military Academy. Poe only spent eight months there before being dismissed for not obeying orders. His fellow cadets however helped him fund the publication of his second volume of poetry.
Allan remarried without telling Poe and cut off all care for his adopted son. In 1833 Poe sent a letter to him begging for money stating “I am …..absolutely perishing for want of aid…for God’s sake pity me and save me from destruction.” Allan did not help him.
With nowhere left to go Poe sought out his father’s relatives and moved in with his Aunt Maria Clemm in Baltimore. Allan died while Poe was there. He left Edgar out of his will while instead making provision for a child he had from another relationship.
Poe’s fortunes changed when he won a competition sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. The connections he made as a result enabled him to get more work published and he eventually secured an editorial position at The Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. Poe moved back to Virginia in 1836 and married Maria’s daughter, his cousin, Virginia Clemm.
Poe’s thrilling stories and derisive reviews made The Messenger the most popular magazine in the south. However, dissatisfied with his low pay and lack of editorial control at the paper Poe resigned. He moved to New York and then Philadelphia looking for magazine work. Despite gaining a reputation as a writer Poe struggled desperately financially. For his first book of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, he received no money – just twenty-five free copies.
Heartache struck again when in 1842, Poe’s wife contracted tuberculosis, the same illness that had by this time killed several members of his immediate family. Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death features many blood filled scenes and it is believed that this is partly inspired by Poe’s first hand experience of tuberculosis as the disease causes sufferers to cough up blood.
In January 1845 the publication of his haunting poem The Raven made Poe a household name. In days prior to television this eerie verse terrified young and old alike. Following this, he published two more books and bought the magazine the Broadway Journal. However, as always with Poe, misfortune struck again. The magazine failed and his wife’s health continued to deteriorate. The couple moved to a small country cottage. Poe struggled to pay for medicine for his wife and to keep her warm. She died there in the winter of 1847 aged twenty-four.
Devastated by her death Poe struggled to write and drifted from city to city over the next two years. On a trip to Philadelphia he stopped off in Baltimore where he went missing for five days. He was found semi conscious in the bar of a public house that was being used as a polling station for an election. Unrecognised he was send to Washington College Hospital. His family were unaware of his whereabouts and so he spent the last days of his life alone before he died on October 7th 1849. The exact cause of his death and his movements in the days prior to it remain a mystery.