Childhood & Early Life
Edgar Allan Poe was born Edgar Poe on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. At the time of his birth, his parents were struggling actors attached to a repertory company in Boston.
Edgar’s father David Poe Jr., abandoned his career in law to become an actor; but was not very successful, possibly due to stage-fright. Contrarily, his mother Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe was an accomplished actress. She was praised for her acting ability as well as for her melodious voice and attractive figure.
Edgar, the second of his parents’ three children, was born when his parents were living in a boarding house near Boston Commons. He had an elder brother named William Henry Leonard Poe, often referred to as Henry Poe, and a younger sister named Rosalie.
In the summer of 1809, few months after Edgar’s birth in Boston, the family relocated to New York. Shortly after relocating, the short-tempered and alcoholic David Poe abandoned his family, never to return. Eliza, who at the time was pregnant with Rosalie, was left alone to take care of her two sons.
After struggling to make the ends meet in New York, Eliza died of tuberculosis on December 8, 1811, leaving her three children orphaned. It is believed that David Poe died in Norfolk on December 11, 1811, three days after his wife’s death.
After their mother’s death, the three siblings were separated. While their paternal grandparents took up the responsibility of raising William Henry, Rosalie was adopted by William and Jane Scott Mackenzie. Edgar went to live with his godfather John Allan and his wife Frances Valentine Allan.
John Allan was a successful businessperson from Scotland, and was based in Richmond, Virginia. Although they did not have children, John and his wife did not formally adopt Edgar. However, they gave him their name, calling him Edgar Allan Poe, and alternately spoiling and disciplining him.
In 1815, the Allans visited the United Kingdom. While living in London, Edgar was sent to Irvine, Scotland, the birthplace of John Allan. In Scotland, he studied at a grammar school for a short period.
In 1816, he was brought back to London, only to be sent to a boarding house at Chelsea. From 1817, he studied at ‘Manor House School’ in Stoke Newington. He then returned to Richmond in 1820. It is not known where he studied thereafter.
As he grew older, John Allan tried to initiate his foster son into the family business. However, Edgar had already decided to emulate his childhood hero, Lord Byron—the famous British poet.
In 1826, Edgar entered the newly founded ‘University of Virginia’ at Charlottesville. Although he did well academically, he started gambling to raise money for his upkeep and soon accumulated a huge debt. Since John Allan refused to pay up, Edgar left the university in March 1827 and returned home.
Continue Reading Below
On his return to Richmond, Edgar Allan Poe realized that the already strained relationship with his foster father had gone worse. His girlfriend had also got engaged to somebody else. Not having been welcomed, he left for Boston in April 1827.
Initially, he tried to sustain himself doing odd jobs. Finally on May 27, 1827, he enlisted in the ‘United States Army’ for five years as a private, calling himself Edgar A. Perry. While he was actually 18, he claimed to be 22 to avoid being asked for parental consent.
He was initially posted at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor with a salary of $5 a month. He had with him several manuscripts which he had brought from home. In the spring of 1827, he self-published his first book of poems ‘Tamerlane and Other Poems.’
In November 1827, Poe was posted with his regiment at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina. Here he was promoted to the position of "artificer,” receiving $10 per month. He subsequently became Sergeant Major for Artillery.
Sometime in the end of 1828 or the beginning of 1829, Poe tried to end his enlistment. But for that, he needed to reconcile with his foster father. Although John Allan was not initially responsive, he relented when Edgar visited Richmond on receiving the news of Mrs. Allan’s death on February 28, 1829.
Poe finally left the military on April 15, 1829. He first traveled to Baltimore to spend some time with his brother Henry who lived with his paternal grandmother, aunt, and Cousin Virginia Eliza Clemm. It was here that he published his second book ‘Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems.’
In July 1830, Poe joined the ‘United States Military Academy’ as a cadet at West Point. Upon realizing that military life was not for him, he began to breach discipline on purpose, inviting court-martial. He was tried on February 8, 1831, and was found guilty.
After leaving the ‘Military Academy,’ Edgar Allan Poe went to New York where he published his third book ‘Poems.’ His friends at the ‘Academy’ helped him raise the publication cost.
Continue Reading Below
In May 1831, he returned to Baltimore to live with his paternal family. By then, John Allan had disowned him. To earn his living, he turned his attention to prose; he had many of his works published in ‘Philadelphia Saturday Courier’ and ‘Baltimore Saturday Visiter.’
In 1833, Poe submitted six stories and a few poems for a contest sponsored by ‘Baltimore Saturday Visiter.’ Among them, ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ earned him the first prize of $50. Published in the Visiter’s 19th October issue, it caught the attention of novelist and ‘Whig’ politician John P. Kennedy.
With Kennedy’s support, Poe’s literary career began to advance. Yet, his financial condition remained precarious. Finally, in August 1835, Kennedy helped him secure the post of assistant editor at ‘Southern Literary Messenger,’ published from Richmond. He was also a staff writer and critic.
Except for a brief interlude, when Poe lost his job after being caught drunk, he remained with the journal until January 1837, publishing several poems, stories, book reviews, and critiques. Thereafter, he moved to New York.
By now, he had realized that he needed to write a long novel in order to establish himself. The result was ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ which was published by ‘Harper & Brothers’ in July 1838. Comprising of actual narratives, the book was widely reviewed.
In spite of his novel’s success, Poe’s financial condition failed to improve. Respite came in May 1839 when he was hired as an assistant editor by ‘Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and American Monthly Review,’ published from Philadelphia.
According to the contract, Poe was to provide 11 pages of original material per month and his salary was fixed at $10 per week. During this period, he had many well-known stories published, such as ‘The Man That Was Used Up,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ‘William Wilson,’ and ‘Morella.’
In June 1840, Poe was fired from his job, possibly because of his drinking habit. Just a few months before, he had his ‘Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque’ published in two volumes; but he did not get any royalty from it. As a result, he was once again in a financial mess.
Also in 1840, he started working on a new venture, planning to bring out his own journal. Since it would be based in Philadelphia, he decided to call it ‘Penn.’ Unfortunately, his dream did not materialize due to lack of funds.
Continue Reading Below
In February 1841, he finally abandoned his plan of bringing out ‘Penn’ and joined ‘Graham’s Magazine’ as an assistant editor for an annual salary of $800. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ his first ever detective story, was published when he was at ‘Graham’s.’
In April 1842, he left the position and returned to New York where he joined ‘Evening Mirror.’ However, he continued to contribute to ‘Graham’s,’ maintaining a good relationship with the organization.
In January 1845, his now famous poem ‘Raven’ appeared in ‘Evening Mirror.’ While it made him a household name, his financial condition remained the same as he received only $9 as his remuneration.
On February 21, 1845, Poe signed a year-long contract with ‘Broadway Journal,’ subsequently joining the publication as its editor. He agreed to write at least one page of original work every week for one-third of the profit. By June, he had become its sole proprietor.
Though his dream came true, Poe now needed money to run the journal. Unfortunately, all his efforts to raise funds failed and the journal closed down in 1846. Thereafter, Poe moved to a cottage in Fordham where he lived until his death in 1849.
Personal Life & Legacy
On May 16, 1836, Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year-old Cousin Virginia Eliza Clemm at a public ceremony in Baltimore. It was conducted by a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Amasa Converse, and her age was listed as 21.
Different biographers have different opinions about the nature of their relationship. Some believe they lived like siblings, while others claim that he loved her with passion. On the whole, it can be concluded that he was a loving husband and a dutiful son-in-law.
In January 1842, Virginia showed the first signs of tuberculosis. She never fully recovered from it and died on January 30, 1847.
His wife’s death had a severe impact on Poe. Many times, he was found sitting by Virginia’s tomb in the middle of the night, cold and freezing. To get out of it, he courted several women, but could not overcome his sadness.
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found in a disturbed state of mind on the roads of Baltimore. He was immediately taken to the ‘Washington Medical College’ where he died four days later on October 7, 1849.
Although many people attribute his death to alcoholism, friends as well as doctors have denied it. But they were not able to ascertain the real cause of his death, which remains a mystery to date.
‘The Edgar Allan Poe Cottage’ in New York, where he spent the last days of his life, is now listed on the ‘National Register of Historic Places.’ It is located on Kingsbridge Road and the Grand Concourse in Bronx, New York.