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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Edgar Allan Poe

Widely regarded as one of America's most prolific writers, Edgar Allan Poe was a pioneer of Romanticism and Gothic literature. His works--such as "The Raven," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Bells," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and many others--were noticeably darker than his contemporaries', embracing the concepts of horror, death, and the supernatural. His unconventional literary style, coupled with the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, posthumously launched Poe's legacy into legend.

Edgar Allan Poe

Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809. He was the second of three children to actors Elizabeth Hopkins Poe and David Poe Jr. In 1810, his father abandoned their family and a year later his mother died of consumption. Orphaned, Poe was taken in by John and Frances Allan, a merchant family from Richmond, Virginia. While he was never formally adopted by the family, he did take the name Edgar 'Allan' Poe.

The Allans moved to London, England, in 1815. It was here that Edgar received most of his grammar school education. Five years later, his family moved back to Richmond. In 1826, Poe became engaged to Sarah Royster and registered to attend the University of Virginia. While at university, he fell into serious debt catalyzed by gambling. Poe claimed he resorted to gambling because his foster father neglected to give him enough money to attend the college, and he needed to find a way to make ends meet. Stricken by poverty, Poe dropped out of UVA in 1827 and returned back home to Richmond. There, he found out his fiance was engaged to another man (Alexander Shelton) and his strained relationship with John Allan only worsened.

Poe traveled to Boston in April 1827 and worked as a clerk for a local newspaper. Financial woes continued to plague Poe, so he enlisted in the US Army on May 27, 1827, under the name Edgar A. Perry. For two years, Poe worked as an artificer and was stationed at Fort Independence (Boston, MA) and Fort Moultrie (Charleston, SC). During this time, he anonymously published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Only fifty copies were printed and it didn't receive much success.

Poe was discharged by the army on April 15, 1829, in order for him to attend the United State Military Academy at West Point. However, his life as a cadet was short-lived. After only attending the academy for eight months, Poe was kicked out due to "neglect of duty and disobedience to orders." In February 1831, he moved to New York City and published his third book Poems, which he dedicated to his fellow cadets at West Point.

In March 1831, Poe moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to live with his aunt, Maria Clemm. Once settled, he made more profound attempts to advance his writing career. He shifted his focus from poetry to prose and short stories. In October 1833, Poe was awarded a prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for his short story "MS. Found in a Bottle." This gained Poe some notoriety and the attention of Thomas W. White, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, VA. He offered Poe a job as an assistant editor of periodicals in August 1835. Poe worked for the newspaper for only a few weeks before he was fired for being intoxicated on the job.

Poe's Room at 203 N. Amity Street

Poe returned to Baltimore in September 1835 and obtained a license to marry his first cousin Virginia Clemm, who was only 13 years old at the time. Shortly after, he was reinstated to his position at the Messenger and moved back to Richmond with Virginia. Over the next few years, Poe moved around the mid-Atlantic region and worked as a critic for numerous magazines, including Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and Graham's Magazine. He gained a reputation as being "...the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America," in the words of James Russell Lowell. Poe also published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque during this time.

In January 1845, Poe published arguably his most famous poem, "The Raven," in the Evening Mirror in New York. His work made him an overnight sensation, which prompted Poe to pursue more lucrative means of compensation for his work. He made the business decision to buy the Broadway Journal that February and made himself chief editor; however, the publication went out of print after only a year. Poe reportedly alienated himself from other writers and called out Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for plagiarism, though those accusations were never further addressed nor resolved.

On January 30, 1847, only a year following the failure of Edgar's journal, Virginia Clemm Poe died of chronic pulmonary tuberculosis. She was only 24 years of age. Her death hit Poe hard as he spun into a state of increasing instability and alcoholism.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in a delirious and inebriated state. He was taken to Washington Medical College where he died a few days later on October 7. While many speculate what led to Poe's death, the actual cause remains unknown.

Poe's Grave at Westminster Hall

The sudden passing of Poe was tragic, and it wasn't until after his death did many of his works gain recognition. The soaring popularity of Poe was due in part to an obituary written by Rufus Griswold. Griswold was one of Poe's contemporaries and adversaries, since he had been subject to Poe's criticisms in the past. The begrudged author took the opportunity to libel Poe in death. He wrote a lengthy obituary describing Poe as a drug addict, womanizer, and alcoholic madman. While his intention was to ruin Poe's legacy and works, it actually had the opposite effect. People were fascinated by Poe's questionable and mysterious background which lead to a greater number of his works being published.

Today, the legend of Poe is immortalized in nearly every high school/college literature class and at historic sites across the East Coast. These "Poe Places" can be found in Richmond, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, the University of Virginia, and of course, Baltimore. I visited two sites in Baltimore, the first being The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, the earliest surviving home Poe lived in. The small brick house, located at 203 N. Amity Street, was constructed around 1830. In early 1833, Maria Clemm rented the building and moved in with her daughter, Virginia, her son, Henry, her mother, and her nephew, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe lived on the top floor of the house between 1833-35.

Jumping ahead to 1938, the house was slated to be demolished for a new housing project. Fortunately, the building was saved by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, and in 1949, it became a historic house and museum. The house is still open to the public today and for a $5 admission you can tour the house and see the some of Poe's personal affects. The house is very small and should take you 15-20 minutes max to explore.

Westminster Hall

The second location I visited was Westminster Hall, the site of Edgar Allan Poe's grave. Poe was originally laid to rest in unmarked grave 'No. 80' in his family plot. In 1873, funds were raised to dedicate a more appropriate monument to Poe. Two years and $1500 later, Poe was reburied under his new gravestone which can still be seen today.

The Westminster Burial Ground itself was once recognized as Baltimore's most prestigious cemetery. Notable military leaders from the War of 1812, such as Generals Samuel Smith, John Stricker, and John Stuart Skinner, are interred here. David Poe Sr., Edgar Allan Poe's grandfather and Revolutionary War veteran, is buried in his family's plot as well.

That's the synopsis of one of America's greatest literary minds! If you want a more in-depth account of Poe's life and legacy, there's a great biography written by Arthur Hobson Quinn that you can read by clicking HERE. I encourage you all to visit additional Poe Places for yourselves. Thanks for reading!

For more info on The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum and other Poe Places in Baltimore, click HERE


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