The name Edgar Allan Poe conjures images of madmen, murderers and mysterious women who return from the dead. Most famous for his narrative works such as The Raven and the Tell Tale Heart, Poe has been described as the father of Gothic literature.
He is widely acknowledged as the inventor of the modern detective story and an innovator in the genre of science fiction, though Poe made his living as America’s first great literary critic and theoretician. His legacy today remains focused on his tales of terror and haunting lyric poetry.
"My life has been a whim, an impulse, a passion, a yearning for solitude, a mockery of the things of this world," wrote Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).
Plagued his whole life by scandals and rumours, his writing style was psychologically thrilling, though likely reflected his own inner turmoil. Poe spent many years drowned in bouts of poverty and depression, attempting to deal with his misfortunes through a mixture of drugs and alcohol.
Born in Boston, in 1809, Edgar Allan Poe was the son of theatre actors who died when he was a child. His mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four when Poe was only three years old. Accounts suggest that Poe was deeply scarred by his mother’s premature death, carrying this trauma with him throughout his life. Roger Asselineau wrote in his biography of Poe, "He always remembered, more or less unconsciously, that his mother vomited blood and that she was taken away forever by sinister men dressed in black."
In the absence of his mother, Poe was raised by his foster father, businessman John Allan. John Allan was a prosperous tobacco merchant in Richmond, Virginia, and had career plans set for Edgar to join him as an employee in his business, though this would not come to pass.
Poe spent much of his childhood between the UK and America, moving to England with his foster family in 1815. In England he attended a classical academy and it was there that he developed his passion for poetry, though neither his father nor school professors encouraged him to pursue this art-form.
The family then returned to Richmond, Virginia, in 1820, where Poe went on to study at the Joseph H. Clarke School followed by the University of Virginia. Distracted by alcohol and gambling, Poe failed to complete his first year at university and found himself in a pit of gambling debts, which his father refused to help him pay.
Edgar was in love and secretly engaged to a woman called Elmira Royster while he was a student at the University of Virginia, but this engagement failed, when he found out that Royster was actually engaged to marry someone else.
A life full of death and shadows
From unrequited love to gambling issues, Poe’s luck seemingly continued on a downward spiral, despite excelling artistically.
He published his first book Tamerlane aged eighteen, but with a lack of funds and growing gambling debts, he decided to join the army. He remained there for two years; but returned to his foster home in Richmond when he learned that his foster mother, Frances Allan, was dying of tuberculosis. Unfortunately she died before he could say his goodbyes.
In 1831 he went to live in Baltimore with an aunt and her 11-year-old niece Virginia. He went to work for the Southern Literary Messenger, a periodical published in Richmond, and became its editor in 1835.
At 27 Poe married his niece Virginia Eliza Clemm, who at the time was sixteen (some sources suggest she was actually only fourteen). She was a frail and pale young woman, like many of the characters created by Poe.
In January 1845, while living in New York, Poe published The Raven, the piece that made him a household name. He became famous enough to draw large crowds to lectures and began to demand better pay for his work. He also published two books that year, and briefly lived his dream of running his own magazine when he bought out the owners of the Broadway Journal. Like many other aspects of his life, this venture ended in failure. Continuing financial issues, his wife’s deteriorating health, and rumours spreading about Poe’s relationship with a married woman, drove him away from New York in 1846. At this time the couple moved to a tiny cottage in the country.
Two years later, in 1847, Virginia died of tuberculosis. The death of his wife left Poe completely devastated and unable to write for months. Alcohol and drugs became Poe’s primary and constant companion. He did eventually continue to write and publish numerous stories and poems along with working for various magazines and publications, but was often fired because of strange behaviour which was made increasingly worse by alcoholism. Death and darkness remained a strong and consistent theme throughout his published prose.
In 1848 he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and dated a poet, Sarah Helen Whitman. They had a brief engagement although a marriage did not take place. He was also associated with Annie Richmond and Sarah Anna Lewis, who were understood to have helped him financially.
Precarious jobs, alcohol and drugs, may have diminished Poe's health, but this did not dampen his creativity, if anything it bolstered his talent.
On October 7, 1849, Poe died alone at the age of 40. The exact cause of Edgar Allan Poe’s death remains a mystery.
Despite his strange demeanour and troubled life, Poe will be forever remembered as a literary trailblazer.