Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and lived in six Eastern cities. His father was David Poe, a Baltimore actor. His actress mother, Elizabeth came to the United States as a kid. The parents were not that talented; they played small roles in rather third-rate theatrical companies. Because they both had small parts they barely managed to make a living.
Edgar was the second of their three children. When the third child was born, the father died, or disappeared, and Mrs. Poe went to Richmond with the two youngest children. The oldest boy, William Henry, had already been left with relatives in Baltimore. Mrs. Poe was in the last stages of tuberculosis. Weakened by the disease and worn out with the struggle to support her children, she died. Edgar, two years old, and the infant, Rosalie, were left as orphans.
It was pure luck that Mrs. Frances Allan, the wife of a merchant in Richmond learned about the Poe babies. She had no children of her own and liked handsome little Edgar a lot more than his sister. She took him home with her, and another family took his little sister Rosalie.
Mrs. Allan would have liked to adopt Edgar, but her husband was unwilling to commit himself. At that time people thought acting was immoral. John Allan could not help regarding the little son of actor parents as a questionable person to inherit his name and the fortune he was busy accumulating. He was willing however, to support the child, and in time came to be proud of Edgar’s good looks and intelligence.
When Edgar was six years old, Mr. Allen’s business took him to Scotland, the country from which he had come originally. The family stayed in Scotland and England for five years.
Edgar was eleven when the Allans returned to Richmond. Richmond in back then in the 1820’s was a good place for a boy to live. It was still a small enough town for the fields, swamps, and woods to be close by. Boys swam in the river and in the little creeks, they fished, they tramped through the thick woods, looking for wild muscadines and chinquapins.
In spite of the growing tension between foster father and son, Mr. Allen was willing to send Edgar to the University of Virginia. Edgar, in turn, was eager to go, to escape the Allen household if for no other reason. The student life of the University was more social than academic. The young men drank too much, gambled too much, fought for the sheer enjoyment of violence, and rampaged over the campus at all hours. This was the worst possible environment for young Poe with his emotionally unstable temperament. He was unusually susceptible to alcohol; one mild drink sent him into a state of wild excitement. He gambled recklessly, incurring debts he could not begin to pay.
Mr. Allan’s pride and thrift could not tolerate such conduct. He pulled Edgar out of the University and set him to work at a lowly, routine job in his counting house. This was a humiliation Edgar could not bear; his answer was to leave home. He went to Boston, where he managed to publish a collection of his poems in pamphlet form, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Desperate for money, he joined the army under the name of Edgar A. Perry. Army barracks were no place for a young “aristocrat.” Poe turned to his foster father with penitent letters, pleading for reconciliation. Mr. Allen yielded sufficiently to purchase his release from the army, which was possible at that time. Shortly afterward, a new volume of his poems was published in Baltimore, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems.
A little more than a year after his release from the Army, the young poet turned again to the idea of a military career. He passed entrance examinations and gained admission to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Poe knew than an army career was suitable for a Virginia gentleman he longed to be, but the discipline was too hard for him. Two years after his final dispute with Mr. Allan, Poe lived for a while in Baltimore with his aunt, Mrs. Maria (Poe) Clemm. She was a poor seamstress, but she welcomed Poe into her home and took care of him.
In 1833 The Saturday Visitor of Baltimore announced a literary contest with prizes of fifty dollars for the best short story, and twenty-five dollars for the best poem. Poe submitted a group of stories, Tales of the Folio Club, and a poem, The Coliseum. One of the stories, MS. Found in a Bottle, won the story prize, and his poem would have won the poetry prize except that the judges decided not to award both prizes to the same contestant.
The prize money was not important, but one of the judges, novelist John P. Kennedy, took an interest in Poe and befriended him by helping him sell a story to the new Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond. Poe joined the editorial staff of the magazine and soon became its editor. A number of his stories appeared in its pages.
Once established in his job, he brought Mrs. Clemm and her daughter, Virginia, to live with him. A little later he married his cousin, Virginia, who was some years younger than he. From that time on, the three formed a household. He has many problems with drinking and therefore his job was on and off.
Soon after moving to New York, his poem, The Raven, was published in the New York Evening Mirror. It was reprinted in a number of magazines, and at once became extremely popular. The Raven is not by any means Poe’s best poem. With The Raven, Poe reached the height of his fame.
Poe was the originator of the American short story. There had been other short works of fiction, but Poe perfected the short story as an art form. Conan Doyle was influenced by him, particularly in their early writing, before each had found his individual style. Poe led in his methods of analysis in his detective stories. No one has outdone him in creating an atmosphere of morbid horror in such tales as The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell-Tale Heart. The best of his poetry is pure magic.
Encarta 1999 Encyclopedia
Grolier 1993 Encyclopedia