Edgar Poe was born January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the second child of English-born actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and actor David Poe, Jr. Edgar may have been named after a character in William Shakespeare’s King Lear as his parents performed the play in 1809. Poe had an older brother named William Henry Leonard Poe and a younger sister named Rosalie Poe. David Poe, Sr., their grandfather, left Cavan, Ireland, to immigrate to America about 1750.
Poe’s father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died the following year from consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis). The orphaned Edgar was taken in by John and Frances Valentine Allan; John was a successful Scottish merchant in Richmond, Virginia, who dealt in a variety of goods including tobacco, cloth, wheat, tombstones, and slaves. The Allans served as Poe’s foster family; they gave him their name as a middle name – Edgar Allan Poe but never adopted him.
Poe was baptized in the Episcopal Church in 1812, and Allan was either spoiling Poe or severely disciplining him. The Allan family – including John, Frances, and Poe – sailed to Britain in 1815, and Poe attended grammar school in Irvine, Scotland (the place of John Allan’s birth) for a short time in 1815. He rejoined the family in London in 1816 and studied at a boarding school in Chelsea until summer 1817. He then entered the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School at Stoke Newington, about four miles north of London.
In 1820 Poe moved back to the Allan home in Richmond, Virginia, and in 1824 he served as the lieutenant of the Richmond youth honor guard as Richmond celebrated the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette. In March 1825, John Allen inherited several acres of real estate from William Galt, his uncle and business benefactor. With the inheritance estimated at $750,000, Allan purchased a two-story brick home – Moldavia – in the summer of 1825.
In February 1826 Poe registered at the University of Virginia, which was one-year-old, to study ancient and modern languages. “The university, in its infancy, was established on the ideals of its founder, Thomas Jefferson. It had strict rules against gambling, horses, guns, tobacco and alcohol, but these rules were generally ignored. Jefferson had enacted a system of student self-government, allowing students to choose their own studies, make their own arrangements for boarding, and report all wrongdoing to the faculty. The unique system was still in chaos, and there was a high dropout rate.
Poe may have been engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster before entering the University of Virginia but lost touch with her during his time at the university. He also became estranged with his foster family over gambling debts. Poe claimed that Allan had not given him sufficient money to pay for his classes, texts, and rooming, but Poe’s debts increased even though Allan sent money to him. Poe learned that Royster had married Alexander Shelton, and he left the university after one year attendance. He traveled to Boston in April 1827 and provided for himself with odd jobs such as clerk and newspaper writer. He assumed the pseudonym Henri Le Rennet at some point in this time period.
When eighteen years old and still unable to provide for himself, Poe enlisted in the United States Army as a private, using the name “Edgar A. Perry" and claiming he was twenty-two years old. While in his first year at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor, Poe earned $5.00 per month and released his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, a 40-page collect of poetry attributed to “a Bostonian.” With a publication of only 50 copies, the book received little notice. His regiment was transferred to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, by ship on November 3, 1827. He received a promotion and doubled his pay. After two years of service, he reached the rank of Sergeant Major for Artillery (the highest rank achieved by a noncommissioned officer). He tried to end his five-year enlistment early by revealing his real name and circumstances to his commanding officer. Lieutenant Howard would allow Poe to be discharged only if he reconciled with John Allan. Allan was unsympathetic, and several months went by. Allan may not have told Poe that Frances Allan was ill before she died on February 28, 1829, but Poe visited her grave the day after her burial. Allan finally agreed to help Poe and supported his attempt to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Poe finally secured a replacement to finish his enlisted term and was discharged on April 15, 1829. Between leaving the army and entering West Point, Poe lived with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, her daughter, Virginia Eliza Clemm (Poe’s first cousin), his brother Henry, and his invalid grandmother Elizabeth Cairnes Poe. There he published his second book entitled Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems in 1829 in Baltimore.
On July 1, 1830, Poe became a cadet at West Point. In October 1830, John Allan married Louisa Patterson, and they had bitter quarrels with Poe over Allan’s illegitimate children, and the Allan family finally disowned Poe. He purposely got court-martialed in order to leave West Point; he was tried on February 8, 1831, “for gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, or church.” He pled not guilty in order to be dismissed even though he knew he would be found guilty.
After his dismissal, he went to New York and released a third volume of poems and entitled it Poems. Many of the cadets at West Point donated 75 cents each to publish the book and raised $170. The book was printed by Elam Bliss of New York and labeled as “Second Edition.” It included a notation of “To the U.S. Corps of Cadets this volume is respectfully dedicated.” This book included “Tamerlane” and “Al Aaraaf” as well as six previously unpublished poems. Early versions of “To Helen”, “Israfel”, and “The City in the Sea” were included. He returned to Baltimore to live with his aunt, brother and cousin in March 1831. A few months later on August 1, 1831, his older brother Henry died of problems with alcoholism.
Following his brother’s death, Poe made more serious attempts at making a career of writing and became the first well-known American to attempt to live as a writer. The timing was wrong, but Poe persisted and came to the attention of Joseph P. Kennedy.
Poe and his cousin Virginia were secretly married on September 22, 1835, in Baltimore. He was 26, and she was 13 – but she was listed on the marriage certificate as being 21. A second and public wedding took place in Richmond on May 16, 1836. Ten years later in January 1845, Poe published his poem, “The Raven,” which became an immediate success. His wife died of tuberculosis two years later on January 30, 1847.
Biographers and critics believe that Poe frequently used the theme of the `death of a beautiful woman’ because of the repeated loss of women in his life. He became “increasingly unstable” after Virginia’s death. He attempted to court the poet Sarah Helen Whitman of Providence, Rhode Island. The engagement was discontinued because of Poe’s drinking and erratic behavior and possibly at the intervention of Whitman’s mother. Poe returned to Richmond and resumed a relationship with Sarah Elmira Royster, his childhood sweetheart.
Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore on October 3, 1849. Joseph W. Walker, the man who found him, said that Poe was delirious and “in great distress, and … in need of immediate assistance. He was taken to the Washington Medical College where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849, at 5:00 in the morning without becoming coherent long enough to give any explanation for his condition or why he was not wearing his own clothing. All of his medical records, including his death certificate, have been lost, and the actual cause of death is still a mystery but speculations include delirium tremers, heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, meningeal inflammation, cholera, and rabies.
Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor, and literary critic and was part of the American Romantic Movement. He is best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre and was one of the earliest American writers to use the short story. He is generally considered as the inventor of the detective fiction genre and credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. He was the first well-known American writer to attempt to earn his living by writing alone, which resulted in a financially difficult life and career.