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In 1809 a group of sons were born whose names overshadow the nineteenth century. There were Frederick Chopin, Moses Mendelssohn, Charles Darwin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Ewart Gladstone, Abraham Lincoln, and Edgar Poe — to name a few.
The last two, born to adversity, influenced expansionist America. Both had dual natures, compounding early physical achievement of youth with the lonely, mystical dreaming of mature minds. One, exemplifying brawling, sprawling America as it surged westward, found his strength as the small nation burst its bounds, and led it into an avenue of strengthened democracy; the other, growing up by adoption in the school of the Southern gentleman, gave the new nation a feeling for melodic poetry and the short story. Both Lincoln and Poe found their inner mysticism a strong mount. The Rail-splitter tightened the reins in his bony, leathery pioneer hands as he clucked his sensible anecdotes into the mount's ear; the Poet found the check rein slipping as his delicate hands, betraying hereditary weakness, reached for the single drink of spirits or the slight touch of dope which sent him into a coma for days.
Elizabeth Arnold Poe, a capable though not great actress, was absent from the boards during January, 1809, when she had been billed to play the peasant in the pantomime, "The Brazen Mask." Her second son, Edgar, was probably born on January 19. A nervous father stamped the hallways outside the temporary delivery room. David Poe, 3d, trained for the bar, clacked his tongue at his son's arrival. Added family cares p151 failed to influence the sad mediocrity which characterized his stage appearances. The birth of another child only strengthened the hold of poverty upon the young couple. By February 8, three weeks after Edgar's birth, his parents were back on the Boston stage where the competition of the boy actor, John Howard Payne, accentuated their ill luck. On April 19, 1809, Master Payne consented to play a special benefit performance of Pizarro, in consequence of Mrs. Poe's "repeated disappointments in obtaining places."
Mrs. Poe sang her swan song to Boston on May 16, 1809, whereupon the family journeyed to New York. The next year brought hopes and disappointments and eventually David Poe disappeared. Whether it was death, or desertion because of unfavorable press notices, is unknown. On her journey south from New York, Mrs. Poe left her oldest son, William Henry Leonard, who had been born in 1807, with his grandparents in Baltimore. Sick of what was probably tuberculosis, she continued her stage career, next appearing in Richmond. She had kept Edgar with her and at the same time was carrying another child, which was born December 20, 1810. After the birth of this daughter, Rosalie, Elizabeth Poe continued to appear in Charleston, Norfolk and Richmond. The benefits became more and more frequent; the lack of regular positions more evident.
Fortunately for the children, their mother arrived in Norfolk in the late summer of 1811 and took up her abode at the Indian Queen Tavern, next door to the millinery shop of Mrs. Phillips. This kindly woman with her business to operate frequently nursed the two Poe children and their ailing mother. The milliner's customers were of fashionable stamp, as well as of the stage. It was not surprising that several of the women of the former group patted the head of the boy who was beginning to walk. One in particular, seeing him thin and underfed, gave him fruit.
When Elizabeth Arnold Poe died on December 8, 1811, the good ladies of the city took care of the two children. On December 9, Rosalie was carried home by a Mrs. Mackenzie, p152 and little Edgar followed his new mother, the childless Mrs. Allan, to her home near by.
The comfortable home of John Allan, the merchant, became the abode of young Edgar Poe. Though Allan in his Scotch brusqueness occasionally unbent toward the child, the real affection came from Mrs. Frances Allan. Her sister, Anne Moore Valentine, shared this new charge and both remained constant in their regard for their orphan until death. Afterwards Edgar alone vainly sought to reach the merchant's heart.
Adoption of an infant was not the normal course in a century when disease and other hazards to parents left many orphaned children. Young Edgar Poe was not adopted but became a member of the Allan family. After Elizabeth Poe's death, her sister-in‑law, Eliza Poe, wrote beseechingly from Baltimore for news of Edgar, Allen,º Poe." Frances Allan's negligence in answering this letter indicated her strong desire to keep the boy in her household. Hervey Allen, in "Israfel," said that years later when Poe was writing to John Allan, he mentioned that his grandfather, General David Poe, was in good circumstances at the time of Elizabeth Poe's death and that he (Edgar) had been left in the care of the Allans because strong inducements of adoption and a liberal education had been made by the merchant. The grandfather's good circumstances were probably an exaggeration, but the merchant may possibly have made such commitments to his wife.
Cared for by a "mammy" in the spirit of the time and dressed in velvet garments, young Edgar early showed himself an attractive child and a very precocious one, who could dance well and recite jingles. Even the dour merchant was occasionally amused. When the family journeyed to Britain in 1815, Edgar Allan Poe went along.
In the reunion with the Allan family in Scotland, and with the change of climate young Edgar thrived. His delicate physique and rather timid disposition were bettered by his English school training. For a time he attended the local Academy in Irvine, Scotland, with Mr. Allan's nephew, John Galt. The p153 senior Allans went to live in London, and it was not long until the exasperation of the Irvine Allans meant that both Edgar and John Galt were shipped off to London. The Allan family fell all over Edgar. Frances and Aunt Nancy were outspoken in their enthusiasm, and it appeared from letters that even sour John Allan came down off his mercantile manner to be happy over the reunion. The head of the family sent the two boys back to Irvine late in 1815, but the obstreperous young Edgar reappeared in London, because of his own desire and because his ways were so trying to the relatives in Scotland. The dictator of the household evinced no warmth on this return but Mrs. Allan was secretly happy. Soon Edgar Poe was attending the boarding school of the Misses Dubourg, 146 Sloane Street, Chelsea. Squarely he appeared at other schools for the sons of the well-to‑do.a From their curricula he laid away a store of knowledge and hardened his muscles on the athletic field.
The return voyage to America was thirty‑six days of fascinating adventure for the well-read, observant Edgar. He was everywhere about the sailing vessel learning the life of a jack‑tar, inquiring about the bells and cannon, and the chanteys of the sailors. Far more than the extrovert who saw only the evident sights, Edgar in his duality of nature was captured and held taut by the sight of the square-rigged sailing vessel dipping in salute to the waves of the Atlantic. His sensitive, mystical mind stored away memories. His works, from "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" to the sounds of the sea carried like the tide into "Annabel Lee" and the "City in the Sea," paid tribute to life near the waterfront and to these Atlantic voyages.
Poe was quickly caught up in the life of Richmond City in the Autumn of 1820. His chum was Ebenezer Burling with whom he read Robinson Crusoe. Burling in his elder's role taught Poe to swim and the two of them often rowed a boat on the James River. In the Southern Literary Messenger, on which Poe was working in 1836, he wrote with usual nostalgia: "How fondly do we recur in memory to those enchanted days p154 of our boyhood when we first learned to grow serious over Robinson Crusoe! — When we first found the spirit of wild adventure enkindling within us . . . Alas! the days of desolate islands are no more."
In the years after 1820 until Edgar was sufficiently tutored to think of college, he spent many happy days around Richmond with his friends Burling, Jack Mackenzie (at whose home Rosalie Poe was living), and Robert Stanard. Another companion was Bob Sully, a nephew of Thomas Sully, the well-known artist who several years later made a miniature portrait of Poe in a Byronic attitude. Poe was well to the front in any boy deeds because he was older than Stanard and was able to put aside the sensitive nature that caught both Sully and himself in morbid moments. Perhaps the rough and tumble schooling in England, plus the early training in running, jumping, and boxing made Poe an outstanding youth among the local boys who had never left the James. Poe often indulged in practical jokes and according to Hervey Allen at one time broke up a Richmond card party at which General Winfield Scott was present by running in attired as a ghost.
That Edgar Allan Poe's physical side was well developed and that his appearance and action were quite normal was attested to by Jack Mackenzie, who had many opportunities to see Poe. Jack remarked: "I never saw in him as a boy or man a sign of morbidness or melancholy, unless it was when Mrs. Stanard ("Helen") died, when he appeared for some time grieving and oppressed. Aside from this, cards, raids on orchards and turnip patches, swimming in Shockoe Creek, and juvenile masquerades seem to have been the normal order of life."
In the youth's esthetic nature, he turned to books, to long walks, and to such "feminine" doings as picking violets in a meadow "where the University of Richmond now stands." Like many other youngsters Poe could and would not communicate his thoughts and his questionings to the ridicule of older people, with the one exception of Helen Stanard, the mother of p155 his friend. She evidently listened to the intense young man, praised and criticized what he had written, and gave him his first insight into the intimacy open to boys who have mothers.
Edgar continued in his double life of Keats-like poesy and day‑dreaming, and in his normal life of a youngster who liked to swim in the James, set fish-traps, and spend long hours in the company of other real boys. Poe was especially proud of one feat in which he swam •six miles in the James River with his friends and Master Burke, his schoolmaster, urging him on from shore and from boat. In May, 1835, Poe wrote to White, editor of the Southern Literary Magazine, of the incident which was the talk of certain Richmond groups for many years. Poe said: "The writer seems to compare my swim with that of Lord Byron, whereas there can be no comparison between them. Any swimmer 'in the falls' in my days, would have swum the Hellespont, and thought nothing of the matter."b Poe continued with notice of the hot June sun, the strong tide, and ended with, "I would not think much of attempting to swim the British channel from Dover to Calais."
The balance of Poe's dual nature began to shift in the early twenties. Though Master Burke saw his pupil "always cheerful, brimful of mirth and a very great favorite with his schoolmates," a classmate, Creed Thomas, remarked on Poe's failure to ask any of his schoolmates to visit him at home as was the custom. Perhaps the financial embarrassment of John Allan at the time precluded invitations; perhaps Edgar preferred solitude.
That Master Burke was somewhat correct in his estimation of his charge is well illustrated by the election of Edgar Allan Poe as second-in‑command, or lieutenant, in the Richmond Junior Volunteers. The occasion for the formation of such a youthful military organization was the forthcoming visit of the Marquis de Lafayette. The young aristocrats of Richmond were lined up in salute to the procession of the Marquis and the entourage of Revolutionary heroes. How proud must have been the young warrior with his sword, brass buttons and gold lace! p156 And he was connected to Lafayette as perhaps no other among the company of the Richmond Juniors, for Lafayette had previously, on his arrival in Baltimore, visited the grave of General David Poe. There the French soldier had said: "Ici repose un coeur noble." The gallant Poe forebear had not only fought for the Revolution but had advanced money for its support. In his capacity as Assistant Deputy Quartermaster for Baltimore he had helped clear the British out of Maryland. That patriotic veteran at the age of seventy‑one fought in the battle of North Point in 1814.
As usual, Edgar was the true soldier when on the parade ground, but once returned home he was introspective. John Allan noted this moodiness and wrote of it in a letter to Edgar's older brother William: "(Edgar) seems quite miserable and sulky and ill tempered to all the Family . . . why I have put up so long with his conduct is little less (than) wonderful." John Allan in his cold, casual way was probably preparing the way for the casting off of his Edgar, should he continue to "stand in the way" of the Allan interests.
A legacy from John Allan's uncle, William Galt, amounting to $750,000, paved the way for a new life for the Allan family. Not the least was the removal to a new home. In due course, Edgar the foster‑son was prepared for the University of Virginia by private tutors. Clandestine affairs appeared now and then in the life of John Allan. The influence of these and the desire eventually to place young Poe upon the merchant's stool so as to pay off some of his orphan's indebtedness for board and room, foreshadowed Poe's transfer from Richmond to Charlottesville in 1826.
During the tutorial period in 1825, young Edgar spent his spare time in the Ellis and Allan firm as a dry‑goods counter clerk, or as messenger. Invariably his feet and mind wandered to the book and periodical department where the literary of Richmond came to scan the latest English and American works.
Poe later summed up the whole scene in The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq. Satirically, the autobiography stated:
p157 "Of one's very remote ancestors it is superfluous to say much. My father Thomas Bob, Esq., stood for many years at the summit of his profession . . . merchant barber (close shaving merchant) in the city of Smug. His warehouse was the resort of all the principal people of the place, and especially the editorial corps — a body which inspires all about it with profound veneration and awe. For my own part, I regard them as gods, and drank in with avidity the rich wit and wisdom which continuously flowed from their august mouths during the process of what is called 'lather.' "
Poe followed the vein with increased sharpness:
"I resolved at once to become a great man, and to commence by becoming a great poet. Father, pardon me! — but I have a soul above lather. It is my firm intention to cut the shop. I would be an editor — I would be a poet — Pardon me and aid me to be great!"
The father taking his suppliant son by the ears raised him to his feet.
"Thingum, my boy, you're a trump and take after your father in having a soul. You have an immense head, too, and it must hold a great many brains . . . the trade of editor is best — and if you can be a poet at the same time — as most editors are, by the by, — why you will kill two birds with one stone. To encourage you in the beginning of things, I will allow you a garret; pen, ink, and paper, a rhyming dictionary. . . . I suppose you would scarcely demand any more.
And Poe, seeing the relationship between foster-father, spoke tellingly:
"I would be an ungrateful villain if I did. Your generosity is boundless, I will repay it by making you the father of a genius".
In retrospect, there is much that Poe had to be grateful for in his orphan status; and yet there was much that soured him on his foster-parent, as he allowed Poe only the allowance of a "garret snipe" in his subsequent schooling.
Capably prepared for an excursion into 19th century American college life, Edgar Allan Poe enrolled at the second session of the newly-opened dream school of Thomas Jefferson. On p158 February 14, St. Valentine's Day, the name of Poe appeared on the records of the University of Virginia. Jefferson in his conception of freedom rather impractically turned his idea into actuality. At the University of Virginia, college youth would be given complete freedom to act like men, to behave like men, and to think like men. The advanced British type of education taught by learned professors cajoled from their positions at Cambridge and Oxford was too much for most of the sparsely educated American youths of the old South, but was ample challenge to the well-grounded Edgar Poe. Little that is good can be said at that time for the radical experiment in freedom in education. License became the order of the day for many of the boys and public opinion was not sufficient to curb their excesses.
Poe's life was not one of too great excess, for he was cited for his excellence in Senior Latin and French. In his off‑study hours he had sufficient interest in military drill to volunteer for that pet course of Mr. Thomas Jefferson. Hervey Allen suggested that the exploits of Grandfather David Poe, or Edgar's position as an officer of the Richmond Junior Volunteers, had aroused a flair for the military. Further, this same biographer mentioned a Mr. Mathews, a West Point graduate, who taught military drill while Poe was a Virginia student, and quoted him as saying that Poe was "thick‑set with a jerky gait and bandy legs." Quite rightly he averred that this did not square with other descriptions of Poe. [No Mathews is listed as having graduated from West Point by 1826, though there is a William Mathews from Virginia who entered the Academy in 1823, but left for some unknown reason before garnering his diploma — author's note.]
Poe's one vice at the University was gambling. He turned to it, most persons believe, because of the need for money due to the pinch-penny attitude of John Allan. Gambling may have been Poe's method of blowing off steam in this rarefied atmosphere of education or it may have been the same dare-to‑do spirit which made him swim the James River a few years earlier.
p159 Whatever the cause of the youthful poet's indiscretion in gaming, his name was called to the attention of the faculty December 20, 1826, when it was considering the measures to be taken about the information that "certain Hotel Keepers during the last session had been in the habit of playing at games of chance with the students in their Dormitories." Poe was called before the faculty but upon his representations that he knew nothing of the charge, the matter was dismissed.
As a ward of one of the richest men in Virginia, Poe's credit with the merchants was accepted. It was said that seventeen broadcloth coats were purchased by Edgar, and then immediately used as barter to settle some of his losses at Seven‑up and Loo. In between such amusements, Poe turned to the study of Shelley, Keats and others. His drinking, attested to by several of his comrades, was typically that of a college freshman. Poe would seize a full glass, without water or sugar, and send it home in a single gulp, though this sometimes put him under the table. But if not, he quite shamefacedly refused a second such plunge in the same sitting.
Poe's I. O. U.'s followed him in ever-increasing proportion until on the night of December 20, 1826, in company with William Wertenbaker, later Librarian of the University, Poe returned to his room after a visit to one of the professors. Back in his room, Poe began to smash the furniture and to burn the accumulated papers of his school term. While throwing them into the fireplace, he told his troubles in a gloomy vein to his friend. The poet spoke with regret of the large amount of money he had wasted and of his debts, approximately $2000.
The following day, quite earnestly, Poe clambered onto the stage for Richmond with the feeling that he must pay his honorable debts. Home for the Christmas holidays, there was the joyful welcome of his mother and Aunt Nancy in the Allan home, but the frigidity of the climate was matched by the Scotch merchant. The prospect of having to pay more than $2000 for the one session of his foster son's education beat into his mind with a tune that could only be a foreboding one for Poe. The p160 young poet forced inward by the presaging of disaster in his home life, turned with hesitating footsteps to the home of his fiancée, Elmira Royster. But that door was shut in his face, leaving no one to turn to. A carefree college youth of the 1920's placed in the same circumstances would probably have uttered a "What the hell" and started packing his belongings for a change of scenery and opportunity to redeem himself elsewhere.
Poe, though, faced the situation with a certain air of braggadocio. John Allan, in a stunning reversal of form, invited several of Edgar's young friends to a Christmas Eve party. Poe prevailed upon a friend of his, Thomas Bolling, to skip off from the rather dull event to have a private spree down the street at a tavern.
This incident, topped off by the New Year's accumulation of dunning letters from creditors at the University, brought Poe's situation as a prodigal son to a head on March 18, 1827. After supper, John Allan attempted to clarify the atmosphere in his blunt way, saying things that grated on the sensitive spirit of the youth. Backed into a library corner Poe like a frightened animal also said things that cut his foster parent to the heart. There was only one solution.
Boarding a ship or coastwise vessel, Poe in the alias of Henri Le Rennet sailed to Boston. How he traveled is unknown. It was said he worked his way on a coal-ship. He arrived in Boston the middle of April, 1827.
Hugging his manuscripts of poems as his sole possession, Edgar Poe met a young printer, Calvin Thomas, who brought out Tamerlane and other Poems by a Bostonian. These poems, written during the years 1821 until Poe was about to leave the University,º show the spirit of a youth in his 'teens. Only a few copies of the work were published; two copies went to reviewers, and one or two were taken by the author. There was no sale which would begin to pay even the poorest board and room, so that Poe was in real need.
Like others of his time who followed the literary goddess, Poe soon saw the need of a permanent job while he carried out p161 his endeavors. Poe therefore turned to the United States Army, not from great love of military life, but with a feeling that he could acquit himself ably among the soldiers due to his education, his service in the Richmond Junior Volunteers, and because of inheritance of his Grandfather's military prowess. Just as Samuel Taylor Coleridge became Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke, 15th Light Dragoons, so Edgar Allan Poe became Edgar A. Perry. On May 26, 1827, the day of his enlistment, the poet was assigned to Battery H of the 1st Artillery, Fort Independence, Boston Harbor. Though in the words of his commanding officer, Poe was "reduced to the necessity of enlisting into the service," he must have had in the back of his mind the logical thought that the army would give him food and lodging and, during those peaceful times, leisure for poetry.
According to Colonel William A. Ganoe, there was "small pay, little recreation, hard duty, and little opportunity for advancement," which obviously did not appeal to the well-bred young American. Since the United States Military Academy furnished practically all of the officers, the opportunity to rise from the ranks was negligible. "The failure, the foreigner, and the adventurer," Ganoe continued, "made up to too great a degree the rank and file of the army of 1827."c
Poe's own regiment in its history points to a general order of August 13, 1828: "The difficulty of obtaining good recruits from native citizens of the country in sufficient numbers to supply the ranks, though a serious evil to the army, is nevertheless a satisfactory proof of the prosperity which prevails in the republic through all the departments of civil life. . . . With the hope, therefore, of speedily filling the ranks of the army, . . . the general in chief suspends so much of that part of number 1287 as prohibits the enlistment of foreigners." Carlisle V. Allan in his "Sergeant Major Perry and Cadet Poe" has collected such impressions of the United States Army in the 1820's.
Immediately after his enlistment in the army, Poe, due to his facility at writing, came to the attention of Lieutenant Joshua Howard, his battery commander. After a rigorous recruit p162 period, Private Perry was not averse to taking over the same duty that had sped him from the office of Ellis & Allan — the job of company clerk.
In that capacity, Poe prepared routine papers of the battery, acted as messenger to the headquarters, wrote letters dictated by Lieutenant Howard, prepared the muster and pay rolls, and administered the small battery headquarters. Because of this clerical work, the young soldier-poet seldom served on guard, and certainly he did not act as waiter or pot‑washer in the kitchen.
On October 31, 1827, Battery H was ordered to Fort Moultrie, Sullivan's Island, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Once again, Poe moved from Boston to the country below the Mason and Dixon line. That his army service was not unprofitable was shown by the amount of writing Poe was able to accomplish, and by the amount of information accumulated of pirates' treasure, gold bugs, and the sights and sounds of the ocean which became his background for later manuscripts.
Aboard the transport with no galling duties Poe had time to reinvest himself in the dreams of the sea as seen from the sailing vessels which took him on the voyage to England and the return trip to Norfolk several years before. As he watched the jack-tars tighten sail and perform the manifold duties aboard ship, he was accumulating subject matter for further writing.
From November 1827 to December 1828, Poe performed garrison duty at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island. There Private Edgar A. Perry, in full view of the low coasts of South Carolina, was as yet company clerk of Battery H, 1st Field Artillery. On Sullivan's Island was a magnificent beach, with the gulf stream on one side, and low sandhills on the island. There were palmetto trees, strange birds, sea turtles, and beetles. In this environment, Poe spent his spare time storing away memories which were to come to light in "The Goldbug" and other stories, a few years later. At this remote post the routine and discipline could not have been too severe, and p163 Poe probably finished his paper work at noon, allowing him time to roam the beaches in this mild climate.
Eventually came Poe's promotion to the rank of artificer. The three battery artificers prepared the bombs and shells and were in general charge of the battery's ammunition supplies. Since a good artificer was more of an asset than a good company clerk, it was assured that Lieutenant Howard would soon promote Poe. His pay, now doubled, became $10 a month with "one ration of whiskey, or rum per day, issued in kind." In this position Perry was of considerable importance in the regiment. His supply duties brought him into closer contact with the regimental headquarters and perhaps to the attention of the officers there. When Sergeant Major R. L. Glenndeningº was discharged in December 1828, artificer Perry was brought from Battery H, and after a month's preparation promoted to the highest rank an enlisted man can hold. Added responsibility gave the compensation of greater personal freedom, and there is evidence that Poe often visited in the near‑by City of Charleston. Certain passages in the "Oblong Box" indicated a familiarity with the departure of sailing packets and of life along the docks. A month before his promotion to Sergeant Major became effective, Poe addressed a long letter from Fort Moultrie to Mr. Allan in Richmond. The youth wrote proudly that "at no period of my life, have I regarded myself with deeper satisfaction." Nevertheless he asserted he had been in the American Army "as long as it suits my ends or my inclinations." Poe then made known his situation to Lieutenant Howard, who promised a discharge "solely upon a reconciliation" with Mr. Allan. Edgar Allan Poe then threatened that if he did not receive the necessary permission to leave the army, he would "be driven to more decided measures." The ending of the letter is interesting, for Poe declared: "You need not fear for my future prosperity — I am altered from what you knew me, & am no longer a boy tossing about on the world without aim or consistency — I feel that within me which will make me fulfill your highest wishes & only beg you to suspend your p164 judgement until you hear of me again. You will perceive that I speak confidentially — but when did ever Ambition exist or Talent prosper without previous convictions of success?"
In the meantime, Edgar Poe had sailed north to Fortress Monroe at Old Point Comfort, across the water from Norfolk, Virginia. Since no reply to his letter awaited him, Poe wrote again on December 22, begging even more ardently that Mr. Allan forgive him and asking that his guardian help in obtaining his discharge from the army. Poe stated that his commanding officer, Colonel James House, "spoke kindly to me, told me that he was personally acquainted with my Grandfather, General Poe, with yourself and family, and reassured me of my immediate discharge upon your consent." Evidently the hard-hearted merchant thought the army an excellent place for his runaway charge and made no reply. Faced with that impossible situation, Poe apparently gave up the idea of purchasing his discharge, at least for a time.
In early 1829, upon his promotion to the grade of Sergeant Major, Poe wrote to Mr. Allan asked that he aid in procuring a cadet's appointment to the Military Academy. "I made the request to obtain a cadet's appointment partly because I know that — (if my age should prove no obstacle, as I have since ascertained it will not) the appointment could easily be obtained either by your personal acquaintance with Mr. Wirt or by the recommendation of General Scott, or even of the officers residing at Fortress Monroe & partly because in making the request you would at once see to what direction my 'future views & expectations' were inclined." Poe continued in a hopeful vein that was not borne out later, for he said: "You can have no idea of the immense advantages which my present station in the army would give me in the appointment of a cadet — it would be an unprecedented case in the American Army, & having already passed thro' the practical part, even of the higher portion of the Artillery arm, my cadet-ship would only be considered as a necessary form, which I am positive I could run thro' in 6 months. This is a view of the case which p165 many at this place have taken in regard to myself." It is rather odd that Poe should have made such a statement, for an intelligent man could quite easily have found out that for more than 10 years there had been a four-year requirement for graduation from West Point. Edgar Poe finished his letter to Mr. Allan with, "I shall wait with impatience for an answer to this letter for upon it depends a great many of the circumstances of my future life — the assurance of an honorable & highly successful course in my own country — for the prospect — noº certainty of an exile forever to another." Poe evidently had ideas of becoming a soldier of fortune at this time, as well as later when he asked Major Sylvanus Thayer, West Point Superintendent, for a letter of recommendation to Lafayette. Before Mr. Allan could answer this letter, Mrs. Allan had died and Poe was granted a week's furlough to visit Richmond.
His feelings on the homeward journey were ones of discouragement and trepidation. His patroness was gone, and how far Poe could become reconciled to his uncompromising guardian was a question. Before Poe could reach home, Mrs. Allan had been buried. The homecoming was a tragic one, as Frances Allan had been greatly loved by her whole household. Naturally the demonstrative Negro servants were in tears and even John Allan was profoundly moved. Hervey Allen stated that Allan stayed away from the office the next day and was so agitated as to misdate an order for mourning clothes for Poe. The dying request of his wife not to forget "her dear boy Edgar" could not be disregarded, and during the visit some of the old affection between the two men returned. During his furlough the West Point idea was discussed. John Allan listened carefully, perhaps because it offered a final solution to his ward's future. Save for the death of Frances Allan, Poe now had reason to be happier than for a long time.
Upon his return to Fortress Monroe, Poe began the arrangements for his discharge from the army by procurement of a substitute. During the following weeks Poe was seeking letters of commendation from the various officers of the post. Lieutenant p166 Howard in recommending the young Sergeant Major for a West Point appointment said that his habits are "intirely free from drinking," probably a relative statement meaning that if Poe drank, he confined it to after-duty hours. Captain H. W. Griswold, the regimental adjutant, added that the young man was "worthy of confidence." The third endorsement on Poe's recommendation was penned by Lieutenant Colonel W. J. Worth, recently transferred from the Military Academy where he had been Commandant of Cadets. He believed that Poe would acquit himself "studiously and faithfully" as a cadet. Carlisle Allan in his "Sergeant Major Perry and Cadet Poe" stated that Poe's solicitation of a recommendation from Colonel Worth indicated his sincerity in wanting to become a cadet. Worth, later a Mexican War General, had had complete charge of the military reorganization of the Corps of Cadets under Major Sylvanus Thayer, the Superintendent known as the "Father of West Point."
In the common practice of the day, a soldier desiring to leave the service paid a bounty of $12.00 to the next man to enlist. In Poe's haste to depart, he was forced to pay a purchase of $75.00 to a substitute. Like his other financial transactions, he paid part in cash and left a note, for $50.00. The subsequent discovery of this note was the most important cause of the final quarrel between Poe and his guardian.
The discharged soldier left Fortress Monroe in April, 1829, and tried unsuccessfully in Washington to obtain an appointment to West Point in the class entering that July. Since there were no vacancies he visited his father's family in Baltimore, where for the first time he became acquainted with his relatives. He lost no time in finding a publisher for "Al Aaraaf." Again Poe found publishing a poor-paying, hazardous business. Another book was left to posterity, but as usual Israfel received insufficient cash to pay board and room for any extended period.
Faced with starvation, Poe wrote a series of letters to John Allan, throwing himself on his mercy. Allan grudgingly gave p167 up a small sum but this allowed Poe a bare existence. Early in 1830, Edgar returned to Richmond and there received notice that he had been appointed to the Military Academy as a cadet-at‑large. The appointment was signed by Andrew Jackson and was given at the request of the Secretary of War, Major John H. Eaton. About the middle of May, Poe started for West Point, visiting his Baltimore relatives en route. He took the examinations for entrance and successfully completed them on June 28, 1830. In company with 101 other plebes Poe entered West Point. His classmates ranged in age from 14 to 29. Poe, who was 21 years and 6 months, must have appeared rather older than his "official" age of 19 years. His classmates jokingly claimed that he had received an appointment for his son, but the son having died, Poe had seen fit to come to West Point.
For the first time in his two years of military life Poe met irksome restrictions. The cadets, sleeping in tents and on the ground, found it a hard life, for they were not allowed to use such luxuries as oil lamps and they were denied the pleasure of bathing in the Hudson. Though this routine must have been distasteful to Poe, his actions gave no indication, for he was not posted for any infractions of discipline during the summer of 1830. If, as tradition asserts, he was off limits at Benny Havens' cheerful tavern in Buttermilk Falls, he was not apprehended there.
Poe's record in classroom work showed the advantages of his educational background for he was ranked 17 in mathematics in a class of 85 cadets after the first examination. Poe was particularly unfortunate in his roommates, as one of them, Timothy P. Jones, was tried by a general court-martial for gross neglect of academic and military duties and dismissed at the end of 1830. Another roommate, Thomas W. Gibson, was one of the most incorrigible cadets who entered the Academy at that time; he was court-martialed five times for major offenses. Once, in company with an Alexander Wolcott, he set fire to the ice house; twice he was tried for drinking, and lastly, he set fire to a building near barracks after having disabled p168 all the water pumps. Though found guilty each time, the Secretary of War returned him to duty. Both Jones and Gibson recalled Poe as a brilliant student. He was said to have prepared his lessons in the recitation room while the other members were speaking. Gibson stated that the poet was "worn, weary and discontented," and Jones added that he was "very moody." Both roommates agreed that Poe had great ability in writing verse, lampooning the West Point officers. Bret Harte, in his West Point Tic Tacs, published in 1873, quoted the following stanzas from a long poem ascribed to Poe.
As for Locke he is all in my eye,
May the devil right soon for his soul call.
He was never known to lie —
In bed at a reveille roll call.
John Locke was a notable name;
Joe Locke is the greater; in short,
The former was well known to fame,
The latter's well known to report.
Gibson mentioned Poe's exceptional limericks, his knowledge of English literature, and reported that, despite his peculiarities, he left a favorable impression upon his West Point associates. General George W. Cullum, who was a cadet corporal in the same company with Poe, remembered him as the author of a book of "Ridiculous Doggerel" with which Poe victimized the cadets after his dismissal. General Cullum stated that Poe's companions thought him "slightly cracked." Many of Poe's biographers make much of the fact that Poe's meager pay at West Point, which his guardian failed to supplement, gave him the same beggarly existence which he encountered at the University of Virginia. It is true that in his time most cadets received extra money from home, which Leonidas Polk termed "a patch for old shirts."
p169 During the late fall of 1830, Mr. Allan was re‑married in Richmond. Though Poe, in later life, gave this marriage as his reason for leaving West Point, his letter to Mr. Allan failed to confirm that determination. The youthful cadet wrote: "I have an excellent standing in my class — in the first section in everything — and have great hopes of doing well. I have spent my time very pleasantly hitherto . . . but the study requisite is incessant, and the discipline exceedingly rigid . . . I am very pleased with Colonel Thayer, and indeed with everything at the institution." The improvement in Poe's letters, both grammatically and in expression, indicated that his high rating in his subjects was well earned.
Poe, after the examinations of January 3, 1831, was rated No. 3 in French, and No. 17 in mathematics in his class of 85 cadets. Again his disciplinary record had been creditable. But on this same January 3 the volcano of Poe's life erupted. Sergeant Bully Graves of Fortress Monroe, who held Poe's note for $50.00, had written to Mr. Allan in the vein that he, as a rich man, should pay his ward's indebtedness. Mr. Allan wasted no time in writing to Poe and told him flatly that he was through with him. Poe's answer was a bitter one reciting his grievances, real and otherwise, which he had received at the hands of his foster-parent. After dwelling at length upon financial difficulties at the University of Virginia, and at West Point, Poe concluded:
"If it was possible to put up with the fatigues of this place, and the inconveniences which my absolute want of necessaries subject me to, and as I have mentioned before, it is my intention to resign . . . for this end it will be necessary that you (as my nominal guardian) enclose me your written permission. It will be useless to refuse me this last request . . . for I can leave the place without any permission . . . your refusal would only deprive me of the little pay which is now due as mileage. From the time of writing this I shall neglect my studies and duties at the institution — if I do not p170 receive your answer in ten days I will leave the Point without — or otherwise I should subject myself to dismission."
Mr. Allan, in business-like manner, noted on the letter before filing that he had received it January 10 and could see no good reason to alter his opinion. He add finally, "I do not think the boy has one good quality." True to his word, Cadet Poe now began a series of absences from all duties and from this period stem the stories of Poe's undisciplined West Point life. Because of these stories there is the common false conclusion that all of Poe's cadet existence was as carefree. On February 8 Poe appeared at his first court-martial and was dismissed from the service as a cadet of the United States. No mention in the court-martial was made of either drinking or gambling. Such a record casts doubt upon some of the tradition of Poe's cadetship. One story recounts his presence at parade attired in cross-belts — and nothing else. Another absurd story is of Poe's boredom at parade and has him calmly walking off the parade grounds after having hung his cartridge box, belt, and dress coat on the butt of his musket which was up‑ended with the bayonet stuck in the ground. Colonel Wirt Robinson, late Professor of Chemistry, at West Point, was told by a West Point graduate of 1846,º General Dabney H. Maury, another story of probably greater authenticity. Poe, according to the story, returned to barracks from Benny Havens' somewhat intoxicated. As he was passing Lieutenant Locke's room in barracks, Poe fell. Lieutenant Locke, hearing the noise in the hall, called out questioningly about the disturbance. Poe answered with a recitation:
On Linden, when the sun was low,
All bloodless lay the untrodden snow;
And dark as winter was the flow
Of I, sir, rolling rapidly.d
With the "I, sir," Poe regained control of his legs and reached his room without being identified.
p171 Poe left West Point on February 19, his military life at an end. Some few of his biographers maintained that had he had the opportunity through a saner family life to have remained at West Point and acquired a little more discipline, he might have adjusted his mental balance; other biographers go so far as to say his military life was a waste of time and suggest that further submission to discipline might have extinguished his spark of genius. Poe's last work at the Academy was the solicitation of subscriptions to a new book of poems to be dedicated to the United States Corps of Cadets. A great many of his schemas had agreed to purchase copies at 75¢ each, and Colonel Thayer, who evinced some interest in Poe, allowed this amount to be deducted from each cadet's official account. Later when the Corps received their volumes containing such poems as "Israfel," "Lenore," "To Helen," they, like General Cullum, felt victimized, for they had expected satirical stanzas on Colonel Thayer and Lieutenant Locke.
As Poe walked down the lonely road to the desolate West Point wharf, on a cold February 19, in 1831, his first thoughts were of the group of companions upon the plain going about their daily routine. All cadets who have left West Point by resignation, or dismissal, have followed one or two patterns — either they hate West Point military life and all notice of it, or they become champions of its code and hangers‑on at graduate reunions. Poe, without civilian overcoat, and in a shabby suit of clothes, would not wear the cadet overcoat that he was taking with him. Soon he was aboard the side-wheeler, Henry Eckford, which thrashed its way down the Hudson to New York. Poe was horribly alone in New York City and within two days was reduced in spirit to such extent that he wrote again to Mr. John Allan. He said resignedly it was the last time that he would ever trouble any human being; he felt that he was on a sick bed from which he would never rise. What Poe had done with his mileage payment of $30.00 is not known because he asked Mr. Allan for a single dollar, saying it was of more importance to him than $10,000 to his foster-parent. Sick p172 at heart, the young poet asked Mr. Allan to write Colonel Thayer and check the records for an expression of Poe's excellent standing and his reputation for talent. Poe concluded: "I have no money . . . no friends . . . I have written to my brother and he cannot help me. I shall never rise from my bed . . . besides a most violent cold in my lungs, my ear discharges blood and matter continually, and my headache is distracting. I hardly know what I am writing. I will write no more. Please send me a little money, quickly, and forget what I said about you . . ." From this state of sickness and self-pity, Poe emerged in a week or so to read the proofs of his book at the office of Elam Bliss the publisher, at 111 Broadway. Within a short time Poe again needed financial aid, and doubtful of his ability to earn a living in New York, wrote to Colonel Thayer on March 10, asking if the Colonel would recommend him to Lafayette for an appointment in the Polish army. No reply by Colonel Thayer has been found and this letter marked the end of Poe's military designs. In a short time the unsuccessful writer packed a few copies of his book of poems and with the few dollars that remained, left for Baltimore.
Upon his arrival, Edgar Poe, arrayed in his cadet uniform, went to the home of his aunt, Mrs. Clemm. His reception, by his cousin Virginia, his wan brother Henry (William Henry Leonard) and his paralytic grandmother, was hospitable, probably because of the prospect of having a family breadwinner. In no time another place was set at the table. Edgar's few clothes, his books and papers, were unpacked on the third floor and very soon he was taking odd jobs here and there. Members of the Poe family tell of Henry and Edgar, the latter in his cadet grey, calling upon a girl named Kate Blakely. During the succeeding months, Edgar became quite fond of his older brother, who wrote poetry and listened attentively to Edgar's new lyrics. In this relationship Edgar became a nurse to his brother, who was far gone in consumption and frequently gave himself up to drink. By August, Henry was dead. His burial, in the graveyard of the old Presbyterian Church, was a depressing experience in p173 Edgar's life. Life with the Clemms had little fascination at this time, as it was later that cousin Virginia became his wife and Mrs. Clemm his "mother." During the remainder of 1831, Edgar contributed little to the support of the family. In desperation perhaps, he turned to short story contests, and in January of the following year, sold one story to the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. They accepted and paid for his entry, though it did not win a prize. In November of 1831, Edgar Poe was arrested for a debt, a note for $80.00 which he probably endorsed for his brother Henry. No little worry was caused by this debt, for the laws of Baltimore were so strict that any debt of $5.00 or over usually meant imprisonment. To add to Mrs. Clemm's miracle of raising $20.00, Poe in a heart-rending letter, sought help from John Allan. Edgar followed this letter ten days later with another note indicating a desperation which brought the nightmare of prison gates swinging upon him. On this occasion Mr. Allan, according to his correspondence files, gave him sufficient money to refund the debt, but for some reason the letter was not mailed until later. Meanwhile Poe somehow passed the crisis in the debt affair and the unexpected help of Mr. Allan was anti-climactic.
The early part of 1832 is unaccounted for in Poe's history. Through the mystery appear several stories of romances with young ladies of the neighborhood. Later proof indicated that he must have been writing short stories in the Clemm garret. By midyear, Richmond was drawing Poe home. Perhaps the hope that he should receive some of his guardian's wealth still existed; he may have wished to return to see Aunt Nancy, who lived with John Allan. Unfortunately upon the day of Poe's arrival at the Allan home only the servants and the new Mrs. Allan were present. She was very much annoyed by Poe's possessive attitude toward his old room in the house. Having been treated so coldly, Poe in his drunkenness hinted to Mrs. Allan that she had not been without mercenary motives in marrying Mr. Allan. She of course replied that Edgar was far from a member of the family and she knew him only as a pensioner of p174 the goodwill of her husband. The Allan episode in Poe's life was therefore closed with finality by this unfortunate incident.
Thwarted in his attempt to regain recognition in the Allan home, Poe returned to Baltimore to continue life with the Clemm family. Furiously he penned prose, alternating his effort with a search for odd jobs so as to keep the family from starvation. The dark-haired young man labored over his work, gaining minor success with several small sales to the Philadelphia Courier. It was in July 1833, in answer to a prize contest in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter, that Poe brought forward his best effort. One of the judges, appointed by the editor, a J. H. B. Latrobe,e tells of the "ridiculously bad — namby pamby" stories which were laid before the judges. Toward the end of their search among the manuscripts, they came upon a small quarto-bound book with the writing in Roman characters which looked like printing. The judges were intensely interested by the first story and could not stop until they had read the next few. Portions of the stories were re‑read and finally the committee selected one called "M.S. Found in a Bottle." Another of the stories which received considerable attention was titled "A Descent into the Maelstrom." Contrary to general belief, Poe was not the father of the short story. He brought to that type of writing, according to Edward Shanks, an "enormous advance in technique and devised an effective method of telling a story within the space of three to five thousand words." In contrary to previous short story writers who gave panoramas, Poe, without sacrificing suspense, left the reader with the impression of seeing everything in a flash. After the announcement of the award, Poe called upon the judge, Mr. Latrobe, who gave the following account of his visitor. "He was if anything, below the middle size, and yet could not be described as a small man. His figure was remarkably good, and he carried himself erect and well, as one who had been trained to it . . . coat, hat, boots, and gloves had evidently seen their best days, but so far as mending and brushing goes, everything had been done apparently, to make them presentable." Mr. Latrobe p175 in this single interview attested further that "gentleman was written all over him . . . although he came to return thanks . . . there was nothing obsequious in what he said or did. His forehead was high . . . the expression of his face was grave, almost sad, except when he became engaged in conversation, when it became animated and changeable. His voice I remember was very pleasing in its tone, and well modulated, almost rhythmical, and his words were well chosen and unhesitating." Upon asking whether he was engaged with any literary labor, he gave a learned discussion of the laws of gravity and other scientific data, which he was using in a story, "A Voyage to the Moon." As he talked he became more and more excited, speaking rapidly and by way of emphasis clapping his hands and stamping his foot. When Poe had finished his description he apologized and laughed at himself for his performance.
With this first success ringing in his ears and the words of the judging committee to go and continue his work, Poe had reason to believe that brighter days were ahead. It seemed though that the fates were against him, for the small amount that he obtained from his writing and from his odd jobs was only sufficient for meager food allowances. In March 1834, Mr. John Allan died suddenly. The will made no allusion to Poe and any last hope which Poe harbored that wealth would be left to him was suddenly cut off.
With the legacy from John Allan definitely eliminated, Poe was not the only worried member of the Clemm household. At this time Mrs. Clemm too had her doubts about future livelihood because if Edgar Poe left, she and Virginia would have no breadwinner. The household on Amity Street was in agreement on the marriage of Virginia with Edgar. Though Virginia was 12 years old at the time, such a marriage of convenience would keep them in a tight-knit group. There was no doubt that Mrs. Clemm loved Edgar, who was of her own blood, and that she regarded herself as his mother. Poe himself was troubled by Virginia's relationship of first cousin, and by her youth. Baudelaire decided that Poe was at once excited p176 and repulsed. Hervey Allen explained that "the relations with Virginia lie very close to the core of his inner mystery; they explain many of his heroines . . . The neurologist's eye is needed to probe deeper. One feels very near here to the secret of a strange soul."
Though Poe was not married to Virginia until some time later, his domestic arrangements were temporarily settled to the satisfaction of Mrs. Clemm. Despite the prospects opened by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter prize, Poe seemed unable to make further sales. In November 1834, he begged a favor of Mr. John P. Kennedy, who had been one of the contest judges. In the letter Poe explained that he had not the courage to make his request in person, and further, that he had no claim on the judge's attention. After explaining that his guardian was now dead, and had left him nothing, Poe declared that he was penniless. He asked Kennedy to approach Lea & Carey for a small sum in consideration of Poe's manuscript then in their hands. Sometime later, Kennedy answered that he had been unsuccessful in his quest because the publishers felt that any profit from Poe's work was considered doubtful. Mr. Kennedy's kindly letter contained a draft for $15.00 for the sale of a manuscript at a dollar a page. The relationship with Kennedy continued into the spring of the next year, when Poe asked for help in obtaining a position as school teacher. The wise gentleman invited Poe to dinner, which was refused in a pathetic note stating that reasons of the most humiliating nature in his personal appearance made it impossible. The young poet closed with "if you will be my friend so far as to loan me $20.00, I will call on you tomorrow — otherwise it will be impossible, and I must submit to my fate."
This sad letter was a turning point in Poe's literary career. Mr. Kennedy sent Poe the amount and gave him a sumptuous dinner. In fact, Edgar was allowed to ride Mr. Kennedy's horse "for exercise." On horseback the proud little Virginia poet was a gentleman again. Kennedy, even with the experience of Poe's cadging, introduced him to the editor of The Southern Literary p177 Messenger in Richmond. One story, "Berenice," was immediately accepted by that magazine, and received a laudatory editorial notice. Very soon Mr. Thomas White, the editor, saw in Poe the type of man his struggling magazine needed. The author's story and book reviews led to permanent employment toward the latter part of the year. The move to Richmond though had to be deferred.
Poe's health, along with the fact that Grandmother Poe was dying, forced him to give up this opportunity for profitable employment until the New Year. Writing to White, Edgar said that he was entirely recovered, although his doctor had assured him before Christmas that only a sea voyage would save him. This indisposition, certainly not an ordinary one, was not the first in Poe's life. There was record of prior illnesses in his letters to John Allan. Throughout all of Poe's life there was evidence of his inability to take more than one or two drinks without disastrous results. This weakness, which left him after each indulgence with a loss of memory, and with ill health for four or five days, was perhaps the reason for his mild use of opiates. Some biographers suggest that in his declining sexual life there was added evidence of his turning to drugs. Even a more normal person faced with the uncertainty of life, the lack of food, and the drudgery in writing his unappreciated poetry and prose would probably have reacted as did Poe. Unfortunately, the author had also inherited from his physically weak mother and mentally weak father, such debilities as to make his struggle unbearable. Recovered now from his illness Poe journeyed to Richmond with a few literary laurels on his brow.
Next door to the merchandising firm of Ellis & Allan, Poe took up his editorial duties writing stories, articles and criticisms. In the same office with Poe was Mr. White, the stocky, good-natured, florid-faced editor. The young editor was very busy for there were visitors, mostly local writers, who dropped in frequently for a visit or to ask a favor. In the press room were William McFarland and John Fergusson, who clapped the p178 frames on the presses and whose hands moved quickly over the cases of type. The mail was heavy, often with books to be reviewed. Mr. White was usually out of the office soliciting subscriptions. Poe himself, with his brilliant pen, quickly lifted the number of subscribers to many times the original seven hundred. Around the town Poe still had several friends. In a somewhat distinguished manner with his black stock tied nonchalantly and a tight double-breasted waistcoat, he seemed the perfect Virginia gentleman under his tilted beaver hat. His large forehead under a head of black hair was the most prominent feature in his oval face. His eyes, gray-blue, had a haunted look which seemed in character with his weak, small mouth. He stopped to see the Mackenzies with whom his orphan sister Rosalie was living. Though she was now full-grown her mind remained in childhood. From the Mackenzie family and their son Jack, Poe undoubtedly learned much about the later life of John Allan. While working long hours and indulging in occasional sprees, Poe was filled with melancholy. His salary of ten dollars a week he considered sufficient to bring Mrs. Clemm and Virginia to Richmond. News from Baltimore at this time added further to his depression, for other relatives, the Neilson Poes, had taken advantage of Poe's absence to break off the marriage with Virginia. The only solution to his problems, he believed, lay in long hours of editorial work which would leave him no time for drink. The effort though, as usual, was too great, and Poe suffered a collapse. During this period Poe wrote a letter to his patron, Mr. Kennedy, emphasizing by the "vicious circle method" the terrible weakness in himself. Since he asked for advice Mr. Kennedy replied: "It is strange that just at the time when everybody is praising you . . . you should be invaded by these villainous blue devils. It belongs, however, to your age and temper to be thus buffeted — but be assured it only wants a little resolution to master the adversary forever." It is not known whether Poe had received this letter in Richmond, for he had left The Messenger and returned to Baltimore. On September 22, 1835, Poe was secretly married in St. p179 Paul's Episcopal Church in Baltimore. Since the minister made no entry in the parish register, only the record of a city license and Mrs. Clemm's word remains. A few days after the marriage, Poe in his new responsibility asked Mr. White for the job he had just left. White, in a long letter, gave the young husband much good advice, praising him for his ability, and telling him in no uncertain terms that "no man is safe who drinks before breakfast! . . . All engagement on my part would be dissolved, the instant you get drunk." In Richmond, Poe was welcomed back by Mr. White, who was probably reassured that Poe's drinking would be curbed by the presence of his aunt and cousin who were to follow shortly from Baltimore. Though Virginia was thought of by their neighbors in Richmond as a married school girl, this did not deter Edgar from confirming his previous marriage to her by a public ceremony in May 1836.
For some time Poe must have kept his promise of sobriety, due to his love of home life where he made an effort to teach Virginia the French language and to play the harp. At the office his salary as editor inched up to $15.00 a week with occasional extra dollars from printed stories, assuring the family of sufficient to eat. Most of his work was now in the critical field, rather than in the creative. From the reservoir of previously written manuscripts Poe now drew for his stories. His criticisms demonstrated his considerable aptitude. Thorough they were often harsh, time has confirmed his judgment of the mediocrity of the literature of that period. There is a genuine honesty about his respect for real literature, and the great English critics were his models. In his passion for good literature he turned his dislike of the New England snobs into unerring and keen discovery of the sentimentalism in the writings of the time. Such criticism brought protest and Mr. White, fearing libel suits, often remonstrated.
A certain popularity had fallen upon Poe and like another artist, James Whistler, Poe was to be found burning the candle at both ends. Almost never at home, he could be found at p180 supper at the Sullys, listening to Eliza White reciting "Lady Macbeth," or spending an evening at the Court House Tavern. At all of these places he would be offered wine and when on occasion he took it, became very ill and went home to spend several days in bed. According to Hervey Allen, Virginia almost invariably stated at these times that Eddie's health was so bad he could not get down to the office. She used the excuse so often, she loved him so much, that she came to believe it, though knowing it to be untrue. During 1836, Poe wrote 83 reviews, 6 poems, 4 essays, and 3 stories for The Messenger, in addition to his editorial duties. Added to this at some time or other, he wrote The Tales of Arthur Gordon Pym, which he hoped to sell to Harper's.
As the days in bed from his slight excesses became more frequent, Mr. White, late in 1836, became alarmed that he might lose the clever young author who had helped raise the circulation of The Messenger to 3500 an issue. In addition to his editorial value, Poe wrote an astounding number of his short stories for the magazine. Poe carefully culled thousands of interesting newspaper items for his notebook. In fact Poe was so painstaking and so clever at picking up valuable curiosities and odd incidents that when the time came to work up a plot a news clipping was ready to fit into the right shelf in the story. By the end of 1836, Poe prepared to leave Richmond. He knew that Mr. White desired to rid himself of his undependable young editor. Poe's sharp criticism of contemporary American literature had made him a crusader for better writing. Undeceived by the praise of a few and uninfluenced by what the subscribers to The Southern Literary Messenger wanted, he had ideas of placing literature on a higher plane. It was a feeling that the world would be his theater. Through experience Poe had developed some ideas about a truly national publication. Like Lincoln, he too wanted to take sectionalism out of American life. His idea, huge in conception, was left to a later date. At the moment he was off to Philadelphia and New York.
p181 In February, 1837, with Mrs. Clemm and Virginia Poe he arrived in lonely Manhattan. They had some funds and there was money due from his serialized story, Arthur Gordon Pym, which was appearing in The Messenger. They lived at Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place, where they shared quarters with William Gowans, a New York bookseller. Though Gowans desired to be helpful to Poe and made some contacts for him, New York in the midst of the panic of 1837 was a city of gloom. Prices were rising at an awesome rate and even though Poe haunted the publishers he could not sell enough material to meet the rising price of living. For eighteen months, Poe's family was kept together in New York by his meager earnings, and in the summer of 1838 Poe borrowed money to take them to Philadelphia. There the Poes boarded with James Pedder, an Englishman who had magazine connections in Philadelphia. For the next six years the Quaker City was the home of the poet, and though he never attained real success in a monetary way, the fear of starvation was less during this time than at any other in his adult life.
While Poe was looking for an editorial connection he was selling literary material, which had probably been written while residing in New York. Strangely, Poe was the only writer of his age who depended on his writing to keep him from poverty. Hawthorne was a government employee, Longfellow a professor, Emerson a minister, and Holmes a doctor. Had Poe been a little less of a dreamer, he too would have been able to make a livelihood in a trade or profession. Perhaps of like mind with other writers, he sought first a commission in the army, and later a government job to sustain him while writing. At any rate, he maintained himself during the fall and winter, selling his manuscripts for a few dollars each. At this time he engaged in the only piece of hack work in his life. It must have meant a strain upon his literary honesty to have lent his name and some effort to The Conchologist's First Book, printed in April, 1839, in Philadelphia. Poe spent a great deal of time on this work and though it was a re‑arrangement p182 of others' thought, it was copyrighted by Edgar Allan Poe.
After further free-lance writing Poe applied to Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, and was engaged as a part‑time editor and literary contributor. Again Poe was the young editor, at $10.00 a week, and again he helped build up the circulation of the magazine. During his association with the Gents' Mag, as Poe liked to call it, he was preparing his collected tales into two volumes for fall publication. In order to acquire quotable criticisms of his stories, Poe wrote to Washington Irving and Philip Cooke, a Virginia author of some note. As of old, Edgar went through periods of melancholy. Under the effects of drugs, he would wander off for long periods. The neighbors, or perhaps Mrs. Clemm, who anticipated his moods, would then carry the raving man home. Toward the end of 1839, Poe had more and more fits and finally a nervous collapse. In order to compromise with his old enemy, drink, he began to use hard cider. While in this period of great stress Poe attempted to sever connections with the Gentleman's Magazine, but sanity brought repentance and a letter of supplication to his employers.
During his Philadelphia residence, Poe was constantly turning over in his mind the idea of a national publication which would be called The Penn Magazine. Toward this objective, he inserted favorable announcements of the approaching appearance of his magazine in other magazines; he sought famous authors with good followings; and pursued subscribers to provide financial backing. Unfortunately, in Poe's struggle he was so carried away by his own magazine dream, that he left Burton although he had nothing tangible to provide a steady income. The accustomed interlude of precarious free-lance writing followed. After his parting from Burton, Poe addressed him in tones of "threadbare haughtiness." Poe stated: "Your attempts to bully me excite in my mind scarcely any other sentiment than mirth. When you address me again, preserve, if you can, the dignity of a gentleman." Burton, like White, managed in his own way, to have a certain generosity p183 toward Poe. Strangely enough this buffoon, as Poe called him, recommended Poe to the new proprietor George R. Graham, when he purchased Burton's magazine. Graham merging his own weak monthly magazine with Burton's found he had a total of 5000 subscribers. Within a few months, added by Poe's editing, the circulation of Graham's Magazine, as it was called, reached 37,000. It was the largest monthly magazine in the world, and the first great American magazine, comparable in its day to the present Saturday Evening Post. This triumph in the field of journalism spoke well for Poe. Graham paid him more generously than had any previous proprietor. Poe, as editor, not only made up Graham's large magazine but showed himself capable of drawing well-known name-authors to its columns. While Poe was writing to most of the famous contemporary authors, he intimated that he too was soon to establish a magazine. In a letter to Longfellow, Poe declared, "Mr. Graham and myself propose to establish a magazine . . ." Late in 1841 Poe for some reason attempted to secure a small position on the government payroll. His friend, F. W. Thomas, who had such a position, wanted to help Poe. The young editor looked upon the opportunity for a permanent income, small as it might be, as more acceptable than his editorial position. He said rather sharply, "To coin one's brain into silver, at the nod of a master, is, to my thinking, the hardest task in the world . . ."
To Poe, every job was monotonous. The old urge to change was again forming in Poe's mind and then suddenly an outside complication appeared. Virginia had her first hemorrhage, making her life extremely precarious. Prior to Virginia's illness, Poe had found ample evidence that Graham had no intention of supporting him in starting a new magazine, nor could Poe extract from Graham a proprietary share in the dividends of the successful Graham's Magazine. This double violation of what Poe considered their basic agreement was evidently too much to bear. A Dr. Mitchell, called in consultation on Virginia's case, found two patients. Poe's condition p184 was a real puzzle. Bound up with his business failures, his mental balance was peculiarly entwined in the life of Virginia. Hervey Allen said that she was his physical compromise with reality so that the very thought of losing her was a species of madness. Life became irregular. Virginia's relapse brought a consequent attention to drink in her husband and in the months of early 1842, Poe was often absent from work for days. Graham was forced to call for editorial help elsewhere. Poe's vitality had apparently reached bottom, due not only to drink and drugs, but to overwork and to the peculiar connection between himself and wife. In April of 1842, Poe, upon entering his office, found the editorial chair occupied by Rufus Griswold and understanding immediately, closed the door on Graham's forever.
Life was definitely on the downgrade. Virginia had another attack sometime during the summer, and Poe himself scarcely wrote a line because of occasional delirium. During the following winter and spring Poe gave much thought and energy to plans for publishing the Stylus, which was the name to be substituted for his Penn Magazine. Though disguised, the plan for the launching a new magazine was always a part of Poe's thought during his literary career. Even at the time of his death, the Stylus was, in Poe's mind, ready for publication.
Despite later attempts to find a permanent position, Poe's connection with Graham proved to be his last serious effort in literary editorship. With life in Philadelphia a mad dream, Poe determined to remove Virginia and himself from the mental and physical confusion. Upon his arrival in New York, Poe wrote to Mrs. Clemm, who had been left behind. Putting himself in the position of a dutiful son, he told her he refused to pay a carriage driver the dollar he asked. As the boat docked, he went ashore alone in a rainstorm to purchase an umbrella. In the detailed language of an adolescent he told her that it had cost a quarter. There was an account of the passage of each half hour of time, the selection of a boarding house, the menu there, and other unnecessary details. He added p185 significantly, "I feel in excellent spirits, and haven't drank a drop — so that I hope soon to get out of trouble." The funds for the Poes' board and room and for Mrs. Clemm's passage from Philadelphia, were provided for by the sale of an article to the New York Sun. This endeavor, a literary hoax, was headlined as the "Flight of the Machine Across the Atlantic in Three Days." The newspaper promised an "extra" with all the details. Poe's story, written in his imaginative style, reported the flying machine's arrival at Sullivan's Island, near Charleston, S. C. It was so well done that all New York wagged its head in mirth. For a time Poe supported himself by a small position on the Evening Mirror. In the summer of 1844, the hot weather in the city caused Poe to move Virginia to a cool spot several miles out of town. This home, near the present‑day intersection of 84th Street and Broadway was where Poe wrote "The Raven." This work, which had occupied his attention at intervals since 1842, was, according to Poe, "a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste." It fulfilled Poe's conception of poetry as "the rhythmical creation of beauty." Mechanically, he decided its length at a maximum of 100 lines; the effect to be conveyed was "pure elevation of soul — not of intellect or of heart"; the tone was to be one of sadness; and lastly, there was the sonorous refrain "nevermore." Whether Poe wrote the poem in such manner as this is doubtful, and some would have us believe that Poe was merely in retrospect trying to make an impression by working back from the final solution.
All accounts of Poe's life in his cottage picture him as the gentlest of husbands and one devoted to his invalid wife. This is quite in line with Mrs. Clemm's contention that when Poe was sober he was a true gentleman, but when drunk, unpredictable. In 1845 occurred one of Poe's "flashes of better things." He left the Evening Mirror to take up his duties on the Broadway Journal, contributing to it at the rate of $1.00 per column. Though Poe still maintained his connection with N. P. Willis, the editor of the Evening Mirror, and was at the p186 same time writing for the Journal, his main effort was centered on the publication of "The Raven." The scheme called for numerous simultaneous appearances of the poem. Hervey Allen reported that introductory notices, to insure that "the effects it sought to produce, should not be misunderstood," were also sent out prior to the poem's publication. By these methods "The Raven" achieved a more instant and wide success than any previous American poem. Poe, upon being named as the author, found himself "instantly famous, the object of curiosity, and the strange, romantic, diabolic, and tragic figure that he has ever since remained."
Though Poe had only a one‑third interest in the Broadway Journal, he very quickly became its guiding hand. Unfortunately, the successes had come too late. The combination of Poe's difficulties and of his wife's invalidism had carried him to a point of distraction where he again became less dependable, one petty quarrel following another. In his chimelike voice he began reciting his poems, and on one occasion was asked to give a recital in Boston. The idea of composing a new lyric being unsuccessful, Poe in a very wild manner delivered his early poem "Al Aaraaf," and Edward Shanks said that the situation was made "a thousand times worse" because Poe explained that such an audience was worth little trouble. By the fall of 1845 Poe was again in the state of collapse which usually followed a period of overwork. His dream of owning his own magazine seemed attainable and in order to keep up the pace Poe again resorted to alcohol. It was during this period of near-insanity that Poe had delivered his Boston recital. In this condition it was impossible for him to keep up his usual capable editorial work and the Broadway Journal began to fall away. On December 20 Poe called at the newly shifted offices of the Journal and left material for the next issue. He was ill and Virginia was near dying. Two weeks later, on January 3, 1846, Poe bade farewell to the Journal, saying that "unexpected engagements demand my whole attention." During this year the household moved to a p187 small cottage in the village of Fordham. Their neighbors made it a point to keep the family supplied with some food, fuel, and clothing. Mrs. Gove Nichols visited Poe's house during this last year of married life. The party she had brought with her, herself and Poe, strolled into the woods. Someone suggested a jumping contest and Poe, though triumphant, tragically burst his shoes. The visitors slipped away hastily but Mrs. Nichols, who returned to the house for some reason, found Poe in a stupefied condition. Mrs. Clemm, talking to him like a small boy, was asking how he burst his gaiters. Mrs. Clemm, ever resourceful, explained to Mrs. Nichols that if Eddie's poem were to be accepted, all would be well. Poe evidently could no longer do his own begging. The horrible year passed and Poe's tragedy became complete when Virginia died on January 29, 1847.
The effect of Virginia's death upon Poe's sensibilities was severe and even the least critical can attest that something went out in Poe's brain. Recovering from the shock he leaned heavily on Mrs. Clemm, realizing to some extent that his practical hold on life, which had never been contained in Virginia, was still left in him. A little later Poe wrote to a friend about the period preceding her death. Poe stated:
"Yes, Thomas, I can do more than hint. Six years ago a wife whom I loved, as no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of.
"I took leave of her forever and underwent all the agonies of her death . . . At the end of a year the vessel broke again, I went through precisely the same scene, then again, again . . . I am constitutionally sensitive, nervous in an unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.
"During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank . . . I had indeed nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure, when I found one in the death of my wife. This I can, and do endure, as becomes a man . . . I received a new (but Oh, God!) how melancholy an existence."
The period from the death of Virginia to the disappearance p188 of Edgar Allan Poe in October 1849 may be summarized in three stages. Mrs. Clemm and a Mrs. Shew aided him in recuperation and in a literary comeback in 1847. This ended in failure and despair and Hervey Allen stated that the next stage was an effort to find refuge from self in two affairs with Annie Richmond and Helen Whitman. Though this period ended in despair and an attempt at suicide, there was one brief period of light as Poe but also engaged to his boyhood love, Elmira, but this was followed quickly by Poe's mysterious death in Baltimore.
Poe's first effort at recuperation, after the death of Virginia, was his manuscript Eureka, which was published. Shanks declared the book was a failure, though Poe did get some money from it. Poe's lectures based on it were also a failure, and doubly so, for Poe had hoped to raise money to start his magazine. At this time in his dependency on Mrs. Marie Louise Shew, who had been of considerable assistance in the last stage of Virginia's illness, Poe saw in her a platonic light of love. She was an intellectual support to him and her sympathy meant much. They would walk up and down the garden, arms around one another's waists, while he read passages from Eureka, until she could no longer walk. Poe attended church service with Mrs. Shew, and sang well, she maintained, in a fine "tenor voice, and knew all the responses." Naturally, such friendship was very difficult for Mrs. Shew. A woman of common sense, she was naturally afraid of a man who leaned so hard upon women for his strength. Subsequently she wrote a letter to the poet saying that "her visits to Fordham and his visits to her must cease."
Poe hastily departed from a dream life with Mrs. Shew and sought another woman to take her place. Poe detected qualities that he desired in the poetry of Helen Whitman, whom he had seen once several years previously. Mrs. Whitman, a widow, older than Poe, and a verse writer, entered sufficiently into his life so that they actually planned marriage on a certain Thursday. By Monday, the date set for the wedding, p189 she discovered that he had broken his promise of temperance and she considered herself absolved. From this affair he leaped almost simultaneously into an affair with Mrs. Annie Richmond. Within the same month as the date set for his marriage with Mrs. Whitman, Poe attempted suicide by an overdose of laudanum. By this means he hoped that Mrs. Richmond would come to his bedside. Strangely, this Annie Richmond was married and even Poe did not think of an elopement with her.
In mid‑July, 1849, Poe left New York for Richmond, Virginia, leaving Mrs. Clemm at Fordham. Poe gave way to drink in his native surroundings and disappeared for two weeks. His good samaritan was Mr. John R. Thompson, then editor of The Southern Literary Messenger, who returned him to the Mackenzie residence where Poe's sister Rosalie was still living. Poe remained for some time in Richmond and by chance met his old friend Elmira Royster, now the widow, Mrs. Shelton. "The course of true love was not all smooth, even now," as Poe's reputation was known to Elmira. She was worried about her fortune and not too enthusiastic about the Stylus scheme, which Poe immediately introduced. She made some arrangements to protect her property. This caution nettled Poe and caused a coolness between them. During August, Poe lectured to several small audiences and also gave recitations, all of which brought laudatory notices. In September he was again in the good graces of Mrs. Shelton and about the fifth of the month they became engaged to be married. He wrote to Mrs. Clemm at Fordham that "Elmira talks of visiting Fordham." Elmira herself penned an interesting note to Mrs. Clemm on the 22nd. "I am fully prepared to love you . . . I have just spent a very happy evening with your dear Edgar, and I know it will be gratifying to you to know that he is all that you could desire him to be . . ."
Soon after this Poe left for Baltimore on his way to close the Fordham cottage. Poe may have indulged in drink on the 48‑hour trip to Baltimore. Once landed there little is known p190 of his subsequent actions. On the 29th of September Poe called on Dr. Nathan C. Brooks, at which time he is believed to have been intoxicated. Then came the void. An election was in progress in Baltimore and it was not uncommon for political gangs to round up helpless tramps several days before the election, keep them docile with whiskey or drugs, and after obtaining their ballots, cast them into the street. Poe was in Baltimore during the campaign leading up the time of October 3rd election. On that day, Dr. James E. Snodgrass received a note in pencil to the effect that a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, and known as Edgar A. Poe, was at Ryan's Fourth Ward Polls. The writer was a compositor of the Baltimore Sun, whom the doctor knew slightly. Poe was found in the barroom sitting helpless in an armchair. He was rushed to the Washington Hospital, where he remained unconscious until the next day. Poe lived from Wednesday to the following Sunday. He dreamed of his past, recording all the incidents of his life. He was particularly troubled in his last dreams, for "by some trick of his ruined brain, it was the scenes of Arthur Gordon Pym that rose in his imagination, and the man who was connected most intimately with them." Poe again and again called "Reynolds!" The sound echoed through the corridors all Saturday night. Finally, too feeble to call out any longer, he slipped away Sunday morning, October 7, 1849.f
a I am indebted for the following information to Amir Dotan, a resident and student of the neighborhood:
Poe's longest run by far in a British school was in neither of the schools mentioned by Baumer, though: he attended the Manor House School in Stoke Newington (a district of London), at 172 Stoke Newington Church Street, from 1817 to 1820. See A History of the County of Middlesex (Volume 8: Islington and Stoke Newington parishes) as reproduced at British History Online. The school no longer exists, but a plaque commemorating Poe's stay there was erected at the site in 2011: a photo and locator map can be found at Open Plaques.
b I have to agree, or at least in part. As Byron reported in a letter to a friend, the distance is not above a mile (call it about 1½ kilometers; with GoogleMaps putting the narrowest distance at 825 meters, but this is south of Abydos): not only will any trained athlete think nothing of it, but even an untrained but fit person ought to think nothing much of it either. Poe's six miles, by the way, were almost certainly parallel to shore, unless he did laps back and forth across the river which even at its widest, near its mouth, is not 6 miles wide, and at Richmond only •about a quarter of a mile. At any rate, speaking from my own experience — since I mentioned untrained people (and setting aside a few occasions where I've swum several miles too but in the similar safety of a parallel shore) — when I was in my mid‑thirties, not having swum so much as a lap in several years, I had the occasion on the spur of a moment to jump into the Mediterranean and swim to an island about 900 meters away; my only difficulty was psychological: I couldn't get it out of my mind that were something to happen to me mid‑route, I'd be done for. Nothing did, of course, and half an hour later I swam back.
That said, the James River, the Hellespont near Çanakkale, and the Mediterranean at Bandol between the Plage Rènecros and Bendor Island differ in three principal respects: currents, water temperature, and boat traffic. I suspect the water temperature in the James would be the worst; as would be the current in the Hellespont, which Byron mentions; and in my own case late‑20c speedboats were a danger Poe and Byron didn't have to face. Put it all together though, these are easy swims, the Hellespont probably being the trickiest: but we're not talking Diana Nyad here.
c Ganoe, The History of the United States Army, p173; speaking in fact of 1833, although he mentions no date in the sentence. The quote has been adjusted, or possibly is from a different edition.
d If the story is true, it shows great presence of mind — a valuable military asset — or prior rehearsal: call it Training, an essential component of military education for just the same purpose, that the proper response should become reflexive. The poem, famous at the time, is Thomas Campbell's "Hohenlinden", delivered by Poe without the least alteration; "Of I, sir" is a gem of a find.
e The a of "a J. H. B. Latrobe" would have been better omitted; it looks like Baumer failed to recognize the name of one of the more prominent ex‑West Pointers (or possibly, a malevolent copy editor inserted the article). At any rate, John Hazlehurst Boneval Latrobe, x‑1822, was forced by family circumstances to resign in his first-class year when at the head of his class, and remained in close connection with the Academy thruout his lifetime, being for example President of the Board of Visitors in 1849; achieving success in various historical, literary, and artistic pursuits in later life, he rather than Poe might easily have chosen as the subject of a chapter in Baumer's own book! Latrobe's memoir of his cadet days is onsite in full: Reminiscences of West Point.
f Edgar Allan Poe's manner of death remains a mystery to this day. A good page at the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore lays out the principal theories, provides a very good bibliography and, wherever copyright allowed, reproduces the articles or scholarly papers themselves: over a dozen of them. Baumer here follows the majority opinion, the "cooping" theory.
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