Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 668

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 668

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This is the grave of Edgar Allan Poe.

Born in 1809 in Boston, Poe was raised by actors. But his father abandoned the family when the boy was 10 and his mother died a year later of tuberculosis. He was adopted by John Allan, a Richmond merchant. It was that family that gave him his famous middle name. A well-off family, they went to the UK for four years and Poe was educated in London, among other places. They returned in 1820 and Poe was a young man on the rise. In 1825, his adopted uncle died and left him $750,000…in 1825 dollars. That’s around $17 million today. He was rich. He enrolled at the University of Virginia. But he was completely incapable of managing his money and he had a huge gambling problem. The money was gone by 1827.

Now destitute and alienated from his rightfully disgusted stepfather, Poe enlisted in the Army under the pseudonym Edgar Perry. He served for two years and was promoted to Sergeant Major for Artillery, which was the highest non-com rank at that time. He was writing at this time too, but no one was paying attention. After those two years, of a five-year enlistment, he told his commanding officer who he really was. The officer was annoyed but agreed to let Poe out of his service if he reconciled with his stepfather. This took some time as the stepfather was still pretty angry. But eventually they came to an arrangement where Allan would get Poe into West Point. After all, he had done well in the military so far. He entered West Point in 1830. But Poe was a disaster. He was sleeping with multiple women and fathering children out of wedlock. He was already on his second marriage. Allan disowned him entirely and Poe responded by getting thrown out of West Point intentionally, simply refusing to do anything. He was court martailed and dismissed in 1831.

Poe moved to New York and tried to make a go of it as a writer. He published some books of poetry that did nothing. When he did get a commission from a magazine, he often wasn’t paid in the end. He was impoverished and begging family members for money. He started writing prose and did better here. He won a prize in Baltimore for his 1833 story “MS. Found in a Bottle.” This got him attention from the nation’s small writing elite and a mentor named John P. Kennedy who liked his work got him placed with the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger as an assistant editor. This was in 1835. He lasted only a few weeks because he was drunk on the job. Then he married his cousin Virginia. He was 26. She was 13. He got back on at the SLM for awhile and lived with his wife’s mother, which stabilized him a little bit.

Poe’s literary career started taking off more at this time. His 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Pym of Nantucket got a lot of attention. The next year, he became assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a relatively short-lived literary magazine out of Philadelphia that folded in 1840. He worked at some other magazines as well before trying to start his own. He even bought advertising space for it in newspapers, but he never published it.

Poe then tried to get work through the patronage of the Tyler administration. He knew Tyler’s son through a friend. But Poe was too drunk to show up to the appointment and he didn’t get it. Meanwhile, his still young wife came down with tuberculosis in 1842 and slowly declined, dying in 1847. He continued working through these years at various literary magazines, but most of the people he dealt with couldn’t stand him. He even publicly accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. The much more respected writer did not even bother to respond to this mess of a human. Nonetheless, Poe was a well-respected literary critic, much more known for his lucid and smart essays on other people’s work than he was for his own original work.

But while Poe might have been a complete, unmitigated disaster as a person, he was one of the nation’s first true literary voices. Now, I’ve never personally been a fan, not because of any personal animus toward his work, but because the early Victorian Gothic simply doesn’t interest me as subject matter or style. Today, Poe is of course best known for “The Raven,” and not only because of the excellent Simpsons’ episode based on it. This story finally made him famous when it was published in 1845. But Poe was unable to build on it in any useful way. Some of it is that because no one respected copyright laws, people just reprinted it everywhere. He only made $9 on the story. But even if he had made $900,000, he probably would have drunk and gambled it away in a year. He had already done this after all.

When Poe’s wife finally died, he went downhill very quickly. Although he had befriended some Jesuits in The Bronx and they let him live there, he was drinking very heavily. He tried to move on to a new relationship and was briefly engaged to the poet Sarah Helen Whitman from Providence, but he drank his way out of that. He moved back to Richmond and basically the same thing happened with a woman he knew from childhood.

As everyone knows, Poe died penniless on the streets of Baltimore in 1849, aged 40. No one precisely how he died, but it was a combination of extreme alcoholism and other health problems that could have ranged from advanced venereal disease to cholera. After he died, another writer who hated him, Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote this super nasty obituary that was filled with lies about how he was a fraud and a lunatic. This got published around the country and since Poe lacked any relations who cared about him anyway, Griswold actually got named Poe’s literary executor. He continued his grudge against Poe for the rest of his life, saying how Poe was a drug addict. Eventually, Griswold was discovered forging letters to “prove” how evil Poe was.

I think it makes more sense to leave deeper discussion of Poe’s work to the comments since I have no doubt that many of you are more fluent with his work than I am.

Edgar Allan Poe is buried in Westminster Burial Ground, Baltimore, Maryland. This is obviously not the original gravestone.

If you would like this series to visit other writers of pre-Civil War America, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Sarah Helen Whitman is in Providence (a 5 minute walk for me actually in an old cemetery in which I have never stepped foot despite this series) and Rufus Wilmot Griswold is in Brooklyn. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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