“For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it . . . Yet, mad am I not – and very surely do I not dream. But tomorrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul.” Thus the narrator begins to confess to murdering his wife in “The Black Cat”, just one of many fascinating creations from short story master and poet, Edgar Allan Poe.
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January, 19, 1809 in Boston, where his mother had been employed as an actress. Elizabeth Arnold Poe died in Richmond on December 8, 1811, and Edgar was taken into the family of John Allan, a member of the firm of Ellis and Allan, tobacco-merchants. After attending schools in England and Richmond, young Poe registered at the University of Virginia on February 14, 1826, the second session of the University. He lived in Room 13, West Range. He became an active member of the Jefferson Literary Society, and passed his courses with good grades at the end of the session in December. Mr. Allan failed to give him enough money for necessary expenses, and Poe made debts of which his so-called father did not approve. When Mr. Allan refused to let him return to the University, a quarrel ensued, and Poe was driven from the Allan home without money. Mr. Allan probably sent him a little money later, and Poe went to Boston. There he published a little volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems. It is such a rare book now that a single copy has sold for $200,000.00
In Boston on May 26, 1827, Poe enlisted in The United States Army as a private using the name Edgar A. Perry. After two years of service, during which he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant-major, he secured, with Mr. Allan’s aid, a discharge from the Army and went to Baltimore. He lived there with his aunt, Mrs. Maria Poe Clemm, on the small amounts of money sent by Mr. Allan until he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
It was during his later years at West Point that he showed a remarkable talent for writing. Exploring themes as diverse as spirituality, astronomy, science and depravity, Poe’s writing is as powerful and arresting today as when he was first published. Poe published a second book of poetry in 1829: Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems. After another quarrel with Allan (who had married a second wife in 1830), Poe no longer received aid from his foster father. Poe then took the only method of release from the Academy, and got himself dismissed on March 6, 1831.
Soon after Poe left West Point, a third volume appeared: Poems by Edgar Allan Poe, Second Edition. While living in Baltimore with his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, young Poe began writing prose tales. Five of these appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier in 1832.
As early as the age of 15, he wrote these words in memory of a female acquaintance, “The requiem for the loveliest dead that ever died so young.” Edgar Allan Poe’s first love was poetry, although he was unable to make a living at it early on, he was able to publish two small volumes during these early years. Poe became an assistant editor at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia; he held this position until January, 1837. In 1835 Poe’s literary talents started to blossom. It was at this time in his life that Poe fell in love with his 13-year-old cousin Virginia. Their marriage forced him to find a source of income. When the editor of the Messenger offered employment, Poe eagerly accepted.
During his tenure at the Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe was an editor as well as a contributor. In early 1836, Poe was credited with “between 80 and 90 reviews, six poems, four essays and three stories, not to mention editorials and commentaries.” Poe was to work for several publications as both editor and contributor. His career as an editor coincided with his growth as a writer. Poe lived in Philadelphia for six years from 1838-1844, and this period was his most prolific. He was an editor and critic for two major magazines Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine and Graham’s, and he published about 50 works. While working in Philadelphia for Burton’s “Gentleman’s Magazine” in 1839, Poe’s work continued to flourish. At this time in his career he still was not secure financially, but his work was being recognized and praised, which helped greatly in furthering his reputation. During his tenure at Burton’s he wrote such macabre tales as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “William Wilson”. Tales like these psychological thrillers were to become Poe’s trademark.
In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe began working for a man named George Graham, who offered him $800 a year to work for him as an editor. While at Graham’s, Poe was preparing his famous work, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for publication.Published in April 1841, this story featured Auguste C. Dupin, the first-ever fictional detective. Poe’s “tale of rationation,” as he termed it, “inaugurated one of the most popular and entertaining forms of fiction ever conceived.” It was during these years in Philadelphia that Poe published such trademark horror tales as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Pit and The Pendulum.”
It wasn’t until the 1845 publication of Poe’s famous poem “The Raven” that he achieved the true rise to fame that had been denied him until then. The public’s reaction to the poem brought Poe to a new level of recognition and “could be compared to that of some uproariously successful hit song today.”
The year 1846 was a tragic one. Poe rented the little cottage at Fordham, where he lived the last three years of his life. The Broadway Journal failed, and Virginia became very ill and died on January 30, 1847.
After his wife’s death on January 30, 1847, Poe returned to Richmond briefly in 1848 and again in 1849. During the last visit to Richmond, Poe lectured on “The Poetic Principle,” and gave readings of “The Raven,” the poem which had spread his fame in Europe as well as in America. Poe lived at that time at the Swan Tavern, a boarding house on Broad Street. He lectured at the venerable Exchange Hotel. Poe also visited old friends in Richmond; among them was the MacKenzie family who lived at Duncan Lodge on West Broad Street. Poe also visited the Tally family who lived at Talavera at 2315 West Grace Street. Of the places mentioned here, only Talavera survives, which is privately owned. Tradition says that it was at Talavera that Poe gave his last reading of “The Raven” on September 25, 1849. Two days later, Poe left Richmond for the last time.
Poe was devastated by his wife’s death and penned these words, “Deep in earth my love is lying and I must weep alone.” During the years following Virginia’s death, Poe’s life was taking a steady turn downward. He suffered through a suicide attempt, several failed romances and engagements, and a largely unsuccessful attempt to resurrect his failing career after a long bout with alcoholism and depression.
Poe died at the age of 40 in October 1849 in Baltimore.The circumstances of Poe’s death remain a mystery. After a visit to Norfolk and Richmond for lectures, he was found in Baltimore in a pitiable condition and taken unconscious to a hospital where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849. He was buried in the yard of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland.
A contemporary of Poe’s at the time remarked, “This death was almost a suicide, a suicide prepared for a long time.” Although he lived a short and tragic life, Edgar Allan Poe remains today one of the most-beloved mystery writers in history. His contributions to literature and the mystery genre cannot be underestimated.