1902 Encyclopedia > Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe
American story writer and poet

EDGAR ALLAN POE (1809-1849), is the most interesting figure in America literature, and his life furnishes the most extraordinary instance on record of systematic misrepresentation on the part of a biographer. The greater part of his short working life was passed in intense and unremitting literary toil, and no poems or romances were ever produced at expense of brain and spirit than his. Yet, till lately, when Mr J. H. Ingram, the careful editor of Poe’s works, undertook to collect the plain facts of the poet’s life, the current statement and belief were that his strange tales and poems flung off from a distempered imagination in the intervals of degraded debauchery.

Edgar Allan Poe picture

Edgar Allan Poe

This myth was studiously floated by his first biographer, Griswold, and found readier acceptance with the public owing to the weird and horrible character of much of his imaginative work. Griswold’s story of a life wayward and irregular from hapless beginning to disgraceful close was just what people were prepared to believe about a genius so eccentric and with such a turn for dark mysteries, horrible crimes, inhuman doings and sufferings.

That the author of such works should have been expelled from the university and from the army, and from situation after situation when he tried to make a living by literature, all owing to the gross irregularity of his habits, and should finally have died in a hospital in a fit by intoxication, seemed credible enough when affirmed by a self-constituted biographer. Many of Griswold’s allegations were denied at the time, but the denials were local and isolated, and the truth had no chance against the systematic libel, repeated as it was in many editions, till Mr Ingram prepared a regular and authoritative memoir. [Footnote 256-1]

There was sufficient mixture of truth with falsehood to make Griswold’s story plausible. It was not quite correct to describe Poe as the son of strolling players, but his father, a man of good family, had married an actress and taken to the stage as a profession.

Their son was born in Boston, Mass, January 19, 1809 ; and father and mother died in 1811 when he was a child. The orphan was adopted by his godfather, Mr Allan, a wealthy merchant, and from his eighth till his thirteenth year (1816-1821) was placed at school in England. Thence he was transferred to an academy at Richmond, Virginia, and thence at the age of seventeen to the university of Virginia at Charlottesville. Mr Allan was childless, and apparently treated his adopted son as his own child.

Why Poe left the university after one session is not clearly explained, but it has been ascertained that he was not expelled, but on the contrary was honourably distinguished as a student, although it is admitted that he had contracted debts and had "an ungovernable passion for card-playing." These debts may have been sufficient cause for a quarrel with Mr Allan.

Poe disappeared for two years, setting out for Europe to join the Greeks in their fight for independence. Reappearing at Richmond in 1829, he stayed at home for a year, and then was entered as a military cadet at West Point.

But all his ambitions by this time were towards literature; he neglected his duties, disobeyed orders, and was dismissed from the service of the United States.

What he did for two years after is not ascertained, but in 1833 he reappeared as the successful competitor for a prize offered by a Baltimore newspaper for a prose story. From that time he subsisted by literature. Mr Allan had married again, and died soon afterwards, leaving an heir by his second wife, and "not a mill," as Grisworld put it to Poe.

It is chiefly in his account of Poe’s literary career that Griswold has been guilty of slandering the subject of his biography, representing him as rendered incapable of permanent employment by his intemperate habits. There would seem to be not the slightest foundation for this coarse slander. During the fifteen years of his literary life Poe was connected with various newspapers and magazines in Richmond, New York, and Philadelphia, and there is unanimous testimony that, so far from being an irregular contributor, he was a model of punctuality and thoroughness, and took a pride in these homely virtues. His connexion was not in any case "severed by his irregularities."

He wrote first for the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, and edited it for some time ; then, in 1837, he removed to New York, and wrote criticisms and did editorial work for the New York Quarterly Review; then, after a year, with a prospect of more lucrative employment, he removed to Philadelphia, and for four years was mainstay of Graham’s Magazine.

His literary work was poorly paid for, though some of his most powerful tales -- Hans Pfall, Arthur Gordon Pym, Ligeia, The House of Usher, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Marie Roget, The Descent into the Maelström -- were among Poe’s contributions to these periodicals.

Not unnaturally he conceived the idea of starting a magazine of his own as the most hopeful way of living by his work, but he had no capital, and was obliged to abandon the project, and return to New York and miscellaneous journalism.

To add to his troubles his wife, a cousin of his own, whom he had married in 1836, and to whom he was passionately attached, was in very delicate health, and during a lingering illness of eight years gave him constant anxiety.

We have only to look at the character of Poe’s work, and the condition of such literature commercially, to see why it was that the most popular writer of his generation in America had to struggle so hard a bare subsistence.

His short stories were an easy prey for the newspaper pirate, and when thousands were reading them the author received nothing but the few dollars paid him by publication in which they first appeared. The Raven was published first in 1845, and in a few months was being read and recited and parodied wherever the English languages was spoken; but the half-starved poet, who had to live by his genius, received only two pounds for the production.
And, fertile and active as his imagination was, these short works of his, which served for the passing sensation of the newspaper reader, were far from being extempore effusions. His Philosophy of Composition is sometimes, indeed generally, regarded as half-serious half a jest in the author’s peculiar way of mystification.

But to any one who examines Poe’s work closely by the light of this essay it is obvious that the disclosure of his method is only too seriously true. It would have been well for his own powers of endurance if he had composed on a less exacting and exhausting system. The most fantastic of Poe’s creations are not product of the imagination abandoned to the impulses of a dominant mood; the effect are deliberately calculated, as he says they were, step by step and point by point to a prearranged culmination.

A man writing on such a system, with the wolf at the door and affections daily on the rack, could hardly have endured the strain if he had a constitution of iron. It was no wonder that Poe’s health became distempered, or that, during the last years of his wife’s illness and the two remaining years through which he survived her, he had recourse to the dangerous help of stimulants.

Not only did he subject his imagination to exhausting conditions, but he wasted his force in doing with superfluous thoroughness what a ready journalist would have dismissed with a few easy sentences of commonplace.

When we read his criticisms, which are full of insight and suggestion, we see that in reviewing a book or a poem he was never satisfied till he had thought out what could be done with the subject. His famous feat in anticipating the plot for Barnaby Rudge from the opening chapters was only a sample of the thoroughness with which he threw himself into whatever he undertook.

Poe failed to make a living by literature, not because he was an irregular profligate in the vulgar sense, but because he did ten times as much work as he was paid to do -- a species of profligacy, perhaps, but not quite the same in kind as that with which he was charged by his malignant biographer.

The current story about his breaking off his engagement with Mrs Whitman by presenting himself at her house in a state of violent drunkenness has been proved to be a fabrication, and many other stories about him have been exploded by Mr Ingram.

His wife died in 1847, and he followed her in 1849, dying under painful circumstances at Baltimore.

For a critical estimate of Poe’s writings the reader may be referred to Professor Nichol’s American Literature. There are few English writers of this century whose fame is likely to be more enduring. The feelings to which he appeals are simple but universal, and he appeals to them with a force that has never been surpassed. (W.M.)


256-1 See his Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 4 vols., 1874-75.

The above article was written by: William Minto, M.A.; edited the Examiner, 1874; formerly on the staff of the Daily News and the Pall Mall Gazette; Professor of Logic and English in the University of Aberdeen, 1880; author of Manual of English Prose Literature, Defoe in English Man of Letters Series, and Literature in the Georgian Era.

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