Author Spotlight: Edgar Allen Poe

As I read The Masque of the Red Death for this week’s podcast, I felt a deep fear and modernity despite the older Gothic style of Edgar Allan Poe. While this was my first experience reading Poe, I also experienced a subtle sense of déjá vu as I read. Like many, I grew up watching and reading horror, but I was drawn to the emotional psychological style. Reading Poe was an odd experience as I finally read the father of several genres that I’d only experienced through the descendants. Researching Edgar Allan Poe as a person gave me not only insight into him as an artist, but also helped me understand The Masque of the Red Death on a deeper level.

Born in 1809, Poe was a year old when his father abandoned the family. Both of his parents were actors and while the trade was commonly seen as one step up from prostitution, his mother, Elizabeth, was well-loved as a leading actress. She died when he was 3 years old from a long bout of tuberculosis; this set him on a pattern that, to me, felt almost as inevitable as the outcome of one of his stories.

Because his mother was well respected, John and Frances Allen took him in. They were a well off family and Poe was emotionally close to Frances. Educated in languages and the classics Edgar Allan Poe showed genius early. Though raised as if he was the Allan’s son, he was an angry and troubled teen. When Frances became sick with tuberculosis, the relationship between Edgar and John became even more difficult.

Fed up with Edgar, John sent him to the University of Virginia but didn’t give him enough money to live on. It didn’t take long for Edgar to go into debt from gambling and after parting ways with John he enlisted in the military under an assumed name out of fear of arrest for his debts. Later, Poe shortly reunited with John. John helped him get a discharge from the military so he could enroll in West Point. During this time he self-published two collections of poetry. But his time at West Point didn’t last long and John Allan cut him off after Frances’ death.

Many scholars trace Poe’s intense respect and apotheosis of women to these two deeply felt female losses. When he decided to take his writing seriously as a profession, he became an editor well known for his acerbic style of literary criticism. While this style made him popular, the offense within the literary community played a part in his future struggles. Jumping from job to job and moving frequently, he finally settled with an aunt and her young daughter, Virginia Clemm. This was a huge influence on him as he finally had a sense of family. While living away, he received a letter from his aunt explaining that she’d arranged for her daughter to live with extended family to be raised as a proper lady.

Then 26 year old Edgar Allan Poe, immediately wrote her a passionate rambling suicidal letter declaring his love for his 13 year old cousin Virginia. They married several months later. While they struggled financially, his early years with Virginia were very happy. They played games, and he taught her many academic subjects including math and music. During these years, he published stories in the Gothic and Dark Romantic styles while also dabbling in satires and humor. This happy period in Poe’s life ended when she began coughing up blood while singing for him.

Edgar Allan Poe nursed his wife for several years often struggling to pay for medication or heating oil. She would get better only to turn around and get worse. He was overcome with grief each time she worsened and it was during this time that he wrote some of his most emotional work including his breakthrough poem, The Raven. While an instant success and invited to read publicly, he only made 9 dollars for the poem. Poe became friends with the poet Frances Osgood. Their friendship was flirtatious and a source of rumors socially. When Osgood’s reputation was damaged, they stopped seeing one another. Virginia’s tuberculosis worsened in the stress of the situation and she died. Unfortunately, he began drinking heavily again as he fell into grief.

After his wife’s death his heavy drinking was accompanied with erratic behavior. He courted several women simultaneously, often copying entire sections of a letter to one woman for a letter to another. Edgar became engaged to the poet Sarah Whitman, but Whitman’s mother put an end to the engagement when she demanded they sign a form declaring if they marry, Sarah would be cut off. Offended by the request, Edgar left Sarah. Professionally, he suffered as well as editors paid low wages or refused him work.

Destitute, childless, and sickly he visited a local bar near the Baltimore docks. On October 3rd 1849 Edgar Allan Poe was found delirious on a Baltimore street. Wearing too small clothing that did not belong to him, he was taken to Washington medical college. Incoherent, he called the name “Reynolds” repeated and only became coherent enough to say, “Lord help my poor soul,” right before he died. Edgar Allan Poe was 40 years old. His cause of death remains a mystery.

The drama of Poe’s life did not end after death. Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote a scathing obituary for the New York Tribune and despite his grudge against Poe, he became Poe’s literary executor and promptly began trashing Edgar Allan Poe’s reputation.

The ghost of Edgar Allan Poe lives on in our modern horror and crime genres. His relationships and loss of the women in his life bleed into his work. Often focusing on the death of beautiful women Poe wrote some of the most memorable female characters of the day. There are many great documentaries on Edgar Allan Poe but I really enjoyed the BBC’s Edgar Allan Poe: Amor, Morte e Mulheres

And here’s one more for good measure!

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