Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Today in Literary History - Edgar Allan Poe is Born in Boston, Massachusetts


On January 19, 1809, novelist, short story writer, literary critic, and poet, Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the second child of actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and actor David Poe, Jr. Poe had an elder brother, William Henry Leonard Poe and a younger sister, Rosalie Poe. It is thought that Edgar may have been named after a character in William Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play in which both his father and mother were performing in 1809.

In 1810, Poe’s father abandoned his family, and his mother died a year later from consumption. Poe was then taken into the home of John Allan, a successful Scottish merchant in Richmond, Virginia. The Allans never formally adopted Poe, but they did serve as his foster family, and it was they who gave him the name “Allan.”

In 1812, the Allans had Poe baptized in the Episcopal Church. John Allan was an inconsistent foster father, who alternately spoiled, then aggressively disciplined young Edgar. John Allan, his wife, Frances Valentine Allan, who consistently indulged the young Edgar, sailed to Britain with their foster son in 1815, where Poe attended grammar school in Irvine, Scotland for a short period before rejoining the Allans in London in 1816. He studied at a boarding school in Chelsea until the summer of 1817 and subsequently entered the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School at Stoke Newington, a suburb four miles north of London.

In 1820, Poe moved back to Richmond with the Allan family. Prior to attending the University of Virginia in February 1826 to study languages, Poe may have become engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster, however he lost touch with her while at the university, and became estranged from his foster father due to his (Poe’s) gambling debts. Although Poe had been given many opportunities to work in the businesses of his foster father, he preferred reading poetry and novels, something the industrious and hard-working John Allan did not approve of. At any rate, Poe left the university after only one semester, and feeling unwelcome in Richmond, especially after learning that Royster had married Alexander Shelton, he traveled to Boston in April 1827, working at odd jobs as a clerk and newspaper writer in order to survive. His own publishing career began humbly, with a collection of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827) published anonymously, with credit given only to “a Bostonian.”

Poe then switched his literary focus from poetry to prose. The next several years were spent working for literary journals and periodicals and establishing a reputation for his own brand of literary criticism. His work caused him to move around the cities of the east coast, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.

In 1834, Poe attempted to play the prodigal son at the deathbed of John Allan, who had become extremely wealthy. By that time, however, he’d run up so many debts and broken so many promises to the Allans that he was quickly shown the door.

It was in Baltimore in 1835 that Poe married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm.

In January 1845, Poe, who was again writing poetry, published “The Raven” to instant success. His happiness, however, was short lived as his wife died of tuberculosis, and in the direst of poverty, just two short years later, at the age of twenty-four.

Poe began planning his own literary journal, titled The Penn (later renamed The Stylus), though he died before it could be produced.

Poe roamed the eastern seaboard of the US until his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849 at the age of forty. The cause of his death has never been definitely established and has been attributed to alcohol, brain congestion, cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, suicide, and tuberculosis, among other things.

Although Edgar Allan Poe definitely had a “dark side” there can be no doubt that he contributed much to American literature. He is considered a part of the American Romantic Movement in literature and is best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre. His best-known works are in the Gothic style, and his overriding theme is death. He was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre, with his creation of C. Auguste Dupin. He was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, something that resulted in a financially difficult life and career.

Poe and his work have had great influence in the United States and around the world as well as in specialized fields, such as cosmology and cryptography. He has always been especially respected in France, no doubt due to the translations of his work by the well-known French poet, Charles Baudelaire. Scorned by many in his own lifetime, but venerated by many today, there can be no doubt of Poe’s literary genius despite the darker forces that often controlled his life.

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