The name of Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most prominent in the history of American culture. His biography was always so clouded by myths that it is difficult now to separate the truth from inventions. His life and the stories surrounding it, either true or false, and the epoch depicted in his literary works represent the spirit of America of the first half of the XIX century. Even Terence Whalen in his research on the relationship between literature and capitalism in America before the Civil War mentions that his work focused on Poe, “because he exemplifies, as much as anyone, the predicament of a “poor-devil author” in an age of social turmoil.”
Edgar Allan Poe was the second child of Elizabeth and David Poe, travelling actors. His grandfather had immigrated to America from Ireland half a century before Edgar was born. In his later autobiography he will never mention his relatives, trying to correct his social situation inventing never existing English general and admiral as his ancestors. Rufus Griswold will use it later in his calumnious “Memoir of the Author”.
The Allans, a family of successful merchants from Richmond, became a foster family for three-year-old Edgar after the early death of his parents. They brought him up in strict discipline and tried to inculcate in him their middle-class ideas which Poe despised for the rest of his life. On this ground some biographers called him a Southerner and there were even rumors of his being a racist. But there are documents that allow suggesting that once Poe inherited a slave but chose to free him, which was an expensive thing to do at that time in order to deter the practice. It is hard to say if either of these myths is true. Poe’s life path contains lots of contradictions and is marked by his bad reputation in the conservative society of antebellum America.
Soon the family moved to London for five years and this was the only trip abroad of the writer-to-be. They came back to Richmond in 1820. Edgar wished to continue his education and entered the newly established by Thomas Jefferson University of Virginia to study ancient and modern languages. The University highly valued the ideals of its founder and strictly prohibited gambling, tobacco and alcohol. The unique system of student self-government provided there, although well accepted, was still in chaos and resulted in high dropout rates. Soon Poe became estranged from the Allans who refused to support him financially due to his gambling debts.
In order to support himself Edgar Poe gave up the university and entered The United States Army as “Edgar A. Perry” claiming that he was 22 although he was only 18 at that time. There he released his first book “Tamerlane and other poems”. In 1829 he became a cadet of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Same year he released his second book “Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems.
The conflict between Edgar and John Allan continued, and in 1831 the Allans finally disowned Edgar. Same year he was expelled from the Academy for neglect of duty and disobedience. He moved to New York where he published a third volume of his poems with the financial help of his friends from West Point. Several months later he moved to Baltimore.
After the death of his brother Henry he decided to dedicate his life to writing and thus Edgar Allan Poe became the first well-known American author who chose literature as his career. It was a difficult time for publishing in America. The industry was damaged by the Panic of 1837 and the lack of international copyright laws made the situation even worse. Although there were great many periodicals at this time, they never lasted more than few issues, and the publishers often refused to pay their authors. Poe took odd jobs mostly as newspaper writer. He lived in extreme poverty and sometimes was reduced to pleading for money.
The fortune smiled upon him in 1833, when his short story “MS. Found in a Bottle” won a prize. John P. Kennedy noticed the writer and helped him to move to Richmond to become an assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. Several weeks later Poe was dismissed after his boss had caught him drunk.
Back in Baltimore twenty-six-year-old Edgar married his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia. Some biographers mention that he had to bribe witnesses who said that Virginia was twenty-one at the time. He made up with the publisher of the Southern Literary Messenger Thomas W. White and came back to Richmond with his wife and mother-in-law.
In 1840 Poe expressed a wish to start his own journal in Pennsylvania, but the idea failed. In 1847 Virginia died of consumption. Edgar took her illness very badly. He started drinking heavily and survived his beloved wife only for three years. He was found on the streets of Baltimore in great distress and was never able to explain what had happened to him. All medical records, including the death certificate, were lost.
Through the prism of Poe’s biography one can study an interesting period of American history. The study of Edgar Poe’s life gives a clear view on the moral values of American society, the relationship between social classes, the conflict between new ideals and old traditions in the minds of people. It touches upon education, economy, culture, military service, publishing business, laws and lots of other aspects. Thus, it may safely be said that a person’s biography is a prism of history.