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Edgar Allan Poe

poet, literary critic, author of the first detective story

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the second of three children born to David and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, both of whom were actors. His father left the family early on and his mother passed away when he was only three, and Edgar went to live with John and Frances Allan, a successful tobacco merchant and his wife, in Richmond, Virginia. John Allan sent his foster son to the best boarding schools of the day and tried to interest him in business, but Edgar preferred poetry over profits and the two seemed to always be at odds with each other. When Poe went to the University of Virginia in 1826, he didn't receive enough funds from Allan to cover all his costs, and Poe turned to gambling to cover the difference; he was never successful in this endeavor, however.

Unable to pay his debts, Poe left the university after less than a year. He returned home only to face another personal setback -- his neighbor and fiancée Elmira Royster had become engaged to someone else. Heartbroken and frustrated, Poe left the Allans and enlisted in the United States Army, where he served for two years. His first published poem, "Dreams," appeared in the Baltimore North American in 1827, the same year his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was published, at his own expense.

After Poe's foster mother died in 1829, he fulfilled her deathbed wish by reconciling with his foster father, but the reconciliation was brief. His second book, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, was also published in 1829. He entered West Point Military Academy in 1830, but was dismissed a year later.

From West Point, Poe moved to New York City, where his third book, Poems, was pusblished in 1831. He then moved to Baltimore, where he was taken in by his aunt, Maria Clemm. After his elder brother Henry, who had been in ill health in part due to problems with alcoholism, died on August 1, 1831, Poe decided to focus on his writing career. In 1833, the Baltimore Saturday Visiter published some of his poems and he won a contest in it for his story “MS found in a Bottle.” In 1835, he became editor and contributor of the Southern Literary Messenger, where he developed a reputation as a cut-throat critic, writing vicious reviews of his contemporaries. Although he was finally gaining some measure of fame as a writer, Poe's aggressive-reviewing style and sometimes combative personality strained his relationship with the publication, and he left the magazine in 1837. He went on to brief stints at two other papers, Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and The Broadway Journal.

In 1836, Poe married his first cousin Virginia Eliza Clemm, even though she was only thirteen years old at the time. The couple moved to New York City that same year.

Poe’s only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, was published in 1838. What some consider to be the first detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was published in Graham's Magazine in 1841, and he won a literary prize in 1843 for "The Gold Bug," a suspenseful tale of secret codes and hunting treasure, but it was his 1845 poem "The Raven" that made him a literary sensation. That same year, he found himself under attack for his stinging criticisms of fellow poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom Poe called a plagiarist.

By 1847 the Poes were living in a cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx in New York City, and that is where Virginia died in 1847. Overcome by grief, Poe continued to work, but he suffered from poor health and struggled financially from that time on. A year later he became engaged to his teenage sweetheart from Richmond, Elmira Royster. In 1849, he embarked on a tour of poetry readings and lecturing, hoping to raise funds so he could start his own magazine, The Stylus. He left Richmond on September 27, 1849, and was supposedly on his way to Philadelphia when, on October 3, he was found on a Baltimore street in great distress. He was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he died on October 7. Although there have been many theories as to how Poe met his demise, the cause of his death has never been conclusively determined. Originally buried in an unmarked grave in the Old Westminster Burying Ground of Baltimore, his remains, along with those of his aunt Maria, were reinterred in the Poe Memorial Grave, which stands in the cemetery’s corner at Fayette and Greene Streets.

Shortly after his passing, Poe's reputation was badly damaged by his literary adversary Rufus Griswold. Griswold, who had been sharply criticized by Poe, took his revenge in his obituary of Poe, portraying the gifted yet troubled writer as a mentally deranged drunkard and womanizer. He also penned the first biography of Poe, which helped cement some of these misconceptions in the public's minds.

Major Works

Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827)
Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (1829)
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838)
The Fall of the House of Usher
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840)
The Raven and Other Poems (1845)


Academy of American Poets
The Biography Channel
Edgar Allan Poe Museum
The Literature Network

See Also

West Point Military Academy
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 19th Century

This page was last updated on 01/19/2019.