Biography of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most celebrated of all American authors. Heavily influenced by the German Romantic Ironists, Poe made his mark in Gothic fiction, especially through the tales of the macabre for which he is now so famous. Although he regarded himself primarily as a poet, he is one of the few indisputably great writers of the short story, alongside Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry. Besides redefining that form as a vehicle for literary art, Poe also contributed to the modern detective genre and wrote highly influential literary criticism.

Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to David Poe, Jr. and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins - both of whom died before their son was three. Young Edgar went to live in Richmond, Virginia with John Allan, a wealthy tradesman, while his older brother William Henry and his half-sister Rosalie were sent to other families.

The Allans regarded Edgar as a son and financed his private school education, but in Edgar's adolescent years, conflict arose between Edgar and his guardians over his literary ambitions. Poe enrolled in the University of Virginia but received very little financial support from John Allan, and was prevented from returning when Allan refused to help him with his hefty gambling debts. In 1827, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army and rose in two years to the rank of sergeant major, but he chose to leave the Army with the understanding that he would enroll at West Point.

Prior to enlisting, Poe had published a volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems. After his army time and while a student at West Point, he published a second volume: Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, which critics favorably received. Physically weaker and older than most of his classmates, Poe felt out of place at the school, and he devoted much of his time to studying the Romantic poets such as Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. He played pranks involving bloody ganders posing as decapitated heads, and he was eventually dismissed in 1831.

Poe followed up his previous publications with a third collection of poems, Poems by Edgar Allan Poe, while he moved to Baltimore to live with his aunt Maria Clemm and his nine-year-old cousin Virginia. In an attempt to remain afloat financially, he wrote prolifically and in 1832, five of Poe's short stories were published in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. They were exclusively comic, satiric tales. Around this time, Poe discovered opium, soon to become a prominent feature of his life. In 1833, his tale of dread, "MS Found in a Bottle," won a $50 prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. His exploration of horror fiction, which was to define Poe among future generations, thus began - and so, perhaps not coincidentally, began his lifelong dependency on drugs and alcohol.

Returning to Richmond in 1835, Poe began writing for the Southern Literary Messenger. He quickly began to garner a reputation with vitriolic reviews, essays on the theory of literature and literary criticism, and, of course, his short stories. One of his most famous reviews was a pan of Theodore S. Fay's novel Norman Leslie, with criticism so devastating it helped earn Poe the nickname "tomahawk man”. Later in the year, as he finally gained a grasp on his finances, Poe married Virginia Clemm (not yet fourteen at the time) and became an editor of the Messenger. In 1837 he resigned from the Messenger, which he had helped transform into one of the country's leading journals.

The next two and a half years were somewhat aimless, as he moved with his aunt and wife to New York City and Philadelphia while working various freelance jobs. During this time, he released more poems and short stories, including "Ligeia", a story about death and love, which he considered his finest tale. In July 1838, Harper's published his only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, about the strange adventures of a young man on the South Sea. Despite these publications, however, Poe found that he could not successfully support his family.

In 1839, Poe became an associate editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in Philadelphia, for which he wrote "The Fall of the House of Usher" that year. In 1840, he published a collection of his short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Discharged from his job due to quarrels with William Burton, he served as editor of Graham's Magazine until 1842, where he wrote a number of works, including the groundbreaking story of "ratiocination" (reasoning), "The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Hard times followed and, barely managing to scrounge together carfare for his family, Poe moved to New York in 1844 to work for the New York Mirror.

1845 finally saw Poe crowned as a literary sensation in his country, with the publication of his hugely popular poem "The Raven”. Tragedy, however, was just around the corner. While gossip surrounded his potentially adulterous relations with Frances Sargent Osgood, Virginia's health was rapidly decreasing due to tuberculosis, leading Poe to seek refuge in increased drinking. Although he briefly held a job with Godey's Lady Book, he was incapable of maintaining a steady job and could not afford enough food for his family.

Virginia died on January 30, 1847, causing the further deterioration of Poe's mental health. Poe's violent mood swings became common as drugs and alcohol wore away at his body and mind, although he continued to publish works such as Eureka. He made an attempt at rehabilitation, and he traveled to Richmond in 1849 to court a former friend, Mrs. Shelton. Unfortunately, soon after their engagement, Poe was found in a stupor on a Baltimore street and was taken to a nearby hospital. Four days later, on Sunday, October 7, he died at the age of 40.


Study Guides on Works by Edgar Allan Poe