Today is the 160th anniversary of the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe, who collapsed in Baltimore while on a lecture tour to raise money for a planned magazine.
Poe was a mythic figure in my own childhood, as his restless life took him to most of the same places I visited as a child: Richmond and Tidewater, Virginia; the Bronx; Charleston, South Carolina. Baltimore was the city he kept returning to, however, and although Richmond, Charleston and New York all lay claim to aspects of the Poe legacy, it's Baltimore that makes the biggest deal out of him.
The circumstances of Poe's death will forever be a mystery. He was an unhappy man who, in the last decade or so of his life, seemed to make a point of offending and alienating most of the people willing to help him. He died incoherent in the Washington College Hospital, leaving behind a body of work that is both brilliant and frustrating. My theory about why he continues to fascinate us is that he's the poster child for wasted potential; yes, he produced works of lasting brilliance, but seemed capable of so much more — or was he?
Anyway, here are five things that seldom get mentioned when Edgar Allan Poe's story is told.
1. He was not an only child. Edgar Poe's parents were actors; his father left the family the year after Edgar was born, and his mother died from tuberculosis a year later. But Edgar had an older brother, Henry, and a younger sister, Rosalie. The three children were raised in separate foster homes: Henry in Baltimore, Rosalie and Edgar in Richmond. But Edgar looked up to Henry, who was also a writer; Henry wrote a story called "The Pirate" that was based on Edgar's unhappy love affair with Sarah Elmira Royster, and Edgar used the pen name "Henri le Rennet," apparently in tribute. Henry died (of tuberculosis) in 1831, when he was 24 and Edgar was 22.
2. Edgar Allan Poe's foster father was a slave trader. As a toddler, Edgar Poe was taken into the household of John Allan, a Scottish merchant who dealt in commodities of all kinds — including slaves. Richmond at the time (early 1800s) was a major center of the slave trade. This had to have been a source of moral conflict for John Allan; the British empire abolished the slave trade in 1807, and the Allans (with Edgar) lived in England and Scotland from 1815–1820.
3. The most productive and successful period of Poe's life was, arguably, his time in the Army. The 18-year-old Poe, having dropped out of the University of Virginia and unable to support himself as a writer, lied to Army recruiters about his age and his name, and enlisted. As "Edgar A. Perry," he served in Boston and at Fort Moultrie, SC. During that time he published his first collection of poetry (Tamerlane and Other Poems, by a Bostonian; only 50 copies were printed, and it is the Holy Grail of book collecting). He was so good at his job (artillery) that he was promoted to Sergeant-Major in only two years. But it wasn't enough; bored or restless or just plain self-destructive, he confessed his deception and asked to be released from his enlistment. His commanding officer agreed, if he would be reconciled with his foster father. John Allan was not sympathetic, but eventually agreed to sponsor Poe's enrollment in West Point. That didn't end well; Poe was court-martialed within a year.
4. During his lifetime, Poe was much better-known as a critic than as a writer of original work. This may go to the issue of his making so many enemies; his criticism, now seldom read except by scholars, was not only known but feared by his contemporaries. The poet James Russell Lowell, who admired Poe, once suggested that Poe used prussic acid in place of ink.
5. Poe would understand the dilemma of today's publishing industry better than many current executives. The major reason, or a major reason, Poe had such a hard time supporting himself as a writer was the lack of an international copyright law. His articles, poems, and short stories were copied at will by other publications, both here and abroad, usually without attribution and always without compensation. Before Poe, writing was a gentleman's occupation; the idea that you could or should try to support yourself through writing alone was a novelty, if not an absurdity. But Poe's demand that he be fairly compensated for his work, and his expectation that intelligent people would spend money to be entertained in print, did a great deal to create modern commercial publishing, and the magazine industry in particular. According to some reports, he collected $1,500 toward the creation of a new magazine the week before he died — though he was penniless when he was found, and wearing someone else's clothes. One wonders what advice he'd have for the board of Conde Nast.