October 7th – Edgar Allan Poe

“Even in the grave, all is not lost.”

Edgar Allan Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum

On October 7, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died.

He was born in Boston on January 19, 1809, to parents that were professional actors. His father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died the following year. Poe was then sent to Richmond, Virginia, to live with John Allan, a wealthy exporter. Allan never formally adopted Poe, and they were often at odds. Still, as a child Poe was educated well and attended the University of Virginia – for a year. After which, he had to leave because of student debt. 

At the age of 18, Poe enlisted in the Army. He also released his first book, a 40-page collection of poetry titled Tamerlane and Other Poems. Only 50 copies were printed, and the book received virtually no attention. His second volume Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, was released in 1829 and wasn’t popular either. 

Poe was honorably discharged from the Army and admitted to West Point, then kicked out for breaking the rules. 

After West Point, he moved to New York City, and in 1831 and released the third volume of poems, titled Poems. 

In 1835 he became the editor of Southern Literary Messenger, but that was short-lived – he was fired for being drunk. The same year Poe returned to Baltimore. There he obtained a license to marry his cousin Virginia, who was 13 (Poe was 26). 

He continued to publish stories and poetry and supported himself by editing Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia, and the Broadway Journal in New York City. 

Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was published and widely reviewed in 1838. Also, in 1839, the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in two volumes, though he made little money from it, and it received mixed reviews

In April 1841, he published the first modern ‘detective story,’ The Murders in the Rue Morgue, about an amateur detective who sets out to solve the gruesome murders of a mother and daughter within a locked room of their apartment. Poe was unique in using reasoning alone to solve a crime, what he called “ratiocination.” His short stories were focused on a want to evoke terror or passion or horror. 

“The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” are some of Poe’s best-known stories. 

Meanwhile, the focus of his poems was on evoking beauty – for him that meant sadness, strangeness, and loss. On January 29, 1845, his poem “The Raven” appeared in the Evening Mirror and became a popular sensation. He was paid $9 for its publication. 

His wife Virginia died on January 30, 1847, from tuberculosis. She was just 24.  

After her death, Poe courted poet Sarah Helen Whitman, but the relationship did not get far because of Poe’s erratic behavior and drinking. He resumed a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster. 

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found in the gutter outside of a notorious saloon and election polling station – Gunner’s Hall. He had been walking the streets of Baltimore delirious, in clothes that were not his own. He died just days later at Washington Medical College.

The cause of his death is unknown, variously attributed to syphilis, alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide, rabies, and a brain tumor. Some Poe biographers cite ‘cooping,’ – a type of election fraud. 

For twenty-six years, Poe lay buried in an unmarked grave. A memorial was purchased through public fundraising efforts, and his body was exhumed and relocated to a more prominent place. By that time, there was not much left of his body to autopsy, but what is thought to have been a large calcified brain tumor is said to have been found in his skull.

Lesson from Poe:

Edgar Allan Poe was only forty years old at the time of his death. During his short lifetime, he wrote two novels, one play, about seventy short stories, fifty poems, and ten essays. Today he is regarded as the architect of the modern short story and a pioneer of ‘art for art’s sake’ in literature. He also ushered in a new form of literary criticism based on technique, style, language, and structure rather than ideology or morality. People thought he was crazy for a long time, but today he is revered and inspirational. 

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