This edition of the Storytellers Channel’s newsletter features the profile of Edgar Allan Poe from The Poe Museum’s Editions of Poe’s canon written by The Poe Museum’s Curator, Chris Semtner.
The March Stories Matter! Showcase begins this Friday.
If you’re in Richmond we hope you’ll join us.
And, if you haven’t purchased your copy of the audio book Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Deadly Matrimony click here or on the graphic below.
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About Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
Having run away from home to become a great poet, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a magazine editor, “I am young — not yet twenty — am a poet — if deep worship of all beauty can make me one — and wish to be so in the common meaning of the word. I would give the world to embody one half the ideas afloat in my imagination.”
Poe would devote the rest of his life to embodying his boundless imagination. In the process, this literary innovator invented the detective story, revolutionized science fiction before there even was such a thing as science fiction, developed the tale of psychological terror, composed some of the most popular poetry ever written, and became America’s first internationally influential author.
Born in poverty to two traveling actors, Poe lost both of his parents before he was three. A Richmond, Virginia tobacco exporter named John Allan took in the orphan and agreed to prepare Poe for a career in business and a life in Richmond society. Allan sent Poe to the best schools in Richmond and in London and even put him to work in the counting room of the family export business. The future poet had other plans and spent his time in the counting room writing poetry on the backs of the ledger sheets.
In 1826 Poe left Richmond to attend the University of Virginia, where he excelled in his classes while accumulating considerable debt. The miserly Allan had sent Poe to college with less than a third of the money he needed, and Poe soon took up gambling to raise money to pay his expenses. By the end of his first term, Poe was so desperately poor that he burned his furniture to keep warm.
Humiliated by his poverty and furious with Allan for not providing enough funds in the first place, Poe returned to Richmond and visited the home of his fiancée Elmira Royster, only to discover that she had become engaged to another man in Poe’s absence. The heartbroken Poe’s last few months in the Allan mansion were punctuated with increasing hostility towards Allan until Poe finally stormed out of the home in a quixotic quest to become a great poet and to find adventure. He accomplished the first objective by publishing his first book Tamerlane when he was only eighteen, and to achieve the second goal he enlisted in the United States Army. Two years later he heard that Frances Allan, the only mother he had ever known, was dying of tuberculosis and that her final wish was to see him before she died. By the time Poe returned to Richmond she had already been buried. The grieving Poe briefly reconciled with Allan, who helped him gain an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Before going to West Point, Poe published another volume of poetry, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Other Poems. One critic wrote that the thing he most enjoyed about this poetry was watching it burn in the fireplace. Another thought the book was incoherent, but the Boston critic John Neal opined that, though the poems were “nonsense,” they were “exquisite nonsense” and that the twenty-year-old author might one day “make a beautiful and perhaps magnificent poem.” Poe recalled these as the first words of encouragement he ever received.
While at West Point, Poe was offended to hear that Allan had remarried without telling him or even inviting him to the ceremony. Poe wrote to Allan detailing all the wrongs Allan had committed against him and threatened to get himself expelled from the academy. After only eight months at West Point Poe was thrown out, but he soon published yet another book of poetry. This one also sold poorly, and it seemed like Poe’s hopes of becoming a writer were doomed. That is when he decided to change course. Rather than compiling another book of poetry, he began to concentrate on writing short stories and on submitting them to various magazines and newspapers for publication. As he later observed, “The whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward,” so if he was going to be a writer, he was going to write for magazines. These cheap, mass-produced publications were viewed by some not as literature but as entertainment, and their readers demanded anything new, sensational, and shocking. Poe would give them exactly what they wanted.
Broke and alone, Poe turned to Baltimore, his late father’s hometown, and called upon relatives in the city. His widowed aunt Maria Clemm became a new mother to him and welcomed him into the tiny home where she lived with Poe’s grandmother, his brother Henry, his cousin Henry, and his cousin Virginia. Clemm’s nine-year-old daughter Virginia first acted as a courier to carry letters to Poe’s lady loves but soon became the object of his desire.
While Poe was in Baltimore, Allan died, leaving Poe out of his will, which did, however, provide for an illegitimate child Allan had never seen. By then Poe was living in poverty but had started publishing his short stories, one of which won a contest sponsored by the Saturday Visiter. The connections Poe established through the contest allowed him to publish more stories and to eventually gain an editorial position at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. It was at this magazine that Poe finally found his life’s work as a magazine writer.
Within a year Poe helped make the Messenger the most popular magazine in the South with his sensational stories as well as with his scathing book reviews. Poe soon developed a reputation as a fearless critic who not only attacked an author’s work but also insulted the author and the northern literary establishment. Poe targeted some of the most famous writers in the country. One of his victims was the anthologist and editor Rufus Griswold.
Poe shocked the Messenger’s genteel audience with his first horror story “Berenice” and followed it with experiments in comedy, drama, and a serialized novel. He even wrote a science fiction story about a trip to the moon, paying careful attention to describing the technology that would allow the voyage to take place.
At the age of twenty-seven, Poe brought Maria and Virginia Clemm to Richmond and married his Virginia, who was not yet fourteen. The marriage proved a happy one, and the family is said to have enjoyed singing together at night. Virginia expressed her devotion to her husband in a Valentine poem now in the collection of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and Poe celebrated the joys of married life in his poem “Eulalie.”
Dissatisfied with his low pay and lack of editorial control at the Messenger, Poe moved to New York City. In the wake of the financial crisis known as the “Panic of 1837,” Poe struggled to find magazine work and wrote his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
After a year in New York, Poe moved to Philadelphia in 1838 and wrote for a number of different magazines. He served as editor of Burton’s and then Graham’s magazines while continuing to sell articles to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger and other journals. During this time, he wrote the first detective stories and created some of the most influential horror stories of all time. These include “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Black Cat.” Despite his growing fame, Poe was still barely able to make a living. For the publication of his first book of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, he was only paid with twenty-five free copies of his book. He would soon become a champion for the cause of higher wages for writers as well as for an international copyright law. To change the face of the magazine industry, he proposed starting his own journal, but he failed to find the necessary funding.
In the face of poverty, Poe was still able to find solace at home with his wife and mother-in-law, but tragedy struck in 1842 when Poe’s wife contracted tuberculosis, the disease that had already claimed Poe’s mother, brother, and foster mother.
Always in search of better opportunities, Poe moved back to New York in 1844 and reintroduced himself to the city by publishing a “news story” of a balloon trip across the ocean. The amazing account caused a sensation, and the public rushed to read everything about it—until Poe revealed that he had fooled them all with one of his hoaxes.
The January 1845 publication of “The Raven” made Poe a household name. He was now famous enough to draw large crowds to his lectures, and he was beginning to demand better pay for his work. He published two books that year and briefly lived his dream of running his own magazine when he bought out the owners of the Broadway Journal. The failure of the venture, his wife’s deteriorating health, and rumors spreading about Poe’s relationship with a married woman drove him out of the city in 1846. At this time he moved to a tiny cottage in the country. It was there, in the winter of 1847 that Virginia died at the age of twenty-four. Poe was devastated and unable to write for months. His critics assumed he would soon be dead. They were right. He only survived another two years and spent much of that time traveling from one city to the next giving lectures and finding backers for his latest proposed magazine project to be called The Stylus. During this turbulent time, he wrote his last book, “Eureka,” and returned to his first love—poetry. His last year brought with it many of his best poems, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” “Eldorado,” and “A Dream Within a Dream.”
While on a lecture tour in Lowell, Massachusetts, Poe met and befriended Nancy Richmond. His idealized and platonic love of her inspired some of his greatest poetry, including “For Annie.” Since she remained married and unattainable, Poe attempted to marry the poetess Sarah Helen Whitman in Providence, but the engagement lasted only about one month. In Richmond he found his first fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton was now a widow, so began to court her again. Before he left Richmond on a trip to Philadelphia he became engaged to her and prepared to settle permanently in Richmond with her. On a business trip to Philadelphia and New York, Poe stopped in Baltimore and disappeared for five days.
He was found in the bar room of a public house that was being used as a polling place for an election. The magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass sent Poe to Washington College Hospital, where Poe spent his final days far from home and surrounded by strangers. Neither Poe’s mother-in-law nor his fiancée knew what had become of him until they read about it in the newspapers. Poe died on October 7, 1849 at the age of forty. The exact cause of Poe’s death remains a mystery.
Days after Poe’s death, his literary rival Rufus Griswold wrote a libelous obituary of the author in a misguided attempt at revenge for some of the offensive things Poe had said and written about him. Griswold followed the obituary with a memoir in which he portrayed Poe as a drunken, womanizing madman with no morals and no friends. Griswold’s attacks were meant to cause the public to dismiss Poe and his works, but the biography had exactly the opposite effect and instead drove the sales of Poe’s books higher than they had ever been during the author’s lifetime. Griswold’s distorted image of Poe created the Poe legend that lives to this day while Griswold is only remembered (if at all) as Poe’s first biographer.
Although Poe was never well-rewarded for his literary work, he never lost sight of his childhood dream “to embody one half the ideas afloat in my imagination” through his writing. As he wrote shortly before his death, “Literature is the most noble of professions. In fact, it is about the only one fit for a man. For my own part, there is no seducing me from the path. I shall be a litterateur, at least, all my life; nor would I abandon the hopes which still lead me on for all the gold in California.”
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Friday nights at 7:00 pm Storytellers Channel presents stories honed in our Stories Matter! Workshop in Studio 20 at Plant Zero, 0 East 4th Street Richmond, VA 23224.
This Friday the newest cohort of tellers, Lelia Pendleton, Steven Saltzberg and I, Gayle Turner, share our stories we’ve developed during February’s Stories Matter! Workshop.
Every Friday during the month of March we will have a surprise guest storyteller.
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Til next time,