Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) was an American writer, editor, and literary critic. Poe is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. He is widely regarded as a central figure of Romanticism in the United States and American literature as a whole, and he was one of the country’s earliest practitioners of the short story. Poe is generally considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. He was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career.
Poe was born in Boston, the second child of two actors. His father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died the following year. Thus orphaned, the child was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. They never formally adopted him, but Poe was with them well into young adulthood. Tension developed later as John Allan and Edgar repeatedly clashed over debts, including those incurred by gambling, and the cost of secondary education for the young man. Poe attended the University of Virginia but left after a year due to lack of money. Poe enlisted in the Army in 1827 under an assumed name. It was at this time that his publishing career began, albeit humbly, with the anonymous collection Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), credited only to “a Bostonian”. With the death of Frances Allan in 1829, Poe and Allan reached a temporary rapprochement. However, Poe later failed as an officer cadet at West Point, declaring a firm wish to be a poet and writer, and he ultimately parted ways with John Allan.
Poe switched his focus to prose and spent the next several years working for literary journals and periodicals, becoming known for his own style of literary criticism. His work forced him to move among several cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.
In 1835, Poe, then 26, obtained a license to marry his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm. They were married for eleven years until her early death, which may have inspired some of his writing. In January 1845, Poe published his poem “The Raven” to instant success. His wife died of tuberculosis two years after its publication. Poe was increasingly unstable after his wife’s death. He attempted to court poet Sarah Helen Whitman who lived in Providence, Rhode Island. Their engagement failed, purportedly because of Poe’s drinking and erratic behavior. Poe then returned to Richmond and resumed a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster.
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance”, according to Joseph W. Walker who found him. He was taken to the Washington Medical College where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849 at 5:00 in the morning. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own. All medical records have been lost, including his death certificate. The actual cause of death remains a mystery.
The day that Edgar Allan Poe was buried, a long obituary appeared in the New York Tribune signed “Ludwig”. It was soon published throughout the country. “Ludwig” was soon identified as Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an editor, critic, and anthologist who had borne a grudge against Poe since 1842. Griswold somehow became Poe’s literary executor and attempted to destroy his enemy’s reputation after his death. He depicted Poe as a depraved, drunken, drug-addled madman. Many of his claims were either lies or distorted half-truths. For example, it is now known that Poe was not a drug addict. Those who knew Poe well, denounced Griswold’s book, but it became a popularly accepted one. This occurred in part because it was the only full biography available and was widely reprinted, and in part because readers thrilled at the thought of reading works by an “evil” man.
Edgar Allan Poe’s final portraits are two quarter-plate daguerreotypes taken by William Abbott Pratt (1818 – 1879) in Richmond, Virginia, approximately three weeks before the writer’s death in Baltimore in October 1849. The two images, which differ from each other only slightly, are known as the “Thompson” and “Traylor” daguerreotypes.
A talented if slightly eccentric individual, the daguerreotypist William Abbott Pratt had been born in England in 1818, emigrating to America in 1832. He studied architecture and engineering (reportedly excelling at both), but in 1844 abandoned what seems to have been a promising career to open a daguerrean parlor on Richmond’s Main Street. As a daguerreotypist, he was immensely successful. During a twelve-year period he reportedly took some 35,000 portraits (including two of Poe and at least one of John Quincy Adams), and in 1851 displayed his wares at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London.
“I knew him well and he had often promised me to sit for a picture, but had never done so. One morning — in September, I think — I was standing at my street door when he came along and spoke to me. I reminded him of his unfulfilled promise, for which he made some excuse. I said, ‘Come upstairs now.’ He replied, ‘Why, I am not dressed for it.’ ‘Never mind that,’ said I; ‘I’ll gladly take you just as you are.’ He came up, and I took that picture. Three weeks later he was dead in Baltimore.”
William Abbott Pratt’s interview about E. A. Poe, 1854
In 1856 William Pratt turned over his business to the partnership of Sanxay & Chalmers, which in November of that year presented the original “Thompson” plate to John R. Thompson. Thompson, who had known Poe and would later deliver a series of exploitative lectures on “The Genius and Character of Edgar Allan Poe,” evidently lent the daguerreotype to a number of artists and photographers; by 1860 several wood engravings and at least two copy daguerreotypes were being circulated across the country. The original daguerreotype remained in Thompson’s possession until his death in New York in 1873, when it passed to his sister. In 1951, the plate was bequeathed to Columbia University.
Poe’s best known fiction works are Gothic, a genre that he followed to appease the public taste. His most recurring themes deal with questions of death, including its physical signs, the effects of decomposition, concerns of premature burial, the reanimation of the dead, and mourning. Many of his works are generally considered part of the dark romanticism genre, a literary reaction to transcendentalism which Poe strongly disliked.
Beyond horror, Poe also wrote satires, humor tales, and hoaxes. For comic effect, he used irony and ludicrous extravagance, often in an attempt to liberate the reader from cultural conformity. Poe wrote much of his work using themes aimed specifically at mass-market tastes. To that end, his fiction often included elements of popular pseudosciences, such as phrenology and physiognomy.
Poe and his works influenced literature in the United States and around the world, as well as in specialized fields such as cosmology and cryptography. Poe and his work appear throughout popular culture in literature, music, films, and television. A number of his homes are dedicated museums today. The Mystery Writers of America present an annual award known as the Edgar Award for distinguished work in the mystery genre.
Links / Sources / More to Read:
Wikipedia: Edgar Allan Poe
The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore
The “Thompson” Daguerreotype
The Poe Museum
The Humble Fabulist: Philadelphia – The House of Edgar Alan Poe
Wikipedia: Death of Edgar Allan Poe
Biography.com: 13 Haunting Facts About Edgar Allan Poe’s Death
Wikipedia: Rufus Wilmot Griswold
Sothebys Auctions Catalog: Lot 37