Edgar Allan Poe.
In conjuring the man into your mind's eye, what do you see?
A wild-eyed, sickly madman sitting at a desk in a shadowed room, lit by a single candle, pen in one hand, a glass of liquor in the other?
Do you see his dark, sunken eyes, his hair in wild disarray, his signature mustache?
Since Poe's most mysterious death 173 years ago, a caricature full of falsehoods, exaggerations, and pure fiction has been handed to his readers. In reading today, we hope to introduce surprising facts, right misconceptions, and titillate the imagination, even as we leave the man himself shrouded in mystery.
Contrary to popular belief, Edgar Allan Poe was athletic and healthy for the vast majority of his life. He loved swimming, rowing, vigorous walking in the woods, and boxing. In 1824, at the age of 15, Poe won accolades for swimming six miles of the Charles River against the current near his boyhood home in Richmond, Virginia. He would go on to enjoy swimming wherever he lived for the remainder of his life. Poe was well known for his love of long walks in the woods. Often he made his home at the edge of growing American cities. Not only was the rent cheaper, but being at these locations afforded him easy access to his nature walks. Until the last three years of his life, he was called healthy and handsome by many of his friends.
Poe moved 35 times in his 40 years of life. When he was a small child, his foster parents, John and Francis Allan, took Edgar from their home in Richmond to live in London for five years where he attended school. As an adult in search of work, he lived in the major American cities of Richmond, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City. Often relocating within these cities was due to Poe’s worsening financial circumstances.
Though he was considered a prolific writer, he was paid little even though his poetry and short stories were popular in his own time. The lack of copyright laws allowed publishers to reprint his work over and over again without him making a dime. Speaking engagements became his sole source of income late in his life, traveling often. Poe was on such a tour when he died in Baltimore in 1849.
Poe was a literary critic earning the nickname ‘Tomahawk Man’ after he savagely wrote about popular publications of the time. His dagger-sharp wit led him to several public battles with other writers often printed in newspapers and literary magazines. Poe accused poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of being a plagiarist in a war of words that lasted years. Often, his own worst enemy, Edgar would pan a literary work and then ask for money from the author. Even in his personal writing, this detrimental habit appeared often. He made lifelong enemies of the very people who could have helped him, the most glaring example is Rufus Griswalt, his literary executor named in his last will and testament.
As payback for Poe's barbs, Grizwald wrote an obituary filled with insults and lies, ensuring that Poe’s beloved mother-in-law Maria Clemm (‘Muddy’ as Poe called her) received no income from his works printed after his death. Grizwald wrote that the writer was an immoral, drug-addicted drunkard, a slander that prevails to this very day.
Poe had clear problems with alcohol but there’s little evidence that he was a chronic drug abuser. In an era where social drinking was insisted upon, Poe often found himself in a difficult situation. From his college days, it’s reported among his friends that he had an extremely low tolerance for alcohol, half a glass of wine could send him into an extremely inebriated state. Yet he chose to drink even when recovery from imbibing incapacitated him for days afterward. Poe rarely drank at home with his wife and mother-in-law and went for long periods of sobriety, even pledging temperance months before his death with the Shockoe Council, Sons of Temperance.
As for drug addiction, there seems to be no evidence to support this claim. During Poe’s lifetime, opium was readily available and legal. While we know that he took laudanum (an opiate mixed with alcohol) no one close to him mentioned its use aside from medicinally. On one occasion, Edgar threatened an overdose in a letter to a woman who he had proposed to marry.
Edgar Allan Poe would likely be a hyphenated name if he lived today (Edgar Allan Poe). When the orphaned Edgar was taken in by the Allan family, he was christened Edgar Allan Poe in 1812 by his foster parents. After an acrimonious break with John Allan in 1827, Edgar rarely used his estranged family’s name, preferring to sign his name, Edgar A. Poe or E.A. Poe instead.
Allan had expected him to step into a role in the family business and when Edgar insisted on a liberal arts degree in higher education, his foster father was enraged. After receiving only enough funds to pay for just two classes, without enough to purchase books, clothes, food, or furnishings, the end of their relationship was a forgone conclusion. The fact that his foster father supported three children born outside of his marriage enraged young Edgar, increasing the wedge between the two.
Poe was the son of actors. Given his flare for dramatic timing in his writing, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. His mother, Elizabeth Poe, was a star of the stage up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States. Born in London, Elizabeth Arnold, won praise from critics and audiences alike. Edgar’s father, David Poe, an American actor, was regularly panned in newspapers. His roles shrank from leading actor to bit parts and he abandoned his family before his daughter, Roselie Mackenzie Poe, was born.
As a small boy, Edgar would recite poetry for company, delighting his foster parents and their guests. Later, he would put on plays with his playmates and charge a penny for attendance. But his foster father would often remind Poe that he was the son of actors, therefore, at the very bottom rung of the white social ladder. His flare for the dramatic helped Poe in later life when he appeared before hundreds of adoring fans to hear him read his poetry and short stories. By all accounts, these performances were riveting and very exciting.
We hope that you have found these historical facts about the mysterious Edgar Allan Poe enlightening. Continue to follow The Archive Theatre for our next installment:
Part II, The Story of Poe’s Mustache