Edgar Poe was born in Boston, MA, the son of David Poe, Jr. of Baltimore (1784-1811) and his wife, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins of London, England (1787-1811). Both husband and wife were actors, though David Poe was the son of a wealthy merchant family and had studied for the law. The couple had three children, William Henry Leonard, Edgar, and Rosalie Poe, who were taken care of by three different families upon their mother’s death from tuberculosis in Richmond, VA (their father was already dead by that time).
Edgar was taken in as a foster son by Frances Keeling (Valentine) Allan and her husband, John Allan, a Scottish immigrant who had come to Richmond, VA and set up a business as a tobacco merchant. The couple had no children, and though he was never formally adopted, he was raised by Frances Allan as her own child. It is for this reason that Edgar adopted “Allan” as a middle name, and gained renown under the name Edgar Allan Poe. Apparently John Allan blew hot and cold as a father, sometimes promising Edgar that he would be remembered in his will, and sometimes virtually disowning him. This last must have been the state of affairs when Edgar attended the University of Virginia in session 2 (1826).
Mr. William Wertenbacker, Librarian at the University of Virginia stated in a letter: “Mr. Poe was a student during the second session, which commenced February 1st, and terminated December 15th, 1826. He signed the matriculation book on the 14th of February, and remained in good standing until the session closed… He entered the schools of Ancient and Modern Languages, attending the lectures on Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian. I was a member of the last three classes, and can testify that he was tolerably regular in his attendance, and a successful student, having obtained distinction at the final examination in Latin and French, and this was at that time the highest honour a student could obtain. The present regulations in regard to degrees had not then been adopted. Under existing regulations, he would have graduated in the two languages above-named, and have been entitled to diplomas.” (Ingram, v.1, p. 45)
Unfortunately, Mr. Allan had sent Edgar to school with too little money to pay the fees or buy books, so he was financially behind from the very beginning of the term. In an attempt to make up the difference, Poe turned to gambling. He confessed to Wertenbacker at the end of the term that he owed about $2,000 in gaming debts, and that he was determined to pay them off. Wertenbacker says, “the hardihood, intemperance, and reckless wildness imputed to him by biographers – had he been guilty of them – must inevitably have come to the knowledge of the Faculty and met with merited punishment. The records of which I was then, and am still, the custodian, attest that at no time during the Session did he fall under the censure of the Faculty.” (Ingram, v.1, p. 51)
However, because Mr. Allan would not pay Poe’s debts, he was unable to return to Charlottesville for session 3. John Allan wished Poe to become a clerk in his business, but Poe, at this point seventeen years old, vehemently refused to do so. Poe ran away from Richmond, and enlisted in the Army under a false name. After two years, Poe wrote to John Allan, asking for his help in resigning from the Army, since he now wanted to attend West Point Military Academy. After some argument, Poe was allowed to resign and enrolled in West Point on 1 July 1830.
A letter from Poe to John Allan confirms that as of 7 Jan. 1831, Poe had determined that he would get himself dismissed from the school with or without his guardian’s permission, since John Allan would not allow him to resign from the school but would not provide appropriate funds to support him while in school. Between 7 Jan. and 27 Jan., Poe failed to attend any parades, revellie, guard duty, academic studies, and disobeyed officers’ orders with that end in mind. He was tried for “neglect of duty” at a general court martial and dismissed from West Point on 6 Mar. 1831. From this point on Poe embarked on a career as editor of a number of popular magazines, including the Southern Literary Messenger. Though we now think of Edgar Allan Poe as a writer of poetry and fiction, during his lifetime he was most well-known for his literary criticism and magazine editing.
On 6 May 1836, Richmond, VA, Poe married Virginia Clemm (13 Aug 1822-30 Jan. 1847), the daughter of William Clemm and his wife Maria Poe Clemm, Edgar’s paternal aunt. The couple had no children. After Virginia Poe’s death from tuberculosis in 1847, Edgar rekindled a romance from his teenage years in Richmond with Elmira (Royster) Shelton, who was now a widow, and the couple considered themselves engaged. Within days, however, Edgar Allan Poe died a mysterious death in Baltimore, MD, where he is buried in Westminster Burial Ground.
- The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore [website]. http://www.eapoe.org/ (Accessed 5/1/2011)
- Ingram, John H., Edgar Allan Poe; his life, letters, and opinions. London, John Hogg, 1880.
- The Museum of Edgar Allan Poe, Richmond, Virginia [website]. http://www.poemuseum.org (Accessed 5/1/2011)
- Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. 1941.
- Thomas, Dwight, and David K. Jackson. The Poe Log; a documentary life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849. New York, 1987, accessed via The Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore [website] http://www.eapoe.org/papers/misc1921/tplg00ca.htm (Accessed 5/1/2011).
- Tombstone of Elizabeth Arnold Poe, in St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery, Richmond, VA; and tombstone of Edgar Allan Poe in Westminster Burying Ground, Baltimore,MD. Findagrave.com (Accessed 5/4/2011)