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Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889 and 1999. Virtualology.com warns that these 19th Century biographies contain errors and bias. We rely on volunteers to edit the historic biographies on a continual basis. If you would like to edit this biography please submit a rewritten biography in text form . If acceptable, the new biography will be published above the 19th Century Appleton's Cyclopedia Biography citing the volunteer editor





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Edgar Allan Poe

POE, Edgar Allan, author, born in Boston, Massachusetts, 19 January, 1809; died in Baltimore, Maryland, 7 October, 1849 His great-grandfather, John, who came from the north of Ireland to Pennsylvania about 1745, was a descendant of one of Cromwell's officers. John's son, David, was an ardent patriot, served in the Revolution and the war of 1812, and was commonly given the title of general. His son, of the same name, was educated for the law, but went upon the stage, and in 1805 married Elizabeth Arnold, an actress. Edgar was born while his parents were regular members of the company at the Federal street theatre, Boston. He was left an orphan in early childhood, and adopted by John Allan, a wealthy tobacco merchant in Richmond, Virginia, whose young childless wife had taken a fancy to the boy. In Mr. Allan's house he was brought up in luxury. He was precocious, and could read, draw, dance, and declaim poetry at six years of age. In 1815 he accompanied the Allans to England, and was placed at a school in Stoke Newington, which he afterward described in his tale of " William Wilson." Here he remained five years. On his return to Richmond he attended a private school in that city, where he was a bright student and active in out-door sports, one of his feats being swim of six miles against the tide and in a hot June sun. But he had few companions, and kept much to himself. In his fifteenth year he became warmly attached to the mother of one of his schoolmates. She was his confidant and friend, and when she died a few months later the boy visited her grave nightly for a long time. To this incident Poe was wont to ascribe much influence over his mind. On 14 February, 1826, he was matriculated at the University of Virginia, where, though a fair student, he spent much time at the gaming-table, but he was not expelled by the faculty, as has been said, nor was he even admonished by them. He had incurred heavy gambling debts, which his foster-father refused to pay, and taking the boy from college at the end of the first year, he placed him in his own counting-room; but shortly afterward Poe left Richmond to seek his fortune. He first went to Boston, where, about midsummer of 1827, he made his first literary venture, the publication of " Tamerlane and other Poems," which he said in the preface had been written in 1821-'2. But his means were soon exhausted, and on 26 May, 1828, he enlisted as a private in the United States army, under the name of Edgar A. Perry. He won the goodwill of his superiors, and on 1 January, 1829, was promoted sergeant-major for merit, but a little later he made his whereabouts known to Mr. Allan, who, with others, procured his discharge and appointment to a cadetship at the United States military academy. Before the latter had been obtained Poe published a new edition of his poems with some additions, entitled "Al Araaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems" (Baltimore, 1829), which, like the first, possessed little merit, and met with no favor. On 1 July, 1830, he entered on his cadetship at West Point, and at the end of the first half-year stood third in French and seventeenth in mathematics in a class of eighty-seven, but he became dissatisfied, and, as his foster-father refused to sanction his resignation, he purposely neglected his duties and was cashiered early in 1831. Before this he had obtained the subscriptions of his fellow-students to a third collection of "Poems" (New York, 1831), which met with nothing but ridicule.

He now sought literary employment in Baltimore, but with little success till in 1833 he was awarded a prize of $100, which had been offered by the Baltimore "Saturday Visitor," for his tale " A Manuscript found in a Bottle," the judges being Dr. James H. Miller, John H. B. Latrobe, and John P. Kennedy. A prize of $50 for the best poem was also won by his "Coliseum," but it was ruled out as being by the author of the successful tale. Poe had been in destitution, but he was relieved by Mr. Kennedy, who also procured him literary work, and on Kennedy's recommendation he was engaged as editor of the "Southern Literary Messenger" at Richmond. Here he wrote some of his best tales, developing the gloomy and mystical vein for which he afterward became noted, but he gained more attention by his trenchant criticisms, which made him unpopular, especially in New York. While here he also became engaged to his cousin, Virginia Clemm, then a girl of thirteen years, and on 22 September, 1835, he obtained a marriage license in Baltimore, but the ceremony was not performed publicly till the following year. His prospects were now excellent, but in January, 1837, he resigned his post and went to New York. This, as well as the sudden termination of Poe's other editorial engagements, has been the subject of much controversy, some authorities saying that his dissipated habits were the cause, and others ascribing it to feeble health or to an invitation that he received from Dr. Francis L. Hawks to become a contributor to the newly established "New York Review." He furnished only one article for this, a review of a book of travels, and then worked on his "Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," a tale of adventure in antarctic regions, which had been partially published in the "Messenger" (New York, 1838). At this time the principal income of the family was obtained from the boarders that Mrs. Clemm, Poe's mother-in-law, received. Among these was William Gowans, the bibliophile, who has testified to Poe's uniformly sober and courteous demeanor. In the summer of 1838 he went to Philadelphia and compiled the "Conchologist's First Book" (Philadelphia, 1839), which has raised against him many charges of plagiarism. It was said during his lifetime that the text-book was a simple reprint of Captain Thomas Brown's " Conchology," an English work; but this is untrue. It has recently become known that it was condensed and otherwise altered from Thomas Wyatt's "Manual of Conchology," at the desire of the author, whose publishers declined to issue a smaller edition of his work. In July, 1839, he became associate editor of William E. Burton's " Gentleman's Magazine " in Philadelphia, and shortly afterward he issued a collection of his prose stories, entitled " Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque" (2 vols., Boston, 1839). Though these contain some of his finest work, he received nothing from them but the copyright and twenty copies for private distribution, and the sale was small. His connection with the "Gentleman's Magazine " lasted until the following year, when he quarrelled with Burton. Poe had previously issued the prospectus of a new periodical, " The Penn Magazine," but it was at first postponed temporarily by his illness, and then indefinitely by his engagement as editor-in-chief of "Graham's Magazine," which had been formed by the purchase of the "Gentleman's " by George R. Graham and its consolidation with Graham's " Casket." About this time he began to take an interest in unravelling difficult problems. He had asserted in an article on " Cryptography " that human ingenuity could construct no cryptograph that could not be solved. The result was that compositions of this kind were sent to him from all parts of the country, and he solved all that he received, to the number of more than 100. Not long afterward he wrote his tale " The Gold-Bug," which was founded on the solution of a cryptograph, and for which he obtained a prize of $100 that had been offered by the "Dollar Magazine." In May, 1841, he published a prediction of the plot of "Barnaby Rudge" from the introductory chapters, which is said to have caused Dickens to ask Poe if he was the devil. In April he had published his "Murders in the Rue Morgue," the model of many subsequent detective stories. The tale was afterward stolen by two rival French journals, and a libel suit followed, in the course of which the true author was discovered. This was the beginning of Poe's popularity in France, which became wide and lasting. Meanwhile he continued his critical articles, which, if not always correct, and often apparently spiteful and colored by Poe's peculiar ideas concerning the literary art, were certainly independent.

During his stay in Philadelphia, Poe's wife, who had been always delicate, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing, and she never fully recovered. To his anxiety for her Poe attributed his failure to withstand his appetite for stimulants. However this may be, his habits grew more and more irregular, and in the spring of 1842 he lost the editorship of " Graham's." He had long abandoned the scheme of issuing a magazine of his own, and early in 1843 appeared the prospectus of " The Stylus," in which Poe was to be associated with Thomas C. Clarke. This was subsequently abandoned, and, after doing some desultory literary work, delivering a few lectures, and suffering much from poverty, Poe returned with his wife and her mother to New York in April, 1844. His first publication here was his "Balloon-Hoax," a circumstantial account of a balloon-voyage over the Atlantic, which appeared in the news columns of the "Sun." He soon became connected with the "Evening Mirror," in which, on 29 January, 1845, first appeared his poem of "The Raven," from the advance sheets of the "Whig Review" for February. The popularity of this was immediate and wide-spread. In April, becoming dissatisfied with work on a daily paper, he withdrew, and soon afterward was associated with Charles F. Briggs in the management of the "Broadway Journal," a newly established weekly. His connection with this was marked by a series of harsh criticisms of the poet Longfellow, whom he accused of gross plagiarism. Poe afterward became sole editor of the "Journal," and was endeavoring to get it entirely under his control when financial troubles caused its suspension in December, 1845. In October of that year he was invited to deliver an original poem before the Boston lyceum, and in response read "Al Aaraaf," one of his earliest efforts. There was much dissatisfaction, and Poe on his return to New York asserted in his "Journal" that his action had been intentional, and that he had thought that the poem " would answer sufficiently well for an audience of transcendentalists." The incident was the cause of much unfavorable comment. At the close of this year Poe issued a new collection of his poems, " The Raven and other Poems" (New York, 1845). Early in 1846 he removed to a cottage in Fordham, now a part of New York city. His chief work at this time was a series of papers in "Godey's Lady's Book" on " The Literati of New York." One of these, on Dr. Thomas Dunn English. provoked a reply of such a nature that Poe sued the " Mirror," in which it appeared, and recovered $225 and costs. For several weeks before this he had been ill. His constitution had been shattered by overwork, disappointment, and the use of stimulants, and before the end of the year the family was reduced to such poverty that a public appeal was made in its behalf. On a0 January, 1847, Mrs. Poe died, but, after his life had been endangered, Poe partially recovered before the following summer. He tried to revive his plan of a new magazine, this time to be called "Literary America," and to aid it lectured, on 3 February, 1848, in the New York society library on the "Cosmogony of the Universe," a subject on which he had speculated during his recovery. The lecture was elaborated into " Eureka, a Prose Poem" (New York, 1848), which he considered his greatest work, but this judgment was not that of the public nor of his critics. Its physical and metaphysical speculations have little value, and its theology is a mixture of materialism and pantheism. Shortly after this Poe entered into a conditional engagement of marriage with Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, of Providence, Rhode Island, but it was broken off. His health was still feeble, but he now prepared for a southern trip, during which he lectured several times and canvassed for his proposed magazine. While he was in Richmond he offered marriage to a widow of whom he had been enamored in youth, and was accepted. Shortly afterward, probably on 30 September, 1849, he set out for the north to make arrangements for the wedding. Of his movements after this nothing is known with certainty. On 3 October, the day of a municipal election, he was found unconscious in Baltimore in a liquor-saloon that had been used as a polling-place, and was removed to a hospital, where he died of delirium tremens. It has been reported that he had dined with some old military friends, became intoxicated and in this state was found by politicians, who drugged him and made him vote at several places.

Poe's personal appearance was striking. He was erect, with a pale face, and an expression of melancholy. His conversation is said to have been fascinating. His tales and poems, though the ability and power that they display are universally acknowledged, have been very differently estimated. The former have been praised for their artistic construction, their subtle analysis, and their vivid descriptions, and condemned for their morbid subjects and absence of moral feeling. The poems are admired for melody and for ingenious versification, and objected to because they appeal to the imagination and not to the intellect. The author's theory of poetry, which he finally formulated in his lecture on " The Poetic Principle," was peculiar, inasmuch as he contended that beauty was its sole object. He asserted that a "long poem is a contradiction in terms." Says his latest biographer: "In his prose tales he declares repeatedly that he meant not to tell a story, but to produce an effect. In poetry he aimed not to convey an idea, but to make an impression. He was not a philosopher nor a lover; he never served truth nor knew passion; he was a dreamer, and his life was, warp and woof, mood and sentiment, instead of act and thought." The first collection of Poe's works was that by Rufus W. Griswold, preceded by a memoir (3 vols., New York, 1850; 4 vols., 1856). There are also several British editions, of which two of the latest are those with memoirs by Richard Henry Stoddam (London, 1873) and John H. Ingrain (4 vols., Edinburgh, 1874). There is a later American edition with the sketch by Ingram (4 vols., New York, 1876) ; a "Diamond" edition in one volume, with a sketch by William Fearing Gill (Boston, 1874); and a limited edition with the memoir by Stoddard (8 vols., New York, 1884). Several volumes of his tales have been translated into French by Charles Baudelaire and William Hughes. There have appeared also collections of his poems, with memoirs, respectively, by James Hannay (London, 1852) ; Edmund F. Blanchard (1857); and Charles F. Briggs (New York, 1858); and many illustrated editions of single poems, notably of " The Raven." The memoir by Griswold contains errors of fact, and is written in a hostile spirit. Its accusations have been replied to by Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman in "Edgar A. Poe and his Critics" (New York, 1859) and by William Fearing Gill in his "Life of Edgar Allan Poe" (1877). There is also a life by Eugene L. Didier (18.76), and various magazine articles, in-eluding one m "Scribner's Monthly" for October, 1875, by Francis G. Fairfield, in which he attempts to show that Poe's peculiarities were due to epilepsy. The latest and most impartial biography is that by George E. Woodberry in the " American Men of Letters " series (Boston, 1885).

On 17 November, 1875, a monument, erected by the school-teachers of Baltimore, was publicly dedicated to Poe's memory in that city. It is of Italian marble in the form of a pedestal eight feet in height, and bears a medallion of the poet. A memorial volume containing an account of the dedication ceremonies was issued by Sarah S. Rice and William Hand Browne (Baltimore, 1877). In May, 1885, the actors of the United States erected in the Metropolitan museum, New York city, a memorial to Poe, at whose dedication an address was made by Edwin Booth, and William Winter read a poem. There has recently been discovered a large amount of manuscript material relating to Poe, including a life by Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers, which may be published at some future time.

Edited Appletons Encyclopedia, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM

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