When you think of Edgar Allan Poe, what exactly comes to mind? A mysterious, cloaked figure walking amidst the gravestones at night? Or that he married his 13-year-old cousin? Well, the latter is correct, while the former, not so much. Edgar Allan Poe was famous for his poetically haunting writing style and wrote many dark pieces, including “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but that does not mean he was a morbid individual. Much of what people know about Poe is wrong and that is the unfortunate result of a biography written by one of his enemies in an attempt to defame the author’s name.
The real Poe was born to traveling actors in Boston on January 19, 1809, the second of three children. At the tender age of three, Poe’s parents passed away and he was taken in by wealthy tobacco merchant John Allan and his wife in Richmond, Virginia, while his siblings went to live with other families. Poe was raised to be a businessman and a Virginian gentleman, but his true aspiration was to be a writer and he experienced tremendous hardship. His relationship with Mr. Allan deteriorated due to differences and Poe also suffered from many romantic failures, one being the death of Virginia, his 13-year-old bride, after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died at the age of 24.
Amidst writing, Poe also worked for a slew of magazines, one being “The Messenger,” where he established a reputation as a fearless critic who not only attacked the work of authors but also insulted them and the northern literary establishment. Throughout his writing career, Poe suffered through immense poverty in many failed attempts to publish his work to a point where he had to burn his furniture to stay warm. However, his fate changed for the better after the publication of “The Raven” in 1845 made him a household name, allowing him to demand higher pay for the myriad of lectures he performed, which drew large crowds. Unfortunately, shortly after his newfound fame and success, Virginia had passed away and Poe’s life spiraled into an abyss.
Poe only lived for two more years and spent most of his time traveling from city to city, giving lectures and finding backers for his latest proposed magazine project, “The Stylus.” During a lecture tour in Baltimore, Poe befriended and fell in love with a married woman named Nancy Richmond. His affection for her inspired him to write many of his famous poems, one being “For Annie.” However, she remained unattainable and Poe was yet again left heartbroken. Poe’s last days were spent amongst strangers in the Washington College Hospital and none of his family members had known what had happened to him until they read about it in the newspapers. Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849 at the age of forty and the exact cause of his death remains a mystery.
Shortly after his death, Poe’s literary rival Rufus Griswold wrote a memoir about Poe and in it he characterized him as a drunken, womanizing madman with no morals and no friends. Griswold’s intention was to defame Poe in the public eye but the biography had the opposite effect and instead boosted his book sales higher than what he had sold during his lifetime. Now Poe is known as a legend in the literary world, whereas Griswold is remembered (if at all) as his first biographer.