Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of indigent actors. Poe’s father had deserted the family earlier, so at age three, when his mother died, Poe was taken in by John Allan, a merchant from Richmond, Virginia. He attended a private school in England, where he lived with the Allans between 1815 and 1820. After returning to America, he continued private schooling until 1826, when he entered the University of Virginia. However, he was forced to leave after less than a year because of gambling debts which John Allan refused to pay.
After quarreling with his guardian, Poe went to Boston where, under an assumed name, he joined the army. A few months later, at the age of eighteen, his first collection of poems, privately financed, was published. In 1829, after the death of John Allan’s wife, Poe was discharged from the army. He reconciled with his guardian, and received an appointment to West Point. However, because Allan would not support him adequately, including more heavy debts (and because he did not like military life) he purposely neglected his duties to get himself dismissed from the academy.
Poe then went to Baltimore, where he resided with his impoverished aunt and her young daughter, Virginia. In 1832 he began his career as a writer of bizarre and romantic short stories by publishing “Metzengerstein,” a tale about feuding families and supernatural revenge. However, his first real success came the following year when his “MS. Found in a Bottle,” an eerie tale about a shipwreck and ghostly seamen, won a $50 prize from a Baltimore newspaper. More importantly, it won him recognition and led to a position as an editor on a monthly magazine published in Richmond.
In 1836 Poe married his cousin Virginia, who was not quite fourteen years old at the time, and in 1837, after the end of his editorship, he and his child-bride and her mother moved to Philadelphia. Poe soon published the only novel-length fiction he ever wrote, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, a rambling adventure yarn filled with mutiny at sea, shipwreck, cannibalism, fierce South Sea natives, and a voyage to the South Pole.
Between 1838 and 1849, the year he died, Poe was at the center of magazine publishing in America, serving as the editor of several journals and writing reviews, critical articles, stories, and miscellaneous pieces which won him admiration for his critical acumen. His most famous works—including gothic horror stories such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia,” detective stories such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” and tales of obsession such as “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”—all were published during this period. He also earned great fame and wide acclaim in Europe with poems such as “The Raven.”
For all this renown, however, Poe waged a constant struggle for money. To add to his distress, in 1847 his young wife developed tuberculosis and died, leaving Poe almost insane with grief. In early October 1849, while on a trip from Richmond to New York, Poe stopped in Baltimore and began drinking, a habit for which he had absolutely no tolerance. On October 3, election day, he was discovered near a polling place in a coma. He died on October 7, 1849, reportedly of delirium tremens.