Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the second son of David Poe, an actor, and his actress wife, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to New York City, where both parents pursued sporadic acting jobs. Eventually David Poe abandoned his wife, Edgar, and a daughter Rosalie, born in 1810. Edgar’s older brother, William Henry, was living with the Poe grandparents in Baltimore. To support her children, Elizabeth accepted acting parts in Norfolk, Charleston, and eventually in Richmond, where her health rapidly declined. She died of tuberculosis in December 1811. Edgar and Rosalie were taken in by separate affluent Richmond families, Rosalie by the William McKenzies, and Edgar by the John Allans. Poe was never officially adopted into the family but took Allan as his middle name. Critics and biographers generally agree that the traumatic events of Poe’s early life influenced his personality and his writing.
In 1815 John Allan moved his family to England where Poe attended Stoke Newington, a prestigious preparatory school, later used as a setting for his short story, “William Wilson.” In 1820 the Allans returned to Richmond and in 1825 Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia, where he excelled in literature and languages. He also, however, accrued large gambling debts and was soon forced to withdraw from the school.
Poe moved to Boston in 1827, where he published Tamerlane and Other Poems and then enlisted in the army under an assumed name, Edgar A. Perry. Surprisingly, he was such a good soldier that he was promoted to sergeant-major within eight months. After his foster mother, Frances Allan, died in 1829, Poe bought his way out of the ranks and, with the help and encouragement of John Allan, entered West Point, hoping to make a career as an army officer. Within a year, however, he tired of military life and, after a bitter quarrel with Allan, Poe deliberately had himself expelled.
Poe moved in with his Baltimore relations, Mrs. Maria Poe Clemm and her daughter Virginia. In 1832 he published five stories in Philadelphia’s Saturday Courier, and in 1833 he won a cash award from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for his “MS Found in a Bottle.” This story earned him critical acclaim, and, with the aid of John Pendleton Kennedy, he became assistant editor and then editor of Richmond’s Southern Literary Messenger. Under Poe’s direction, this journal increased its circulation from 500 to 3,500 subscribers. On May 16, 1836, he married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm.
Poe quarreled repeatedly with the owner of the Southern Literary Messenger, for personal as well as professional reasons, and he was ultimately dismissed from the magazine. He then moved to New York, where he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in 1838. In the summer of that year, Poe moved his family-Mrs. Maria Clemm lived with them-to Philadelphia, where he became the assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine; from 1841 to 1842, he edited Graham’s Magazine and increased its circulation from 5,000 to 50,000 subscribers; in 1843 he published “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Gold Bug.” Other successful publications included “Ligeia” in 1838, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson,” both in 1839.
In April 1844, the Poes moved back to New York where he became the owner and editor of the financially-strapped Broadway Journal in 1845, the same year he published The Raven and Other Poems. Tragically, after bursting a blood vessel in her throat while singing, Virginia’s health declined, her condition aggravated by Poe’s poverty. She died of malnutrition and tuberculosis on January 30, 1847, and some sources say there was not enough money to provide a fire for warmth as she was dying. Not long after this tragedy, Poe attempted suicide with an overdose of laudanum.
In 1849 Poe returned to Richmond to court his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster, now a wealthy widow. On September 27, 1849, he left Richmond for what was to be a short trip to Baltimore. Mysteriously, he was found unconscious on a Baltimore street six days later. He never recovered enough to say where he had been or what he had been doing, and he died in delirium on October 7, 1849.
Poe exerted a major influence on American literature with his own works but also with his literary criticism, which included such essays as “Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales,” “The Poetic Principle,” and the “Philosophy of Composition.” In this last essay he details how he wrote “The Raven,” his most famous poem.
In addition, Poe originated the detective story formula in his tales of ratiocination about Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, the scientifically and rationally superior detective who appears in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” and who was a precursor of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Poe’s other ratiocination tale is “The Gold Bug” in which William Legrand, a Dupin-type character, deciphers a cryptogram and finds Captain Kidd’s buried treasure on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor.
Like his Romantic contemporaries Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Poe was interested in the dark side of man’s soul and psyche. He crafted gothic tales of horror on subjects that ranged from revenge, reincarnation, and doppelganger tales to insanity, murder, and premature burial. Although he wrote in the gothic tradition established by Horace Walpole, Charles Brockden Brown, Ludwig Tieck, and E. T. A. Hoffman, Poe’s innovations and contributions raised gothic fiction to a new height.