The writer, artist, musician, or otherwise creative individual who abuses alcohol or drugs is something of a cliché in the art world. And yet, some of these same individuals are anything but cliché, and occasionally one of them is responsible for an artistic revolution.
Is the chemistry behind creation a catalyst or just a common denominator? In the tragic instance of Edgar Allan Poe, his dependencies were often all that he seemed to have—his vices and his immeasurable talent.
Orphaned as a young child by thespian parents, Poe was raised by John Allan, a merchant from Richmond and a man with whom young Edgar had a tenuous relationship. Poe’s brief enrollment at the University of Virginia in 1826 was marked by gambling and alcohol consumption, and although he was an excellent student, Allan refused to serve as benefactor to Poe’s poor behavior.
In his biography Edgar Allan Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, Kenneth Silverman writes of this as the first of many periods of poverty in Poe’s life:
What mostly fed Edgar’s quarrel with John Allan were his financial problems at the university. During the year he accumulated very large gambling and other debts, a burden he blamed on Allan entirely. According to his later account, Allan sent him to Charlottesville with a hundred and ten dollars, which went immediately to pay for board and attendance. . . . Still owing $15 for room rent, $12 for a bed, and $12 more for furniture, payable in advance, he took on debts from the start. In fact, with its grand buildings and substantial faculty salaries, Jefferson’s university was the most expensive collegiate school in America, and a costly style of living prevailed. Most students [maintained] a gentlemanly round of partying, drinking, riding, occasionally even cock fighting. Sent there without enough money for the academic costs, Edgar said, he was “Immediately regarded in the light of a beggar.”
Poe’s time at UVA did, however, serve a more positive purpose. It was here that he began his interest in literature and writing, although to his adopted father’s chagrin, Poe’s tastes often ran toward more popular works. Poe’s brief learning experience in Charlottesville was the prelude to another doomed experience—his time at West Point. Although he was an excellent athlete (at Virginia he long-jumped more than twenty-one feet) and a swimmer, and a superlative student, he continued to be susceptible to alcohol, gambling, and bouts of despair. Spurning his five-year commitment to the academy, Poe left in early 1831, having spent less than a year in service.
Poe had previously published poetry (Tamerlane, 1827) and he again pursued writing, first in New York, then later in Richmond, and later still, in Philadelphia. He published stories throughout the 1830s, and in 1839, his work Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published. “The Fall of the House of Usher” from this volume is an excellent example of Poe’s vital and terrifying fiction. The following paragraphs from the conclusion of the story contain the moment of horror when Roderick Usher’s sister—having been placed in her grave prematurely—enters the family home.
"Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them—many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak! And now—to-night—Ethelred—ha! ha!—the breaking of the hermit's door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the shield—say, rather, the rending of the coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! Oh whither shall I fly? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footsteps on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!"—here he sprung violently to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul—"Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!"
As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell—the huge antique panels to which the speaker pointed, threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust—but then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold—then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her horrible and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had dreaded.
Death, living interment, and the dark, haunting places beyond the grave are all themes of Poe’s work. His narrators are haunted by voices of loved ones and voices of those who have been wronged. Typical of his horror is “The Tell-tale Heart,” an economically written (2,210 words) story of murder and vindication from the afterworld. It is one of the most famous short stories in the English language and one of the most widely anthologized. Poe is also generally given credit for introducing the detective into fiction. Sherlock Holmes pays a sarcastic tribute to Poe’s creation in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet (1887):
"It is simple enough as you explain it," I said, smiling. "You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories."
Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. "No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine."
Poe achieved fame for his poetry in the 1840s. “The Raven” (1845) is another widely read work that contains an estranged voice. The use of internal repetition, anaphora (repetition occurring at the beginning of successive lines or phrases) and a pulse-like cadence give the work a sophisticated and other-worldly quality.
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no back plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Poe’s obsessions with worlds beyond could have easily stemmed from his unhappiness with his life. Troubled by money, disassociated from his family, and stricken by the loss of his young wife, Virginia, in early 1847, Poe frequently abused alcohol, especially toward his end. He disappeared for several days in the early autumn of 1849, and he was found drunk and fevered in Baltimore. After subsisting miserably in a Baltimore hospital through the beginning of October, Poe succumbed to death, embracing his obsession permanently on October 7, 1849.
The year 2009 contains two Edgar Allan Poe anniversaries: the bicentennial of his birth and the 160th commemorative anniversary of his death. There is no shortage of historical sites to accommodate the Poe fan. Poe museums can be found in Richmond, Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia; he is buried in downtown Baltimore in the Westminster Burial Ground.
Listen to a reading of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart by the NPG's Warren Perry (14:41)
Suggestions for further reading:
Edgar Allan Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance by Kenneth Silverman (New York: HarperCollins, 1991)
Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy by Jeffrey Meyers (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992)
The Life of Edgar Allan Poe by George E. Woodberry (1909: New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965)
Edgar Allan Poe / George Kendall Warren / Albumen silver print, c. 1874, after 1849 daguerreotype / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution