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While Edgar Allan Poe has earned a reputation as a American Shakespeare in terms of his legacy and impact, his personal life is tinged with tragedy and an early death. Born January 19, 1809, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. American short-story writer, poet, critic, and editor Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of mystery and horror initiated the modern detective story, and the atmosphere in his tales of horror is unrivalled in American fiction.
Orphaned when he was just three, and separated from his siblings, Poe went to live with John and Frances Allan, a successful tobacco merchant and his wife, in Richmond, Virginia.
Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia in February 1826 to study ancient and modern languages, but didn’t receive enough funds to cover all his costs. Poe turned to gambling to cover the difference, but ended up in debt which strained his less than robust relationship with Allan. He returned home only to face another personal setback—his neighbour and fiancée Elmira Royster had become engaged to someone else. Heartbroken and frustrated, Poe left, joining the army soon after.
During his time in the military Poe published his first book, a 40-page collection of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, attributed with the byline “by a Bostonian”, in 1827. This was not a success, garnering little attention and selling few copies. After serving for two years and attaining the rank of Sergeant Major for Artillery -the highest rank a noncommissioned officer can achieve- Poe sought to end his five-year enlistment early. Poe finally was discharged on April 15, 1829 and moved back to Baltimore to stay with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, her daughter, Virginia Eliza Clemm (Poe’s first cousin), his brother Henry, and his invalid grandmother Elizabeth Cairnes Poe. Poe published his second book, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, in Baltimore in 1829.
In July 1830 Poe was matriculated as a cadet at West Point Military Academy. His adventures there ended unceremoniously with a court martial in February 1831.
After leaving the academy, Poe focused his writing full time. He moved around in search of opportunity, living in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Richmond. From 1831 to 1835, he stayed in Baltimore with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virginia. His young cousin, Virginia, became a literary inspiration to Poe as well as his love interest. The couple married in 1836 when she was only 13 years old.
Returning to Richmond in 1835, Poe went to work for a magazine called the Southern Literary Messenger. There he developed a reputation as a cut-throat critic, writing vicious reviews of his contemporaries. Poe also published some of his own works in the magazine, including two parts of his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. His tenure there proved short, however. Poe’s aggressive-reviewing style and sometimes combative personality strained his relationship with the publication, and he left the magazine in 1837. His problems with alcohol also played a role in his departure, according to some reports. Poe went on to brief stints at two other papers, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and The Broadway Journal.
In late 1830s, Poe published Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, a collection of stories. It contained several of his most spine-tingling tales, including “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia” and “William Wilson.” Poe launched the new genre of detective fiction with 1841’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” A writer on the rise, he won a literary prize in 1843 for “The Gold Bug,” a suspenseful tale of secret codes and hunting treasure.
It was in 1845 when Poe became a literary sensation with the publication of the poem “The Raven.” It is considered a great American literary work and one of the best of Poe’s career, though it failed to make him a significant amount of money. In the work, Poe explored some of his common themes—death and loss. An unknown narrator laments the demise of his great love Lenore. That same year, he found himself under attack for his stinging criticisms of his fellow poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poe claimed that Longfellow, a widely popular literary figure, was a plagiarist, and this written assault on Longfellow created a bit of backlash for Poe.
Continuing work in different forms, Poe examined his own methodology and writing in general in several essays, including “The Philosophy of Composition,” “The Poetic Principle” and “The Rationale of Verse.” He also produced another tale, “The Cask of Amontillado,” and poems such as “Ulalume” and “The Bells.”
Poe was overcome by grief after the death of Virginia in 1847. While he continued to work, he suffered from poor health and struggled financially. His final days remain somewhat of a mystery. He left Richmond on September 27, 1849, and was supposedly on his way to Philadelphia. On October 3, Poe was found in Baltimore in great distress. He was taken to Washington College Hospital where he died on October 7. At the time, it was said that Poe died of “congestion of the brain.” But his actual cause of death has been the subject of endless speculation.
Shortly after his passing, Poe’s reputation was badly damaged by his literary adversary Rufus Griswold. Griswold, who had been sharply criticised by Poe, took his revenge in his obituary of Poe, portraying the gifted yet troubled writer as a mentally deranged drunkard and womaniser. He also penned the first biography of Poe, which helped cement some of these misconceptions in the public’s minds. This slander has not withstood the test of time. Edgar Allan Poe is still an inspiration and is admired by many including us at We Admire!
The love and admiration for Edgar Allan Poe is cemented not just in our three beautiful t-shirt designs by Ewelina Dymek, or indeed any of our many Poe inspired t-shirts, but also by The Mystery Writers of America who present an annual award known as the Edgar Award for distinguished work in the mystery genre.
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