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The Life and Legacy of
Edgar Allan Poe

Text by: Beth Bennion

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most mysterious and intriguing figures in the history of American literature. Murder, deception, mystery, taboo, and thought-provoking questions are featured prominently in Poe's writings. Poe was also a great literary innovator. In his short story entitled "William Wilson," Poe used logic and rationality to explore the idea of a doppelgänger a full two generations before Freud's psychological analysis of split personality, making this tale a prime example of Poe's ingenuity. Similarly, Poe is commonly credited as the father of the detective story and the man that perfected the psychological thriller. Such was his style of writing: gothic, cryptic, and incriminating of mankind. Poe has a powerful narrative voice, one almost as revolutionary as the subjects he wrote about. Who was this man, who could write so masterfully about the darkness of the human soul?

Edgar Allan Poe's life was tumultuous and often unfortunate. Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809, his biological parents both died by the time he was three years old. A wealthy tobacco merchant named John Allan and his wife took in young Edgar, raising him to be a businessman and gentleman of Virginia. Poe was well-educated and showed great natural talent for writing, but he experienced much opposition as he attempted establishing writing as a career. For a short time, he attended the University of Virginia, excelling academically while quickly accumulating debt that he could not pay. Poe began gambling in a desperate attempt to decrease his debt, though without much success.

Poe's unpredictable life continued as he came home from college to find his fiancée, Elmira Royster, engaged to another man. Hostility between himself and the man who raised him dramatically increased and continued to be a roller coaster ride for the remainder of their lives. Frustrated with his poor financial situation, Poe went to Boston to write for a magazine, where he published his first work, "Tamerlane and other Poems," but his publishing endeavors were a failure. Unable to support himself through writing, he joined the United States Army and was stationed at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor. During a brief reconciliation, John Allan helped Poe gain an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. However, their relationship went to shreds again when Poe learned that Allan had remarried without telling him. In rebellion, Poe threatened and succeeded in getting himself thrown out of the school.

In a turn of luck, Poe found a new home with the relatives of his late father and ultimately came to marry one of his cousins, Virginia Clemm. Their life together was said to be a happy one as evidenced in his poem "Eulalie," which was written in celebration of the joys he found in married life. Around this time, Poe found success working for a magazine called "The Messenger," which he helped make famous with his harsh critiques of current authors. These critiques offended many of Poe's literary peers and earned him many enemies. Poe also wrote for numerous other magazines over time, though he still struggled to pay the bills.

During this period, one of Poe's most well-known works, "The Raven," was published. It gave further rise to his budding fame, and Poe found himself drawing significant crowds to his lectures. In light of this fame, Poe began demanding higher pay for his work. He was even blessed to enjoy running his own magazine for a short time.

Sadly, Poe's bad luck surfaced again when Virginia died after years of battling tuberculosis, a ravenous disease which had already claimed several of Poe's other loved ones, including his mother and foster mother. Poe found himself the victim of more and more critics as he struggled to live a normal life. They often criticized his alleged relations with a married woman, who was apparently a source of inspiration for some of his later poetry, including the poem "For Annie." But he and the married woman didn't remain together long. Poe somehow found himself again courting his first fiancée, Elmira Royster Shelton, as she was now a widow. They wrote to one another regularly until Poe disappeared in Baltimore for five days. Under extremely mysterious circumstances, Poe was found outside a bar that was being used as a polling place for an election and was taken to a hospital where he died on October 7, 1849.

Besides his criticism of fellow writers, Poe's publications served to make him many enemies as he challenged moralistic limits on literature. Many of his enemies spread rumors that Poe was mentally unstable, though there have never been significant facts to argue the factuality of this claim. Rufus Griswold was one such enemy. He despised Poe and his style of writing. After Poe's sudden and mysterious death, Griswold didn't hesitate to write an obituary intended to incriminate Poe and ruin his reputation. Oddly enough, the obituary did exactly the opposite, helping to launch Poe to further fame, leaving Griswold remembered as nothing more than Poe's first biographer.

Poe's life was consistently reminiscent of potential never reached, but his legacy lives on as an inspiration to much of history's influential writers. Appropriately, the circumstances surrounding his death are as dark and mysterious as his writing style. His exact cause of death remains unknown. All of his medical records, including his death certificate, have been lost. Theories include a wide-range of plausible explanations, such as rabies, suicide, tuberculosis, drugs, alcohol abuse, poison, heart disease, or cooping (in which people were taken from the streets, beaten, drugged or filled with liquor, and forced to vote in the polls multiple times). Some romantics claim the real cause of Poe's untimely death was a broken heart. Though no one knows what really happened, it was probably a combination of a few of these tragic endings which caused the world to lose a man whose memory resonates in a legacy that will never die.