Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, a writer, editor, and literary critic best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre. Part of the American Romantic Movement, he was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is generally considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre. He also contributed to the emerging genre of science fiction and was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809, Poe was the second child of two actors. His father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died the following year. Consequently, John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia, served as a foster family and gave him the name “Edgar Allan Poe,” although they never formally adopted him. Allan was a successful Scottish merchant who dealt in tobacco, cloth, wheat, tombstones, and slaves, but despite his success, tension developed later when Allan clashed with Poe over the cost of his secondary education and other issues. Ultimately, Allan disowned Poe.
Poe attended the University of Virginia for one semester but left due to lack of money. He enlisted in the Army in 1827 under an assumed name, and at the same time began his publishing career with a collection of poems called Tamerlane and Other Poems. Poe got out of the military in 1831 by purposely getting court-martialed. To induce dismissal, Poe pleaded not guilty to charges of gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, or church, knowing that he would be found guilty.
Poe spent the next several years working for literary journals and periodicals. In 1836, when he was 27, he married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin. In 1845, Poe published The Raven to instant success. His wife died of tuberculosis two years after its publication.
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance,” according to Joseph W. Walker, who found him. He was taken to the Washington Medical College where he died, age 40, on October 7, 1849 at 5:00 a.m. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own.
Newspapers at the time reported Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation,” common euphemisms for deaths from alcoholism. The actual cause of death remains a mystery. Speculation has included heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, meningeal inflammation, cholera, and rabies. He might even have been murdered—one theory suggests that “cooping”—a form of electoral fraud in which citizens were forced to vote for a particular candidate, sometimes leading to violence and even murder—was the cause of Poe’s death. All medical records have been lost, including his death certificate.
The day that Edgar Allan Poe was buried, the New York Tribune published an anonymous, unflattering obituary. It was written by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an editor, critic, and anthologist, who had borne a grudge against Poe since 1842. Griswold somehow became Poe’s literary executor and attempted to destroy Poe’s reputation after his death.
Griswold published a biographical article about Poe in which he depicted Poe as a depraved, drunken, drug-addled madman and included as evidence Poe’s letters, many of which were later revealed to be forgeries. Many of Griswold’s claims were either lies or distorted half-truths, including his assertion that Poe was a drug addict. Denounced by those who knew Poe well, Griswold’s libel nevertheless became popularly accepted.
Poe and his works influenced literature in the United States and around the world, as well as in specialized fields such as cosmology and cryptography. Poe and his work appear throughout popular culture in literature, music, films, and television. A number of his homes are dedicated museums today. The Mystery Writers of America present an annual award known as the Edgar Award for distinguished work in the mystery genre.