The legendary literary figure we read about in high school is not the same as the real Edgar Allan Poe. No surprise, huh? Well … I’m here to say, you don’t know Poe.
Like today’s goth teenager, Poe is misunderstood.
We learn that he was poor. (True.) He married his 13-year-old cousin. (Yeah, you can cringe here.) He was an alcoholic, a drug addict. (Mmmm … no.) He was macabre, grim, insane. (He was a dreamer; he was different.)
To these accusations, I say … it’s more complicated than that.
1. “Edgar Allan Poe” is not how the writer intended to be known.
He always signed his name “Edgar A Poe” or “E A Poe,” and he introduced himself as Mr. Poe or Edgar Poe.
Allan was the name of his foster parents, a wealthy merchant couple in Richmond, Virginia. Although he was quite fond of Mrs. Allan, his relationship with his foster father was fickle, and ultimately he was left out of the man’s will.
Thus, the name Allan was perhaps an unhappy reminder of his estrangement.
2. The boy Edgar was a mischief-maker.
One story has it that he was caught stealing a vegetable from the nursery school garden and was made to wear it around his neck. His foster father was offended by the punishment and yanked the boy out school.
Edgar once got in trouble for shooting domesticated fowl belonging to a local judge. (Mr. Allan was not as lenient about this bit of boyish mischief.)
He threw a younger boy into a creek to teach him how to swim. Minutes later he admirably saved the lad from drowning.
3. He enjoyed playing pranks.
There is a story about a small Edgar who pulled the chair out from behind a society lady before she sat down. Apparently she was a big lady and made quite a bang.
As an older boy, he liked to frighten people, once appearing at a card table with a sheet over his head. The card-playing gentlemen actually thought they were seeing a ghost, until the laughing ghost was tackled and unveiled.
Later, at West Point, Edgar enacted a hoax to scare his fellow cadets, in which a dead goose was cast as a severed head.
4. He was an exceptional athlete.
Edgar Poe became a local celebrity among his young peers when he swam six miles of the James River, against the current. A teacher and several boys witnessed the feat, by boat and from the shore.
The best at swimming, he was also known to be good at boxing, skating, and bandy—a sport similar to hockey.
Even as an adult, he liked to compete in “leaping,” and he broke his shoe during one match.
5. He was awful at cards.
Edgar’s foster father sent him to the University of Virginia with only enough money to pay his tuition.
The young man scrapped and borrowed to pay for room and board, books, firewood, and other necessities for living.
Gambling was a temptation, and everyone was doing it. Edgar, unfortunately, was very unlucky. He lost at cards consistently.
He left the university after only a year, even though his grades were very good. His college debts haunted him for years afterward.
6. He led a band of street urchins.
After leaving West Point, Edgar was often followed by a company of ragged boys. He was living with the Poes in Baltimore at the time, and it seems that the boys assembled whenever he left the house.
Edgar taught the lads military drills, which they would perform in the street. Wearing his formal cadet coat, which was likely worse for wear, Edgar and his scruffy troop were probably quite a sight.
Perhaps some of these boys were orphans, like Edgar.
7. He was handsome.
The iconic image of Edgar Poe is from a daguerreotype taken the day after he overdosed in a suicide attempt. His fiancé at the time called the likeness “sombre & tragic.” She dubbed it the “Ultima Thule” portrait, which refers to an unknown, distant place.
And we can suppose he had traveled beyond the limits of our known world: to the grave and back. The photo reflects an inner conflict and deep sadness. Unfortunately, this is the image by which the world knows Edgar Poe.
Edgar was thought to be very handsome, however. He didn’t like to look in mirrors, but he attracted women nonetheless. Those who knew him often noted his large gray eyes, thick head of hair, and prominent forehead.
He was meticulous with his appearance, when he could afford to be, almost to the point of being a dandy. The mustache only made an appearance during the last few years of his life.
9. “The Black Cat” writer was a cat devotee.
Edgar lived with a tortoiseshell cat named Catarina, whom he called Kate. Catarina was seen to rest on Edgar’s black-clad shoulder, sometimes while he wrote.
Even though the household was poor and they struggled to feed themselves properly, the feline seems to have always been well fed. She was considered a member of the family, and Poe mentioned her in his letters.
Sadly, Catarina, who was very attached to Edgar, was found dead two weeks after he died.
10. His sister was mentally disabled.
As brilliant as Edgar Poe was, his sister Rosalie was … not. It was said that Rose never matured, mentally or emotionally, past the age of 12 or so.
She adored her brother—“Buddy” she called him—and followed him around, sometimes much to his irritation.
Once, so the story goes, while he gave a recitation of “The Raven,” Rose wandered over and sat on his lap. He hesitated for only a moment and then carried on as though she wasn’t there.
11. He showed up drunk at the White House.
Making a living as a poet and writer was unheard of in Poe’s day, and he certainly struggled to do so. A friend encouraged Edgar to pursue a government position, which would provide a salary and time to write.
After failing to secure a political office, Poe’s friend arranged an appointment for him at the White House. Although the president’s son met with Edgar, it was clear the poet was in no state to meet President John Tyler. He was discreetly excused.
It seems that when Edgar arrived in Washington, he had been persuaded to drink some port at his hotel. Probably hoping it would help him relax, it was the start of an epic drinking binge.
During his stay in the Nation’s Capital, he insisted on wearing his cloak wrongside-out. He insulted a Spaniard’s mustachios at a party. And when he returned home, he had to write a long letter of apology.
This was a regretful pattern for Poe. His antics spurred the rumor mill, making it impossible for the public to know the well-mannered, intelligent man who wrote some of the country’s best-known stories.
12. He lied … a lot.
But please don’t hold it against him. He was imaginative, after all. And it’s kind of funny actually.
Biographers have had a hard time figuring out what was real and what wasn’t in the life of Edgar Allan Poe. Even his foster mother once thought he was in Great Britain when he was all along stationed at an army fort in Virginia.
Sometimes he lied about his name, sometimes his age. Once he found out his mother’s maiden name was Arnold, he told his foster father that he was a descendent of Benedict Arnold.
Edgar also liked to say he had visited and lived in countries that he hadn’t. In one story, he was arrested in Russia for passport trouble and rescued by an American consul. It is thought that he borrowed these stories from his brother, William, who was enlisted with the navy or merchant marines.
Some of these stories may just be stories. But the spirit of the stories seems authentic.
This makes me wonder what Edgar A. Poe must think of the mythology that accompanies his name.
I hope he is quite amused.
Happy 209th birthday, Edgar.
If you are interested to learn more about the real Edgar Allan Poe, I recommend the following books by Harry Lee Poe (I especially love the purple book, which comes with removable memorabilia):
Or, how about an anthology?
Some swag? I have all of these and get lots of compliments.