Edgar Allan Poe: A Misunderstood Genius?
Poor Edgar Allan Poe. He lived a life of poverty,addiction and one tragedy after another, but he will live on, unlike most mortals, in the brilliant literature his life produced. The large black cloud that seemed to follow him throughout his life cast an ominous dark shadow, influencing the very content of his work. Stories such as "The Black Cat," "Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The PreMature Burial," and "The Masque of the Red Death" reflect this interest (and focus) upon the macabre.
Was it the death of his actress/mother Eliza at only 24 when Poe was but 3 years of age that started this negative bent? (Adding to this, his real father, David Poe, decided to desert the family even earlier). Or was it the rejection and lack of support from his stepfather, John Allan, and the death of his stepmother in 1829 from tuberculosis (while he was but a young man) that increased his troubled thoughts? And while Poe was but a young boy, a friend of the family, Jane Stenard whom he fell in love with, died unexpectedly of brain cancer. It is this writer's contention that a series of personal tragedies at a young age set up and sustained Edgar for the type of writing he had no choice but to create.
Trouble Is My Only Friend....
Let's look even further into his life to see how ill-fated it was. In 1834, his step-father John Allan, from his deathbed, threatened Edgar, and then when he died left no money to him, though he provided for his own illegitimate children. John Allan had previously sent Edgar at only 17 to the University of Virginia with little money to survive. There Poe proved to be brilliant in his studies and excelled. But without proper financial support, he found himself turning to gambling to survive. When his debts accumulated, he was forced to return home. Surprisingly, Allan did not help his stepson, and Poe, penniless, decided to join the army and served for two years. His stepfather did write him a recommendation letter to West Point. Soon however Poe was disgruntled by the regimentation and found a way to be expelled from West Point (not showing up for roll calls, church service, etc). Now his stepfather was through with him and with little to live on, Edgar moved to live with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter Virginia.
Life with the Clemms though in poverty, was,briefly, one of the happiest times of Poe's life. At age 27, he married his cousin Virginia, who was 13 at the time. They spent many joyous days together just partaking in the simple activities of singing, walking, just begin together.Then, unfortunately, Virginia, while singing burst a blood vessel that later indicated tuberculosis. She died five years later, Poe caring for her incessantly. During this time, Poe penned "A Descent into the Maelstrom" and "The Tell-Tale Heart";most tellingly "The Masque of the Red Death" mirroring Virginia's battle with tuberculosis.
Poe, the Melancholy Man
Sadly, Poe's beautiful poetry such as "Annabel Lee," and "Ulalume" may be attributed to the death of so many young ladies in Poe's life. The short story "The Premature Burial" may also reflect the vivid images burnt into Poe's brain during early childhood watching his mother or other loved ones die.One certainly would think that had Poe's life been a bit more positive, that he could have produced some of the finest romantic tales and/or poetry in American literature
Unfortunately, the tragedies Poe endured during his lifetime, his poverty and rejection by his stepfather contributed to a personality that was standoffish and isolated him from others. As a literary critic he was vitriolic, nicknamed "The Tomahawk Man" for his fierce editing. New York literary salon hostess Anne Lynch commented to Poe in 1845: "My Dear Mr. Poe,--I thank you for your very kind notice of my poems, no less than for your kind and friendly note... But I am exceedingly pained at the desponding tone in which you write. Life is too short...to give one time to despair. Exorcise that devil, I beg of you, as speedily as possible" (from The Everything Guide to Edgar Allan Poe by Shelley Bloomfield, Ph.D.).
Further, Poe tried to escape his troubles in life through alcohol. It is well-documented that in his last days of life he was found disheveled and drunk in a Baltimore tavern. His father, David Poe, Jr. was an alcoholic as well as his brother Henry. In his poem "Alone," Edgar writes: "From chilhood's hour I have not been/ As others were--I have not seen/ As others saw--I could not bring/ My passions from a common spring/...I could not awaken/My heart to joy at the same tone--/And all I loved--I loved alone--."
Is it little wonder why Poe's work reflected a nightmarish landscape. It was because he was living it himself. Undoubtedly the better part of his years were spent trying to reconcile the events of his early life. An acquaintance of his, Lambert Wilmer (after the time Virginia had died) remarked that "he (Poe) is going headlong to destruction, moral,physical, and intellectual" (Poe, A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd). His foresight was correct.
Today the literary world embraces Edgar Allan Poe for producing some of the world's greatest writing from the celebrated poem "The Raven" to the immortal short story "The Fall of the House of Usher" among many others. But will they ever understand the hell he had to go through to produce it--and the cost it exacted upon his life...