After reading a couple of creepy Edgar Allan Poe stories or poems, you may think, “Man, this guy must have had one messed up childhood in order to write like that.” And you’d be right. Not that living in the early 1800s was all that much fun for anyone, whether or not you were destined to be one of America’s most original writers.
The Poor Poes
Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809 (making him a Capricorn) and things went downhill from then on. He was the second son of actor and dancer David, Jr. and actress Elizabeth Arnold Poe, who got a lot better reviews from the critics than he did. A third baby, the only daughter, soon followed. David Poe was a career alcoholic who ran off with the arrival of the third baby.
After losing his loser of a father (which might have been a good thing, in retrospect), Edgar’s mother died of tuberculosis just before he turned three years old. The three children were around her bed as she died. The eldest son, William, received a lock of Elizabeth’s hair as his inheritance. Edgar received a little portrait of his mother and a little watercolor picture of Boston Harbor with a letter from his mother to him on the back. She died at the ripe old age of 24.
Years later as an adult, in the poem “To My Mother”, Poe would write of his mother as being the only mother of his body, but of his wife as his true mother, calling her “dearer than the mother I knew.” Poe’s bride, Virginia Eliza Clemm, would die the same way his mother did, of turbuculosis, in 1842. She was also 24.
Edgar was taken in by the wealthy Allen family (hence the Allen added to his name) but wasn’t legally adopted by them, mostly because Mr. John Allan didn’t like Edgar too much, even before he was dragged into the Allan household. If he legally adopted Edgar, then he would get an inheritance and John Allan wouldn’t stand for that. When friends came over to the Allen residence, they were to ignore Edgar completely.
It was the wife, Frances (Fanny) that wanted to take in little Edgar. She worked for a charity that helped the unfortunate, and the Poes had become just that. The husband opposed taking any children in, but Frances did it anyway. The sister went to live with the MacKenzie family and the eldest son was taken in by the loser father’s family.
The Allans decided to move to England by the time Edgar was six. When living in England, Edgar was known as Edgar Allan and not Edgar Poe. He was sent to prestigious schools which were cold, dreadful and draconian. Not surprisingly, Edgar didn’t like school very much.
Then, the bottom fell out of the Allens’ tobacco business. They rapidly lost their vast fortune. They did what many newly poor in England did; they took the first boat to America. Surprisingly, Edgar was allowed to tag along to the Allans’ new digs in Richmond, Virginia.
And all of this happened before Edgar was twelve years old.
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum. “Poe’s Life.” http://www.poemuseum.org/life.php
The University of North Carolina. “Documenting the American South: Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849.)” http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/poe/bio.html
“To My Mother.” Edgar Allan Poe. http://quotations.about.com/od/poemlyrics/a/PoePoem18.htm