February 8: Twenty-two-year-old Edgar Allan Poe was court-martialed out of West Point on this day in 1831, having been found guilty of neglect of duties. Although it cannot compete for drama, Poe’s military career is consistent with and indicative of his later misadventures. Surprisingly, he did well as an enlisted man, rising to sergeant-major in an artillery regiment before becoming so desperate to leave that he spent a lot of hard-borrowed money to buy himself out. A year later, he was suiting up again, this time at West Point. Here he also did reasonably well for six months; then he lost enthusiasm, along with the last remnants of love and financial support from John Allan, his wealthy foster-father. However calculating, Poe’s letters to Allan during and after the West Point period are a chronicle of death’s door despair, sounding the “nevermore” refrain that would, in various applications — loving, drinking, borrowing, surviving — be repeated throughout his life:
You promised me to forgive all — but you soon forgot your promise. You sent me to W. Point like a beggar … and I must resign. As to your injunction not to trouble you with farther communication rest assured, Sir, that I will most religiously observe it…. I have no more to say — except that my future life (which thank God will not endure long) must be passed in indigence and sickness…. (West Point, Jan. 3, 1831)
In spite of all my resolution to the contrary I am obliged once more to recur to you for assistance — It will however be the last time that I ever trouble any human being…. (New York, Feb. 21, 1831)
If you will only send me this one time $80, by Wednesday next, I will never forget your kindness & generosity — if you refuse God only knows what I shall do, & all my hopes & prospects are ruined forever…. (Baltimore, Nov. 18, 1831)
But Poe always had more than one set of pleas and plans in play: as he was preparing to leave the Point, he was readying his third book of poems for publication, and convincing 131 other cadets to cough up $1.25 each to help finance it. A first edition of Poe’s first collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), was auctioned for $662,500 last month, a sales record for American literature.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.