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AN INAUSPICIOUS BIRTH,
Edgar Poe's ancestors were agriculturists and artisans on one side, actors on the other; and the paternal branch of the family had some claim to military distinction. Poe's great-great-grandfather, David Poe, was a Protestant tenant-farmer amidst the endless bogs and stony fields of Dring, Co. Cavan, Ireland, about seventy-five miles northwest of Dublin. His son John, after marrying the sister of an admiral, emigrated in about 1750 to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. John's eldest son, David, who was seven years old when the family left for America, moved in 1775 to Baltimore, where he made spinning wheels and clock reels, and later owned a drygoods store.
David Poe, a member of Captain John McClellan's Company of Baltimore troops in 1778-79, was appointed Assistant Deputy Quartermaster and authorized to purchase supplies for the American army. When General Lafayette returned to tumultuous acclaim in Baltimore in 1824, he inquired about his old friend (who had died eight years earlier) and paid tribute to his generosity during the war: "I have not seen among these my friendly and patriotic commissary, Mr. David Poe, who resided in Baltimore when I was here, and of his own very limited means supplied me with five hundred dollars to aid in clothing my troops, and whose wife, with her own hands, cut out five hundred pairs of pantaloons and superintended the making of them for the use of my men." Lafayette visited Poe's grave and observed: "Ici repose un coeur noble." David Poe had spent forty thousand dollars of his own money on theRevolutionary cause and, though holding the rank of major, was given a courtesy title and always known as "General" Poe. Edgar, with characteristic exaggeration, later promoted his grandfather to Quartermaster General of the whole United States Army during the Revolutionary War.
Poe's maternal grandparents were married in London in May 1784. Henry Arnold remains a shadowy figure; but his wife, Elizabeth, first appeared on stage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in February 1791 and made her last appearance in London in June 1795. Elizabeth, by then apparently a widow, took a winter passage to Boston, aboard the Outram, with her daughter, Eliza, arriving in January 1796. Later that year she married the actor, singer and pianist, Charles Tubbs. She disappeared from theatrical records in 1798 and may have died soon afterwards.
The exceptionally precocious and talented Eliza Arnold (Edgar's mother) made her theatrical debut in Boston, three months after her arrival, at the age of nine. In November 1796 the Portland Eastern Herald praised her as the coquettish Biddy Bellair in David Garrick's farce, Miss in Her Teens: "Miss Arnold, in Miss Biddy, exceeded all praise. Although a Miss of only nine years old, her powers as an Actress will do credit to any of her sex of maturer age." The following month, another critic was delighted by "the powers of Miss Arnold to astonish us. Add to these her youth, her beauty, her innocence, and a character is composed which has not, and perhaps will not ever again be found in any Theatre."
Eliza, whose mother had died, married Charles Hopkins, an actor, in the summer of 1802, when she was fifteen. An oval miniature, the only known portrait of the petite Eliza, portrays her round childlike face, long dangling curls, unusually large doe-like eyes and cupid's-bow mouth. Seated, and looking straight out of the portrait, she wears a beribboned bonnet, dangling earrings and a low-cut dress, with long sleeves and a high sash under the bodice, which reveals her full figure.
In the course of her extraordinary theatrical career the charming Eliza played—apart from choral, vocal and dancing roles—nearly three hundred parts. These included Shakespeare's Juliet, Ophelia and Cordelia; Lydia Languish and Lady Teazel in Sheridan's The Rivals and The School for Scandal; and numerous heroines in then popular and now forgotten comedies, farces and tragedies. The year after her marriage, another critic commended the veteran sixteen-year-old's appearance, ability and voice: "Mrs. Hopkins' interesting figure, her correct performance, and the accuracy with which she always commits her part, together with her sweetly melodious voice when she charms us with a song, have deservedly raised her to that respectable rank which she indisputably holds in the public favor."
Poe's father, David Poe Jr., three years older than Eliza, was born in Baltimore in 1784. Though destined for the law, he joined the Thespian Club in Baltimore, where young men read and performed plays. While on a business trip to Norfolk, Virginia, he saw Eliza perform onstage, fell in love with the young English actress and eventually joined her troupe. In 1806, only six months after the death of her first husband, David married Eliza in Richmond. The nineteen-year-old widowed actress had been in an extremely vulnerable position, and may have married David Poe (and perhaps Charles Hopkins) for protection as much as for love. Their first child, Henry, was born nine months later in January 1807 and from the age of two was cared for by friends of the family in Baltimore. "General" Poe had been furious when his son abandoned a promising law career for the stage and then married an actress (in those days a profession of dubious reputation and social status). But he was reconciled with the young couple when their first son was born.
David Poe had an attractive face and figure, suitable for juvenile parts and romantic heroes. During his six-year career he played 137 different roles, 19 of them Shakespearean. But all the critics seemed to agree that the experienced, versatile Eliza was a much better actor than David. A notice of 1806 condemned his performance and severely remarked that "the lady was young and pretty, and evinced talent both as singer and actress; the gentleman was literally nothing." In two other reviews, written a few years later, Eliza was highly commended while David was harshly criticized. The first critic wrote: "From an actress who possesses so eminently the faculty of pleasing, whose powers are so general and whose exertions are so ready, it would be unjust to withhold the tribute of applause." But the second said: "a more wretched Alonzo have we never witnessed. This man was never destined for the high walks of the drama;—a footman is the extent of what he ought to attempt.... His person, voice, and non-expression of countenance, all combine to stamp him—poh!"
Sensitive and perhaps vain about his acting ability, the hot-tempered, hard-drinking David found it difficult to swallow not only these insults but also the execrable puns on his name and allusions to chamber pots. (Such puns would later plague Edgar during his fierce literary disputes.) On more than one occasion David threatened to thrash critics who had ridiculed his wife's costume and endangered his own livelihood.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century (when Richmond, for example, had a population of only 4,000) most American cities were too small to support a permanent theater company and actors were forced to travel the circuit in various towns up and down the East Coast. Eliza acted in Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, the same cities in which Edgar later lived and worked. Driven by the need to earn money and burdened by a feckless husband, she performed on the Boston stage only a week before Edgar's birth and reappeared one month later.
Edgar was born in a humble lodging house near Carver Street, south of the Boston Common, on January 19, 1809. Mendelssohn, Darwin, Tennyson, Gladstone, Lincoln and Oliver Wendell Holmes were also born in 1809 and all but the composer outlived Poe. In that year Tom Paine died, Washington Irving published A History of New York and in Europe Byron brought out English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Goethe The Elective Affinities and Schlegel On Dramatic Art and Literature. James Madison was president of the United States, Metternich was prime minister of Austria and Napoleon won a brilliant victory, near Vienna, in the Battle of Wagram.
On the back of a watercolor sketch of Boston Harbor, which Poe treasured, his mother had written: "For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best, and most sympathetic friends." In adult life, however, Poe nourished a strong dislike for the city of his birth. He hated its ruling literary class—their stuffy morality, vague Transcendental philosophy, Abolitionist movement and sterile domination of the American literary scene.
Edgar's birth sparked a financial crisis and emotional upheaval in the Poe family. Desperate for money but unwilling to ask his father, David Poe traveled south to Stockertown, fifty miles north of Philadelphia, to the house of his cousin George Poe. Arriving at night, he called George to the door, told George that the most awful moment of his life had come, pleaded for an urgent meeting the next day, insisted he had not come to beg and strode off in a tragic manner. George kept his appointment the following day but failed to find David, who then sent him an "impertinent note." The only surviving letter by David Poe, written on February 23, 1809, sounds like many that were later written by his son. There is the unbalanced, recriminatory tone, arrogant and humiliating demand for money, dubious assurance of repayment, pathetic explanation of distress, testing of friendship and favor, plea of impulsive youth, justification of a career that led to destitution, appeal to honor, desperation of extreme poverty, haughty insistence on help—and hopeless ineffectuality:
You promised me on your honor to meet me at the Mansion house of the 23d—I promise you on my word of honor that if you will lend me 30, 20, 15 or even 10$ I will remit it to you immediately on my arrival in Baltimore. Be assured I will keep my promise at least as well as you did yours, and that nothing but extreem distress would have forc'd me to make this application.—Your answer by the bearer will prove whether I have yet "favor in your eyes" or whether I am to be despised by (as I understand) a rich relation because when a wild boy I join'd a profession which I then thought and now think an honorable one. But which I would most willingly quit tomorrow if it gave satisfaction to your family provided I could do any thing else that would give bread to mine.—Your politeness will no doubt enduce you to answer this note.
In late February, after this emotional plea had failed, the Poes left the five-week-old Edgar in Baltimore with his paternal grandparents, "General" David and Elizabeth Poe, and continued their theatrical tour. They returned to fetch him in late August, when the season was over, placing Edgar and (later) his sister Rosalie in the care of an old nursemaid. A friend reported that the two children "were thin and pale and very fretful. To quiet them their old nurse ... took them upon her lap and fed them liberally with bread soaked in gin, when they soon fell asleep.... [She acknowledged] that she had, from the very birth of the girl [in December 1810], freely administered to them gin and other spirituous liquors, with sometimes laudanum [opium dissolved in alcohol], `to make them strong and healthy,' or to put them to sleep when restless." The etiology of Poe's alcoholism began in infancy.
David Poe made his last stage appearance in October 1809; by July 1811—when Edgar was two and a half years old—he had deserted his wife and children and vanished forever. We can only speculate about the the reasons for David's disappearance. Eliza had a successful career; David, after many mediocre performances and harsh reviews, was discouraged, frustrated and professionally jealous. Known for his heavy drinking, both onstage and off, David may have been dismissed for incompetence. There may have been recriminations about their impetuous marriage and his inability to take responsibility for three small and perhaps unwanted children. Illness and poverty certainly intensified the couple's problems and undermined their relationship. Five months later, on about December 11, 1811, David seems to have died, alone, in Norfolk.
From his father Edgar inherited family pride, incongruous gentility, histrionic habits, a volatile temperament, sensitivity to criticism, self-pity, instability, a perverse self-destructive tendency and an Irish weakness for drink. David Poe had lost caste and alienated his family by abandoning law for the stage as Edgar later would do by abandoning his university education to become a common soldier and, when plunging into the uncertain waters of literature, by giving up his career as a West Point cadet to join the destitute writers of Grub Street.
The desertion of her husband, the arduous demands of her profession, the constant movement from one cheap lodging house to another, the sole responsibility for her young children, her life of hardship and poverty, undoubtedly contributed to the early death of Eliza Poe. She made her last appearance onstage on October 11, 1811. Three weeks later a Richmond neighbor told his sister that Eliza was being patronized by Richmond Society: "Mrs. Poe, who you know is a very handsome woman, happens to be very sick, and (having quarreled and parted with her husband) is destitute. The most fashionable place of resort now is—her chamber—and the skill of cooks and nurses is exerted to procure her delicacies."
On November 29 the managers of the Richmond Theater, encouraged by the most respectable families of the city, announced a benefit performance for Eliza, who had been suffering from a long and serious illness. That same day the Enquirer reported her hopeless condition and asked for urgent help: "On this night, Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance and asks it perhaps for the last time." After a rapid decline, Eliza died of tuberculosis, at the age of twenty-four, on December 8. Her obituary notice observed that "the stage has been deprived of one of its chief ornaments; and to say the least of her, she was an interesting actress, and never failed to catch the applause and command the admiration of the beholder." In her brief life Eliza had married twice, had three children and established a solid reputation as a charming and versatile actress.
Mr. and Mrs. Luke Usher (who gave their name to Poe's most famous story), older, actor friends, who had been Eliza's protectors after the death of her mother, took care of Edgar and Rosalie during Eliza's last illness. Poe later said that he had never known his mother nor enjoyed the affection of his father, for they had died within three days of each other. The desertion of his father and death of his mother must have had considerable emotional impact on the nearly three-year-old child. Closeted with his mother in their cramped quarters, he must have remembered something of the melancholy atmosphere, poignant silence and hopeless despair as the attendants passed in and out of the sickroom; he surely retained some memory of the racking coughs, the spitting of blood, the sudden crimson hemorrhages and the pallid figure extended on her deathbed.
Poe later emphasized his artistic heritage and exclaimed: "The writer of this article is himself the son of an actress—has invariably made it his boast—and no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of his descent from a woman who, although well-born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty." Besides the inscribed watercolor of Boston harbor, Poe inherited his mother's precocity, talent, imagination, dedication to art and courage in adversity as well as the indelible image of a beautiful dying young woman. He would also share her itinerant way of life, her impoverished existence and her dreary death.
According to Edgar, "General" Poe—who never recovered the money he had spent during the Revolutionary War—had lost his wealth, had been reduced to poverty at the time of his daughter-in-law's death and had been unable to accept responsibility for his grandchildren. Just after Eliza died, Rosalie was taken into the care of the Richmond merchant, William Mackenzie. John and Frances Allan, who had no children of their own, took Edgar into their home—above the store of Ellis & Allan, general merchants, on the corner of Main and Thirteenth streets—and into an entirely different world. Two weeks after Eliza's death, on December 26, 1811, seventy-two people were burned to death during a disastrous fire at the Richmond Theater and the entire city joined the small orphan in mourning.
|1. An Inauspicious Birth, 1809-1811||1|
|2. Childhood: John Allan and England, 1812-1825||8|
|3. The University of Virginia, 1826||21|
|4. The Army and West Point, 1827-1831||32|
|5. Baltimore: Maria Clemm and Early Stories, 1831-1834||56|
|6. Richmond: The Southern Literary Messenger and Marriage,|
|7. Philadelphia: Button's Magazine, 1837-1840||92|
|8. Philadelphia: Graham's Magazine, 1841-1843||121|
|9. A Lion in New York, 1844-1845||150|
|10. New York: The Broadway Journal, 1845||169|
|11. Fordham and Literary Quarrels, 1846-1847||190|
|12. Fordham: Eureka and Hopeless Love, 1848||213|
|13. Drink, Delirium and Death, 1849||241|