Looming large in the popular imagination as a serious poet and lively drunk who died in penury, Edgar Allan Poe was also the most celebrated and notorious writer of his day. He died broke and alone at the age of forty, but not before he had written some of the greatest works in the English language, from the chilling “The Tell-Tale Heart” to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—the first modern detective story—to the iconic poem “The Raven.”
Poe’s life was one of unremitting hardship. His father abandoned the family, and his mother died when he was three. Poe was thrown out of West Point, and married his beloved thirteen-year-old cousin, who died of tuberculosis at twenty-four. He was so poor that he burned furniture to stay warm. He was a scourge to other poets, but more so to himself.
In the hands of Paul Collins, one of our liveliest historians, this mysteriously conflicted figure emerges as a genius both driven and undone by his artistic ambitions. Collins illuminates Poe’s huge successes and greatest flop (a 143-page prose poem titled Eureka), and even tracks down what may be Poe’s first published fiction, long hidden under an enigmatic byline. Clear-eyed and sympathetic, Edgar Allan Poe is a spellbinding story about the man once hailed as “the Shakespeare of America.”
About the Author
Paul Collins is the author of eight books, including The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World and Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery, a finalist for the Edgar Award. He appears on NPR’s Weekend Edition as its “literary detective” on odd and forgotten books, and is the founder of the Collins Library imprint of McSweeney’s Books. Collins lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is an associate professor of English at Portland State University.
Read an Excerpt
The Child of Fortune
For many decades, the night of January 19th would bring a single mysterious visitor to a Baltimore graveyard: dressed in black and hidden by a hat and scarf, he’d raise a birthday toast and then leave behind a bottle of cognac and three roses at the stone marking the original burial site of Edgar Allan Poe. He has never been identified, and the tradition ended in 2009 amid claims that the original “Poe Toaster” had died years earlier. Curious onlookers and reporters still stake out the graveyard each year, though, and pretenders have continued to make the homage ever since, sometimes finding that other toasters have already beaten them to the grave earlier in the evening. That seems entirely fitting. An old graveyard at midnight, mysterious visitors, false identities, and an unsolved mystery: one suspects Poe himself would approve of the whole affair.
But to understand Poe—the father of detective fiction, the master of horror, the critic, the novelist, the poet, the tragic artist—one might better turn one’s gaze from those shadowy figures in the graveyard and instead watch the Baltimore Sun reporter taking notes from the perimeter. There, and not amid the weathered tombstones, is the reality of the living and working writer. Poe’s reputation was not earned through tragedy, but in spite of it: he was a careful craftsman of words, and a man whose deep dedication to understanding art is often obscured by the drama around his life.
Edgar Allan Poe was born into a world of artists struggling to survive. His father was the mercurial namesake son of one of Baltimore’s great patriots of the Revolution—but instead of the law career that had been marked out for him, David Poe Jr. took to the stage. In 1806 he married Eliza Arnold, who had theater in her blood—the child of English actors, she’d first appeared onstage by the age of nine, and was orphaned at fourteen as her family toured America. Renowned for her singing voice and her dancing, Eliza was often given lead parts reserved for pretty, magnetic young actresses; her Shakespearean roles alone included Juliet, Desdemona, Ariel, and Cordelia. A surviving cameo portrait shows a delicate woman with dark ringlets and a bemused look; she was lauded by one theater patron as “a brilliant gem in the Theatrick crown.”
David was not quite her equal onstage. Rarely the lead, he tackled bit parts in Boston and New York theaters with earnestness, sometimes mumbling lines when flustered. The greatest role he ever landed, perhaps, was as Eliza’s husband. When they married, she was nineteen and newly widowed, and now she wasted no time in starting a family. Three children followed in quick succession in 1807, 1809, and 1810: Henry, Edgar, and Rosalie.
Life in the theater was precarious, and after Edgar’s birth on January 19, 1809, David was back onstage the next night at the Boston Theatre. Eliza, after “the recovery of her recent confinement,” was treading the boards again just three weeks later. Soon they were leaning upon Boston’s theatergoers with shows “For the Benefit of Mrs. Poe.” Theater had a culture of such shows—perusing Boston newspapers that same month, one finds benefits for Mrs. Poe, Master Payne, Messrs. Stockwell and Barnard, Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, Miss Worsall—a testament to the changeless struggle of artists to earn their way.
In their scramble for desperately needed money, neither parent could care for Edgar much. Scarcely a month after his birth, Edgar joined his brother Henry with their grandparents in Baltimore. He rejoined his parents six months later, now in New York City, but the infant’s new home was not an entirely happy one. Manhattan newspapers tolerated neither mumblers nor stumblers: one critic labeled David Poe a “muffin face” and mercilessly dubbed him “Dan Dilly” after he mispronounced a character named “Dandoli.” Over the next two years, David Poe would respond with the melancholy predictability of foolish men: he got angry, he drank, and then he abandoned his wife and children. There was no reconciliation, nor could there be: David died in obscurity soon afterwards.
He left behind the newborn and sickly Rosalie, born after a theatrical run by her mother in Virginia—and soon Mrs. Poe herself was ailing. In November 1811, one Richmond local wrote: “Mrs. Poe, who as you know is a very handsome woman, happens to be very sick, and (having quarreled and parted with her husband) is destitute.” A visitor recalled finding the children “thin and pale and very fretful,” and being hushed by an old nurse with nips of opium and gin-soaked bread. Soon an ominous notice appeared in the Richmond Enquirer for another benefit show: “Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance, and asks it for perhaps the last time.”
This was no exaggeration. A month later, one could spot the well-to-do Richmond merchant John Allan and his wife Frances spending the Christmas holiday at a friend’s plantation—and toddling alongside them through the snow, a bewildered and newly adopted young orphan named Edgar.
He was now, an aunt wrote, “truly the Child of fortune.”
Poe was born into a life of art, but adopted into one of commerce, and from this uneasily mixed parentage, both the name and the career of Edgar Allan Poe would emerge. For just as the Eliza Poe was a great talent in her profession, so was John Allan in retailing. At the Richmond dry-goods warehouse of Ellis & Allan, one could find everything from sheet music to coal shovels, “Chamber door Locks” to window glass, and heaped piles of “superfine Broadcloths and Kersemeres.”
A bluff and hardheaded Scottish merchant—one contemporary described him as “rather rough and uncultured”—Allan also possessed more subtle qualities. He’d become a naturalized American, adopted by the country that he had emigrated to in 1795. Like many a hard-driven merchant, he’d never had a college education, and could seem alternately dismissive and ardent in his admiration for culture. “Gods! What would I not give, if I had his talent for writing!” he once wrote of Shakespeare.
The survival of 615 volumes of Ellis & Allan commercial correspondence do not hint at a man with much time to fulfill such dreams. But he acquired the trappings of culture for his prosperous household: they would never lack for Shakespeare, nor for a costly Rees Cyclopedia or a piano in the parlor.
The Allans had both been orphaned as children themselves. At thirty-one, John was now a respectable Richmond merchant with no offspring—none by his rather frail wife Frances, at least. It was Frances who pressed for taking in little Edgar, and by 1812 the Allan ledgers show the telltale touches of parenthood: amid the fine horses and casks of brandy are orders for diminutive suits of clothing, doctor’s visits for the croup, and a child-size bed.
Edgar was, visitors recalled, “a lovely little fellow, with dark curls and brilliant eyes, dressed like a little prince.” Yet he was the prince of an uncertain peerage. John hadn’t formally adopted him—perhaps imagining that Poe’s relatives would decide to raise him, as they had with his siblings Henry and Rosalie. But as weeks passed into months and months into years, Edgar Poe disappeared from records, and in his place appeared a new identity: Edgar Allan. When John Allan set out in August 1815 to open a London branch of his firm, he was joined by his wife and his spirited six-year-old boy. Interrupting Allan as the merchant drafted a letter to confirm his arrival, Poe’s voice materialized on paper for the first time.
“Edgar says Pa, say something for me,” Allan wrote in bemusement to his business partner. “Say I was not afraid coming across the sea.” Edgar took a child’s delight in the thirty-four-day voyage, even as his family was distinctly the worse for wear from seasickness.
Arriving in London mere months after the end of both the War of 1812 and the surrender of Napoleon, the Allans found an empire staggered with debt and swarming with wounded veterans, yet poised upon the brink of the most powerful and peaceful decades that Britain had ever known. It was here, at the center of a new British empire, that Edgar would have many of his first childhood memories. Just before Halloween that year, a letter written by Allan gave the first real glimpse of Edgar. The family was “by a snug fire” in their parlor, he wrote, with Mrs. Allan sewing and “Edgar reading a little Story Book”—perhaps Sinbad the Sailor or Jack and the Beanstalk, both of which had recent children’s editions. When he wasn’t reading, Edgar could amuse himself with his mother’s parrot, which the family had taught to recite the alphabet.
Such pleasant idylls could not last, though. Edgar was packed off to boarding schools; and there, a foreign child of seven, he fell asleep at night under a strange roof in a strange land, and woke to eat among yet more strangers. He was so desperate to flee the grounds and hike back to London that for a time a cousin had to shadow him just to keep him from escaping.
Table of Contents
1. The Child of Fortune 1
2. Manuscript Found in a Bottle 19
3. The Glorious Prospect 40
4. The Shakespeare of America 61
5. Nevermore 84
Selected Further Reading 114
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I would have given this book four stars but after this book I read an anthology of Edgar Allan Poe's work. This book included some biographical information on Poe. Edgar Allan Poe was an orphan and raised in a foster family. Collin's book fails to mention that Poe had step siblings and that his step father remarried. I feel these details are critical to understanding Edgar Allan Poe. In addition, I felt that Collins did not come up with much new material on the life of Edgar Allan Poe. However, Paul Collins' book is a "literary" biography. I felt Collins critiques of Poe's work was excellent. I did not realize how influential Edgar Allen Poe was as a writer. Thanks to Collins's book, I could see the influence Poe had on such European authors as Jules Verne, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and most notably Sir Arthur Cannon Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Thanks to Paul Collins' book, I did see how Edgar Allen Poe invented the mystery story and came up with the idea of a detective who was the forerunner and inspiration for Sherlock Holmes .(In my opinion, Edgar Allan Poe is a very hard writer for moderns to read and is mainly significant for his ideas that influenced other writers). It was also interesting to find out that even in his own time people made fun of his poetry and no modern poet says Poe was his inspiration. Also Poe wrote a lot of book reviews which were very critical of the book and made him some enemies among other writers. In short, I found Paul Collins biography of Edgar Allan Poe readable but not very original. What makes this book distinguished is where Collins describes the influence Edgar Allan Poe had on other writers.