In honor of Edgar Allan Poe’s 209th birthday, I have amassed this list of 13 (spooky!) facts about Poe’s life and death that may be unfamiliar to you. Odds are, most genuine Poe enthusiasts are familiar with some of these, but I’m hopeful that this piece may enlighten my readers, who may be new to Poe’s biography, to the fascinating life (and death) he led. When I bring up my academic interest in Poe, most people infer that I’m interested in his work in the Gothic genre. While I am interested in this aspect of his work and the influence he had upon others to come after him, I also find it disappointing that Poe’s name has become solely associated with this genre and little else. He wrote over 1,000 critical pieces on contemporary literature while an editor, and helped to craft an “American” standard for judging literature and poetry. He had few advantages in life, but nonetheless managed to achieve more than some who are born into more economically advantaged lives.
To my dismay, Poe seems to be remembered as the strange alcoholic who wrote macabre pieces only to be read in dark corners. I’m hoping that in time, the modern reader will hold Poe’s work up to the same literary standards as his contemporaries such as Wordsworth and Longfellow, whom most would say are more “serious” poets. Therefore, without further ado, my list of the 13 facts you may not have known about the most engaging American author of the nineteenth century…Edgar A. Poe!
1. Edgar’s mother, Rosalie, died when he was only two years old. His father, David Poe, was not with the family when Rosalie died. The reason for his absence is unknown. David Poe died a few days after Rosalie, which left Edgar and his two siblings (one older brother and one younger sister) orphans.
2. Poe lived in England for five years with his adopted parents the Allan’s (1815-1820) and was schooled in London. Among his subjects (geography, mathematics, spelling) he also learned dancing and the Catechism of the Church of England. Penny Dreadfuls were some of his favorite reading materials and undoubtedly shaped his love of horror stories.
3. He enlisted in the United States Army under the assumed name, Edgar A. Perry.
4. Poe’s “Journal of Julius Rodman” (1840), published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, was mistaken as an actual account of a sailing expedition and was entered in a document submitted to the U.S. Senate.
5. When Poe took over the role of editor to Graham’s Magazine in 1841, the circulation of the periodical was around 5,000 copies. In the year that he was editor, Poe grew this number to 37,000 subscriptions, making it the most subscribed to periodical of its time.
6. Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge was published serially in 1840-1841. It is a historical novel (like A Tale of Two Cities) but is also a novel driven by a murder mystery. Poe reviewed the first chapters for Graham’s and successfully deduced the murderer of the novel before it was revealed to readers. Dickens was so impressed with this deduction he granted Poe a coveted private meeting when he travelled to Philadelphia in 1841.
7. Poe first met Rufus Griswold in 1841; Griswold was also an editor and poet and the two seemed to at first hold reasonable opinions of one another. This acquaintance began to deteriorate and Poe wrote to one of his friends that he felt Griswold would write anything for a dollar and began to distance himself from his colleague. It is suspected that their relationship deteriorated over a socialite poet whom they both were smitten by: Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood. Griswold had edited Osgood’s collection of poetry and was infatuated with her, but Osgood and Poe carried on a very public (most likely platonic) courtship through poetry. Poe broke off the “relationship” with Osgood in 1846, but Griswold never seemed to get over the slight.
8. Upon Poe’s death, Rufus Griswold begin to make substantial amounts of money from writing Poe’s memoir and publishing his works. What we know of Poe’s biography today is largely shaped by Griswold’s version of Poe’s life. Nathaniel Parker Willis, one of Poe’s employers when he worked for the Evening Mirror, refuted the claims that Poe was unbalanced and an alcoholic with a violent temper. Willis had this to say of Poe: “Mr. Poe was employed by us, for several months, as critic and subeditor. He resided with his wife and mother at Fordham, a few miles out of town, but was at his desk in the office, from nine in the morning till the evening paper went to press. he was invariably punctual and industrious.” Many others who knew Poe came forward after Griswold’s “Memoir of the Author” to refute the claims.
9. Despite the various trails he faced in life (poverty, repudiation, death), he never scoffed at the possibility of love. He was engaged to be married three, possibly four times throughout his life, but was only married once.
10. Poe was fascinated by the process of daguerreotypes and sat for many different ones — most of which are lost. The process of daguerreotypes was such that each one was an individual photograph, without a negative, and was a reversal of the subject. Thus, the daguerreotype is a mirror image of the subject himself and, as such, created a somewhat uncanny look due to the reversal. In Poe’s case, it is thought that it accentuated his already apparent facial asymmetry, and caused many literary critics to base their assumptions of Poe’s character on this mistaken physiognomy of a “reversed” Poe.
11. When Poe died under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore in 1849, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Poe family plot at Westminster Burying Ground. In 1860 his cousin purchased a headstone to be installed at Edgar’s gravesite. However, before the headstone could be installed, an accident befell it. The monument yard was located next to the railroad line because stone cutters found it easier to be in direct proximity to the train lines due to the difficulty of transporting heavy stone. A freak accident caused a train to derail, and drive directly into the monument yard, crushing Poe’s headstone.
12. Only in 1875 did Poe receive a monument and for this and he had to be exhumed. A movement began in Baltimore to raise funds for Poe’s monument, and it was largely led by school children collecting pennies. Once they finally secured the prime location at the front of the burying grounds, the City exhumed Poe and moved him to the front corner where they would later add his wife and mother-in-law. During the exhumation, Poe’s coffin cracked and the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore still holds a piece of the coffin in their special collections.
13. Poe published his prose piece “Eureka” in 1848. In it, he proposed a theory of the creation of the universe. Essentially (albeit under much mystical and vague writing), the idea he proposed was the Big Bang theory, which would not be generally accepted until the 1960s. Poe also theorized that the universe was constantly expanding (which was not proven until the 1920s), that there were such things as black holes, and was also the first person on record to solve the Olbers Paradox: the astronomical question of why the sky is dark. Poe (correctly) theorized that the universe is finite and therefore unknown amounts of light from other stars has yet to reach the Milky Way: “The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all” (90-91).
I am indebted to the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore for their tireless work in amassing all of Poe’s critical pieces and essays in one location.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Eureka: A Prose Poem, Putnam, 1848.
Willis, N. P. “Death of Edgar Allan Poe,” Home Journal, Oct. 20, 1849.
Books for Further Reference:
Deas, Michael J. The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe, University of Virginia Press, 1989.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: a Critical Biography, D. Appleton-Century Co., 1941.
All images are courtesy of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.