Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Master of the Macabre

Magnet #146: Edgar Allan Poe Caricature

Material: Mylar, Paper, Metal Shell

Purchased By: Me

It was on this day in 1809 that one of the world's greatest writers of mystery and the macabre was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Edgar Allan Poe would go onto live a life filled with drama and even a little scandal and leave behind a riveting body of work that strikes terror in the hearts of its readers to this day.

From the beginning, poor, young Edgar didn't have it easy. His father abandoned him, his two siblings, and his mother about a year after he was born. And his mother, who was an actress, a somewhat notorious profession in that time, died a year later in Richmond, Virginia. A wealthy family in the area, the Allans, took in Edgar alone. Although he became very close to Mrs. Allan, he never bonded with her husband, by many accounts a very cold, severe man. Under their care, Edgar received a well-rounded education, but the pair never legally adopted him. When he was grown, Poe attended the University of Virginia, but claimed Allan didn't provide him with a sufficient income and he soon quit, as he had begun drinking heavily and had fallen into debt. He ended up enlisting in the Army, as he had no other means of supporting himself. It was then that Poe really began began writing seriously, releasing his first book, a collection of poems. But Poe soon became tired of his career, and tried to leave the Army. His commanding officer required that Poe be reconciled with Allan for a discharge, but until his wife died, Allan refused to help him. Finally, however, Poe left the Army and was enrolled at the United States Military Academy at West Point. And still, he wasn't happy. He was finally disowned by Allan, who had remarried, and Poe later ended up purposely getting himself court-martialed to leave West Point. He traveled to New York and then returned to Baltimore, where he had previously stayed with his father's sister, Mrs. Maria Clemm, a widow, before leaving for West Point. Although he had published three volumes of poetry, Poe decided to shift to prose. He had determined to make a living by writing alone, and was the first American to do so, and he realized prose would be more profitable. He wrote and worked as an editor, traveling between Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia, sometimes having to ask others for money. He also began publishing some of his short stories, most notably "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the first detective story ever. One of the most interesting developments in this stage of his like was when Poe secretly wed his 13 year old cousin, Virginia Clemm, when he was 27. They moved back to Richmond with her mother, his aunt, where they were married there a second time in public and Poe was able to become more respectful. He was rehired as the assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, a job he was previously fired from for drunken behavior. Although Poe shifted jobs and locales during his marriage to Virginia, she seemed to keep him anchored in many ways. Friends of the couple commented on how truly in love they seemed to be, but some also thought they behaved more like brother and sister than husband and wife. So when his wife became an invalid from a burst blood vessel, dying five years later, Poe turned to alcohol in order to cope. Nonetheless, he produced some great works that are believed to have brought about by Virginia's illness, including "The Raven," an instant success that made him famous, but brought him almost no money. After her death, Poe wrote "Ulalume" and "Annabell Lee," which many hold his wife likewise inspired. Although he continued writing, Poe would only outlast his wife by about two years.

As interesting as his life was, it was Poe's mysterious death at the age of 40 that has fascinated his admirers for many years. It seemed like his life was getting on the right track - he was gathering money for a new publication he was planning, making progress to end his alcoholism, and had renewed his relationship with his childhood sweetheart. The two intended to marry, and Poe left Richmond, set upon the task of moving Mrs. Clemm and his belongings back from New York for their impending life together. He seems to have reached Philadelphia, staying with a friend there, but never made it to New York. Instead, he was found days later, delirious on the streets of Baltimore, and wearing clothes that were not his own. It's believed that he was carrying a great deal of money when he left Richmond, but none was found on him, suggesting he may have been robbed. But Poe was never able to give a coherent explanation of what had befallen him. He was taken to a hospital where he lingered, crying out and muttering nonsense, lapsing in and out of consciousness, before dying four days later. No cause has ever been given for his death. Widespread speculation exists, however, with causes ranging from syphilis, cholera, and epilepsy all the way to suicide, alcoholism, and rabies. There is also a theory that he was dragged into the notoriously corrupt Baltimore elections that were going on near where he was found. In those days, political gangs might kidnap people off the street and force them to vote endlessly for their candidate, plying them with alcohol, beating them, and sometimes even changing their clothes. It's unlikely the weak Poe could have endured such treatment, but his celebrity might have caused him to be recognized and made him less appealing to the gangs. Regardless, no death certificate for Poe has ever been found, and it seems the mystery of his death will persist as long as his incredible writings. In a life filled with loss and poverty, Poe produced some of the most imaginative writings audiences had ever encountered. He invented the detective story genre and made considerable contributions to the science fiction genre. His poetry and short stories were riveting and uniquely his own, and time has not faded their impact. Edgar Allan Poe was one of the first great writers from the United States to capture the attention of the world, and he set the bar very high for those who would follow him.

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