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The Young Man Poe

ISSUE:  Spring 1926


Our age we like to think of as a scientific one. We would clear up all the mysteries; resolve the compounds into their elements, and having named them, one by one, docket them away for reference. We are not content with tracking physiological life back to its embryonic lairs and charting the stars in their courses, we would pluck out the stops and sound to their depths our men of genius. Fascinated by their mystery in the first place, we seek to explain away the strangeness that piqued our interest. Henry James becomes a problem in environment: Shelley is a simple equation easily solved; Byron, an incident in a study of eroticism. Long ago it was hinted that Hawthorne was the proper outcome of Puritanism: though whether he was the bloom on the perfected fruit or the teeth set on edge by the sour, remained to be agreed upon. It was suspected that Poe, mysterious in all points as a person, would pass from the hands of the pathologists to those of the psychoanalysts. He has furnished mysteries enough already for two generations of essayists and biographers, not to list the romancers;—in which latter category it would be easy to show that most of the two former properly belong.

The fates were three, and so were Macbeth’s Weird Sisters. Scarcely less than three can have stirred the elemental broth in that hellish cauldron where was brewed the fate of the strange young man, Edgar Poe. Resolve his mysteries as investigators may; fix the dates, measure out his drinks, reduce his opium to a paltry apothecary’s bottle of two ounces stupidly swallowed in Romeo-mood, sign his name to the waste papers of his old desks and to a “Journal of Julius Rodman” that he demanded pay for but never signed, throw off his incognitos of Henri Le Rennet, E. A. Perry, and E. S. T. Grey Esqr., publish the yellow pages of crumbling memories of old men who once played with him and old women who once coveted his attention or praise, —still he himself remains the mystery. And that mystery is revealed but little more whether covered with the dust of traditions or the dust of facts.

We know little of the hereditary elements that fate mixed for America’s most musical of poets. A quasi-military grandfather of Irish parentage, a father who had the independence to escape from a law office to the stage but not the talents to succeed there: so much we know of one ingredient of the witches’ cauldron. Of the other, a grandmother who was content when her acting days were over to become the wife of the piano-player for the company and take the name of Tubbs; and a mother, certainly beautiful (we may take the evidence of Judge Beverley Tucker and of a poor copy of the original miniature of her for that), and, until her health failed, an actress capable of pleasing audiences in roles that required ability as well as charm: we may expand the details of these statements into a chapter, but there is little more than this to learn of Poe’s ancestry.

Until recently as little could be said of what the circumstances of his youth were. Prejudice, partisanship, and secrecy combined to keep us from more than smelling out by the fumes those ingredients of the cauldron. There was left only what the third Sister, malignant enough, was known to have added; the provincialism, the toadyism, the puerility of American literary standards, and the snobbery and cant of American social life of Poe’s environment. Here was an explanation of a sort of some of the reactions of the literary genius, but none of the strange personality behind the pen.


The publication of the letters between Edgar Poe and his foster father, John Allan, [“Edgar Allan Poe Letters Till Now Unpublished:” Lippincott] do more than anything known before to make clear the formative influences in Poe’s life from his third to his twenty-sixth year, for it was in that year that John Allan died, and his power for good or harm upon the boy whom in babyhood he had taken as his own did not, perhaps, wholly die with him. These letters, competently edited, with fervor yet restraint, by Mrs. Mary Newton Stanard, tell their own complete story of poignant tragedy; a human story live and tingling, burning and seared. The human passions like puppets thrust out their heads with raucous voices, dance or jerkily jump about the stage, and give out at the end a faint despairing cry as the curtain comes down to let the chief actor die decently behind stage. It is beside the point to take sides and they are foolish readers who say that these letters show Allan and Poe equally in a bad light, or that they have little importance in the study of Poe’s life. They are of first importance. Not because they show John Allan to have been sincerely narrow and insincerely a hypocrite, ignorant, dissipated, childish, and sordid: his character has been sufficiently clear from documents already familiar to students of Poe’s life. Nor because they show the boy Poe impetuous, headstrong, arrogant, or the young man Poe trying the tricks that the weakness of the older man had taught him, now wheedling, now blaming, now demanding, now fawning. It is pitiful enough indeed to see genius, adopted in infancy by tight-fisted, canting mediocrity, begging in youth for what common decency should have proffered unasked; it is even more pitiful to see it in young manhood, busy at the best occupation it knows, forced by the thumbscrew of want to creep back, all guards down, pleading for bread from a man who had taught its baby lips to say “Father.” Yet a pretty fable may be made of the situation: nature inverted, the lark is hatched in a cuckoo’s nest; and a figure of speech reduces the heartache to terms of the unchangeable antagonisms of human nature. If this were all we could dismiss John Allan as a man unable to act in the manner of any nature except his own which was essentially that of a vulgarian, and young Edgar as a lad, gifted no doubt, highstrung and laudably ambitious, but cursed with an ungracious pride, a lack of warmth of affection or gratitude, a certain unreliability; not altogether such a youth as would make a Scotch merchant, especially after he had inherited wealth and won social recognition, a comfortable son by adoption. But there remains a residue. You may like Mr. Allan if you like that kind of man: you may detest Edgar Poe if you don’t like that kind of boy: there were no doubt many hundred worthies in the America of the ‘thirties who might almost have sat for John Allan’s portrait even to the point of playing the sedate libertine and talking sedate piety; and a few score youths as headstrong, as disappointing to their own fathers as Poe was to his through adoption. But there was no other world-genius in just these circumstances. Judge the two men as we please, it is unimportant. What is important is this: here is one factor that helped make Edgar Poe the twisted, contradictory, lonesome, self-withdrawn personality that fixed the condition of the expression of his marvelous genius.

The feeling toward John Allan that these new letters arouse glows with the heat of the fire which twisted and distorted the sensitive soul, the delicate nature, of a great artist. It makes little difference that fate tricked him in his choice of babies; or whether or not he was self-approved in his driving penniless from his home the eighteen year old college boy who had exceeded his allowance: he was if you will the innocent dry stick, crackling to a red heat under the pot, but never was hellbroth more certainly brewed to work a witch’s will than these deeds. Wherefore John Allan is become big in importance: for John Allan, if we may believe these letters is the nearest we have to a key to Poe’s unhappy life. A happy Poe would never have been the Poe we have: what such a Poe would have produced we cannot guess. Certainly America would have been poor without Poe as he was and that Poe was essentially complete when he, sometime between 1829 and 1832, wrote the sixteen “Tales of the Folio Club.” Those tales were immature I but they possessed all the essential characteristics of the later Poe. What Poe was when John Allan drove him from his Richmond house, a waif, he was in most points to the end.

The recently published letters were garnered up painstakingly by John Allan nearly a hundred years ago: for almost fifty they have been preserved unpublished by the present owners. That they do not present a complete series, is obvious; that enclosures mentioned by Poe were destroyed, appears probable. In short, John Allan and his heirs had the opportunity for the selection and annotation of this exhibit before they passed from their possession. As printed, there are twenty-eight letters written by Poe, (all except one are to John Allan), one letter to Mr. Allan in behalf of Edgar from Mrs. Clemm, and two from John Allan to Poe. Poe’s letters begin with two from the University of Virginia, May and September, 1826; and the last is a final appeal for help in April, 1833, from Baltimore.


As all the world knows John Allan, the Scotch tobacco merchant, and his wife, Frances Valentine Allan, had adopted the less than three year old orphan in 1811. There was no legal adoption, which would have been an unusual procedure in Virginia of that day, but the child was in all points treated as a son of the family. There is reason to believe that at first he was called simply Edgar Allan, and it was by that name that he was remembered by Mr. Brans-by the master of the Stoke-Newington school in England, and it was for “Mass. Allan’s” expenses that he made out his bill. So completely had the Allans taken the young child to themselves that when Eliza Poe, his aunt, for the second time attempted to learn something about the child after hearing of him through an acquaintance who had seen him at the “Springs”, she could address her letter only to “Mrs. Allen of Richmond” because she did not know the “christian name” but she called the Allans “his adopted Parents.” In early letters quoted by Mrs. Stanard in the new “Poe Letters”, Poe is referred to with evident affection as “little Edgar” and “little Ed.” Of Edgar at .nine, John Allan says, he is “a fine boy and reads Latin pretty sharply”; and at ten, he “is growing wonderfully and enjoys a good reputation”; and again “he is a fine boy and a good scholar.”

In 1823, John Allan inherited a substantial fortune. This circumstance may or may not have changed his interest in the actor’s child, adopted under such different circumstances. At any rate there survives a letter from John Allan to Poe’s seventeen year old brother in Baltimore dated November 1, 1824, which suggests, in its ungrammatically coarse vilification of his adopted son, the vituperations of a drunken man.

Of the relations between the two from the date of this letter until the writing of the first of the letters from the University of Virginia, we know nothing. Each of the two letters from the University of Virginia, begins “Dear Sir” and closes “Yours affectionately, Edgar” or “Edgar A. Poe.” They are such letters as a boy might write to a father, full of stories of student escapade, in which, of course, he plays no part; and conveying thanks for material for a uniform and a request for a copy of Tacitus’ history. The second tells of the trepidation of the students over the announcement of examinations and speaks with confidence of his own success. The picture is drawn by his letters of a rowdy group of raw youngsters and an unfinished college with the pillars of the Rotunda just completed in September, 1826, and the books just “removed to the library”. “I have been studying a great deal in order to be prepared, and dare say I shall come off as well as the rest of them, that is if I don’t get frightened”. These two letters of the young seventeen year old first-year college student are admirable evidence / of the relative maturity of the boy and confirm, as far as / they may, Poe’s later statement that he redeemed in the latter months of the session the time he may have lost in the earlier. The penmanship is well formed and full of individuality, and the language is straightforward and expressive.

The contrast in the next two letters is painful. They are undated except by the days of the week, Monday and Tuesday. Mrs. Stanard has determined the dates as March 19 and 20. The young boy had entered the University of Virginia on February 14JJJ2.6; and he remained until the end of the session in December when, after passing successfully the dreaded examinations, he had returned home./ Nearly three months had now passed, a new session had begun and, if Poe’s letter is to be believed, Mr. Allan had refused to send him back to the University. Continually upbraiding him “with eating the bread of idleness,” he did not “remedy the evil by placing” him “to some business” but, after a difference of opinion, had driven him from his house. The desperate boy pleads for his trunk and clothes, twelve dollars to buy a ticket to Boston, and something to support him until he can secure work. Mrs. Stanard gives March 24, 1827, as the date of his sailing for Boston.


Of Poe’s movements in Boston we know two facts: he arranged with Calvin F. S. Thomas for the publication of yhis little pamphlet, “Tamerlane and Other Poems”, written most probably in his student days, and he enlisted on May JJ.Qas a private in the army under the name of E. A. Perry. The little volume, slight and unarresting, however much promise we can find in its verses now, was still-born; the five copies that survive have little history, and it is even possible that Poe, who never referred to his first bantling, may never have known that it actually came from the press; though Griswold says Margaret Fuller reviewed some of the “verses” in the Tribune in 1846. Silence follows his enlistment in the army, until his letter of December, 1828, from Fort Moultrie, Charleston Harbour. His first letter of appeal, revealing that Mr. Allan himself had not known where he was, was followed by a second and a third, full of contrition, and messages of love to Mrs. Allan, mingled with expressions of self-confidence. Almost three months passed and John Allan made ho motion. On February 28, Frances Valentine Allan died and Poe, as he reminded Mr. Allan in a later letter, went “home the night after the funeral.” With Mr. Allan’s aid he was discharged from the 1 army on April 15 and according to his colonel was reinstated by Mr. Allan into his family and favor. How John Allan grudgingly paid for a substitute and wrote coldly in aid of the boy’s application for a cadetship at West Point that “he is no relation to me whatever: that I have many whom I have taken an active interest to promote theirs”, is an often told story. Poe did not enter West Point until July 1, 1830. From May to November, 1829, his letters *” show him to have been in Baltimore. When he returned to Richmond is not clear but he left there apparently in May,-’ 1830. Meantime three circumstances had hardened more the heart of Mr. Allan, which had never really relented toward him. Mr. Allan was angered at his plans to publish a volume of poetry, suspicious of the manner in which the moderate sums he sent him were spent, and on May 3, 1830, a quarrel occurred of which Poe wrote later “you had embittered every feeling of my heart against you by abuse of my family and myself under your own roof—and at a time when you knew that my heart was almost breaking.” When Hatch and Dunning brought out the 1829 “Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems” Mr. Allan was apparently at least complaisant; for Poe wrote him that they were “printing it and giving him two hundred and fifty copies”, and promised a copy by Mr. Dunning’s own hand.

At the Academy Poe’s record was good; until another untoward event broke the last link between him and his foster father. Before leaving the Army, Poe, the young sergeant-major about to be free, had yielded to his greatest lifelong weakness and borrowed money from Sergeant Graves, as well as Sergeant Griffith. In answering a “dunning” letter, he tells his friend “Bully” Graves that Mr. Allan has misunderstood him in reporting him as having said he had sent him the money and explains “Mr. A. is not very often sober—which accounts for it”. Nearly a year later, (the debt still unpaid), Sergeant Graves sent this letter to Mr. Allan—and collected. On October 5, Mr. Allan had married again, without seeing Poe at West Point when he went on for the wedding to New York. After reading the Graves letter, he wrote to him severing all communication. On January 3, 1831 (misdated 1830), Poe answered his renunciation with an indictment that, fair or unfair, must have seared the older man’s eyes as he read it.

“Did I, when an infant, solicit your charity?” is his first question. He contends that his grandfather was wealthy and resigned him as a child because of “the promises of adoption and liberal education which you held forth to him in a letter which is now in possession of my family.” “Under such circumstances, can it be said that I have no right to expect anything at your hands?” Forestalling Mr. Allan’s reply that he had given him an opportunity of an education, he answers that he would not let him return to the University of Virginia because bills were presented for payment which he never wished him to pay: “it was wholly and entirely”, he continues “your own mistaken parsimony that caused all the difficulties in which I was involved while at Charlottesville. The expenses of the institution at the lowest estimate were $350 per annum. You sent me there with $110. Of this $50 were to be paid immediately for board —$60 for attendance upon 2 professors—and you even then did not miss the opportunity of abusing me because I did not attend 3.” He refers to appeals for money and books, which were answered by “utmost abuse”. In this case, it must be apparent that there were other letters from Poe to Mr. Allan during his university year that were not preserved. Poe does not deny dissipation and extravagance at the University but he excuses it on the grounds that without money he was regarded “in the light of a beggar”, was forced in the beginning to borrow of loan sharks in Charlottesville, was thrown with bad companions and plunged into gambling in the hope of paying his debts, and finally he involved himself “irretrievably”: when “toward the close of the session” he was sent $100 “it was too late— to be of any service in extricating” him. The same difficulties of beggary threatening him at West Point, he asks for his guardian’s written permission to resign and declares if it is refused he will in ten days begin neglecting his “studies and duties at the institution” as the only way left open to him of being released from conditions which seem to him no longer bearable. Poe’s words are no doubt consciously the statement of his own case. Yet he was writing for Mr. Allan’s eyes only, there is a straightforward fervor that invites one’s trust, and with the elimination of such overstatements as that of his grandfather’s wealth, natural to a youth barely twenty-one, the figures and statements conform with a nicety to known facts. Mr. Allan accepted the letter as an ultimatum, endorsing upon it: “I do not think the Boy has one good quality. I wd. have saved him but on his own terms and conditions since I cannot believe a word he writes. His letter is the most barefaced onesided statement.” Poe had no doubt added to the bitterness created by the reading of the Graves letter by saying in this one, in reference to the burial of Mrs. Allan, “If she had not died while I was away there would have been nothing for me to regret—your love I never valued—but she I believed loved me as her own child. You promised me to forgive all—but you. soon forgot your promise. You sent me to West Point like a beggar.” When Poe in New York, a penniless, unknown, ill boy, made pitiful appeal for help—”forget what I said v about you”—Allan again ignored the letter and again entered an endorsement, written this time two years after its receipt, in which he calls Poe “the Blackest Heart and deepest ingratitude” and confided to fate his prophecy that “his Talents are of an order that can never prove a comfort to their possessor.” In New York Poe was able to arrange for the publication of “Poems, By Edgar A. Poe. Second Edition” with Elam Bliss; a volume which contained, in “Israfel”, “The City in the Sea”, “To Helen”, and “The Sleeper”, poems unequalled by anything published in America before, and scarcely excelled later even by Poe himself.


The years from 1831 to 1835, when Poe began to work for the Southern Literary Messenger, have been the “dark years” in Poe’s biography. The five letters written from the depths of poverty and dejection in this period carried Poe’s appeals for help to Richmond. The first one, October 16, makes it sufficiently clear that the series of letters is not complete; it contains a sort of apology for the harshness of other letters: “When I look back upon the past and think of everything—of how much you tried to do for me—of your forbearance and your generosity, in spite of the most flagrant ingratitude on my part, I can not help thinking myself the greatest fool in existence.” Twice Poe turned to Mr. Allan, pleading for aid when in dire straits; in one case he says that he was “arrested for debt eleven days ago”. This first appeal was made November 18, 1831, and followed up by a letter from Mrs. Clemm, his aunt, and two other despairing appeals from Poe himself on December 15 and 29. On one of these, John Allan has endorsed that he wrote on December 7 to John Walsh to procure his “liberation” and give him $20 besides but “neglected sending it on till the 12th January 1832. Then put it in office” himself. The last letter was one short note, April 12, 1833, ending with “For God’s sake pity me and save me, from destruction.” There is no endorsement of Mr. Allan’s on this letter. It was a few months after this that John Pendleton Kennedy wrote in his diary; “I found him in Baltimore in a state of starvation. I gave him clothing, free access to my table, and the use of a horse for exercise.” The Scotch merchant who three years after he became one of the wealthiest men in Virginia turned the eighteen-year boy penniless from his door died March 27, 1834. Meantime with the encouragement and advice of Kennedy, Poe had turned from the writing of his poetical play “Politian” to other stories, of which at least sixteen had already been written. Through Kennedy, too, he secured in the following year the position with The Southern Literary Messenger, a stupid and struggling new magazine, which for a time put him squarely on his feet. In a year’s time, as we know, he won for the Messenger a reputation upon which it lived for over a quarter of a century.


Two pieces of hearsay evidence in my hands must still be given. John H. Ingram, the English editor, was the , real groundbreaker in the field of Poe biography. The extent of his correspondence in gathering the facts of Poe’s life is astonishing. Ingram, however, outraged by the virulent and mendacious attacks of Rufus W. Griswold and others, felt impelled to temper the facts to the shorn reputation. Moreover he was frequently limited by the conditions imposed by his correspondents and by consideration for the sensibilities of living people. Sometimes too he is not entirely frank—a familiar fault of amateur scholars—in his statements of fact. Among the unpublished letters from which he drew most of his material for his biography of Poe there are many from Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman and from Mrs. Houghton, the Marie Louise Shew of an earlier time. On March 27, 1874, Mrs. Whitman wrote: “Poe spoke of the first Mrs. Allan with the tenderest affection—of the second with admiration for her beauty and an avowed feeling that the marriage was one of great discrepancy. Entre now Mr. Allan was represented, to me, by him, as a man of a gross and brutal temperament though indulgent to him and at times profusely lavish in the matter of money:—at others penurious and parsimonious. Do not speak of this to anyone. I never heard him speak of any difficulty with the second Mrs. Allan.”

In the Ingram life occurs the statement that Poe “was in some way related to his godfather, who had therefore every cause to compassionate the little orphan’s condition”. In what way could the Scotchman be related to the son of David Poe of Baltimore and his English wife? A sentence omitted by Professor Killis Campbell when he printed John Allan’s letter of 1824 to Henry Poe, Edgar’s young brother, but later given publicity by Mr. J. H. Whitty, also carried a strange suggestion. Ingram’s statement was based upon a letter from Mrs. Shew, the facts of which he partly gave. He represented Mrs. Shew as placing her diary, “so far as it related to Poe” at his disposal “and from it” his quotations are said to be “extracted.” Actually most of the information Mrs. Shew gave Ingram in 1875 was from memory. “I burned my Journal very injudiciously last summer”, she wrote. “I found some leaves of it in a vase yesterday which described this letter of Mrs. Allan’s.” Her account of this letter, then, was made with the extracted pages of her diary before her and is the basis of Ingram’s statement of a blood relationship between Allan and Poe. I give it as she wrote it, except for a slight reformation of spelling. “The day before Mrs. Poe died I left to make some arrangements for her comfort. She called me to her bedside, took a picture of her husband from under her pillow, kissed it, and gave it to me. She opened her work box and gave me the little jewel case I mentioned to you. She took from her portfolio, a worn letter and showed it to her husband, he read it and weeping heavy tears gave it to me to read. It was a letter from Mr. Allan’s wife after his death. It expressed a desire to see him, acknowledged that she alone had been the cause of his adopted Father’s neglect, out of Jealousy that Mr. Poe was really a relative by blood to her husband. That if he would return to her at the end of her year of mourning, she would provide for him, etc.—This letter he answered in scorn to her—and she replied ‘You was always a gentlemen to me, always, until now —can you forgive a fault so humbly acknowledged?’ This last was pinned to the first letter and had been preserved by Mrs. Poe that the world might know her husband had treated this woman properly. She gave Mr. Poe the Portfolio, and he put it in his desk. She made him promise to preserve the letter and the few lines from another which she had saved from the flames, when received. This is all, that I know of the Allan matter, and as I remember it, it is not fit for publication. It is a delicate subject, as some of the Allan family still live . . .” She conjectures that Griswold “must have got that letter” and adds “it was a cringing crawling confession of meanness, in the woman.” Ascertainable facts render improbable the implication that may be read into this reference. But Mr. Allan’s paternal irregularities were probably known to both his wives. In the “Memoirs” prefixed to the 1917 edition of “The Complete Poems of Edgar Allan Poe”, Mr. J. H. Whitty states that, in a copy of Mr. Allan’s will in his possession, John Allan declares that he told Miss Patterson before she married him of “his fault”; and that the will itself provided for several legacies to the children born out of wedlock. Allan himself, in his letter to the seventeen year old, William Henry Leonard Poe in detraction of his fifteen year old brother, had written of Rosalie Poe: “At least she is half Sister and God forbid dear Henry that we should visit upon the living the Errors and frailties of the dead.” If he could himself thus repeat such a thing, true or scandalous, to the young sons and keep a copy of it among his business papers, he might fear, or know of, gossip that, familiar with his gross nature and irregular life, read into his adoption of the child of a beautiful young actress an interest no less than natural. The letter to Henry Poe suggests the possible nature of John Allan’s “abuse of my family” on May 3, 1830, to which Poe referred in his letter of January 3, 1831; and a cause for a bitterness of feeling on Poe’s part against his foster father which may have been aggravated by differences growing out of Mr. Allan’s own delinquencies. The fear of adding to suspicions relating to himself may also have influenced Mr. Allan. It is easy to imagine under such circumstances that the elderly widower when he came to marry a beautiful and socially prominent young woman of strong personality would desire to free himself utterly from all association with the young man.


It is not the purpose of this article to fix blame or to judge natures save in so far as doing so brings us closer to the facts. Through these early years the same characteristics appear in Poe’s dealings with John Allan that mark his behaviour in later years. Direct as Poe was in his essential nature, he uses indirections and passes vacillatingly from wheedling to hectoring; he is uncertain in money dealings and not always truthful. And through it all he prosecutes his literary ideals: then, as later, when in trouble, he published a book.

Did fifteen years of manoeuvering for a fair deal with a gross and variable man warp his nature or merely bring out its original character? Even Griswold in the bitter “Ludwig” article said of him, “He seemed always to bear the memory of some controlling sorrow.” There is no sorrow greater to remember than that of a sensitive, artistic child cudgeled by the materialism of a brutally unsympathetic parent;—all the more so when scorn and power are unalleviated by kinship of blood.

Already the psycho-analytic biographers have turned their microscopes upon Edgar Poe. When they consider the fates that formed him, I commend to their attention John Allan. And I beg that they consider, too, his fate: poor fellow, he took his three-year ward on the chance of at least a state governor—and he drew instead an Edgar Allan Poe.


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