Text: Robert S. Burkholder, “A Popular Error Concerning Poe,” South Atlantic (Wilmington, NC), vol. III, August 1878, pp. 373-375


­[page 373:]



THE character of few has received more unjust censure than Edgar Allan Poe’s. Wherever his writings have read abuse of his private character, based on ignorance of his life, has generally followed.

It has been stated in various recent sketches of Poe’s life, in prominent newspapers, and also by one of his most distinguished biographers, that his student-life at the University of Virginia was one of idleness, dissipation and extravagance, which course led to his final expulsion from that institution. Charles Baudelaire, a French author of fair ability, but far less accuracy, in his “Life of Edgar Allan Poe,” thus speaks of him when attending the University: “At the University of Charlottesville, which he entered in 1825, Poe distinguished himself, not only by an intelligence quasi miraculous, but also by a sinister abundance of passions — a precocity truly American — which was finally the cause of his expulsion.” ­[page 374:]

I am in possession of facts which prove these charges to be utterly false. In conversation (in the summer of 1876) with Mr. William Wertenbaker, the present Librarian and keeper of records of he University of Virginia, and who occupied the same position while Poe was a student there, and was also a fellow-student and classmate with him, I was informed that Poe was not expelled from the University, nor had he ever been censured or rebuked while at that institution for misconduct of any sort. “Edgar Poe was exceedingly studious, and had little or no time for frolics or dissipation,” said Mr. Wertenbaker; “and I am certain he was never guilty of any offence against the laws of the institution, which could have been ground for expulsion, known to either its officers or professors; for under the rules it would have been my duty, as the keeper of the records, to have entered that, as I do all other instances of very refractory conduct, censure or expulsion.”

Mr. Wertenbaker related an instance which, while it shows the standing of Poe at the University, also very fairly explains the falsity of such accusations as the above: The instructor in the Italian language on one occasion suggested to his class, who were at that time reading Tasso’s “Jerusalem Delivered,” the advantage to be derived by translating a few lines of the blank verse of Tasso from the Italian into English rhythm, though he did not require this as a task. At the next lecture in Italian the professor enquired if any of the class had complied with his suggestion. No one responded but Edgar Poe, who arose from his seat and proceeded to read line after line of Tasso, translated just as he had directed. The professor expressed his regrets that no one by Poe had profited by his advice, and complimented him upon the rare poetical talent and extraordinary powers of application he had evinced by his difficult performance. ­[page 375:]

These are the facts concerning Poe’s student-life at the University of Virginia, and I have gotten them from a gentleman of proverbial probity — William Wertenbaker, the octogenarian Librarian of Virginia’s great seminary. “None e’er knew him but to love him.” “Be thou pure as snow or chaste as ice, thou shalt not escape calumny.” Only let genius make itself famous, and if there be a blot on the character of the man, or a weakness in his natural imperfectness, the prying eyes of the ungrateful world will visit him lying a babe in his mother’s arms; visit him through prattling childhood, and continue its gaze to the very college walls, and pronounce him “a devil from the beginning.”

In vindication of Poe’s private character, in general, it is only fair to observe that recent impartial and thorough investigations have proved him not to have been very drunken, sullen, nomadic and purposeless wretch, that ignorance and falsehood for so long a time pictured him with such apparency of reality to over-credulous mankind. The ascertainment of truth has wrought widely different opinions concerning this “unhappy master.” While at times overwhelming circumstances capriciously distorted his character and unjustly rendered it reproachful; yet we may now rejoice that he was, indeed, a courteous, honorable and cheerful gentleman — poor, proud and unfortunate — respectful to age, chaste and gallant with ladies, loving and playful to children, and, to the surprise of many, his life was replete with purposes: he was not purposely a poet, for that were impossible. In a word, Edgar Allan Poe was a Man — desolate and tempest-tossed; a Man — whose sad history may well be written in these lines from his “Raven,”

“Unhappy master, whom unmerciful disaster

Followed fast, and followed faster, till his songs one burden bore —

Till the dirges of his hope the melancholy burden bore

Of “Never — Nevermore.”

Robert S. Burkholder.



The present article survives as a clipping in the Ingram Collection, item #744.


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