Text: William McCreery Burwell, “Edgar A. Poe and His College Contemporaries,” New Orleans Times-Democrat, May 18, 1884, p. 8, cols. 4-7


[page 8, column 4:]



Written for The Times-Democrat.


I have frequently been asked before for my personal recollections of Edgar A. Poe, during the period when he was a student at the University of Virginia. I have never given these reminiscences for publication, because they were, as you will see, very meagre, and indicated qualities more marked in after years, which have engendered a controversy in which I do not purpose to testify. There is really no fixed relation between the moral and mental faculties, nor have the works of genius been disparaged by the weakness of wickedness of the nature from which they have emanated.

My recollection of Poe, then little more than a boy, is, that he was about five feet two or three inches in height, somewhat bandy-legged, but in no sense muscular or apt at any physical exercises. His face was feminine, with finely marked features, and eyes dark, liquid and expressive. He dressed well and neatly. He was a very attractive companion, genial in his nature and familiar, by the varied life that he had already led, with persons and scenes new to the unsophisticated provincials among whom he was thrown. Of his reputation for genius I have no other recollection than that which I have since recalled as the strange fascination of his manner and conversation, especially his narrative. That he had published something was recalled by the pun of some Richmond students who said he was a “poet to a t.” What, however, impressed his associates most were his remarkable attainments as a classical scholar. The professor of ancient languages and literature was an accomplished linguist and philosopher. He was a terror to those who had only learned to translate the curriculum of authors taught in the average academy. To these, Juvenal and Statius, Homer and Hesiod, were the bounds of all classical knowledge, while to most of them the history, literature, geography, and social condition of the ancients, beyond the lids of the text books and the dictionary were unknown. With this literature in text and comment Poe was familiar. It had been no doubt inculcated at Stoke Newington, and is manifest in many beautiful allusions throughout his writings. He stood well, therefore, in his classes of modern as well as ancient literature. He must also have had a good standing in the mathematical classes, pure and mixed, because his knowledge of this science is obvious from the propositions discussed and demonstrated in his works. Among the most significant tributes to his extraordinary powers of analysis and metaphysical reasoning may be noted that Jules Verne, in one of his later novels, Le [[La]] Jangada, pronounced Poe the ablest analytical writer of his day, and employs the mathematical methods of Le Scarabeus D’Or (Gold Bug) to solve a cryptographic mystery in his own story. His extraordinary command of his native tongue could only have been obtained by omnivorous reading in his own and other languages. It equals in its correspondence of rhythms and meaning that of Byron, Thomas Hood, Carlyle or Macaulay.

The particular dissipation of the university at this period was gaming with cards, and into this Poe plunged with a recklessness of nature which acknowledged no restraint. It is useless to say more on this subject than has already been published. It led to a loss of caste among his high-spirited and exclusive associates. He left the university, and his subsequent career of personal humiliation and literary renown has been published and known to all. He called on the writer in Baltimore after his return, as was understood, from Russia. He was in temporary trouble incurred by intemperance. This is all, and you will consider this a very unimportant contribution to the memory of a most remarkable man. It is intended as an explanation of foibles and misfortunes which may have owed their origin to the condition of society into which he had been thrown. It may be true that the morbid defects of his character had been inherent. It is true he had never been blessed with the restraints which arrested his collegiate associates within the limits of temporary dissipation. The events of his earlier life had been humiliating. The child of itinerant players adopted by the generosity of a stranger, his passionate and sensitive nature felt that the condemnation of his fellows for a casual act of folly was a bar in his attaining that position to which his genius entitled him. Other errors brought accumulated disgrace until he was thrust back by his benefactor to the misery from which he had been extricated. He was cast again upon the world without a friend who could succor or advise him. Conscious of the extraordinary resources with which nature had endowed him, he was abandoned to the ravenous passions, the craving necessities, and the imperious pride of his own heart. Events had led him with the most flattering allurements to the dizzy height of a precipice, from which in weakness or in desperation he cast himself to destruction. The halo of his genius, like the feu follet, with which superstition sometimes marks the grave, will forever illumine his memory long after any moral blemishes which may have shadowed his nature shall have perished.


Whatever may have been his natural tendencies to dissipation Poe found a state of things favorable to their development at this period when he arrived at the university. Southern young men were indulged in abundant means and entire absence of restraint. They flocked to this new institution as to a watering place. It has been the cherished agent by which Mr. Jefferson sought to perpetuate his political and scientific doctrines. He had no purpose of discouraging religion, but he wished to inculcate the doctrine of religious freedom, freedom from the domination of any one sect or persuasion. It was to be the temple in which could be taught that “error ceases to be dangerous when reason is left free to combat it.” It was not like that arrogantly and impiously erected by the philosopher of Verney. He had never ceased to dread the infection of European usages upon the republican simplicity which he adored. He feared their ecclesiastical union of Church and State. The virtues of Washington, which none respected more, were employed as Mr. Jefferson thought, by others for the introduction of monarchial form, and the indorsement of aristocratic associations. He had resisted the financial system of Hamilton and the sedition laws of John Adams as an invasion of human rights and a limitation of his freedom of speech and of the press. To these subjects of anxiety had been added the terror of that “fire-ball in the night” — the territorial war of slavery. Though in regard to the last he had said that, in comparison with the values of the Union, slavery was but “a bagatelle,” he was desirous of withdrawing his native and beloved State from the terrible conflict which he foresaw, and placing her upon the impregnable basis of those purposes which he had been the first to announce. They are now the established inheritance of more than fifty millions of people, with remainder due to the civilized world. In 1821 he thus expressed his apprehension of sectional antagonism:

The line of division lately marked out between different portions of our Confederacy is such as I fear will never be obliterated, and we are now trusting those who are opposed to us in position and principles to fashion in their own form the minds and affections of our youth. It has thus been estimated that we send $300,000 a year to the Northern luminaries for the instruction of our own sons.

We must have then 500 of our own sons imbibing opinions and principles in discord with those of their own country. This cancer [[canker]] is eating on the vitals of our existence; and if not arrested at once will be beyond remedy. We are now furnishing recruits to these schools.

Half the students at Princeton are Virginians. They will return home no doubt deeply impressed with the same principles of our holy alliance of restriction.

In preparing for this conflict he did not consider his “alma mater,” William and Mary, a sufficient basis for this controversy, and said: “We much descend into the secondary rank of academic preparations for our University.” We do not mean to say Mr. Jefferson [column 5:] was actuated solely by the dread of sectional supremacy in founding that university. He had always regarded education as indispensable to representative government, and had planned a system of primary, academic and collegiate education. He knew the Declaration of Independence would only be defended from the bulwarks of popular knowledge.

The social condition of the Southern States was not, however, favorable to the immediate theory which he had in mind. There was a large class of very rich and very indulgent parents, who looked to the higher grades of education as a means of preparing their sons to illustrate the highest positions and professions of society. The South was on the verge of that remarkable prosperity which, creating a demand for the staple of cotton, gave a large addition to the value of slaves. Slavery had, in the early part of the century, become almost a burden upon all the Eastern States which held that property. We do not admit that the South had been settled by offshoots of the nobility of Europe. On the contrary, no people were ever more jealous of class privileges or of indurated monopolies of either political or material power. The superior simplicity and profit of planting had rendered them indifferent to commerce and manufactures, so they had neither built cities at their ports or waterfalls, nor scattered mechanical villages throughout their land. Relying upon the fidelity of all the Southern States to the principles upon which the Confederacy had been founded, they sought to maintain the constitutional bounds of the compact by authentic expositions of its intent. These expositions were called Federal resolutions. Their Dodona was Richmond. They recurred with the regularity of the Olympic contests. The most eminent of these decrees were those of ’08-09, and those which assailed the Missouri compromise. By respecting the action of the Federal Government within the letter of the Constitution, the rights of the States and the title to slavery were deemed impregnable. At the date when the University of Virginia was opened there had been no attempt at the South to create those resources of industry which alone can enable a State to subsist itself in independence of others, or to make a formidable physical defense if invaded. That this phase of self-protection had not then occurred to our Southern statesmen is shown by the fact that there was in the faculty of the university no department of science as applied to the arts, or of civil engineering. The schools were those of ancient and modern languages, mathematics, pure and mixed, moral philosophy, with political economy as an adjunct. There were schools of law and of medicine, with lectures on chemistry, materia medica and medical jurisprudence. At present the system comprehends every department of literary, professional and scientific instruction taught in any school in the world, with a large library, instruction in the accomplishments, and ample facilities of worship in all the phases of religious faith.

To the first sessions of this admirable school poured in the Southern youth, most of them intent upon availing themselves of the advantages afforded. Among them, however, were many who had little other object than to combine enjoyment with the preparatory routine of a liberal education. Some of this class arrived with unlimited means, others with elegant equipages. One came from the Eastern shore with a tandem of blooded horses, a servant, a fowling-piece and a pointer or two. Some were afflicted with habits of extravagance and contempt for the toilsome acquisition of knowledge. These not only indulged in the unseemly fun in the college, but invaded the little court-house town of Charlottesville, where they were objects of admiration, with those at least who had goods to sell or horses to hire. Mr. Jefferson having assumed that these high-spirited coadjutors in the defense of our constitutional ramparts comprehended his patriotic motives, had provided no discipline for their scholastic deportment. He confided that the restraints of propriety would be sufficient to make them behave themselves as gentlemen. They certainly did behave themselves as gentlemen of the highest style. They gamed, fought duels, attended weddings for thirty miles around, and went in debt in the most liberal manner. Mr. Jefferson often invited some of the students to dine at Monticello, where they were entertained with that urbane hospitality for which he was so remarkable. The repasts inclined no doubt to the French style of cookery, which had led Patrick Henry to close a diatribe against his doctrines with the crowning charge, “He hath abjured his native vittles!” Little is remembered of these honored entertainments except that the great statesman commended a Swiss wine of the most acid and astringent character, then regarded as a sorry substitute for the “peach and honey” of the period.

Decidedly these would not have seemed the men to guard the ramparts against W. H. Seward, even then preparing the material means of homesteads, manufactures and internal transportation, to repeal slavery by a manufacture of States enough to effect that object — these States, formed out of the very territory gained by the South, filled up with the Red Republicans of Europe — and led by the most astute minds of New England, or against Horace Greeley, then learning to stick type for the diffusion of his able and sarcastic exhortations to the Connecticut gentry “to go West” on the same sagacious mission, as well as for the establishment of protected manufactures with their accumulations of capital. The political theories of these two men were consummated in the repeal of slavery, the nullification of the State right to judge of the legality of Federal adjudications, and to determine upon “her mode and measures of redress,” and in the reduction of the Southern States to sectional bondage.


We repeat that the University was not filled with this gay and determined class which has been described. There were hundreds who appreciated the privileges of the institution, and who paid no attention to the follies which occurred among their fellow students. These steady students passed through their course of study and vindicated its value by their after lives.

The particular habit of gaming prevailed because there was no other excitement in which the animal spirit of these wild young men could have evaporated. The buildings first completed stood in the midst of uncultivated fields and other unattractive scenery. The county of Albemarle contained many families of the highest worth. Indeed, it had furnished many of the most eminent men in the State’s history. Mr. Jefferson, Lewis, the explorer of the Missouri, and perhaps Clark, his associate, Gen. Roger Clark, who captured Kaskaskia from the British; the Minors, Gilmers, Carters, Carrs and others were all natives of Albemarle, but these families were seated over a large country. The court-house town of Charlottesville had been the place near which the prisoners captured at Saratoga had been confined. It had been the temporary seat of the Legislature during the invasion or raid by Tarleton. It had a population of several hundred, but at the period now spoken of Mr. Jefferson has recorded, as one of the religious tolerations, that there being no church in the village, each of the principle church persuasions held its services in the court-house under a rotation agreed on among themselves. The families of the professors were too limited to furnish social facilities to the students. So far, then, from there being at or around the University a secret intercourse of sufficient extend to have provided even reasonable recreation for so many young men, there was not even a public opinion strong enough to rebuke their excesses.

In this there was nothing strange. Station an army or a deliberative body in a small village, and a large element in that body will be demoralized by the ennui of idleness. The same body would find social and public enjoyment in a large city. Systematic drunkenness or persistent gaming are restrained, if not prevented entirely, by the variety of attractions and by the positive enforcement of law in every great metropolis.

The public opinion and corporate ordinances [column 6:] of the village were alike disregarded. The disorder and dissipation of the students were subjects of indignant censure. The few merchants and hotels found their account in this extravagance, though the reckless creation of debt led to the enactment of a statute subsequently by which such debts, when beyond the reasonable wants of a student, were declared void. A party of students on a frolic were coming along the road between the village and the university, when they suddenly encountered the professor of moral philosophy and political economy. Most of the party escaped; but one, afterward a distinguished advocate, disdained concealment. “I am,” said he, “K. M. M., of Tuskaloosa, Alabama — too firm to fly and far too proud to yield!” And, said the professor, Mr. M. might have added, “almost too drunk to stand.”

In some instances the young gentlemen stood on their personal dignity and resented any reproof offered by their teacher.

Prof. Blattermann was a most learned instructor in modern languages, comprehending even in that department the Saxon. Few students availed themselves of his extraordinary learning, but most were disposed to amuse themselves at his imperfect English; his want of dignity, which manifested itself sometimes in undue familiarity with his class — sometimes in passionate expressions. To this may be added that he was near-sighted and could scarcely distinguish the members of his class. As the lecture-room opened on the arcade, it was a common joke to answer at roll call and then step out of the room door, leaving him to lecture to the very few who had the good sense to appreciate the advantages of his instructions.

Sometimes a scene like this occurred in calling the roll: After some had answered for absent comrades in the proper variety of tones, the professor would call: “Mr. Long!” No answer. “Mr. Schorge Long!” No answer. “Mr. Schorge Thompson Long!” No answer. “Mr. Schorge Thompson Mason Long!” “Here!” “Ah, Mr. Long you are not long for dis place.” Whereupon there would arise an applause in which the professor would forget the breach of all discipline in the delight of a pun properly appreciated.

One of the class named took offense at having been reprimanded for some disorder. He denied the right of the professor to single him out for an offense committed also by others, and with due dignity withdrew from the lecture-room. He was notified by the faculty that unless he returned to the class and made acknowledgments to his professor he would be suspended. This command he refused to obey, and was suspended accordingly. He subsequently returned with a better sense of the respect due to his scholastic superiors.

The habits of this jeunesse dorce had attracted the reprobation of the municipal authorities, and it was decided to extend the jurisdiction of the commonwealth over these elegant young outlaws. At a session of the grand jury, impaneled for the county of Albemarle, process was issued summoning some of the students to testify as to any violations of the gaming act know to them. No sooner was this summons known than every one who could have criminated his associates left the University and took refuge in a little wooded knoll a mile or so west, determined to remain until the great inquest of the county should have adjourned. The rendezvous then assumed the aspect of a gypsy camp. There was a clear running stream, huge rocks and a surrounding forest. The darkies, delighted with the excitement, ran between the camp and the village bringing supplies of food and drink and intelligence of the hostile movements. With a glass, indeed, the high road and buildings were distinctly visible. Of course, the laws which they had violated received additional infractions, as there was reckless pleasure in playing cards on a table of gneiss or granite and in employing pebbles for counting.

The conjoint effect of legal penalties, scholastic discipline and parental authority, however, terminated these excesses. A few of the richer and more reckless went away, the rest settled down in their legitimate duties, and in two years the excellent faculty of the University had inaugurated the system and standard of study which gradually ripened into the present reputation for solid and universal learning. The object of its illustrious founder has long since been attained. Nothing sectional or sectarian has been taught, but a class of men has been sent from its halls who are Christians, scholars, statesmen, soldiers, in the broadest terms, who were so devoted to the republican government founded by Jefferson that they have fought a bloody war to resist its perversion, and who have, with that great patriot, “sworn upon the altar of their country eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”


And those earlier students with whom for a short time E. A. Poe was associated? While some of them were for a time dissipated and extravagant, the far greater part were regular in their habits of study and only participated occasionally in amusements which, whatever their evil tendencies if persevered in, had never been regarded as in any respect disparaging to the character of a gentleman or the standing of a student. With this qualification a list will be submitted of a few of those young men of the South who, under the disadvantages of preparation, were the contemporaries of Poe, or of the period when he was a student at this same institution. If some of these young men had contracted an undue love of pleasure, they returned to family associations, which preserved them from the habitual pursuit of improper establishments. Occupation and ambition stimulated them to the development of those faculties which may have been dormant for a short period, and thus attained that station for which nature and education had qualified them.

The situation of E. A. Poe was different from theirs. He had none of their associations. He knew the extraordinary nature of his own genius. It was not recognized. He felt his own dependent situation. He had himself stricken away the sole hand that sustained him. He went forth to fight the host of passions within, and to combat the hostile interests without. He died as he had lived, a Bohemian, selfish in the development of his own genius, jealous of all pretenders, and indifferent to the accidents of fortune which might befall him. We regret his misfortunes, deplore his unhappy career, and admire the intellectual resources which rose superior to the calamities that surrounded and destroyed him.

The list of University contemporaries of Poe is as follows: Rev. Upton Beall, minster in the Episcopal Church; Rev. Phillip Slaughter, minister in the Episcopal Church; Hon. R. M. T. Hunter, United States Senator; Hon. Robert Toombs, of Georgia, who came to the University after having graduated at Columbia, N. Y.; Hon. A. H. H. Stuart, House of Representatives and Senate, Confederate States, and Secretary of the Interior; Hon. Wm. Ballard Preston, House of Representatives and Senate, Confederate States; Hon. John Preston, a distunguished orator and stateman; Hon. Thomas Swann, United States Senator and Governor of Maryland; Hon. William Daniel, General Court of Virginia; Hon. T. S. Gholson, General Court of Virginia; Hon. Thomas H. Bayley, House of Representatives, United States; Hon. Wm. G. Jones, Judge of the Court of Alabama; Hon. Mr. King, of Louisiana; A. Wigfall, of South Carolina, Senator from Texas; W. M. Murphy, of Alabama, a distinguished advocate; C. L. Mosby, Esq., Representative in the Legislature, and among the leaders of the Virginia bar; Gov. Harrison, professor of ancient languages in the University of Virginia; H. Tutwiler, an eminent teacher; D. L. Boyd, a useful member of the Legislature and prominent advocate of internal improvements; Gen. J. Bankhead Magruder, U. S. A. and C. S. A.; Zaccheus Lee, an eloquent and able advocate. There were others who attained distinction as legislators, journalists, and in other professions. They went forth as a sample of what Mr. Jefferson intended. They were few in number compared with the many thousands who have since so well illustrated the value of the noble institution of which they were alumni. They were the pioneers who met the early difficulties of the situation. [column 7:] Though some of them may have wavered a moment under the unsuspected dangers which beset them, they rallied, stood firm to their principles, maintained and advanced the ground which had been assigned them.

The visitors of the University will now find a country enriched with fertile fields and adorned with handsome edifices; a handsome town of large and thrifty population, abounding with churches, schools, banks, hotels, accessible from all quarters by rail and telegraph. The long interval which separates the town from the University is built up as a street. The University itself, in all its noble proportions of rotunda, lecture halls, professor’s homes and students’ dormitories, is tinged with the touch of time. These are surrounded by grassy lawns, shaded by mature trees and relieved by cultivated grounds. The unsightly piles of red clay have disappeared, and the glare of the sun is softened by the verdure which shadows it. The facilities for literary and scientific progress are complete, and to the system of Mr. Jefferson are added schools of polytechnic science of the most practical character. The social attractions of the institution and its vicinage are now recognized in the itineracy of all tourists and celebrities, and constitute an ample absorbent of the spirit which once sought excitement in active dissipation. Recognized at home and in Europe as one of the most eminent schools, the certificate of graduation is universally received at the bar of scholarship and honor. Had Edgar A. Poe fallen upon such opportunities and such associations, he would have escaped whatever of unhappy influence his earlier experience may have incurred. He would have been appreciated and encouraged by the refined and literary sentiment which pervades the place.

So far as the objects of the founder may have been to counteract a suspected tendency toward the usages of medieval Europe, they have been more than attained in the invasion of those usages by the doctrines of Jefferson himself. The mission of this great Southern institution is continental, not sectional. Let her, then, so elevate the light which the great apostle of liberty placed in her hands as to lighten those regions which Jefferson and Monroe wished to redeem from the spiritual and intellectual bondage of European systems, and she will illuminate more than one hemisphere with the torch then given her to guide the uncertain footsteps of a few infant States.

WM. M. B.


William McCreery Burwell was born on November 1, 1809 in what was then Liberty, VA (now Bedford, VA). His father, William Armistead Burwell (1780-1821), was Jefferson’s private secretary during Jefferson’s presidency. Burwell and his wife, Frances Steptoe Burwell, built a grand brick plantation house called “Avenel” about 1838. (The house is still standing, at 413 Avenel Avenue, Bedford, VA.) Between 1839-1865 he served four non-consecutive terms in the Virginia House of Delegates. He was the editor of the Virginia Patriot in the 1850s, and of De Bow’s Review from the late 1860s through 1879. He was an active member of the University of Virginia Alumni Association, delivering an oration before that group at an annual meeting in 1847. He died March 4, 1888.

The “philosopher of Verney” was Voltaire.

The three paragraphs attributed to Jefferson, beginning “The line of division . . .” come from letters. The first two pargraphs are from a letter Jefferson wrote to Ge. James Breckinridge on February 15, 1821. The third paragraph is heavily adapted from a letter Jefferson wrote to Joseph C. Cabell, January 31, 1821. The “alliance of restriction” referred to restricions on slavery in the territories.

Jules Verne’s novel La Jangada (Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon) was published in 1881. In the midst of the story, Verne has the magistrate recalling Poe’s story of “The Gold-Bug,” and the information on solving cryptographs Poe gives there. Burwell uses the wrong article in the title. Indeed, Burwell’s own skill in modern languages may not have been as strong as Poe’s. The correct French title for Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” is “La Scarabeé D’Or.”

A copy of this article was sent to J. H. Ingram by Edward Virginius Valentine. On the top of the clipping, Ingram has written, in pencil, the following note: “Mr. W. M. Burwell’s few personal reminiscences are derived from T. G. Tucker’s highly imaginative remembrances. [/] J. H. I.” The clipping, which shows some wear and damage, is item 834. The remembrances by Thomas Goode Tucker to which Ingram refers appeared in the Virginia University Magazine in 1880. Burwell’s strong and active connection to the university, long after graduation, does suggest that he could have seen the earlier article and been influenced by it.


[S:1 - NOTD, 1884] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar A. Poe and His College Contemporaries (W. M. Burwell, 1884)