Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 03,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 13-19


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[page 13:]

CHAPTER III.

THE ALLAN HOME.

Mr. Allan was at this time thirty-one years of age — a plain, practical business man, or, as some one has described him, “an honest, hard-headed Scotchman, kindly, but stubborn and irascible.” His wife, some years younger than himself, was a beautiful woman, warm-hearted, impulsive and fond of company and amusement. Both were charitable, and though not at this time in what is called “society,” were in comfortable circumstances and fond of entertaining their friends.

There was yet another member of the family, Miss Ann Valentine, an elder sister of Mrs. Allan; a lady of a lovely disposition and almost as fond of Edgar as was his so-called “mother.” She was always his “Aunt Nancy.”

The Allans were at this time living in the business part of the town, occupying one of a row of dingy three-story brick houses still standing on Fourteenth street, between Main [page 14:] and Franklin. Mr. Allan had his store on the ground floor, the family apartments being above. This was at that time and until long afterward a usual mode of living with some of the down-town merchants; though a few had already built handsome residences on Shocko [[Schokoe]] Hill.

Little Edgar, bright, gay and beautiful, soon became the pet and pride of the household. Even Mr. Allan grew fond of him, and his wife delighted in taking him about and showing him off among her acquaintances. In his baggy little trousers of yellow Nankin or silk pongee, with his dark ringlets flowing over an immense “tucker,” red silk stockings and peaked purple velvet cap, with its heavy gold tassel falling gracefully on one shoulder, he was the admiration of all beholders. His disposition was affectionate and his temper sweet, though having been hitherto allowed to have his own way, he was self-willed and sometimes difficult to manage. To correct his faults and as a counter balance to his wife’s undue indulgence, Mr. Allan conscientiously set about training the boy according to his own ideas of what was best. When Edgar was “good” he was petted and indulged, but an act of disobedience or wrong-doing was punished, as [page 15:] some said, with undue severity. To shield him from this was the aim of the family, even of the servants; and the boy soon learned to resort to various little tricks and artifices on his own account. An amusing instance of this was told by Mrs. Allan herself. Edgar one day would persist in running out in the rain, when Mr. Allan peremptorily called him in, with the threat of a whipping. He presently entered and, meekly walking up to his guardian, looked him in the face with his large, solemn gray eyes and held out a bunch of switches. “What are these for?” inquired the latter. “To whip me with,” answered the little diplomat; and Mr. Allan had to turn aside to hide a smile, for the “switches” had been selected with a purpose, being only the long, tough leaf-stems of the alanthus tree.

Another anecdote I recall illustrative of the strict discipline to which Edgar was subject.

My uncle, Mr. Edward Valentine, who was a cousin of Mrs. Allan, and often a visitor at her house, was very fond of Edgar; and liking fun almost as much as did the child, taught him many amusing little tricks. One of these was to snatch away a chair from some big boy about to seat himself; but Edgar, too young to discriminate, on one occasion made a portly and dignified [page 16:] old lady the subject of this performance. Mr. Allan, who in his anger was always impulsive, immediately led away the culprit, and his wife took the earliest opportunity of going to console her pet. As the child was little over three years old, it may be doubted whether the punishment administered was the wisest course, but it was Mr. Allan’s way, who apparently believed in the moral suasion of the rod.

Edgar had no dogs and no pony, and did not ride out with a groom to attend him, “like a little prince,” as a biographer has represented. At this time the Allans’ circumstances were not such as to admit of such luxuries. As to his appearance in this style at the famous White Sulphur Springs, that is equally mythical.*

There was, however, at least one summer when Edgar was six years of age in which the Allans were at one of the lesser Virginia springs, and in returning paid a visit to Mr. Valentine’s family, near Staunton. This gentleman often took Edgar out with him, either driving or seated behind him on horseback; [page 17:] and on receiving his paper from the country post-office would make the boy read the news to the mountain rustics, who regarded him as a prodigy of learning. Thus far he had been taught by an old Scotch dame who kept an “infant-school,” and who then and for years afterward called him “her ain wee laddie,” and to whom as long as she lived he was accustomed to carry offerings of choice smoking tobacco. He also learned from her to speak in the broad Scottish dialect, which greatly amused and pleased Mr. Allan. The boy was at even this age remarkably quick in learning anything.

Mr. Valentine also delighted in getting up wrestling matches between Edgar and the little pickaninnies with whom he played, rewarding the victor with gifts of money. But there was one thing which no money or other reward could induce the boy to undertake, and this was to go near the country churchyard after sunset, even in company with these same little darkies. Once, in riding home late, Edgar being seated behind Mr. Valentine, they passed a deserted log-cabin, near which were several graves, when the boy’s nervous terror became so great that he attempted to get in front of his companion, who took him on the [page 18:] saddle before him. “They would run after us and pull me off,” he said, betraying at even this early age the weird imagination of his maturer years.

This incident led to his being questioned, when it was discovered that he had been accustomed to go with his colored “mammy” to the servants’ rooms in the evenings, and there listen to the horrible stories of ghosts and graveyard apparitions such as this ignorant and superstitious race delight in. It is not improbable that the gruesome sketch of the “Tempest” family, one of his earliest published, whose ghosts are represented as seated in coffins around a table in an undertaker’s shop, and thence flying back to their near-by graves, was not inspired by some such story heard in Mr. Allan’s kitchen.

Undoubtedly, these ghostly narratives, heard at this early and impressionable age, served in part to produce those weird and ghoulish imaginings which characterize some of Poe’s writings, and to create that tinge of superstition which was well known to his friends. He always avoided cemeteries, hated the sight of coffins and skeletons, and would never walk alone at night even on the street; believing that evil spirits haunted the darkness [page 19:] and walked beside the lonely wayfarer, watching to do him a mischief. Death he loathed and feared, and a corpse he would not look upon. And yet, as bound by a weird fascination, he wrote continually of death.

Edgar Poe, like every other Southern child, had his negro “mammy” to attend to him until he went to England, to whom and the other servants he was as much attached as they to him. Indeed, a marked trait of his character was his liking for negroes, the effect of early association, and to the end of his life he delighted in talking with them and in their quaint and kindly humor and odd modes of thought and expression.

Edgar had been about three years with the Allans when he was again deprived of a home and sent among strangers. Mr. Allan went on a business trip to England and Scotland, accompanied by his wife, Miss Valentine and Edgar; the latter of whom was put to school in London, where he must have felt his loneliness and isolation. Still, he came to the Allans in holiday times, and was with them in Scotland for some months previous to their return to Virginia. Little is known of them during this absence of five years.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 16:]

*  Lest my mention of these little anecdotes and certain other matters should lead the reader to conclude that I am quoting from Gill, I would refer them to Appendix No. 1 of this volume.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - HLFP, 1907] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Home Life of Poe (S. A. Weiss) (Chapter 03)