John Allan


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Sections:  Biography    Letters    Bibliography


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John Allan

John Allan, the foster father of Edgar Allan Poe.

(Born: 1779 - Died: March 27, 1834)

John Allan was born in Dundonald, Ayrshire in Scotland. He emigrated to the United States (settling in Richmond, Virginia) sometime prior to January 29, 1795. The industrious merchant married Francis Keeling Valentine on February 5, 1803 and became a naturalized citizen on June 4, 1804. Frances Allan was often ill, and the marriage produced no children. Sometime in late December of 1812, the Allans brought the recently orphaned Edgar Poe into their home and became his foster parents. In 1815, John Allan took his family, including little Edgar, to England for business reasons, returning to Richmond in 1820. There he remained for the rest of his life. The death of his uncle William Galt on March 26, 1825, left Allan with a comfortable fortune.

If Poe’s relationship with Frances Allan was marked by affection, his relationship with John Allan was marked by volatility. Both individuals were strong-headed and fiercely independent of mind — a conflict was inevitable. The tense dynamics between father and son were always present, but the critical spark came in 1827. Allan, with little formal schooling, considered himself a self-made man. He had provided Poe with a good basic education, but the idea of college probably seemed an expensive luxury. One may reasonably assume that his initial reluctance in sending Poe to the newly opened University of Virginia was bolstered by stories of the wild goings on of Poe’s classmates, several of whom were disciplined and even expelled for disruptive behavior. That Allan felt compelled to visit Poe there twice in one month (about May of 1826) should be taken as a strong measure of his concern. Perhaps as an expression of his disapproval, or perhaps as an ill-considered lesson in finance, Allan was not generous in the allowance given Poe to sustain him at school. Poe felt forced to resort to gambling to increase his meager money, but instead acquired a debt of $2,000. His sense of honor insisted that the debts be paid, even if he may have been the victim of cheating, but of course he had no means of paying. On returning home in March of 1827, he found that John Allan refused to cover the debts. A bitter quarrel ensued — one can only imagine the harsh words that must have been exchanged. In an open act of defiance, Poe left the house and moved into rooms in town. He then enlisted in the Army, under the assumed name of Edgar A. Perry. After a short time, Poe sought a release from service and  wrote again to John Allan. This letter exemplifies the odd mix of anger and affection so typical of their dealings: “If it is your wish to forget that I have been your son I am too proud to remind you of it again . . . if you let the love you bear me, outweigh the offense which I have given — then write me my father, quickly” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 12).

With the death of Frances Allan on February 28, 1829, a shared grief seems to have smoothed the rough edges of their difficulties. This brief reconciliation, however, quickly dissolved when Poe revealed his intentions of leaving West Point and pursuing a career as a poet. Allan’s full response has not survived, but his own note on the back of Poe’s letter states somewhat sternly: “replied to Monday 8th June 1829 strongly censuring his conduct — & refusing any aid” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 21). A new complication was added when John Allan remarried on October 5, 1830, for the second Mrs. Allan had no affection for Edgar. Further widening the growing rift, Poe injudiciously commented in a letter to Sergeant Samuel Graves that “Mr. A[llan] is not very often sober” (Poe to Graves, May 3, 1830, Ostrom, Letters, p. 36). This information found its way back to John Allan, who immediately severed the relationship. Poe’s long letter in response is a litany of complaints, culminating in: “As regards Sergt. Graves — I did write him that letter. As to the truth of its contents, I leave it to God, and your conscience. — The time in which I wrote it was within a half hour after you had Embittered every feeling of my heart against you by your abuse of my family, and myself, under your own roof — and at a time when you know that my heart was almost breaking” (Ostrom, Letters, pp. 41-42). Poe wrote several subsequent letters in a more conciliatory tone, but to no avail. The birth of a son in 1831 gave Allan a legal heir, and no further need of the troublesome orphan he had taken under his care. With Allan growing desperately ill, Poe made a visit to Richmond around February 14, 1834. Thomas Ellis recalled in 1881 that Poe had to push his way past Mrs. Allan to see his ailing foster father. John Allan, using what little strength was left him, “raised his cane, & threatened to strike him if he came within his reach, ordered him out; upon which Poe withdrew, & that was the last time they ever met” (Poe Log, p. 137). When John Allan died on March 27, 1834, his will made no mention of Poe.

Perhaps the most revealing light can be shed upon this matter by John Allan’s own letter of November 1, 1824 to Edgar’s brother Henry: “I have just seen your letter of the 25th ult. to Edgar and am much afflicted, that he has not written you. He has had little else to do for me he does nothing & seems quite miserable, sulky & ill-tempered to all the Family. How we have acted to produce this is beyond my conception — why I have put up so long with his conduct is little less wonderful. The boy possesses not a Spark of affection for us not a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him. I have given him a much superior Education than ever I received myself. . . . I fear his associates have led him to adopt a line of thinking & acting very contrary to what he possessed when in England. I feel proudly the difference between your principles & his & have my desire to Stand as I ought to do in your Estimation. Had I done my duty as faithfully to my God as I have to Edgar, then had Death come when he will had no terrors for me . . . “ (Poe Log, pp. 61-62).
 
Poe’s own letters to Allan alternate between “Dear Sir” and “Dear Pa.” A few are mere pleasant chit-chat about matters of little importance, but others are bitter — and probably exaggerated — complaints about Allan’s neglectful behavior. Too many are dramatic pleas for money or other favors, which could not have met with the approval of the tight-pursed merchant. An example of these is Poe’s December 15, 1831 letter  to John Allan: “I know that I have offended you past all forgiveness, and I know that I have no longer any hopes of being again received into your favor, but, for the sake of Christ, do not let me perish for a sum of money which you would never miss. . . .” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 48).

Poe’s letter of November of 1834 to John P. Kennedy provides a somewhat surprising summary of his situation with John Allan. The general tone of this letter is so free of bitterness and anger toward Allan that one must assume Poe had accepted his own role in their difficulties: “Since the day you first saw me my situation in life has altered materially. At that time I looked forward to the inheritance of a large fortune, and, in the meantime, was in receipt of an annuity sufficient for my support. This was allowed me by a gentleman of Virginia (Mr. Jno [John] Allan) who adopted me at the age of two years, (both my parents being dead) and who, until lately, always treated me with the affection of a father. But a second marriage on his part, and I dare say many follies on my own at length ended in a quarrel between us. He is now dead, and has left me nothing” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 54). Poe’s comment that he was “adopted” by Allan is technically incorrect as the Allans were never legally more than Poe’s foster parents. More significantly, Poe’s statement that Allan “always treated me with the affection of a father” stands in stark contrast to Poe’s earlier letters to Allan himself.

The same letters also show Poe curiously misleading his friend when he claims that Allan provided “an annuity sufficient for my support.” On April 12, 1833, Poe had written to Allan: “It has now been more than two years since you have assisted me and more than three since you have spoken to me. . . . I am perishing — absolutely perishing for want of aid. And yet I am not idle — nor addicted to any vice — nor have I committed any offense against society which would render me deserving of so hard a fate. For God’s sake pity me, and save me from destruction” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 50).

John Allan is buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. His tombstone reads: “John Allan who departed this life, March 27, 1834, in the 54th year of his age.”

 

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Bibliography:

  • Heartman, Charles F. and James R. Canny, A Bibliography of First Printings of the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Hattiesburg, MS: The Book Farm, 1943.
  • Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed., The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Vols 2-3 Tales and Sketches), Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978. (Second printing 1979)
  • Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson, The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849, Boston: G. K. Hall & Sons, 1987.

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[S:0 - JAS] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - People - John Allan