Text: George E. Woodberry, “Poe’s Legendary Years,” Atlantic Monthly (Boston, MA), vol. LIV, no. 6, whole no. CCCXXVI, December 1884, pp. 814-828


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[page 815:]

POE’S LEGENDARY YEARS.

THE Legend of Edgar Allan Poe would not be an inappropriate title for his biography. The most striking of the few things that the narratives of Poe’s life have in common is a mythological strain, as if some subtle influence were at work in the minds of men to transform his career into a story stranger than truth, and to make his memory a mere tradition. It appears in that first newspaper article which Griswold wrote before the earth had chilled the body of the dead poet: —

“He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayer for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry; or with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms, and all night, with drenched garments and arms beating the winds and rains, would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn.”

It is as plain to be seen in Baudelaire’s declamatory eulogy over him as the martyr of a raw democracy. In Gilfillan he is the archangel ruined; in Ingram he is the ruined archangel rehabilitated; in all the biographies there is a demoniac element, as if Poe, who nevertheless was a man and an American, were a creature of his own fancy. This change which is worked upon Poe’s human nature by the lurid reflection of his imagination is almost justifiable, since the true impression of him must be not only of a man who ate, slept, and put on his clothes, but of a genius as well, whose significant life was thought. In the legend of him, however, there is also a romantic element, not springing from any idiosyncrasy of his own character, but purely literary, historic; belonging to [column 2:] the time when our fathers wore Byron collars and were on fire for adventure in the corsair line, and all for dying in the sere and yellow leaf of their thirty-sixth year. Thus, in what would sentimentally be called his Wanderjahre, Poe is represented as a young Giaour in Greece, or as a Don Juan in some French provincial town; but always as a scapegrace of the transcendent order, impetuous, chivalric, unfortunate, — in a word, Byronic.

It is an amiable human weakness to believe those we love better than they are; and he, even the humblest of us, who has not profited by such fond idolatry must be a very pitiable creature. The idealization of the illustrious dead is wrought similarly, though rather by the imagination than the heart; and this refining and exalting power is a great privilege of our nature, for it strengthens and supports our faith in perfection, and brings a light of promise on our own lives. Of old, Hercules and Perseus, Roland and St. Francis, were golden names on the lips of youth, and the modern age has not been a mean heir of history. There is a light round Shelley’s head that any saint, the noblest and purest in the calendar, might righteously envy. No man would deny to Poe the honor or affection won by his manhood or his genius, if, in however less a degree, his purpose was of the same high kind. Nay, if the memory that gathers about his name were merely picturesque, were that of a boy-Byron, who rode on until he drank waters of Marah quite different from those mock ones for which the noble lord found hock and soda a sufficient remedy, we would welcome the romance and regret the sorrow of it, and never disturb the tradition of a fine folly. Let the myth increase and flourish if the root be sound and the flower sweet, and [page 815:] let a leaf from it decorate our sober annals; but if the bloom be fleurs du mal, and the root a falsehood, let us keep our literary history plain and unadorned, raw democracy though we be. In the worship of genius, we know, as in that of the gods, there springs up now and then a degraded cult.

“In a biography,” wrote Poe, “the truth is everything;” but he was thinking of other people’s biographies. The speediest discovery that a student of his life makes is that Poe was his own myth-maker. He had a habit of secrecy, and on occasion he could render silence more sure by a misleading word. Thus it happens that in the various versions of his story the incidents seem to share in the legendary character of the hero. The record belongs, one would say, to that early period of literature when our ancestors first termed biographies Veracious Hystories. The three white stones of life, even, — birth, marriage, and death, — are, in Poe’s case, graven with different dates; the first bearing four from his own hand, to which Mr. R. H. Stoddard has thoughtfully contributed a fifth. The most obscure period, however, extends from the Christmas holidays of 1826, when he was just under eighteen years old, to the fall of 1833, when Kennedy found him starving in Baltimore. During this time, from July 1, 1830, to March 7, 1831, he was in the light of day at West Point. To the remainder of the period on each side of his cadet life the romantic element in his myth belongs, and to it this paper will be devoted in order to elucidate somewhat more in detail than was possible in a limited volume the facts of his career.

Poe left his home at Mr. Allan’s in the beginning of 1827, and he entered West Point in July, 1830. The story which was accredited throughout his lifetime as a true account of his doings during the intervening years first appeared in print in the sketch of him included [column 2:] in Griswold’s Poets and Poetry of America, published in 1842, the materials for which, Griswold said, were furnished by Poe himself. It was as follows: —

“Mr. Allan refused to pay some of his [Poe’s] debts of honour. He hastily quitted the country on a Quixotic expedition to join the Greeks, then struggling for liberty. He did not reach his original destination, however, but made his way to St. Petersburg, in Russia, where he became involved in difficulties, from which he was extricated by the late Mr. Henry Middleton, the American minister at that capital. He returned home in 1829, and immediately afterward entered the military academy at West Point.”

The next year, H. B. Hirst, a young Philadelphia poet, repeated this statement in a more extended sketch of Poe:

“With a young friend, Ebenezer Burling, he endeavored to make his way, with scarcely a dollar in his pocket, to Greece, with the wild design of aiding in the revolution then taking place. Burling soon repented his folly, and gave up the design when he had scarcely entered on the expedition. Mr. Poe persevered, but did not succeed in reaching the scene of action; he proceeded, however, to St. Petersburg, where through deficiency of passport) he became involved in serious difficulties, from which he was finally extricated by the American consul. He returned to America, only in time to learn the severe illness of Mrs. Allan, who, in character, was the reverse of her husband, and whom he sincerely loved. He reached Richmond on the night after her burial.”

This was published in the Philadelphia Saturday Museum, with which Poe then had close connections, and the article was written for the express purpose of advancing a scheme which he had in hand, in partnership with the owner of this newspaper, to establish a new periodical. Poe sent the sketch to Lowell [page 816:] a year later as authority for a new life which the latter was to prepare for Graham’s Magazine, and wrote that Hirst had obtained his information from Mr. T. W. White, owner of the Southern Literary Messenger, and Mr. F. W. Thomas, a littérateur, both intimates of Poe; and he added that he believed it was “correct in the main.” Lowell therefore introduced the story as here told into his own article, and sent it to Poe, who revised it with his own hand and forwarded it to Graham’s, where it appeared in February, 1845. Griswold naturally embodied the reiterated and uncontradicted account in his Memoir after Poe’s death.

This, however, was the established version long before 1842. A gentleman who saw Poe last at some time earlier than 1831, at Baltimore, writes to me, “I remember he told me he had left Richmond in a coal vessel, and made his way to Europe, to Russia.” Allan B. Magruder, Esq., who was with him at West Point, also writes, “I am unable to remember whether I derived the information I gave you in a former letter, as to Poe’s rambles in the East and his whaling voyage before the mast, from Poe himself while a classmate at West Point, or from some mutual friend who received the account from him. I certainly learned it while he was at the military academy.” Mr. Magruder goes on to give the story then current as follows: “He made a voyage to sea on some merchant vessel, before the mast. Finding himself in the Mediterranean, he debarked at some Eastern port, and penetrated into Egypt and Arabia. Returning to the United States, he enlisted as a private in the United States army at Fortress Monroe. After some months’ service his whereabouts and position became known to Mr. Allan, who, through the mediation of General Scott, obtained his release from the army, and sent him a cadet’s warrant to West Point.” These letters fix the date of the alleged adventures [column 2:] before July, 1830. The voyage to Greece and the journey to St. Petersburg, however, are stated by Mr. Didier, in his biography, to belong to the life of Poe’s elder brother, William, and have consequently been discredited by later writers.

A second story is at hand, and for it we are indebted to Mr. Ingram, the English biographer. After mentioning that Poe’s first book was printed at Boston, in 1827, on which account he supposes that the young man visited that city in the spring, he continues his narrative as follows: —

“Toward the end of June, 1827, Edgar Poe would appear to have left the United States for Europe. It is very problematical whether he ever reached his presumed destination, the scene of the Greco-Turkish warfare. . . . Edgar Poe was absent from America on his Hellenic journey about eighteen months. The real adventures of his expedition have never, it is believed, been published. That he reached England is probable, although in the account of his travels, derived from his own dictation, that country was not alluded to any more than was the story of his having reached St. Petersburg, and there having been involved in difficulties that necessitated ministerial aid to extricate him. The latter incident is now stated to have occurred to his brother, William Henry Leonard, whilst Edgar himself, it has been suggested by a writer claiming personal knowledge of him, resided for some time in London, formed the acquaintance of Leigh Hunt and Theodore Hook, and, like them, lived by literary labor.

“According to Poe’s own story, which apparently accounts only for a portion of his time, he arrived, eventually, at a certain seaport in France. Here he was drawn into a quarrel about a lady, and in a fight which ensued was wounded by his antagonist, a much more skillful swordsman than he was. Taken to [page 817:] his lodgings, and possibly ill tended, he fell into a fever. A poor woman, who attended to his needs and pitied him, made his case known to a Scotch lady of position, who was visiting the town in the hope of persuading a prodigal brother to relinquish his evil ways and return home with her. This lady came to see the wounded stranger, and for thirteen weeks had him cared for; providing for all his wants, including the attendance of a skilled nurse, whose place, indeed, she often took herself. Whilst Poe was in a precarious condition she visited him daily, and even persuaded her brother to come and see the young Englishman, as his language led them to believe he was. When the patient became convalescent he was naturally intensely grateful to his generous benefactor. As the only means he possessed at that time of showing his gratitude, he wrote a poem to her, which he entitled Holy Eyes, with reference to the trust, sympathy, and faith which he deemed her blue eyes typical of. Indeed, according to Poe’s description, the lady’s eyes were her chief personal attraction, she being otherwise plain, large-featured, and old-maidish. Owing to the peculiarity of her position in this foreign seaport, she did not wish her name made public, and impressed this upon the youthful poet. She made him promise to return to America — and perhaps supplied the means for him to do so — and adopt a profession, in which she expressed a hope of some day hearing that he had become famous.

“During his stay in France — so runs Poe’s narration — he wrote a novel, in which his own adventures were described under the garb of fiction. The manuscript of this story he carried back with him to America, and retained it in his possession until at least some few years before his death. “When asked why he had not published it, he replied that a French version of it had been published, and bad been accredited to Eugene Sue, [column 2:] but that he would not sanction its publication in English because it was too sensational; that it was not to his taste; that it had too much of ‘the yellow-cover-novel style’ for him to be proud of it; and, moreover, that it contained ‘scenes and pictures so personal that it would have made him many enemies among his kindred, who hated him for his vanity and pride already, and in some respects very justly, — the faults of his early education.’ The truth in his story, he asserted, was yet more terrible than the fiction. The Life of an Artist at Home and Abroad was the title by which Poe at one time designated this youthful novel: it was written entirely in the third person, and was pronounced by its author to be ‘commonplace.’ ”

This circumstantial narrative was dictated by Poe to Mrs. Maria L. Shew, of New York, “from what,” says Mr. Ingram, “it was deemed at the time might be his death-bed.” That biographer finds it hard to decide whether the story “was fact, or fact and fiction deliriously interwoven, or mere fiction, invented in such a spirit of mischief as, like Byron, he frequently indulged in at the expense of his too inquisitive questioners.” A death-bed is not the place where one expects to find a spirit of mischief, and there is more truth, though not perhaps in the sense meant, in what Mr. Ingram elsewhere remarks of this same matter: “There does not appear to be any reason for doubting the accuracy of this any more than of any other of the poet’s statements.”

A third story develops the tradition referred to by Mr. Magruder, that Poe was in the army; but instead of placing this in the period before he went to West Point, his biographers assign it to the time after he was dismissed from the academy. The first mention of it in print occurs in Griswold’s Memoir as follows: —

“His contributions to the journals [page 818:] attracted little attention, and, his hopes of gaining a living in this way being disappointed, he enlisted in the army as a private soldier. How long he remained in the service I have not been able to ascertain. He was recognized by officers who had known him at West Point, and efforts were made privately, but with prospects of success, to obtain for him a commission, when it was discovered by his friends that he had deserted.”

Mr. Gill supports this version, on the authority of Mrs. Clemm, Poe’s mother-in-law: —

“In a fit of desperation, the poet on leaving Mr. Allan’s house [in 1831] enlisted in the army. He soon became seriously ill from the exposure incident to the unwonted hardship of barrack-life, and, being recognized by friends while at the hospital, his discharge was promptly secured. Griswold’s statement that he deserted is, like others made by him, a malicious invention. The facts are, on the written testimony of Mrs. Clemm, that at this time his friends were seeking for him a commission.”

Mr. Ingram remarks on this period:

“All attempts hitherto made to explain what Poe did and whither he wandered during the next two years [1831-1833] succeeding his expulsion from his godfather’s home have signally failed. The assertion that he was residing at Baltimore with his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, is not in accordance with fact, her correspondence proving that she never did know where her nephew was during this interregnum in his history. . . . Another biographer, of proven unreliability [Griswold], suggests that Poe enlisted in the army, but after a short service deserted.”

Of other writers who have dealt with the problem, Powell states that Poe went to help the Poles against Russia (but this is evidently a misquotation from Hirst); Mr. Didier places him at Richmond in the first period, and at Baltimore [column 2:] in the second; and Mr. Stoddard, while discrediting the early rupture with Mr. Allan on the ground that the latter probably paid for the Boston edition of the poems, discreetly disclaims any faculty for writing imaginary biographies.

In all that has been laid before the reader in opening the state of the question there is but one sure fact. A book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, by a Bostonian, was published in Boston by Calvin F. S. Thomas in 1827. A copy is in the British Museum, and its contents consist of the first drafts of poems since known as Poe’s. On the threshold of investigation, however, I was met by the opinion that the author was John Howard Payne; but this suggestion was altogether too startling, it disclosed too dismal a view of my hero, to be entertained. The volume had contemporary mention in The United States Review and Literary Gazette, August, 1827; The North American Review, October, 1827; and Kettell’s Specimens of American Poetry, 1829. In all these it was only named, but that is enough to show that it was issued before August and had some circulation. The name of Calvin F. S. Thomas is in the Boston Directory, 1827, where he is described as a printer at 70 Washington Street; but he was not a member of the Franklin Typographical Union, nor does any Boston printer of that time remember him except one now in Wisconsin, who merely thinks that he recalls him. His name is found also, crossed off, in a trial tax-list of 1827, in which he is assessed only for a poll-tax. These are meagre facts, nor is much added to them by the statements of his daughter, who, I learned through some obliging strangers, is living in Missouri. She writes that her father resided in Boston with his widowed mother and a sister in 1827, and, being then nineteen years old, had a printer’s shop there; he left the city in 1828, and afterwards lived in New York, [page 819:] Buffalo, and Springfield, Mo., and died in 1876. “None of us,” she says (his wife and sister being still alive), “can remember ever having heard him speak of himself as the publisher of Poe’s early poems; no copy of the book is in the possession of any member of the family, — neither account-books nor letters of that period.” In view of the almost universal publication of reminiscences by those who knew Poe, and of the extraordinary interest of this portion of his life, it may fairly be inferred that Thomas never identified the author of the first book he printed with Poe, or, in other words, that the latter dealt with him under an assumed name.

One other source of information, besides this volume, would naturally occur to the mind, but it is so obvious that resort to it would seem superfluous. If Poe was in the army, the records of the war department would show the facts. Secretary Lincoln had a search made for the name of Poe, or any name with his initials whose bearer’s career in the army corresponded in time and character with that ascribed to him. Adjutant-General Drum took up the subject with great kindness, and it is to his personal efforts, Secretary Lincoln informs me, that the recovery of Poe’s army record is due. The examination of documents both at Washington and elsewhere has been exhaustive.

From these papers it appears that on May 26, 1827, Poe enlisted at Boston in the army of the United States as a private soldier, under the name of Edgar A. Perry. He stated that he was born at Boston, and was by occupation a clerk; and although minors were then accepted into the service he gave his age as twenty-two years. He had, says the record, gray eyes, brown hair, and a fair complexion; was five feet eight inches in height. He was at once assigned to Battery II of the First Artillery, then serving in the harbor at Fort Independence; on October 31 the battery

[column 2:] was ordered to Fort Moultrie, Charleston, S. C., and exactly one year later to Fortress Monroe, Va. The officers under whom he served are dead, but it appears that he discharged his duties as company clerk and assistant in the commissariat department so as to win the good-will of his superiors. On January 1, 1829, he was appointed Sergeant-Major, a promotion which, by the invariable custom of the army, was given only for merit. He now made his circumstances known to Mr. Allan, and shortly after Mrs. Allan’s death, February 28, 1829, he returned to Richmond on leave of absence. Of this furlough there is no record, but on February 28 he is reported on the rolls as present for duty. The result of his visit is told in the following letter, which is, however, extraordinarily inaccurate in its details: —

FORTRESS MONROE, March 30th, ’29.

GENERAL: I request your permission to discharge from the service Edgar A. Perry, at present the Sergeant-Major of the 1st Reg’t of Artillery, on his procuring a substitute.

The said Perry, is one of a family of orphans whose unfortunate parents were the victims of the conflagration of the Richmond theatre, in 1809. The subject of this letter, was taken under the protection of a Mr. Allen [[Allan]], a gentleman of wealth and respectability, of that city, who, as I understand, adopted his protégé as his son and heir; with the intention of giving him a liberal education, he had placed him at the University of Virginia from which, after considerable progress in his studies, in a moment of youthful indiscretion he absconded, and was not heard from by his Patron for several years; in the meantime, he became reduced to the necessity of enlisting into the service and accordingly entered as a soldier in my Regiment, at Fort Independence, in 1827. Since the arrival of his company at this place, he has made his situation [page 820:] known to his Patron at whose request, the young man has been permitted to visit him; the result is, an entire reconciliation on the part of Mr. Allen [[Allan]], who reinstates him into his family and favor, and who in a letter I have received from him requests that his son may be discharged on procuring a substitute. An experienced soldier and approved sergeant is ready to take the place of Perry so soon as his discharge can be obtained. The good of the service, therefore cannot be materially injured by the discharge.

I have the honor to be, with great respect,

Your obedient servant,  
JAS. HOUSE, Col. 1st Art’y.

To the General Commanding the E. Dept. U. S. A., New York.

The reply to this was a special order: —

OFFICE HEAD QUARTERS EASTERN DEPT.

NEW YORK, April 4th 1829.

SPECIAL ORDER NO. 28.

Sergt. Major Edgar A. Perry of the 1st Reg’t of Arty. . .. will be discharged the service of the United States, on their furnishing, each, an acceptable substitute without expense to the Government.

By order of Major General Gaines.

(Sd)   R. LOWNDES,  
A. A. Adjt. Gen’l.

In accordance with this Poe was discharged, by substitute, April 15th. Before leaving his post he obtained the following letters from his officers, which show conclusively that he had already formed the plan of entering West Point, and indicate that this entered into the understanding on which Mr. Allan took him into favor: —

FORTRESS MONROE, VA., 20th Ap. 1829.

Edgar Poe, late Serg’t-Major in the 1st Art’y, served under my command in H. company. 1st Regt. of Artillery from June 1827 to January 1829, during [column 2:] which time his conduct was uncxceptionable. He at once performed the duties of company clerk and assistant in the Subsistent Department, both of which duties were promptly and faithfully done. His habits are good, and intirely free from drinking.

J. HOWARD.  
Lieut 1st Artillery.

In addition to the above, I have to say that Edgar Poe [originally written Perry, but changed to read Poe] was appointed Sergeant-Major of the 1st Arty, on the 1st of Jan’y, 1829, and up to this date, has been exemplary in his deportment, prompt and faithful in the discharge of his duties — and is highly worthy of confidence.

H. W. GRISWOLD.  
Bt. Capt. and Adjt. 1st Art’y.

I have known and had an opportunity of observing the conduct of the above mentioned Sergt-Majr Poe some three months during which his deportment has been highly praiseworthy and deserving of confidence. His education is of a very high order and he appears to be free from bad habits, in fact the testimony of Lt Howard and Adjt. Griswold is full to that point. Understanding he is, thro’ his friends, an applicant for cadet’s warrant, I unhesitatingly recommend him as promising to aquit himself of the obligations of that station studiously and faithfully.

W. J. WORTH.  
Lt. Col. Comd’g, Fortress Monroe.

With these credentials in his pocket the discharged Sergeant-Major, aged twenty, went to Richmond, where no time was lost in attempting to place him at West Point.

The following letters were obtained for him: —

RICHMOND May 6, 1829.

DR SIR: I beg leave to introduce to you Mr. Edgar Poe, who wishes to [page 821:] be admitted into the military academy and to stand the examination in June. He has been two years in the service of the U. States, and carries with him the strongest testimonials from the highest authority. He will be an acquisition to the service and 1 most earnestly recommend him to your especial notice and approbation.

Very respy. yr. obt. serv’t.  
A. STEVENSON.

TO HONBLE. J H. EATON,
  Secy, of War.

RICHMOND, 6th May, 1829.

DR SIR: The history of the youth Edgar Allan Poe is a very interesting one as detailed to me by gentlemen in whose veracity I have entire confidence, and I unite with great pleasure with Mr. Stevenson and Col. Worth in recommending him for a place in the Military Academy at West Point. My friend Mr. Allan of this city by whom this orphan and friendless youth was raised and educated is a gentleman in whose word you may place every confidence and can state to you more in detail the character of the youth and the circumstances which claim for him the patronage of the Government.

With great respect, your obdt. sevt.  
JOHN CAMPBELL.

THE HONBL. JOHN H. EATON,
  Sec. of War, Washington City.

RICHMOND, VA., May 13th, 1829.

SIR: Some of the friends of young Mr. Edgar Poe have solicited me to address a letter to you in his favor believing that it may be useful to him in his application to the Government for military service. I know Mr. Poe and am acquainted with the fact of his having been born under circumstances of great adversity. I also know from his own productions and other undoubted proofs that he is a young gentleman of genius and taleants. I believe he is destined to be distinguished, since he [column 2:] has already gained reputation for taleants and attainments at the University of Virginia. I think him possessed of feeling and character peculiarly intitling him to public patronage. I am entirely satisfied that the salutary system of military discipline will soon develope his honorable feelings, and elevated spirit, and prove him worthy of confidence. I would not unite in his recommendations if I did not believe that he would remunerate the government at some future day, by his services and taleants, for whateve’r may be done for him.

I have the honor to be  
Very respectfully your obt. serv’t,  
JAMES P. PRESTON.

MAJOR JOHN EATON,
  Sec’y of War, Washington.

Of more interest than all these, however, is Mr. Allan’s own communication: —

RICHMOND, May 6, 1829.

DR SIR: The youth who presents this, is the same alluded to by Lt Howard, Capt Griswold, Colo Worth, our representative and the speaker the Hon’ble Andrew Stevenson, and my friend Major Jno. Campbell.

He left me in consequence of some gambling at the University at Charlottesville, because (I presume) I refused to sanction a rule that the shopkeepers and others had adopted there, making Debts of Honour, of all indiscretions. I have much pleasure in asserting that he stood his examinations at the close of the year with great credit to himself. His history is short. He is the grandson of Quartermaster General Poe, of Maryland, whose widow as I understand still receives a pension for the services or disabilities of her husband. Frankly Sir, do I declare that he is no relation to me whatever: that I have many [in] whom I have taken an active interest to promote theirs; with no other feeling than that, every man is my care, if he be in distress. For myself I ask [page 822:] nothing, but I do request your kindness to aid this youth in the promotion of his future prospects. And it will afford me great pleasure to reciprocate any kindness you can show him. Pardon my frankness: but I address a soldier.

Your obdt servt,  
JOHN ALLAN.

THE HONBLE JOHN H. EATON,
  Secy of War, Washington City.

From the tenor of these letters it would seem that Poe delivered them in person. On his return from (his journey to Washington he made the closer acquaintance of his blood relations at Baltimore, where he remained, engaged in publishing a new edition of his poems and corresponding with John Neal, the editor of The Yankee, until the end of the year. It must have been at this time that he received help from my unnamed correspondent, and said he had been in Russia, and that he entered into some obscure relations with William Gwynn, the editor of the Baltimore American, and showed him the manuscript of Al Aaraaf. On the issue of his volumes, in which it was stated that the Boston edition had been suppressed through circumstances of a private nature, he went back to Richmond, about Christmas time, and waited for his cadet warrant. His birthday came and went; he was twenty-one, and hence past the legal limit within which he could receive an appointment. This circumstance did not disturb him: he had grown four years older in 1827; he now grew two years younger in 1829, and relying on the fiction he solicited the favor of Powhatan Ellis, a younger brother of Mr. Allan’s partner, and then Senator from Mississippi, who wrote to the Secretary of War in his behalf: —

WASHINGTON March 13, 1830.

HON. JOHN H. EATON.

DEAR SIR: I have received a letter from a young gentleman in Richmond [column 2:] by the name of Edgar A. Poe stating, that he was an applicant for a situation in the Military Academy at West Point. He requested me to ask you, if there was any probability of his receiving a warrant to enter that institution. I am not personally acquainted with Mr. Poe, but from information I would say his capacity and learning eminently qualify him to make in a few years a distinguished officer.

I am sir, with great respect,  
Your obdt. servant,  
POWHATAN ELLIS.

HON. MR. EATON,
  Secretary of War.

This letter received immediate attention. The appointment was made, and Mr. Allan, as Poe’s guardian, gave his formal consent to his ward’s enlistment.

RICHMOND, VA. March 31st 1830.

SIR: As the guardian of Edgar Allan Poe I hereby signify my assent to his signing articles by which he shall bind himself to serve the United States for Five years, unless sooner discharged, as stipulated in your official letter appointing him a cadet . Respectfully

Your obt. servant,  
JOHN ALLAN.

THE HON: SECY. OF WAR,
  Washington.

There is no evidence that General Scott, Judge Marshall, or John Randolph had any hand in securing the appointment, as has been asserted since Hirst wrote his early sketch of Poe. Scott’s wife was a cousin of the young lady whom Mr. Allan was now preparing to marry, but his interest in Poe belongs to a later time. Powhatan Ellis’s letter was plainly the determining influence. The young cadet was furnished by Mr. Allan with whatever was necessary, and started north. He stopped at Baltimore, where he called upon Dr. N. C. Brooks, as that gentleman told [page 823:] me, and read, and engaged to send to him, a poem for a forthcoming annual, and at length entered West Point July 1, 1830, — his age being recorded as at the time of entrance nineteen years and five months, — and there he figured among his classmates as an adventurous boy who had run away from home and sown his wild oats in the East.

In further elucidation of Poe’s life at this period an extract should be added which has only lately been brought within my reach, by the courtesy of Colonel Thomas H. Ellis, the son of Mr. Allan’s partner. It is from an open letter April 22, 1880, from himself to the Richmond Standard, and contains in my judgment the only account of the relations between Poe and Mr. Allan that can pretend to any authority whatever. In this Colonel Ellis quotes from a letter of the second Mrs. Allan to himself (and this is the only published utterance of the Allan family upon the subject) as follows: —

“Mr. Poe had not lived under Mr. Allan’s roof for two years before my marriage, and no one knew his whereabouts; his letters, which were very scarce, were dated from St. Petersburg, Russia, although he had enlisted in the army at Boston. After he became tired of army life, he wrote to his benefactor, expressing a desire to have a substitute if the money could be sent to him. Mr. Allan sent it, Poe spent it; and after the substitute was tired out, waiting and getting letters and excuses, he (the substitute) enclosed one of Poe’s letters to Mr. Allan, which was too black to be credited if it had not contained the author’s signature. Mr. Allan sent the money to the man, and banished Poe from his affections; and he never lived here again.”

Mrs. Allan was an interested witness, and her prejudices were strongly excited against Poe. If her story be true in its essential part, it explains where Poe might have obtained the money to pay for his second volume of poems, — a bill [column 2:] which Mr. Allan was not likely to meet voluntarily; and since it indicates that his purse was not liberally supplied, it also explains how it happened that during his long stay in Baltimore he was now and then out of funds. This incident, however, may be left one side; nor would k have been revived here had it not seemed necessary to include in this article everything which has been alleged regarding Poe during this period.

The natural construction to be placed on the foregoing story would seem to be this: that Poe’s officers, becoming interested in him, advised him to go to West Point, the only way in which he could rise in the service; and that in compliance with the dying request of Mrs. Allan, with whom Poe kept up some correspondence, Mr. Allan recalled him, provided a substitute, and agreed to befriend him further, on the distinct understanding that he should go to West Point, but with no intention of ever making him his heir; and, finally, that during the fifteen mouths intervening between his discharge at Fortress Monroe and his entrance at West Point Poe lived mainly apart from Mr. Allan, and gave no reason for the latter to trust him more than in years past. It would also appear that Poe invented the account of his travels in the East or in Russia at once, possibly appropriating something from the adventures of his brother, who died in Baltimore, in July, 1831, and that he used this tale in later years to conceal his enlistment. If he ever went on a voyage before the mast, as is not altogether unlikely, it must have been on his way from Richmond to Boston, when he first left Mr. Allan’s counting-room, in 1827. He would then have as the basis of the nautical knowledge he displays in his works his early ocean voyages in boyhood, this hypothetical one, and those with his regiment in its changes from post to post, besides the information he would naturally [page 824:] acquire during a two years’ residence by the sea; nor is it to be forgotten that his later journeys between the North and South were largely by water. His seamanship thus seems to be amply accounted for without assuming that he derived it from any long practical service in the merchant marine. As to Mr. Ingram’s legend of the duel in France, the Scotch lady, and the novel ascribed to Eugene Sue, it requires no discussion.

In the seventh mouth of his cadet life Foe was court-martialed for neglect of duty, and dismissed the service. The sentence went into effect March 6, 1831. The version of this affair that was circulated by Poe has been universally adopted. This was that the birth of an heir to Mr. Allan by his second wife having destroyed Poe’s expectations of inheriting his patron’s estate, and Mr. Allan having refused to allow him to resign his place, he intentionally so acted as to be dismissed, in order to be free to follow some other profession better suited to a poor man than was that of arms. This may be substantially true. Nevertheless, as Mr. Allan was not married until October 5, 1830, there was no heir born in January, when Poe’s offenses against discipline were committed: the marriage alone, therefore, determined him to take so extreme measures, and as it was a near event when he entered West Point he was probably apprised of it from the first. From the tone of Mr. Allan’s letter to the Secretary of War it would seem that he had most likely made it clear to Poe that he did not look upon him as his heir, and meant merely to start him in a military career. Poe left West Point, one can be quite sure, not because he had lost the hope of a large fortune, but because he was restless, willful, and discontented. There is, however, nothing improbable in the statement that his dismissal was sought by him as his only way of exit from army life. [column 2:]

On the morning of March 7, 1831, he was thus a free man. He had, left over from his pay, twelve cents to begin that career which was better fitted for a poor man than the military profession. Possibly additional funds were provided from the subscription of the cadets, at seventy-five cents each, to the new edition of his poems; this money was allowed to be deducted from their pay, but a part only was advanced. Poe went to New York, and may have stayed in the city a while attending to his forthcoming volume, which was not delivered to the cadets until some time after he had departed. It is commonly said that he now went to Richmond to Mr. Allan’s, where he was coldly received, and after a short time banished from the house. One hesitates to reject entirely so generally received a tradition, though it has no evidence in its support. It is unlikely that Poe, who had now made Mr. Allan’s renewed efforts in his behalf wholly futile by violent and disgraceful methods, should present himself as if he expected to remain an inmate of the home where he had not lived for five years past, and to which in the mean time a young wife of thirty had come; nor would Mr. Allan’s letters to him have invited such a course. At all events, the only fact in the matter is that two months after leaving West Point he was in Baltimore, and perhaps that was as far South as he got upon this present journey. On May 6, 1831, he addressed his old acquaintance, William Gwynn, the editor, as follows: —

May 6, 1831.

MR. W. GWINN.

DEAR SIR: — I am almost ashamed to ask any favor at your hands after my foolish conduct upon a former occasion, — but I trust to your good nature.

I am very anxious to remain and settle myself in Baltimore as Mr. Allan has married again and I no longer look upon Richmond as my place of residence. [page 825:]

This wish of mine has also met with his approbation. I write to request your influence in obtaining some situation or employment in this city. Salary would be a minor consideration, but I do not wish to be idle.

Perhaps (since I understand Neilson has left you) you might be so kind as to employ me in your office in some capacity.

If so I will use every exertion to deserve your confidence.

Very respectfully yr. ob. st.,  
EDGAR A. POE.

I would have waited upon you personally, but am confined to my room with a severe sprain in my knee.

Poe’s application to Mr. Gwynn was apparently fruitless, and shortly afterwards he wrote to another acquaintance, Dr. Brooks, — to whose annual, it will be remembered, he had promised a contribution, — and asked for a position as teacher in that gentleman’s school at Reisterstown, but there was no vacancy. Dr. Brooks, who told me the incident, recalls perfectly well the time of its occurrence. This is, however, the last definitely dated event in Poe’s life until October 12, 1833, when his name was printed as the winner of a prize for the best story contributed to the Saturday Visiter, a Baltimore literary weekly. During this period, the tradition of the Poe family and the sketches of his life published before he died place him at Baltimore, and there is not in any quarter the slightest bit of evidence on which to base a doubt of the truth of this belief. The fact that Judge Neilson Poe was then living in another town, and that Mrs. Clemm, Poe’s future mother-in-law, had apparently also moved away, may explain why our knowledge of his whereabouts is not more exact, and how he came to fall into such circumstances of poverty as he did. A cousin, however, then Miss Herring, whose reminiscences of Poe have been carefully [column 2:] obtained for me by a member of the Poe family, says that Poe called on her at this time, in the morning or afternoon, when he could see her alone, and used to entertain her by reading, or by writing verses in her album; but her father discouraged these attentions because of the relationship and of Poe’s. habits of drinking. These calls were made at frequent intervals, on flying visits from Philadelphia and other places, and this lady is positive that they extended from 1830 to 1884, when she was herself married. She never heard of his leaving this country during these years. A date that depends only on the memory of a long-past event is always open to question. In this case it was in 1830 that Poe called on his relatives as he passed through Baltimore to West Point; in 1834 he visited Richmond, and possibly Philadelphia, where he was endeavoring to get a book published: and such absences, though few, may have left the impression that he was given to traveling. However this may have been, such are the statements of the only person who claims any personal knowledge of Poe between the summers of 1831 and 1833.

Some inferences may be drawn from the condition in which Poe was found by Kennedy, who befriended him on his reappearance as a prize story-teller. Griswold may have exaggerated the meanness of Poe’s poverty, but notwithstanding the strenuous denials of Mr. Ingram and others, who seem to think Poe degraded by misfortune, there is not the least doubt that he was in extreme distress, as is conclusively shown by this extract from Kennedy’s diary: —

“It is many years ago, I think, perhaps as early as 1833 or ’34, that 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 whenever he chose; in fact, brought him up from the very verge of despair.” (Tuckerman’s Life [page 826:] of Kennedy.) It is further illustrated by the following self-explanatory note from Poe to that kind-hearted gentleman, who throughout life was seeking out and advancing merit: —

“Your invitation to dinner has wounded me to the quick. I cannot come for reasons of the most humiliating nature — my personal appearance. You may imagine my mortification in making this disclosure to you, but it is necessary.” (Tuckerman’s Life of Kennedy.)

And if further proof be needed it is furnished by a letter of Poe’s, written years afterwards, in which he says, “Mr. Kennedy has been at all times a true friend to me — he was the first true friend I ever had — I am indebted to him for life itself.” (Poe to Thomas. Stoddard.)

If this extreme destitution of Poe be considered in connection with the fact that he had sent in to the competition for prizes six tales, so well finished that the committee advised him to publish all of them, it may fairly be thought that he had been devoting himself to literature for some time previous, and that his garret was in Baltimore. Nevertheless, if any one chooses to suppose that Poe was starving elsewhere, there can be no check to the vagaries of his fancy; for if the unappreciated genius who had now found out what a poor man’s career was like was not at Baltimore, there is as much reason to imagine him in Hong Kong as in any other place.

One other source of information must be glanced at, since it has been relied on to clothe Poe with more respectability when he was in his worst disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes. Mr. Lambert A. Wilmer, whose books, at least, do not entitle him to much regard, since they are scurrilous and filthy, was one of the projectors of the Saturday Visiter. He published reminiscences of Poe several times, but the only article which need be referred to here is one, [column 2:] Recollections of Edgar A. Poe, contributed to the Baltimore Daily Commercial, May 23, 1866. He writes: —

“My acquaintance with Poe commenced in Baltimore, soon after his return from St. Petersburg, ‘covered with debt and infamy, and confirmed in habits of dissipation,’ as one of his biographers represents. I can most conscientiously declare, however, that at the time referred to, and a long time afterwards, I heard nothing of his debts and infamy, and saw nothing of his dissipated habits. His time appeared to be constantly occupied by his literary labors; he had already published a volume of poems, and written several of those minor romances which afterwards appeared in the collection called Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. He lived in a very retired way with his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, and his moral deportment, as far as my observation extended, was altogether correct. ‘Intemperance,’ says the biographer quoted above, ‘was his master-passion.’ How then did it happen that during an intimate acquaintance with him, which continued for more than twelve years, I never saw him intoxicated in a single instance?

“His personal appearance and equipments at the time I speak of have been thus described: ‘He was thin and pale even to ghastliness; his whole appearance indicated sickness and the utmost destitution. A well-worn frock-coat concealed the absence of a shirt, and imperfect boots discovered the want of hose.’ This description is wholly incorrect. In his youthful days, Poe’s personal appearance was delicate and effeminate, but never sickly or ghastly, and I never saw him in any dress which was not fashionably neat, with some approximation to elegance. Indeed, 1 often wondered how he could contrive to equip himself so handsomely, considering that his pecuniary resources were generally scanty and precarious enough. [page 827:]

“My intercourse with Poe was almost continuous for weeks together. Almost every day we took long walks in the rural districts near Baltimore, and had long conversations on a great variety of subjects; and however dry might be the subject of our discourse, and however dusty the road we traveled, we never stopped at any hotel for liquid refreshment, and I never observed any disposition on the part of my companion to avail himself of the liberal supplies of alcoholic beverage which were always to be had in the vicinity of Baltimore. In short, his general habits at that time were strictly temperate, and but for one or two incidents I might have supposed him to be a member of the cold-water army. On one occasion when I visited him at his lodgings he produced a decanter of Jamaica spirits, in conformity with a practice which was very common in those days, especially in the Southern and Middle States, where one gentleman would scarcely visit another without being invited to drink. On the occasion just referred to, Poe made a moderate use of the liquor; and this is the only time that ever I saw him drink ardent spirits. On another occasion I was present, when his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, scolded him with some severity for coming home intoxicated on the preceding evening. He excused himself by saying that he had met with some friends, who had persuaded him to take dinner with them at a tavern, where the whole party bad become inebriated, — a circumstance for which many a poetical gentleman’s experience might furnish a parallel. I judged from the conversation between Mrs. Clemm and Poe that the fault for which she reproved him was of rare occurrence, and I never afterwards heard him charged with a repetition of the offense.”

This is all that Wilmer has to say with regard to this particular time. The twelve years’ intimate acquaintance with Poe which he asserts is an absurd claim. [column 2:] He knew Poe well only for a very few months at this time; during six of the twelve years he did not see Poe at all, and for the last five of them he met him only incidentally in Philadelphia. Other statements in this article — for example, the circumstantial account of Poe’s attempt to learn lithographing in Philadelphia about 1841 — are entirely fictitious. Wilmer, therefore, is not a scrupulous and careful witness, and his word would not for a moment stand against Kennedy’s as recorded in his diary. From Wilmer’s book, Our Press Gang, in which he gives an account of his life, but without dates, it appears that he went from Washington to Baltimore to start the Visiter, and was its editor not much longer than six months; he lost his place, and was soon forced to go away from Baltimore in search of a living elsewhere, and did not return until after Poe had left the city. It is possible, of course, that Poe offered his services to the new weekly at once, and that an acquaintance sprang up between the editor and contributor, but this supposition cannot be verified, as no file of the paper is known to exist. It is quite as likely, and the hypothesis reconciles all the facts, that Wilmer’s intimacy with Poe grew out of the latter’s winning the prize, and his reminiscences therefore cover the months just subsequent to Kennedy’s charity, when, after Mrs. Clemm again settled in Baltimore, he went to reside with her. Poe was then, under the stimulation of Kennedy’s friendship and active interest, trying to retrieve his reputation and break off his bad habits.

Whether during these hard years Poe made any application for assistance to Mr. Allan has never been publicly known. The account which Colonel Ellis (whose article, as has been said, is the only one of the slightest authority) has given of the final scene between Poe and his old patron, though it took place six months after Poe’s literary [page 828:] adoption by Kennedy, seems to belong here: —

“A short time previous to Mr. Allan’s death, on the 27th of March. 1834, he was greatly distressed by dropsy, was unable to lie down, and sat in an armchair night and day; several times a day, by the advice of his physician, he walked across the room for exercise, leaning on his cane, and assisted by his wife and a man servant. During this illness of her husband, Mrs. Allan was on an occasion passing through the hall of this house, when, hearing the front-door bell ring, she opened the door herself. A man of remarkable appearance stood there, and without giving his name asked if he could see Mr. Allan. She replied that Mr. Allan’s condition was such that his physicians had prohibited any person from seeing him except his nurses. The man was Edgar A. Poe, who was, of course, perfectly familiar with the house. Thrusting her aside, and without noticing her reply, he passed rapidly up-stairs to Mr. Allan’s chamber, followed by Mrs. Allan. As soon as he entered the chamber Mr. Allan raised his cane, and, threatening to strike him if he came within his reach, ordered him out, upon which Poe withdrew; and that was the last time they ever met.”

In this article all that has ever been alleged or is now known in regard to Poe’s life, from his desertion of Mr. Allan’s home in 1827 to his expulsion from it under the circumstances just related, has, I believe, been included. His story, stripped of its fabulous incidents, has turned out to be the commonplace one of a runaway boy, who persistently rejected and at last forfeited the honest kindness of his friends. There [column 2:] is nowhere in it a generous, noble, or picturesque incident. If one desires to build up a transforming legend and to perpetuate the romance of a bygone literary fashion, he can do so only by suppressing the facts and elaborating the myth in the direction of a tawdry and foolish sentimentality. Whether or not, as Poe said, the truth is everything in a biography, justice has a supreme right there as elsewhere: I do not mean the justice that is expressed in verdicts, but that ideal justice, which, however obscured, or lost, or overborne, it may be, by the intrusion of extraneous influences, is nevertheless discernible in human affairs, and brings about a certain consistency in life and character. Shelley’s youth was full of error, and at his death his name was held in dishonor; but, the nobility of his nature always remaining undefiled, ruin could not touch him nor shame live beside his grave. If Poe, on the other hand, was the victim, he was also the servant, as he was the poet, of the evil gods; and the same consistency, the same ideal justice, working itself out to a different end, is to be seen in his life as in Shelley’s. It is not the career of a youth between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five that has been so minutely examined in this paper; it is rather the sowing-time of a man of genius, whose harvest proved so black a growth that it is deemed hardly natural. But so far from learning to credit any part of the legend that strives to turn Poe into the object of an exceptional fatality, one rises from the exhaustive study of his days from birth to death, with only the more profound conviction that nothing but a man’s own acts can plunge him into the worst of life.

G. E. Woodberry.

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - AM, 1884] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe's Legendary Years (G. E. Woodberry, 1884)