Text: Schuyler Poitevent, “Some Facts About Poe’s University Career,” University of Virginia Magazine, vol. LVIII, no. 3, December 1897, pp. 123-134.


[page 123:]


BECAUSE of the peculiarities of his character, Edgar Allan Poe led the eccentric life of a genius. His biographers have experienced much difficulty in getting at the very facts of this life, and I believe the whole true story has yet to be published.

Dr. Rufus W. Griswold is partly responsible for this unsettled state of affairs. The biography he published shortly after Poe’s death has been proved so radically biased and inconsistently inaccurate that subsequent biographers have labored hard to set aright the many details Dr. Griswold’s sketch brought into dispute and to give to the public the history of a life based as correctly as practicable on facts. Still, these have so differed that people have been not only bewildered in drawing and in holding their own conclusions and opinions, but also afraid to rely implicitly on any one biography. Even the story of the life Mr. Woodberry has narrated in the American Men of Letters is inaccurate when dealing with the subject of the poet’s career at the University of Virginia.

Most of the accounts of this period of Poe’s life are based either directly or indirectly on the Wertenbaker manuscript. He was a fellow-student of Poe’s and was librarian at the University of Virginia simultaneous with Poe’s residence here and for many years afterward, and his statements have hitherto been readily accepted without any doubt whatever being cast upon their accuracy.

In order to confirm their indubitableness, I began last spring a systematic and thorough research into the University archives and old records. Of the latter, however, some, if they ever did exist, could not be found. The librarian was of the opinion that in the great October fire of 1895, which burned the library building itself, together with two-thirds of the books shelved within, they had been lost forever. But the records that were found have furnished sufficient evidence to justify the assertion that all the Poe biographies [page 124:] at hand* are, in some details of his college life, incorrect.

Of these errors, perhaps the most inaccurate are those from the pen of Dr. Griswold. “In 1822, he [Poe] returned to the United States, and after passing a few months at an academy in Richmond, he entered the University at Charlottesville.” Elsewhere he states that Poe was born in January, 1811. Were this true, the poet, at the time of his entrance into the University, would have been only eleven years old. However, as a matter of fact, he matriculated, not in 1822, but four years later, in 1826.

Continuing, Dr. Griswold says in the same sentence: “* * * the manners which then prevailed there were extremely dissolute, and he was known as the wildest and most reckless student of the class.” Every record that I found, touching upon this theme, and all the testimony of those who knew him as a student, quite refute his being “the wildest and most reckless student of his class.” And as regards the word class. Dr. Griswold in using it only displayed his ignorance of a university in which the class system has been ever unknown. Had he been more precise, thereby specifying which class of the classes in Ancient and Modern Languages, I should not here be finding fault with his ambiguousness.

Now comes the most sweeping charge that should be disproved: “* * * his unusual opportunities, and the most remarkable ease with which he mastered the most difficult studies kept him all the while in the front rank for scholarship, and he would have graduated with the highest honors had not his gambling, intemperance, and other vices, induced his expulsion from the university.” The book from which this sentence has been copied is a much-used volume in the University library. A marginal note, in a cramped handwriting, runs, “A mistake — or a lie.” And right the criticism is! For Dr. Griswold either knew or did not know. Poe was not expelled. Nor, [page 125:] so far as the other statements are concerned, especially the one dealing with the probability of his graduating with “highest honors,” have I found in the records any substantial proof of them. However, he probably did gamble, but the subject will be more fully discussed later.

In the same book from which I have quoted Dr. Griswold, is a sketch of Poe by James Russell Lowell. He, too, has inaccurately described Poe’s university career. He says, “Having received a classical education in England he returned home and entered the University of Virginia, where, after an extravagant course, followed by reformation at the last extremity, he was graduated with the highest honors of his class.”* “Reformation at the last extremity” evidently means suspension. And here we have two authors, one claiming disgrace by expulsion, the other, honor by graduation, notwithstanding a prior rustication. But he was neither expelled nor suspended. And, as for graduating “with the highest honors of his class,” Mr. Lowell, like Dr. Griswold, just slipped up, that is all.

After the publication of these two lives, Mr. William Wertenbaker, at the request of Dr. Socrates Maupin, at that time chairman of the faculty of the University of Virginia, wrote, in 1869, his recollections of Poe, and subsequent biographers have turned to them for material.

This manuscript, which I here copy from the original now in the University library, is entitled Edgar A. Poe, and is exceedingly interesting. Yet there are mistakes in it as I shall point out by the use of brackets.

“The works and fame of Edgar A. Poe are likely to be handed down to the latest posterity; it is, therefore, important that all the facts relating to the life of a man of his acknowledged genius should be correctly stated. All his biographers are more or less mistaken as to the facts touching his career while a student at the University of Virginia.

“Mr. Poe was a student during the second session which commenced [page 126:] February 1st and terminated December 15th, 1826. [I found no record of the closing date of that session.] He signed the matriculation book on the 14th of February. [He did not, according to my opinion, sign it, as will be subsequently explained.] And remained in good standing until the session closed. He was born on the 19th day of January, 1809, being a little over 17 when he matriculated. He entered the schools of Ancient and Modern Languages, attending the lectures on Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian. [Other than the Senior Latin and the Senior French class, I found no record of the classes he attended.* The purpose of the research, as should be recollected, was to substantiate facts.] I was myself a member of the last three classes, and can testify that he was tolerably regular in his attendance, and a successful student, having obtained distinction at the Final Examination in Latin and French, and this was at that time the highest honor a student could obtain. [The Faculty minutes read excelled, which may be construed distinction.] The present regulation in regard to degrees had not then been adopted. Under existing regulations he would have graduated in the two languages named above, and have been entitled to diplomas.

“On one occasion Professor Blaettermann requested his Italian class to render into English Verse a portion of the lesson in Tasso, which he had assigned them for the next lecture. He did not require this of them as a regular class exercise but recommended it as one from which he thought the students would derive benefit. At the next lecture on Italian, the Professor stated from his class that Mr. Poe was the only member of the class who had responded to his suggestion, and paid a very high compliment to his performance.

“As Librarian I had frequent official intercourse with Mr. Poe, but it was at or near the close of the session before I met him in the social circle. After spending an evening together at a private house, he invited me, on our return, into his room. It was a cold night in [page 127:] December, and his fire having gone pretty nearly out, by the aid of some tallow candles, and the fragments of a small table which he broke up for that purpose, he soon rekindled it, and by its comfortable blaze I spent a very pleasant hour with him. On this occasion he spoke with regret of the large amount of money he had wasted and of the debts he had contracted during the session.

“If my memory is not at fault, he estimated his indebtedness at $2000 and though they were gaming debts, he was earnest and emphatic in the declaration that he was bound by honor to pay at the earliest opportunity every cent of them.

“He certainly was not habitually intemperate, but he may occasionally have entered into a frolic. I often saw him in the Lecture room and in the library, but never in the slightest degree under the influence of intoxicating liquors.

“Among the Professors he had the reputation of being a sober, quiet, and orderly young man and to them and the officers his deportment was uniformly that of an intelligent and polished gentleman. Although his practice of gaming did escape detection, the hardihood, intemperance, and reckless wildness imputed to him by his Biographers, had he been guilty of them, must inevitably have come to the knowledge of the Faculty and met with merited punishment. The records, of which I was then, and am still, the custodian, attest that at no time during the session, did he fall under the censure of the Faculty.

“At no period during the past history of the University were the Faculty more violent in ferreting out offenders and more severe in punishing them, than during the session of 1826.

“The session of 1825 (being the first) was commenced without any discipline at all and without any effort on the part of the Faculty to enforce obedience to the laws.

“They were expecting and waiting for the students to inaugurate Mr. Jefferson’s system of self-government, but this they resolutely refused to do. Neither the entreaties of Mr. Jefferson nor the persuasion of the Professors could induce a single student to accept the office of Censor. [page 128:]

“The plan was, that a Board of Censors consisting of six of the most discreet students should inquire into the facts of all cases of minor offences and name the punishment which they thought proportioned to the offence. Under this state of affairs, and for several months, insubordination, lawlessness and riot ruled the institution, and became so intolerable to the Professors, that they suspended operations and tendered their resignations to the Board of Visitors.

“The Board met immediately, abandoned the plan of self-government, enacted new laws, ordered a course of rigid discipline to be pursued, and invested the Faculty with full authority to rule and govern the institution.

“In exercising the power now granted them the Faculty (as under the circumstances it was quite natural for them to do) perhaps erred in going to the opposite extreme of punishing offenders with too great severity.

“After many years of experience, the Faculty have gradually drifted into a different plan of dealing with the students. With firmness in enforcing the laws, is combined parental kindness, and when necessity requires it, proper but gentle admonition. The student is regarded as a gentleman and in his intercourse with the Professors in the class-room or elsewhere, is treated as such. The student who is a gentleman abstains from immoral or licentious habits, and uses due diligence in the prosecution of his studies, needs no laws for his governance and is never conscious of their existence.

“Mr. Poe’s connection with the University was dissolved by the termination of the Session on the 15th of December, 1826. [I found no record of its ending December 15,1826. He was before the faculty December 20, 1826, and was, therefore, at the University then; but the relationship of student and professor may have ceased prior to that date.] He then wanted a little over a month of having attained to the age of 18 — the date of his birth was plainly entered, in his own handwriting, on the matriculation book. [A mistake to be subsequently proved.] Were he now living, his age on the 19th of this month (January, 1869,) would be 60. He never returned to the University, and I think it probable that the night I visited him was the [page 129:] last he spent here. I draw this inference not from memory, but from the fact, that having no further use of his candles and tables he made fuel of them.

“Mr. Poe’s works are more in demand and more read than those of any other author, American or foreign, now in the Library.

“To gratify curiosity, I copy from the Register [which could not be found in the library] a list of the books which Mr. Poe borrowed from the Library while he was a student: Rollin — Histoire Ancienne; Histoire Romaine; Robertson’s America; Marshall’s Washington; Voltaire — Histoire Particuliere; Dufief’s Nature Displayed.”

The brevity of the list strikes me as being peculiar, but it may be accounted for by the fact that in 1826 the library was a small affair. Moreover, it is interesting as showing the bent of Poe’s mind at that period of his life, and his fondness in after life for things French.

I do not understand Mr. Wertenbaker’s blundering in respect to Poe’s signature being upon the matriculation book. He says that at the time of Poe’s presence at the University and of his writing in 1869, he was the custodian of the records; and yet these same records, which I have examined, conclusively prove, so far as my opinion is concerned, that Poe did not affix his signature to the book in question.

And more incomprehensible still is Dr. Maupin’s endorsement of Mr. Wertenbaker’s statements, and, consequently, of the point under discussion. He says: —

“Mr. Wertenbaker’s statement is full upon all points specified, and is worthy of entire confidence. I may add that there is nothing in the faculty records to the prejudice of Mr. Poe.

“He appears to have been a successful student, having attained distinction in Latin and French at the closing examinations in 1826. He never formally graduated here, no provision for conferring degrees of any kind having been made at the time he was a student here.”*

The sole purpose of this article is to establish indisputable facts. They are in the University records. And back of them we cannot go. Hence, I scrutinized the faculty minutes from the beginning of [page 130:] the first session until well into the middle of the session of 1827. I now produce from these old books* extracts which will substantiate both Mr. Wertenbaker and Dr. Maupin in their statement that Poe never came under the faculty’s censure.

“The Faculty met December 20, 1826.

Present. John T. Lomax chairman

  Dr. Dunglison

  Dr. Blaettermann

  Mr. Bonnycastle

    ”   Turner

    ”   Key.

“The Chairman presented to the Faculty a letter from the Proctor giving information that certain Hotel Keepers during the last session had been in the habit of playing at games of chance with the students in their Dormitories, he also gave the names of the following persons who he had been informed had some knowledge of the facts Edgar Mason, Turner Dixon — William Seawell, E. LaBranche, Edgar Poe, Edmund C. Drummond, Emanuel Miller, Hugh Pleasants & E. G. Crump —— who having been summoned to appear before the Faculty were examined.”

Then follow the examinations of the students in the order named in the minutes. And Poe’s name appears for the second time upon the pages of this book. But its appearance is not detrimental to his character, for his testimony is that,

“Edgar Poe never heard until now of any Hotel Keepers playing cards or drinking with students.”§

Now, as regards Mr. Wertenbaker’s misstatement about Poe’s signature being on the matriculation book. During 1825 and 1826, all matriculates’ names were written upon the matriculation book, not in the students’ own handwriting, but by one and the same individual, [page 131:] presumably the Proctor. In 1827, however, the custom now in vogue of students themselves filling out the blanks in this book was then instituted; but a glance at the old brown-thumbed pages for the two preceding sessions will prove beyond doubt that every word thereon was written in the same handwriting. Which handwriting is not Poe’s. Nor is the signature of “Edgar A. Poe” his own. And to this end I have the opinion of the two best qualified judges of the faculty of the University of Virginia, Dr. Charles W. Kent and Mr. James A. Harrison.

He was the hundred and thirty-sixth student who matriculated. He entered February 14, 1826; gave his name as “Edgar A. Poe”; date of birth, “19 Jan: 1809”; parent or guardian, “John Allen”, the e afterward having been changed in lead-pencil to a; place of residence, “Richmond”; professors attended, Long and Blaettermann. Under the head of “Remarks”, there is a blank opposite his name. The custom then prevailing was for the Proctor to write under this head the final disposition of each student. Thus, if one withdrew, or was suspended, or was expelled before the end of this session, the fact was duly registered; otherwise, the blank remained a blank. And, therefore, the conclusion may be drawn that he was neither expelled, as Dr. Griswold asserts, nor suspended according to Mr. Lowell. Hence, from the Proctor’s point of view, his record is clean of all college dishonors.

Professor George Long taught Ancient Languages. His school in 1826 contained one hundred and seven men, while Professor George Blaettermann, of Modern Languages, taught ninety students.* Just what Poe studied in each school, so far as records are concerned, is clear: Senior Latin and Senior French. But Mr. Wertenbaker says he attended lectures in three other classes, Greek, Spanish, and Italian. The minutes of the Board of Visitors, written by Thomas Jefferson himself, the first rector of the Board, explain fully the subjects to be taught in the various schools.

“In the school of Antient languages are to be taught the higher [page 132:] grade of the Latin and Greek languages, the Hebrew, rhetoric, belles-lettres, antient history and antient geography.

“In the school of Modern languages are to be taught French, Spanish, Italian, German, and the English language in its AngloSaxon form; also modern history, and modern geography.”*

When Professors Long and Blaettermann were elected to their respective chairs, no stipulations were entered in the Board’s minutes that they were to teach either all or some of the studies comprehended under their schools. However, at the end of the session of 1826, when the former “made a report of the classes belonging to the School of Ancient Languages,” he divided his school into four classes: senior Greek and Latin and junior Greek and Latin. Likewise Prof. Blaettermann reported a senior and a junior French, Italian, Spanish, Anglo-Saxon, and German class.

Whether or not, in 1826, a student matriculating in a school was free to select any one, or more than one, class or was compelled to take every class in that school, I could not learn. If the latter, then Poe must have been very busy, or, rather, have had much work to carry. But we have the testimony of Mr. Wertenbaker that he took only Latin, French, Greek, Spanish, and Italian. If this be true, then, to use a local expression, he must have corked on Greek, Spanish, and Italian, because he excelled on senior Latin and senior French, and the faculty minutes say nothing about his having passed the other examinations.

The names in the Faculty minutes are given alphabetically. Nineteen students “excelled at the examination” in senior Latin and eight in senior French.

The Wertenbaker manuscript has been proved inaccurate in some details. Instead of discussing minutely the same errors which subsequent biographers whose information is based upon this manuscript have made, I shall mention the pages on which they may be found. Gill. pp. 34, 35, 36; Ingram,§ biographical data should read, “February [page 133:] 14, 1826. Enters University of Virginia. [Matriculates, 14th February, 1826”] instead of reading “February 1, 1826. Enters University of Virginia. [Signs matriculation book, 14th February, 1836”]; pp. 45, 51, and 52. Woodberry,* pp. 25 and 27.

There is no way of verifying the list of books Mr. Wertenbaker says Poe borrowed from the library, for the register is lost forever. And his room. Its location is also in dispute. On West Range several are pointed out as being his, like claims also being made by Lawn men. I searched every volume down in the old Proctor’ office, but no record was found. Nor could I learn if, when Poe was a student, the proctor kept a record of each student’s dormitory, as is now done. Perhaps, he may have kept such a list, which list, I trust, will not long remain lost. Still another uncertain point. When did Poe sever his connection with, and leave, the University? Mr. Wertenbaker states the date as Dec. 15, 1826. Strange that the minutes of neither the Faculty nor Board of Visitors mention the date of closing the second session. Yet the Faculty minutes undoubtedly prove that he was at the University five days later than Mr. Wertenbaker asserts, and he was here as a student, because he was so summoned before the Faculty.

An attempt was also made to get to the bottom of his indebtedness, for which Mr. Allan is supposed to have been the cause of his withdrawal from the University. The University Book-store, established in 1825, was first owned by C. P. McKennie, and since it passed out of his hands, the store books, which did in all probability contain Poe’s account, have been burned.

My search was as thorough as practicable, and every record which could be found was examined, but some may have escaped, for the library books, in their temporary shelves, are not as systematically arranged as they were before the fire. And if there be such an old record as will tell more fully the story of Poe’s University life, may it soon be found.

An old schedule of the lecture hours for 1826, brings to light [page 134:] some interesting data. Ancient languages were from 7:30 to 9:30 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning; while Modern languages occupied the same hours on alternate days. Thus, as is readily seen, Poe had no lectures after 9:30 in the mornings, and, because of there being no restrictions imposed upon the students leaving the University precincts, he was free to ramble among the low-lying foothills of the Ragged Mountains. And, for truth, he did, for The Tale of the Ragged Mountains contains much that depicts the scenery roundabout the University. But now I am entering upon a theme reserved for a subsequent issue of THE MAGAZINE, that is, the tracing out of the effect of his university career upon his literary productions.

Schuyler Poitevent.


[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 124:]

*  Memoir, R. W. Griswold in introduction to Poe’s stories, edition of 1866; Introduction, J. R. Lowell, in same edition; The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, W. F. Gill, New York, 1878; Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions, J. H. Ingram, London, 1880; Edgar Allan Poe, G. E. Woodberry, in American Men of Letters, Boston, 1893.

  Memoir, Vol. I., p. 25.

  Id. p. 23.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 125:]

*  Poe’s works, edition of 1866, Vol. I, p. 8.

  University of Virginia Magazine, March, 1880, p. 378.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 126:]

*  Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Dec. 15, 1826, Vol. II, pp. 3, 4.

  “Mr. Long made a report of the classes belonging to the school of Ancient Languages and the names of the students who excelled at the examination of the classes.” Faculty Minutes, Dec. 15, 1826, Vol. II, p. 3.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 129:]

*  Gill’s Life of Poe, p. 36.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 130:]

*  Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. I, II. Now in the possession of the Secretary to the Faculty.

  That is the session of 1826.

  Faculty Minutes, Vol. II, p. 13.

§  Faculty Minutes, Vol. II, p. 15.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 131:]

*  “Catalogue of the officers and students of the University of Virginia, second session, commencing February 1st, 1826.” Now in University Library.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 132:]

*  Minutes of Board of Visitors, Oct. 5, 1824, p. 76. Now in Proctor’s office.

  Faculty Minutes, Vol. II, pp. 3, 4.

  “The Life of Edgar Allan Poe.” By William F. Gill, 4th edition, 1878.

§  “Edgar Allan Poe. His Life, Letters, and Opinions.” By John H. Ingram, London, 1880, Vol. I.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 133:]

*  “Edgar Allan Poe,” in American Men of Letters, by George E. Woodberry, 1892.

  Minutes Board of Visitors, Vol. I, p. 64.



Schuyler Poitevent (1875-1936) attended the University of Virginia 1894-1898. The article proposed in the final sentence was never written, or at least never published. A collection of his papers may be found in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, but appears to include no material on Poe.


[S:0 - UVAM, 1897] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Some Facts About Poe's University Career (S. Poitevent, 1897)