Edgar Allan Poe’s Autobiographical Inspiration – Literature Essay
In several stories and poems that Edgar Allan Poe created, he left various indications that the written word is rarely disconnected from the person writing it. Through the dark, disturbing subject matter in his work, one can begin to understand the complex life and obstacles, both external and internal, that he had to cope with during every day of his life. Though Poe is widely regarded as the master of the American short story and one of the foremost horror writers in the United States’ brief history, it is easy to see the effect of such a difficult childhood in both the tragic course of events that culminated in his premature death and the mesmerizing and groundbreaking writing that he left behind.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston on January 19th, 1809 to David and Elizabeth Poe, two Baltimore-based actors. Acting was looked down upon as a profession in that time, which meant that Poe’s parents were barely able to make a living. It also did not help that the pair could not have been considered gifted by any stretch of the imagination: “The two were not notably talented; they played minor roles in third-rate theatrical companies” (Buranelli 7). Poe was the second of three children. By the time of the third child’s birth, Poe’s father, who was purported to have abused him, disappeared, abandoning his mother. She took her two youngest children (William Henry, the first, was left to his grandparents in Baltimore around the time of his birth) to Richmond, VA, but soon developed tuberculosis and died, leaving Edgar and his sister, Rosaline orphaned (9).
After his mother’s death, Poe was taken into the care of John Allan, a wealthy Richmond merchant and his godfather. His wife Frances had no children of her own and wanted to adopt Poe, but Allan refused, citing that he thought the son of parents whose profession was looked at as immoral would be the wrong choice for an heir and bad for his name and the fortune he was busy amassing. After a move to London and a strict but enjoyable boarding school education, Poe returned with the Allans to the United States. The two did not get along, so Poe was excited to find out that Allan was shipping him off to the University of Virginia. However, Allan did not supply him with nearly enough money to pay his way through school, so Poe took up gambling and by the end of the year, owed over $2,500. After 11 months of college, Allan, refusing to pay the debts, pulled Poe out of school. Terrified and unbalanced, Poe started drinking heavily.
Over the next couple of years, Poe was faced with a heap of bad luck. Upon arriving home, he was invited to a party of Sarah Elmira Royster’s, his high-school sweetheart; when he got there, he discovered that it was an engagement party. To make matters worse, Allan forced Poe to join the military. He signed up under the name “Edgar Allan Perry,” but was honorably discharged in 1829, with the rank of Sergeant Major. A year later, Allan, frustrated with Poe’s situation, signed him up for West Point. In less than a year, Poe was kicked out. A few years later when Frances died, Allan remarried and cut off contact with Poe.
However, even without familial support, Poe soon began to write and things began to pick up. Around this time, he married his thirteen-year old first cousin, Virginia Clemm. Though she was simple-minded and kind, she was unable to keep up with his erratic genius and wild behavior. Nevertheless, Poe won a story contest in 1833 for a story called “MS. Found in a Bottle”; one of the judges, John P. Kennedy expressed an interest in his work and helped him sell a story to the Southern Literary Messenger from Richmond. Soon, Poe got a job on the editorial staff of the magazine and was quickly promoted to editor. With his new position, Poe was seen to be both a keen critic of literature and a gifted writer, and the popularity of his work for the magazine increased the recognition of both his writing and the Messenger. Unfortunately, Poe was an alcoholic and was fired and re-hired by the Messenger several times. He looked for work in several publishing houses, but the financial panic going on at the time prevented several magazines from being able to thrive, so work was scarce.
After a while, Poe was finally was able to publish a long story that recounted a sea voyage, entitled “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.” The story was so well-written that most critics actually believed it to be a true account. After two hard years, Poe began to publish again. He got a job working for a magazine called Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine; his contract was to write horror stories for the magazine, which in 1840, were compiled into a collection called “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.” After Burton’s was sold and the name was changed to Graham’s Magazine, Poe became the editor of that version too, leading the American magazine to become possibly the most important of its time.
A year after his story, “The Gold Bug,” won a $100 prize from the Philadelphia Dollar Magazine, Poe left Graham’s. Not long after, the New York Evening Mirror published his most famous poem, “The Raven.” The poem became extraordinarily popular and Poe frequently did readings of it, in eerie rooms with the lamps turned low and his voice sounding somewhat demonic. Though he reached the height of his popularity with “The Raven,” few writers can make a healthy living on writing alone; most must depend on other positions, such as editorial and publishing jobs. He was able to acquire such employment (he worked for such diverse publications as the Broadway Journal, the Evening Mirror and Grodey’s Lady’s Book) but never held them for long due to his alcoholism. At this time, Virginia also started showing symptoms of tuberculosis. Poe began to get more depressed, started drinking more and sunk into a deep melancholy. Finally, in the winter of 1846, Virginia died, when the couple had little fuel for the cold or food.
Shortly after Virginia’s death, Poe met up with his ex-girlfriend, Sarah Elmira Royster, who was newly single, and the two reconnected. Soon, they were engaged. A few days before their wedding, Poe set off on a trip to New York City from Richmond, but disappeared in Baltimore. Days later, he was found in the street. He was brought to a hospital but died shortly after on October 7th, 1949. Though the cause is still unknown, it is widely believed to have been rabies that killed Poe.
A quick glance at any of Poe’s works reveals that he was a writer whose life events clearly had a strong effect on what he wrote. Though there are many aspects that can be compared and contrasted, it is his use of women, alternating as the objects of affection and substitute mother figures, and the uncanny similarities between several of his main characters and himself that are the most interesting. Vincent Buranelli said that “Edgar Allan Poe is the most complex personality in the entire gallery of American authors. No one else fuses, as he does, such discordant psychological attributes, or offers to the world an appearance so various” (19). While this is true, the “discordant psychological attributes” that Poe frequently wrote about usually referred to himself.
Many of Edgar Allan Poe’s personal problems most likely stemmed from the premature death of David and Elizabeth and the resulting lack of strong parental influence in his early years. It is said by Edward H. Davidson in his Poe: A Critical Study that “one of the major themes in Poe’s whole corpus of writing is his longing for the mother, for a kind of female night-shape who is never there and who will never come” (47). In fact, several psychoanalysts have used Poe and his fixation with his mother as fertile ground for further investigation. In her analysis of Poe’s short story, “The Black Cat,” psychologist Marie Bonaparte argues that for Poe (taking the form of the narrator), the story enacts his displacement of his hatred for his mother for abandoning him (164). He obviously has cause to be angry with Pluto, the all-black cat which bites him and he kills, while the next cat enables him momentarily to forget his act of murder. However, he begins to loathe Pluto’s successor for no other reason than its involuntary reminiscence of the first cat.
This, Bonaparte says, represents Poe’s innermost feelings being projected in the form of a short story, with the two cats as symbols for his several mother figures (Elizabeth, Frances Allan and Maria Clemm). Both Poe and the narrator’s feelings of detestation come from an action or event that was completely beyond control (Elizabeth’s death and the cat’s biting reflex), but the pair still hold both Poe’s mother and Pluto accountable for them. Because their first choice target for hatred is unavailable, they automatically shift their feelings towards an alternate foil. That the second cat has, according to Poe, “a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast” (“The Black Cat,” 212) is probably not a coincidence. This splotch, Bonaparte argues, represents milk both by its color and its position and subsequently reminds the narrator of his felicide.
Nonetheless, it is quite clear that, at least “above the iceberg,” Poe felt a strong affection for his mother. Traditional Freudian theory can also be applied to the storyline and characters in another one of Poe’s short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Though its implication of incest (most of which is drawn from the rather suspect behavior of Usher following his sister’s death and the quote that the two shared “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” 270)) seems like Poe is pandering to the lowest common denominator of reader, he is actually including a topic that was common ground for writing of that time (Wagenknecht 57). Even so, Poe’s insertion of the theme brings to light interesting parallels with his own story. While it is clear that Poe’s time with his parents was not long by any means, it is understood that due to his father’s frequent inebriation and abusive behavior, Elizabeth had a much larger effect on the then-toddler Poe. It is then no surprise to see Poe acting out his Freudian Oedipus complex by having Usher (clearly analogous to Poe) romanticize a blood relative in concept (if not physically), even after her death (or at least what Usher perceives to be her death).
In addition to being concerned with subtly lusting after his mother, Poe also devoted much of his creativity towards the primary love of his life, Virginia Clemm. Within Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” are several references to Virginia’s youngness and their relationship:
I was a child and she was a child, in this kingdom by the sea; but we loved with a love that was more than love- I and my Annabel Lee; with a love that the winged seraphs of heaven coveted her and me. And this was the reason that, long ago, in this kingdom by the sea, a wind blew out of a cloud, chilling my beautiful Annabel Lee; so that her highborn kinsman came and bore her away from me, to shut her up in sepulcher in this kingdom by the sea… for the moon never beams without bringing me dreams of the beautiful Annabel Lee; and the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes of my beautiful Annabel Lee; and so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride, in the sepulcher there by the sea, in her tomb by the pounding sea (“Annabel Lee,” 12-13).
The poem gives the impression that Poe and Clemm’s relationship might have been looked down upon by some, yet Poe’s refutation that they had a “love that was more than love” attempts to dispel that. It is through the poem that Poe, for once, truly lays out all of his feelings about the entire relationship with Virginia. It is also unfortunately a chronicle of his heartbreaking behavior following her death. Though Pruette says that their union was only existent because of Poe’s desire for a mother figure in Maria Clemm (who he became incredibly close with) (67), “Annabel Lee” also recreates Poe’s frequent night-time visits to Virginia’s graveside, where he would often sleep (“all the night-tide, I lie down by the side of my darling”). Poe loved Clemm so much that towards the end of her life and following her death, he could not bear the strain of losing someone so close to him, and he began to drink heavily. “Each time I felt the agonies of her death- and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly and clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive- nervous in a very unusual degree. During these fits of absolute unconsciously, I drank, God only knows how often or how much” (qtd. in Buranelli 38). Here, Poe makes direct mention of his bout with depression and admits to drinking every time his depressive side reared its ugly head. Though containing remarkable beauty and examples of Poe’s sheer brilliance, “Annabel Lee” also became a regrettable testament to the disarray that consumed Poe’s life following the death of his wife.
Also notable in much of Poe’s writing is his resemblance to several of his main characters. In one particular case, Poe, with his own private musings, refers to a hypothetical man who he clearly is comparing to himself. Through the piece, he is responding to the speculation of his mental state: “I have sometimes amused myself by endeavoring to fancy what would be the fate of any individual gifted, or rather accursed, with an intellect very far superior to that of his race. Of course, he would be conscious of his superiority; nor could he (if otherwise constituted as man is) help manifesting his consciousness. Thus he would make himself enemies at all points. And since his opinions and speculations would widely differ from those of all mankind- that he would be considered a madman, is evident. How horribly painful such a condition! Hell could invent no greater torture than that of being charged with abnormal weakness on account of being abnormally strong” (“Marginalia,” 227). Poe views his psychological state as a position of power, rather than hindrance. The passage could also be viewed as a response to his critics, who might view his work (which he believes is far superior to everyone else’s) as the writing of a madman instead of focusing on the brilliance that he’s convinced it contains.
In addition to Poe’s essays, he also places himself in the guise of several fictional protagonists as well. In fact, several critics agree that Poe only has one endlessly repeated main character- himself. He is pictured as appearing and reappearing as his melancholic, hallucinated, mad and half-mad creations again and again. However, out of his many popular characters, it is the character of Roderick Usher from “The Fall of the House of Usher” that Poe seems to represent the most. In the story, Usher is a man who is well aware of his mental instability but, who like Poe, attempts to hold on to his sanity at all costs, regardless. If there was any doubt about the pair’s similarities, Poe goes onto physically describe Usher, and in doing so, depicts himself: “A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of delicate Hebrew model, but with a breath of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely molded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than weblike softness and tenuity- these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten” (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” 198). Even a cursory glance at a picture of Poe will reveal that he not only shares some of these facial features; it is actually a precise depiction of his appearance.
Though the resemblance of Poe to several of his characters might be obvious, one can’t help but wonder why he chose to base so many of them on himself. Based on the various vices that many of his characters fall victim to and their resemblance to him in other areas, it is almost as if Poe is vividly describing his character’s flaws as a way of showing his own. Much of the infamous “evidence” that Poe was a habitual user of opium can be traced back to a few passages from some of his works. Roderick Usher, the character most frequently compared to Poe, is described in “The Fall of the House of Usher” to be an “irreclaimable eater of opium” (276). Furthermore, in his short story “Life in Death,” Poe’s main character goes into an in-depth homily about his drug habit and patterns of use. “I had never swallowed opium before. Laudanum and morphine I had occasionally used, and about them should have had no reason to hesitate… I would take a very small dose in the first instance. I would repeat it until I should find an abatement of the fever” (“Life and Death,” 165). His authoritarian tone paints not only the character, but the author as well, as a source of expertise in the field of opium use.
If one is to use this logic for proof that Poe was an opium addict or at least had inclinations towards the drug, it can also be asserted that he had a predisposition towards domestic abuse. Because his father was a notorious and abusive drunk, it is very likely that young Edgar viewed battery as a subconsciously acceptable form of resolution. Though he never explicitly confesses to beating Virginia or any women, the closest thing to an admission is his “The Black Cat” character’s account that “I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own… I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence” (213). Because the story’s main figure descends slowly into madness, like Poe presumably was himself at that time, it can be assumed that Poe took out his growing confusion and frustration about his mental state on the simple-minded and devoted Virginia Clemm.
However, despite that several of his stories and characters either contain themes of insanity or are insane themselves, Poe still attempts to depict some sort of dramatic arc or have his protagonists think about their own actions, sometimes coming to important conclusions. Almost without fail, “his heroes analyze their obsessions in a sane, perfectly logical way, and he presents the analysis in terms of a highly finished style” (Wageknecht 57). Therefore, if one is attempting to compare Poe’s life to his work, it can be maintained that his work is less a reflection of his psychological state and more a reflection of his “immersion in his own place and time” (Peeples 77).
Growing up without his natural parents and without the love and nurturance that most believe is necessary to mature into a well-adjusted, functioning adult, Edgar Allan Poe, most would agree, satisfied a self-fulfilling prophecy of a life of destruction, depression and mental illness. Yet, even though he faced several obstacles on his road to success, he left behind a legacy of pioneering and extraordinary work that most likely would not have been the same, had his tribulations not had a profound effect on the writing’s eventual quality.
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Poe, Edgar Allan. “Marginalia.” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. New York, New York: Walter J. Black, Inc., 1927. 217-227.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Life and Death.” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. New York, New York: Walter J. Black, Inc., 1927. 159-164.