Edgar More Poe Than Allan

January 19: Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809, under the sort of conditions that would too often recur in his own adult life. Poe's mother became an itinerant actress at the age of nine; she was orphaned at age eleven, married at fifteen, widowed and immediately remarried at eighteen, and abandoned by her second husband not long after Edgar's birth. She struggled on for another three years, working the East Coast theaters with her three children in tow. She was overcome by illness while playing in Richmond, Virginia, where the local newspapers rallied to her cause:

To the Humane heart. On this night Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance and asks it perhaps for the last time. The Generosity of the Richmond Audience can need no other appeal....

Eliza Poe died within days, more or less as Poe's wife, Virginia Eliza, would die thirty-six years later: of tuberculosis, in dire poverty, at the age of twenty-four. When the prosperous Richmond merchant John Allan stepped in, Poe seemed surely rescued from his family history of abandonment, itinerancy, and hand-outs. Mrs. Allan was doting, and though Mr. Allan was no-nonsense, he was willing to spend on young Edgar for a fair return on the investment. Opportunities were offered in society, at school, and at the family business, though Poe was not legally adopted. Nor was he much interested, preferring poetry and other habits that Allan did not like. By the time his guardian died in 1834, the twenty-five-year-old Poe had run up so many debts and broken so many promises to reform that he was cut from the very substantial will. Even when attempting to play the prodigal stepson at Allan's deathbed, he had been booted out of the house. Poe would spend the fifteen years that remained moving up and down the Eastern seaboard as his mother the actress had done, his talent for writing and histrionics never quite enough to overcome his darker habits, or his need for charity.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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