Edgar Allan Poe: Pioneer, Genius, Oddity

After a stint as a cadet at West Point, Poe decided to devote his life to becoming a writer. “He is the first American who tried to make a living just simply by writing,” says Ward.

On October 3, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore in disarray.

“He’s muttering a variety of things that are indecipherable. Nobody really knows who he is, and he’s not wearing his own clothes,” says David C. Ward, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery. “It seems pretty clear that he was suffering from some sort of alcohol or drug overdose.”

By age 40, Poe had written reams of poetry, attempted to start his own literary journal and become one of the first Americans to support oneself strictly as a writer. But eventually, his mental illnesses and alcohol abuse caught up with him. “He’s wandering around and they put him in the charity hospital, and he suffers four days of what must have been fairly awful trouble,” Ward says. On this day in 1849, America lost one of its most innovative and unusual literary figures to a death as mysterious as his life and works.

He was born to David and Elizabeth Poe, both Boston actors, in 1809, but his father abandoned the family when Edgar was just a year old, and his mother died soon thereafter of tuberculosis. He was taken into the home of the Allans, a wealthy Virginia family, but things continued going downhill for little Edgar from there. “He had a very tempestuous relationship with his surrogate father,” says Ward. After spending an uneasy childhood in both Virginia and Britain, Poe left home to attend the University of Virginia, where he only lasted a year.


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