The original decadent was born January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. The family was anything but happy, and in Edgar’s second year his father deserted the family and his mother died. Edgar was adopted by a sea merchant of modest upbringing, John Allen, from whom Poe adopted his new middle name.
Poe attended the University of Virginia for a short time, but became estranged from the University, as he had also become from his adopted father. He moved back to Boston and self-published his first book of poetry, “Tamerlane”, when he was eighteen years old.
He married his 13 year old cousin and pursued a career as a writer and editor. He lived a mobile urban life, moving from one city after another to seek writing or editing assignments. He was editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, then of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in Philadelphia, and he also lived in New York City and Baltimore. He seemed at home in all East Coast American cities, but never seemed to find a home in any of them.
He began to publish odd, macabre tales of torture, horror, mystery and obsession, which obviously became his specialty. Among these are “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell Tale Heart”. His poem “The Raven” is known not only for its gothic resonance but also for it’s amazingly lush lines of verse, with phrases like “the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”.
His writings were published or self-published in various journals, and did receive acclaim and interest from a broad American audience. But there was no sense that he would ever be able to make a living from these odd stories and poems, and Poe struggled until his last years to find full-time employment with magazines or journals or newspapers.
Unfortunately his alcoholism and womanizing began to catch up with him, and his social image soon went from bad to worse. He had always been a fastidious dresser, almost a “dandy”, but he was unable to keep up his appearance and was often seen in a disheveled, unclean or confused state. This did not help his ability to hold down jobs at respectable publishing companies.
He died in a state of desolation and poverty on October 7, 1849 in Baltimore, Maryland, the city that would claim his final scene. His reputation floundered after his death until it was discovered by the equally disheveled French poet Baudelaire, who fortunately had learned English from a relative. Baudelaire became Poe’s champion, and to this date Poe is more highly regarded in France and in the rest of Europe than in his native America.