Just as Poe’s chilling tales have captured the public imagination for almost two centuries, so has Poe himself. In our imagination we see him as a morbid—perhaps mad—figure lurking in the shadows of cemeteries or crumbling castles. But Poe was so much more than that; what isn’t common knowledge about him could fill volumes. A textbook iconoclast, in addition to being an author, Poe was also a world traveler, a detective, and a military man who (allegedly) fought in the Greek War of Independence and was held prisoner in Russia—more of a swashbuckler than a haunted recluse.
And although Poe’s literary reputation rests primarily on his tales of terror as well as on his haunting lyric poetry, his surprisingly vast oeuvre also includes short stories, a novel, a textbook, a book of scientific theory, and hundreds of essays and book reviews. In fact, he made his living as America’s first great literary critic and theoretician. His influence continues to be felt today among best-selling novelists. Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch, said, “Poe invented the detective story and science fiction. In essence, he invented a huge part of the twentieth century.”
But achieving this stature took every ounce of stubborn drive the young writer—who accomplished all this before dying at 40—had in his possession. One might say he was convinced of his own genius from childhood, orphaned as a toddler and raised as an outsider in a wealthy family, Poe always knew he was different. “From childhood’s hour I have not been as others were,” he wrote. “I have not seen as others saw; I could not bring my passions from a common spring.” For some, this would be a recipe for disaster; for others, like Poe, it was a welcome challenge. The young Poe was raised by his distant foster father to be a Virginia gentleman, but clearly he had other ideas. He read voraciously, poetry especially, and dreamt of being a writer like his childhood hero, the British poet Lord Byron. In fact, by the age of thirteen, Poe had compiled enough poetry to publish a book. The story of the rest of his life followed the same pattern of refusing to follow the straight path to success, instead bowing to his muses whenever they called—often to help him out of a youthful jam. Jilted in love at age 18, Poe pounded out and published his first book, Tamerlane.
Accepted into West Point only to be thrown out for insubordination, he published his second book only eight months later. Living in poverty after being disinherited, Poe wrote magazine pieces like a demon, eventually earning a coveted spot as staff writer at the Southern Literary Messenger, where he began his career as a critic, and so it went, with Poe answering challenges with creativity—and sometimes gorgeous poetry.
When his young wife Virginia died at 24 of tuberculosis, many thought Poe himself would die of grief. Instead, the poem “Annabel Lee” told the story. “Neither the angels in heaven above / nor the demons down under the sea / Can ever dissever my soul from the soul / of the beautiful Annabel Lee.” When Poe published “The Fall of the House of Usher” in 1839—at age 30—it helped establish his growing reputation as a writer of literary thrillers. It’s unknown what the source of the story was, but it has been speculated that it was based upon a grisly discovery in the ruins of Boston’s Hezekiah Usher house. When the Usher house was torn down in 1830, two bodies were found embraced in a cavity in the cellar—and a story told of a sailor and the young wife of the older homeowner who were caught and entombed in their trysting spot by her husband.
“The Raven” was published in 1845, establishing Poe as a household name. But he did not live long enough to enjoy the fame. Just four years later he disappeared in Baltimore and was found unconscious on the street, wearing clothes that were not his own. Because he was delirious, he could not say what had befallen him. Apropos of the work he had penned in his lifetime, Poe’s death four days later was equally strange and inexplicable. “Maybe it’s fitting that since he invented the detective story,” wrote Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe museum in Richmond, Virginia, “he left us with a real-life mystery.”
Jane Ganahl has been a journalist, author, editor, and producer in San Francisco for more than three decades. She is the co-founder of Litquake, the West Coast’s largest independent literary festival, author of the memoir Naked on the Page, and contributor to many magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Ladies’ Home Journal, and San Francisco Opera Magazine.