Edgar Allan Poe: Death in a Gutter

On the 7th of October 1849 Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore, America. He was one of the world’s most renowned crime and horror writers, credited also with inventing the detective and science fiction genres. Poe was the first Victorian writer who had an ambition to earn a living from writing. Judging by the final outcome of his life, he did manage to do so, yet, despite his exceptional talent, he died in poverty. His dark Gothic tales – to name a few: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket , The Fall of the House of Usher , The Raven – played on the imagination of the early 19th century reader, often revealing complex and disturbing truths about the dealings of a human mind. Most of Poe’s characters either die or descend to madness, which by looking at the course of Poe’s own life seems to bear a somehow ironic stigma of a self-fulfilling prophecy: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity”.

There is this specific relationship between Poe’s writing and his own life, which seems to contradict Roland Barthes’ argument on the separateness of a creator from their work. To certain extent only by learning about Poe’s turbulent life we understand his writing, and vice versa – his texts reflect the complexity of his psychological states, often dictated by a strand of tragic events throughout his life. For instance, his obsession with the theme of death was most likely propelled by deaths of his biological mother, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, his foster mother, Frances Allan, and his wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm (whom he married when she was only thirteen years old!). All of them died of consumption (tuberculosis); hence, the colour red attributed to death in some of Poe’s stories. Also, a significant influence on his adult life and the way he perceived and conducted his professional carrier, had the fact that both of his fathers, the biological one, William Henry Leonard Poe, and the foster one, John Allan, abandoned him at certain stages of his life. Some biographers claim that this was the cause of Poe’s devouring ambition and his constant willingness to prove himself as a successful writer.

After his wife’s death, Poe became increasingly unstable. It must have left an unbearable void in his life for all of a sudden he engaged himself in an erratic quest for love and women. At some stage he even got engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster. Soon after that, in autumn 1849, Poe went missing. His tormented life ended, due to some unexplained prior circumstances, at the Washington Medical College in Baltimore. Four days before his death, the man had been found in one of the gutters of Baltimore, delirious and wearing clothes that were not his own.

“Edgar Allan Poe is dead” read a critical obituary in the New York Tribune on the day of his burial, “This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known personally or by reputation, in all this country… But he had few or no friends. The regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art lost one of its most brilliant, but erratic stars… Passion, in him, comprehended many of the worst emotions, which militate against human happiness…He had, to a morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species, only the hard wish to succeed, not shine, not serve, but succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.” (New York Tribune, 9 October 1849)

These words came allegedly from Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s rival in the literary world as well as in love quests.  Perversely, before his death, Poe entrusted his literary estate to Griswold – a strange situation indeed. “It was as if Mozart had left his scores to Antonio Salieri” (Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography). Griswold took advantage of the situation and used it to discredit and distort the image of the writer. In his own memoir, Griswold fabricated Poe’s letters to present himself in a more favourable light as Poe’s beneficiary. On the other hand, Poe was depicted as “a drunken, amoral, death-obsessed wretch” (Quinn). This radical and partially confabulated testimony has made it difficult to rehabilitate Poe’s image ever since. Numerous apocryphal biographies on Edgar Allan Poe’s life either idolize his genius or demonize his behaviour, yet the mystery of his death remains unanswered.