Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Story of America: Essays on Origins

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In today's excerpt - as befitting the bizarre subjects of his stories, American author Edgar Allan Poe lived a life filled with distress and poverty, married his thirteen-year-old cousin, and died in dire circumstances at the age of forty:

"Edgar Poe was born in Boston, on January 19, 1809, to a talented actress named Eliza Poe and her hapless husband, David, who deserted her. When Edgar was two, his mother died of consumption. The Poe orphans had little more to depend upon than the charity of strangers. The children were separated and Edgar landed in the home of a wealthy Richmond merchant named John Allan and his sickly, childless wife, Fanny. Allan, who ran a firm called the House of Ellis and Allan, never adopted the boy, and never loved him, either. Poe, for his part, took Allan's name but never wanted it. (He signed letters, and published, as 'Edgar A. Poe.') In 1815, Allan moved his family to London, to take advantage of the booming British market for Virginia tobacco. Poe attended posh boarding schools. Then, during the Panic of 1819, the first bust in the industrializing nineteenth century, banks failed, factories closed, and Allan's business imploded. The House of Ellis and Allan fell. Allan, plagued with two hundred thousand dollars of debt, sailed back to Virginia. Poe turned poet. ...

"In 1823, Poe fell in love with Jane Stannard, the unhinged mother of a school friend. A year later, Stannard died, insane. Poe spent much time at her graveside. 'No more' became his favorite phrase. ... In 1825, Allan inherited a fortune from an uncle. Allan rose; Poe kept falling. At sixteen, Poe went to the University of Virginia where he drank and gambled and, in a matter of months, racked up debts totaling more than two thousand dollars. Allan refused to honor them, even though Poe was at some risk of finding himself in debtor's prison. Poe ran off. There followed a series of huffy pronouncements and stormy departures; most ended in Poe begging Allan for money. 'I am in the greatest necessity, not having tasted food since Yesterday morning,' Poe wrote. 'I have nowhere to sleep at night, but roam about the Streets.' Allan was unmoved. Poe enlisted in the army and served for two years as Edgar A. Perry. In 1829, Fanny Allan died. Andrew Jackson was inaugurated. Poe, while awaiting a commission to West Point -- having sent an application, and Allan's fifty dollars, to Jackson's secretary of war, John Eaton -- submitted the manuscript for a book of poems to a publisher, who told him that he would publish it only if Poe would guarantee him against the loss. Allan refused to front the money. Poe moved to Baltimore, where he lived with his invalid grandmother; his aunt, Maria Clemm; his nine-year-old cousin, Virginia; and his brother, Henry, an alcoholic who was dying of consumption. ...

"Poe, who was broke, didn't need a bank. He could treasure up funds, he came to believe, in his own brain. He read as much as he could, charging books out of the Baltimore Library. 'There are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest for ever,' he once wrote. 'Knowledge breeds knowledge, as gold gold.' Poe may have thought his mind was a mint, but when his book of poems was finally published, it earned him nothing. ...

" 'I have an inveterate habit of speaking the truth,' Poe once wrote. That, too, was a lie. (That Poe lied so compulsively about his own life has proved the undoing of many a biographer.) In 1830, Poe finally made it to West Point, where he pulled pranks. 'I cannot believe a word he writes,' Allan wrote on the back of yet another letter from his wayward charge. After Poe was court-martialed, Allan, who had since married a woman twenty years his junior, cut Poe off entirely. Poe went to New York but, unable to support himself by writing, he left the city within three months, returning to Baltimore, to live with Mrs. Clemm and little Virginia. He published his first story, 'Metzengerstein.' He won a prize of fifty dollars from the Baltimore Weekly Visitor for 'MS in a Bottle.' The editor, who met him, later wrote, 'I found him a state of starvation.' In these straits, Poe wrote 'Berenice,' a story about a man who disinters his dead lover and yanks out all her teeth -- 'the white and glistening, and ghastly teeth of Berenice' -- although this gets even grosser when, after he's done it, he realizes she was still alive. It has been plausibly claimed that Poe wrote this story to make a very bad and cruel and long-winded joke about 'bad taste.'? Also: he was hungry.

"John Allan died in 1834, a rich man. He left his vast estate, three plantations and two hundred slaves, to his second wife and their two children. He left Edgar A. Poe not a penny. The next year, Poe was hired as the editor of a new monthly magazine, the Southern Literary Messenger, in Richmond. He was paid sixty dollars a month, a modest salary but for him, a fortune. In 1836, Poe married Virginia Clemm. She was thirteen; he was twenty-seven; he said she was twenty-one. He called her his 'darling little wifey.' "

Author: Jill Lepore
Title: The Story of America: Essays on Origins
Publisher: Princeton
Date: Copyright 2012 by Jill Lepore
Pages: 180-184
The Story of America: Essays on Origins
by Jill Lepore by Princeton University Press

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