January 19, 2010

Birth of Edgar Poe

Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Poe became an orphan as an infant when his mother died (his father had already abandoned the family). His older brother was taken in by family in Baltimore. Young Edgar and his younger sister were taken in by two unrelated families in Richmond. Poe was raised by John and Frances Allan, though his legal name was never Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe grew up in a fairly high-class lifestyle, even going to school in England for five years as a boy. When he reached young adulthood, however, his foster-father John Allan (who never adopted the boy) spurned him, calling him ungrateful. Determined to make a living as a writer at a time when it was financially impossible to do so, Poe lived a life of poverty. His greatest works brought him, on average, $10 to $15 each.

Poe's connection to Boston is more than the coincidental place of his birth. His parents were actors who traveled with a mobile acting troupe. Their time in Boston, however, lasted about three years. His mother, Eliza Poe, was an English immigrant who first came to the country as a young child, landing at Boston Harbor in 1796. When his mother died, she presented to young Edgar a miniature portrait of Boston Harbor (no longer extant), with her inscription: "For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends."

When he was cast aside by John Allan, it was to Boston that Poe attempted to make a living on his own. He enlisted in the Army under the false name "Edgar A. Perry" and was first stationed at Fort Independence on Boston's Castle Island. It was in the same city that Poe published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, with the byline "By A Bostonian."Years later, when Poe had achieved fame as a poet (particularly for "The Raven"), he returned to Boston to lecture at the Boston Lyceum - an event which has gone down in history as disastrous. The stage which he lectured from was, in fact, the same Boston stage where Eliza Poe had her last performance in Boston.

Poe was known for his quarrels with Boston-area writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and (sometimes) Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Russell Lowell. He particularly disagreed with the reform mentality of the group of writers he called "Frogpondians" (after the Frog Pond on Boston Common), who often wrote didactic works. Poe's relationship to Boston and Boston-area writers is explored in-depth in "The Raven in the Frog Pond," an exhibit at the Boston Public Library, through March 31, 2010.


  1. Hello Rob, - in honor of Poe's birthday I looked at your Poe blog and see that, as you promised, you are now doing this American Literary Blog. I tend to the British side of literature, but glad to know you are here and doing this, and will visit periodically!
    Deb [Jane Austen in Vermont and Bygone Books blogs]

  2. What is your theory as to what happened to the "Poe toaster" this year? Did he choose to end the tradition after the 200th anniversary? Is he no longer with us?

  3. It had to end eventually and I think the timing was just right now. If he/she ended it in, say, 2017, it just doesn't have the same bang as saying it ended in 2009, the bicentennial year. I also think that the big funeral that Baltimore threw had something to do with it; now that Poe has been honored so publicly, it's not necessary for this quaint tradition. We don't even know why it started, so I suppose it's only right to not know why it ended (if it ended at all - it might have just been an off year!).