Foster Father of Poe – Part 3
May 13, 2008
Convinced of my correctness I sailed from Scotland to America at age sixteen and immediately began as a clerk in the Richmond tobacco company of my Uncle William Galt. The old bachelor was the wealthiest man in Virginia but kept me tight to business and doted on his four adopted children and four more he supported and gave one of his protégés a “more expensive education than I ever had (though) I had stronger claims.” I had no time to complain. At age twenty-one in 1800 I took a partner and founded the House of Ellis and Allan and supplied customers in the region with an army of products including chains, gilt buttons, wine, and marble tombstones, and such services as sharpening ploughs and mending scythes. Rapidly we grew and reached overseas, shipping flour to Cadiz for boxes of cigars or tobacco to Liverpool for flannel and velvet.
Whatever help my uncle provided was superseded “by my own exertions.” And in personal lectures to many young men, none of whom ever left my home wanting, I stressed the importance of “fortitude, undeviating firmness, perseverance, good habits, and prudence.” For these attributes I was rewarded with a large residence enhanced by elegant dining room tables, a pianoforte, literary books, encyclopedias, a four-wheel carriage, and three slaves. I entertained my many friends in a most convivial manner, serving gallons of brandy, rum, and whiskey during our card games and hunting trips.
My wife Fanny and I also enjoyed the theater and especially appreciated the actress Eliza Poe. When the latter became gravely ill late in 1811, Fanny and other patrons cared for her and young Ned and his infant sister Rose. Hours before the end Eliza urged Fanny, who had been unable to bear children, to take Ned in. I agreed, and her spirited three-year old joined us early in 1812, and by age five he frowned and told me to call him Edgar. I did that but never addressed him as young Mr. Allan since I’d decided not to adopt. That would’ve complicated my life, which was already freighted with an illegitimate child or two. In 1815 Fanny, her stout sister, Edgar, and I boarded a ship for Liverpool. Every night five weeks in our tight cabin I had to sleep on the floor and weathered this quite comfortably owing to my one hundred fifty-seven pounds of “good hard flesh.” My wife frequently complained she was sick but I told her the primary problem resided in her mind.
In London I concentrated on expanding our businesses and by 1817, along with my partner Ellis back in Virginia, I had amassed three hundred thousand dollars of real estate, stocks, and merchandise. I boarded Edgar with distinguished schoolmasters a few miles from our rented flat – as I’d sent him to excellent teachers in Richmond – and noted the boy’s progress in spelling, geography, history, and Latin, and emphasize to all that one stern tutor rebuked me for giving Edgar such large allowances that I’d already “spoilt” the lad. I would’ve disciplined him more but was forever traveling for business and at home dealing with a wife now often bedridden by minor ailments.
In 1819 London’s collapsing tobacco market lambasted me, and I did not fault a fellow merchant for hanging himself. He simply lacked my constitution “hard as a lightwood knot.” I commanded myself to be patient dealing with a “network of far larger financial problems” that caused a “chain of business collapses.” And, ever the upright man, I promised my landlord his rent and my creditors their two hundred twenty-three thousand dollars. “Pride and ambition” had simply compelled me to “overreach” a bit, opening me to an attack of “bilious pleurisy” that nailed me to bed for a month. By June 1820 I was ready to sail to America to rebuild my businesses.
At first, feeble finances forced us to live with my business partner Ellis. Despite harassment from avaricious creditors and discreditable attorneys, I ably cared for my family, selling retail merchandise and weakened real estate, and by 1822 had reduced my debt by one hundred fifty thousand dollars. All along Edgar Poe was far more fortunate than I’d been, attending private academies to study Latin, French, English, and math. At home he called my wife Ma, which she tolerated, and addressed me as Pa, making me grimace. I explicitly was not the father of this increasingly arrogant and “ill-tempered” boy who, at age sixteen, convinced me he “possessed not a spark of affection for us nor a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him.”
I had always respected my Uncle William Galt and appreciated the opportunities he’d given me. He accordingly rescued me from imminent bankruptcy, buying all my assets and letting me live in one of his houses. During an 1825 visit he “suddenly threw back his head and eyes and seemed oppressed,” dying in my grasp. This was a rending loss despite my inheriting the house and three estates encompassing more than five thousand acres valued at three quarters of a million dollars. I promptly bought a mansion and several other buildings on the finest hill in Richmond and from my perch gazed at the James River and the capitol of the commonwealth.
Moody Edgar occupied a room on the second floor, writing poetry and proclaiming himself a man of genius. In February 1826 I sent him to the University of Virginia. The nation’s most expensive institution was lovingly conceived and designed by Thomas Jefferson, who would live until that Fourth of July. In letters Edgar praised the pillared library designed like the Roman Pantheon. Within weeks, however, he began to chronicle a frightening place where a “common fight is so trifling an occurrence that no notice is taken of it” and one student hit another on the head with a stone and the latter responded with a pistol, “which are all the fashion here.” Only a misfire spared the instigator. In another engagement a Kentuckian battered a fellow scholar then “began to bite. I saw the arm afterward… It was bitten from shoulder to elbow and it is likely pieces of flesh as large as my hand will be obliged to be cut out.” Despite these events, which he urged me to come see, Edgar registered outstanding scores in both French and Latin. They’d be the last damn classes I ever paid for. After learning about Edgar’s outrages, I would’ve been justified in biting him.
Sources – Edgar A. Poe, Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance by Kenneth Silverman; Wikipedia.