Poe the Scholar and Soldier – Part 5
June 4, 2008
In person I may have addressed my foster father John Allan as Pa but in my heart and with others I called him a tyrant who, despite his wealth, denied sufficient funds for dignified survival at the University of Virginia, sentencing me to dress inelegantly and use my own hands to tidy my room. Fellow students considered me a beggar and often excluded me from their gentlemanly activities. Even after I explained the difficulties, arrogant Allan merely sent enough to cover tuition. Desperate to pay for books, a servant, and other essentials, I was compelled to start gambling.
I dared not continue to dress inappropriately when attending card games organized by distinguished and violent young men. I instead entered wearing fine velvet vests and ornamented waistcoats purchased on credit. Give me a drink, will you. And keep them coming. I played better that way. I’d been raised around spirits and knew these privileged opponents could neither match my intake nor comprehend the aesthetic aspects of intoxication. While they concentrated on cards – which I by no means ignored – I comported myself as a poet.
At the end of the school term, during which I excelled in Latin and French, I returned to Richmond.
“You’re two thousand five hundred dollars in debt,” John Allan said.
“Sir, you will help me, won’t you? This academic debt is to you a trifle.”
“Not one dollar will come from me so you can continue to eat the bread of idleness. Starting tomorrow morning, you work.”
To John Allan’s office as well as his mansion, one concedes, some of my creditors did angrily come. Others mailed bills, often addressed in care of Allan, and his abuse worsened as did that of his relatives, whom he delighted telling, often in my presence, the details of my duress. After two months of terror, which included my girlfriend before college, Elmira Royster, becoming engaged to another man, Allan again degraded me without due acknowledgment of my talent.
“Forgive me, sir, but were you not two hundred thousand dollars in debt and would a beggar be if not for your Uncle William Galt, whose largess, I believe, is the sole reason for your current comfort and wealth?”
Bounding toe to toe and almost impaling my forehead with his hooknose, John Allan said, “Keep your foul thoughts inside your head, or I’ll thrash you. Now get your things and leave my house.”
Unable to carry away my trunk I clutched a few garments and walked into Richmond. Without food or money I roamed most of the night before curling behind a tavern. In the morning the owner agreed to let me receive correspondence there. To John Allan I wrote: “Sir, you have misled me. You raised me to aspire to eminence in public life, yet you have blasted my hope by denying me the very education you always preached was so essential. You have, furthermore, besmirched my reputation by enumerating my troubles before those whom you think likely to advance my interest… I am therefore seeking some place in this world where I will be treated not as you have treated me… I have heard you say (when you little thought I was listening and therefore must have said it in earnest) that you had no affection for me. Due entirely to your alternate indifference and over-supervision, the greatest necessity is now upon me and I tremble at the consequence if you do not assist. I merely ask that to the tavern you send my trunk of clothes and books, and enough money to enable me to travel north and survive one month. It depends on yourself if hereafter you see or hear from me.”
John Allan responded not with my trunk or modest financial assistance but a letter stating: “Sir… It is true that I taught you to aspire even to eminence in public life, but I never expected that Don Quixote…and such (frivolous) works were calculated to promote the end. You should have understood my supervision was designed to guide you to perseverance and industry in reading the classics, in perfecting yourself in the mathematics, mastering the French, etc. Regarding your charge of being denied parental love, I am sure you are a much better judge of the propriety of your own conduct and general treatment of those who have had the charge of your infancy and have watched with parental solicitude and affection over your tender years… It is most ironic that after such a list of black charges you tremble for the consequence unless I send you a supply of money. To that I say: the world will reply.” Cuttingly, he left the letter unsigned.
Where did I go, many wanted to know? To some I sent letters identifying England as the imminent destination. Others thought I was fighting in Greece. Some believed I lived in Russia. Neither John Allan nor my creditors, who continued to invade his estate, knew I was working at a small newspaper in Boston and collaborating with a young printer whose parents had admired the stagecraft of my late parents, David and Eliza Poe. In June of 1827 came fifty published copies of a forty-page booklet entitled Tamerlane and other Poems by an anonymous “Bostonian.” In a footnote I discuss the predominate theme: “It is a matter of the greatest difficulty to make the generality of mankind believe that one with whom they are upon terms of intimacy, should be called, in the world, ‘a great man.’”
No one understood, and I could not wait for realization. I needed bread, shelter, and a little fellowship. For these I that spring looked to the United States Army, in which I enlisted as Edgar A. Perry for five years and served in Boston Harbor and Fortress Monroe, Virginia where three hundred cannons leered at Chesapeake Bay. My superiors credited me with avoiding alcohol and performing well my duties, and assigned me to the department that procured food for troops. More approval followed, and in January 1829, at age twenty, I was promoted to sergeant major for artillery. A noncommissioned officer could advance no further.
I did not want advancement. I wanted to quit, and confessed I was Edgar Poe and outlined my personal history. You can’t get out unless you reconcile with John Allan, the commander said, and in my behalf composed a request Allan denied. I nervously picked up a pen and wrote: “You believed me degraded and disgraced and that any thing were preferable to my returning home and entailing on yourself a portion of my infamy. This is hurtful since your aspirations for me had always been those of a father and I always strove to fulfill your highest wishes. Please note I am altered from what you knew me, and am no longer a boy tossing about on the world without aim or consistency. I am now proud of myself and will be able to resume living in Richmond without shame.”
John Allan declined to reply. Again I tried: “Pecuniary assistance I do not desire – unless of your own free and unbiased choice… If you determine to abandon me…I will be doubly ambitious and the world shall hear of the son whom you have thought unworthy of your notice… My father, do not throw me aside as degraded. I will be an honor to your name.”
John Allan did not respond. I wrote a third letter to help him “see what direction my future views and expectations are inclined. I am clearly suited for a military career. In every duty to date I’ve excelled but can only become an officer by studying at West Point, and to do so need you to allow me to leave the army and help in gaining admission to the academy. I am worthy of such assistance since, of my gambling at the University of Virginia, I never meant to offer a shadow of excuse. I’d simply never been away from home before. I also convey my love for Ma and urgently inquire about her well-being.”
Later I learned she’d been asking to see me as she lay ill. Allan responded reluctantly. I arrived the day after burial and nearly collapsed on her grave.
During the visit a bereaved Allan forgave all and promised to advance my plans for a military career.
“The army naturally requires I provide a substitute,” I explained.
“How much is that?”
“Only twelve dollars.”
“Fine, let’s proceed.”
I was discharged in April 1829 and returned home to Richmond. Letters of recommendation soon emerged from the Speaker of the House of Representatives and a former governor of Virginia who’d read my poetry and proclaimed me “a young gentleman of genius and talent – I believe he is to be distinguished.” In his letter to Secretary of War John Eaton, Allan was quite more reserved, noting that “Edgar is no relation to me whatever. I helped him, as so many others, since every man is my care, if he be in distress… It will afford me great pleasure to reciprocate any kindness you can show him.”
In May Allan gave me a hundred dollars for my army substitute and trip to Washington where Secretary Eaton told me I was forty-eighth on the waiting list and might not be able to enter West Point that September but would be assured the following June. I then walked thirty arduous miles to the small Baltimore residence of my natural father’s sister, Aunt Maria Clemm, her seven-year old daughter, Virginia, and my crippled grandmother. My adventurous but drunken brother Henry sometimes stayed with us. In a few weeks, Allan, distressed by what I might idly do for a year, ordered me to walk back to Washington to see Eaton. My name had crawled up the list to eleventh but matriculation wasn’t imminent and I revisited Baltimore.
John Allan responded with interrogation by mail: “Why haven’t you gotten in? Have you energetically used the influence of those who backed you? What are you doing to advance your military career in Baltimore? Why do you already need more money?”
“My cousin, with whom I was staying in a hotel, has robbed me. To prove that I here enclose his thorough letter of admission. And I’m sorry you didn’t understand – for I didn’t either – only my commanding officer can procure my substitute for the modest sum of twelve dollars. As the commander – to my shock and consternation – was away on assignment at the time of my release, I had to pay a sergeant seventy-five dollars. Thank you for this money, which now enables me to be prudent and careful, as you’d originally directed, and I had in fact been until the aforementioned and quite unforeseen travails.
“You will be further delighted to learn, my Dear Pa, that I have recently visited William Wirt, the distinguished former Attorney General, with whom you are acquainted, and he admired my new poem ‘Al Aaraaf’ and suggested I talk to the esteemed editor and authority on modern poetry, Robert Walsh. I ventured to Philadelphia and learned this gentleman also respected my work, but he warned of difficulties getting poems published here. Undaunted, I approached the very fine publishing firm of Cary, Lea, & Carey, and was told they would publish my work if not for financial stress. For this reason I am now going to make a request different from any I have ever yet made. Given your own profound aesthetic inclinations, which manifestly enhanced my development, I believe you will want to help me stand before the eyes of the world. There is but little risk to yourself since a mere one hundred dollars would cover all costs of publication, and each book sale will reduce that commitment.”
John Allan responded with the utmost abuse, refusing not merely to help publicize my talent but scrawling, “I am not particularly anxious to see you.”
I wrote back: “I assure you of my passion for West Point and ask if you really meant I could not return home. I’m in a most uncomfortable situation with my relatives, and hence darting between the most downtrodden boarding houses and hotels. Couldn’t you please help with eight or ten dollars a month until my June matriculation at the academy?”
He responded with a minimal amount but commented that “men of genius ought not to apply to my aid.”
A more astute man would’ve been honored to yield support during preparation of my second book, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, published in December 1829 by the Baltimore company Hatch & Dunning. For my exertions I received two hundred fifty copies and much critical notice. A lone philistine complained of the title poem that “all our brain-cudgelling could not compel us to understand it.” Another stated that though “a part are exceedingly boyish, feeble, and altogether deficient…we have parts and parts too of considerable length, which remind us of no less a poet than Shelley.” More trenchant still was the reviewer who declared: “We view the production as highly creditable to the country. Throughout, there runs a rich vein of deep and powerful thought, clothed in language of almost inimitable beauty and harmony. His fancy is rich and of an elevated cast; his imagination powerfully creative.”
In candor I must concede that though an idler I’d always been I doubted never that literary greatness was my fate and indeed already at hand. About this John Allan could not have been entirely immune but as my book generated no income – had in fact again beset me with production costs – he said writing was a pastime rather than a profession. This viewpoint was not without logic since in the entirety of America only three or four survived by literary effort alone.
“You remind me of your parents,” Allan said during my spring 1830 visit to the house his uncle bought by dying.
“Of you and Ma?”
“Of the lazy drunken actor who abandoned his family, and the actress who never convincingly identified the father of your rather dim half-sister Rose.”
“Rose is thoroughly my sister.”
“Always uncertain is the paternity of those borne of actresses. Their offspring, it seems, are heedless as well.”
I wanted to hit him. Really I should have. I don’t know why I didn’t. In truth I knew I couldn’t. Silently I turned and climbed to my second-floor room and wrote to my substitute sergeant, Bully Graves, who’d sent a letter demanding his seventy-five dollars. “Really, sir, I expected you’d have long ago received your well-earned fee. If at first I’m stunned the money has yet to reach you, I shouldn’t be. Mr. A always shuffles me off and is not very often sober. Do not worry. Only yesterday did I obtain the money from him and will forward it to you forthwith.”
Even on the plain of West Point overlooking the grand Hudson River I could not evade barbaric comments from John Allan, who in June 1830 wrote that I’d stolen books and other items from his estate. “I’ve taken nothing except what I considered my property,” I replied.
My fellow cadets at summer encampment were entirely more supportive, particularly after learning I was the grandson of Benedict Arnold, a college graduate in England, a seaman, and adventurer in Europe, South America, and Asia. My facility with muskets and cannons also impressed them as did, starting that fall, my immediate and high-ranking grasp of French and mathematics. Our routine was really quite fine. Rising at five exhilarated me for studies till breakfast at seven then more books between eight and lunch and from two till four. We paraded and drilled before dinner then resumed academic activities until nine-thirty. Before retiring the cadets often gathered around me to read my current poems or lighter lampoons of officers.
“Get back,” I one night ordered, holding a letter from a Richmond neighbor who cut me with notice that John Allan had just remarried. And he’d done so in New York City, close to West Point, yet neither invited nor visited me. He’d also just sired twins out of wedlock with another woman. How many illegitimate children this lecher had I cannot compute. I nevertheless sent him a letter offering “regards to Mrs. A” and only parenthetically requested a book and mathematical instruments and noted “my more necessary expenditures have run me into debt.”
Allan responded: “This is my final letter to you. After reading your malicious letter to Sergeant Graves, which the gentleman sent me with his bill, I desire no further communication with yourself on my part.”
He wanted to disperse his wealth to bastard children. No, it was worse. He was going to breed with this new wife twenty years younger and bestow upon his new and undeserving family a life of warmth and comfort. On January third, 1831 I wrote him: “Did I, when an infant, solicit your charity and protection? On the contrary you volunteered your services in my behalf. My Grandfather Poe (my natural protector) was wealthy, and I was his favorite grandchild. But your promises of adoption and liberal education, which you held forth to him in a letter which is now in possession of my family, induced him to resign all care of me into your hands. Under such circumstances, can it be said that I have no right to expect any thing at your hands?
“Do not delude yourself that for me you provided a liberal education during a scant eight months at the University of Virginia. And speak not of my debts incurred there for they, and all other difficulties, resulted not from my drinking and gambling in dire efforts to earn money but from your own mistaken parsimony while I was in Charlottesville. If I had been the vilest wretch on earth you could not have been more abusive. Since that sad time you have undermined me with many more deceits. From you I received no help gaining entrance to West Point. I earned that myself by the most humiliating privations – a cadet’s warrant you could have obtained at any time. If Ma had not died while I was away, there would have been nothing for me to regret – your love I never valued – but she I believed loved me as her own child.
“Thank God my problems have made me quite ill and my future life will not long endure. I am exhausted and a beggar too strapped for money to continue at this place. To quit at this point technically requires your signed consent as my nominal guardian. Do not bother either offering or withholding your agreement. I will soon orchestrate my departure in a manner I trust will distress you, in at least a small measure of the way you have so many times devastated me.”
The campaign I initiated by staying in bed for reveille and roll call and missing some evening parades and class parades. A record of misconduct accrued but rather too slowly so I altogether quit attending academic duties for two weeks. By January twenty-eighth I’d tallied sixty-six offenses, three times more than anyone at West Point, and my court-martial began. I acknowledged the charges and a military court ruled “cadet E.A. Poe be dismissed from the service of the United States.” No one was angry. Unlike John Allan, these men understood I was a “man of talent.” The superintendent arranged for me to stay long enough to satisfy my creditors, and one hundred thirty-one fellow cadets, more than half those in the academy, each contributed a dollar and a quarter that would soon enable me to produce my third book. I abandoned West Point in mid-February and arrived unchained and alive in New York City. A few weeks later I sent this letter: “Despite all resolution to the contrary, I must write you to say I have no money or friends and lack all substantial clothing, even a cloak. A most violent cold on my lungs is causing my ear to discharge blood and matter continually. Please send me a little money – quickly – and forget what I said about you – God bless you.”
Sources: Edgar Allan Poe, A Critical Biography by Arthur Hobson Quinn; Edgar A. Poe, Mournful and Never-Ending Experience by Kenneth Silverman; “The Military Career of Edgar Allan Poe” by James Kenny.