Edgar Allan Poe was the finest American writer to be transformed into a “personality” in his own lifetime and, like François Villon, to be known less for his work than for his person. As is so often the case with figures of public celebrity, the facts of Poe’s life have been obscured by layers of legend, many of them perpetuated in the learned literature by scholars who should know better. Jeffrey Meyers, a California professor who has given us sturdy biographies of Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, makes a valuable contribution to Poe studies with his new life of the writer, particularly by distinguishing fact from long-standing fiction. He had an unenviable task, given the many Parson Weemses who have inserted their agenda into the biographical record.

Poe, as is well known, lived a miserable life. He was born on January 19, 1809, ill Boston (the same year, Meyers points out, as Mendelssohn, Darwin, Gladstone, Lincoln, and Tennyson, all of whom outlived Poe) to an alcoholic actor, David Poe, and an unstable actress, Eliza, who died in a state of semi-lunacy and deep poverty after David deserted the family. Young Edgar was adopted by a family friend, John Allan, a mean-spirited Scottish immigrant who gave the boy an admirable education but little else. The Allan family lived in the English village of Stoke Newington during Poe’s childhood, and there he attended the school whose halls Daniel Defoe had graced two centuries before. He acquired a classical education that rivaled any university instruction in the United States, and as a student at the University of Virginia Poe easily earned the highest honors in classical and modern languages.

He also earned the wrath of a number of creditors, for Poe borrowed heavily to finance an already evident pattern of drunkenness and gambling. A school friend recalled him as “very excitable & restless, at times wayward, melancholic & morose, but again—in his better moods frolicksome, full of fun & a most attractive and agreeable companion. To calm and quiet the excessive nervous excitability under which he labored, he would too often put himself under the influence of that ‘Invisible Spirit of Wine.'” John Allan had not given Edgar enough money to pay for his room and board, much less his extracurricular excesses, and the young man would never be out of debt again.

Poe joined the army under the name of Edgar A. Perry in May 1827, as an enlisted man. Assigned to the commissariat, he kept records and correspondence for his officers, among whom he became a favorite and a model soldier. In only 19 months he attained the highest enlisted grade, regimental sergeant major. For reasons that are not entirely clear, however, Poe cajoled his way out of the enlisted ranks and would thereafter never admit to his years in the service, no matter how exemplary they might have been: when called on to account for his whereabouts in 1827 and 1828, Poe would variously hint that he had been off fighting with Byron in the Greek Rebellion or intriguing in St. Petersburg with enemies of the czar. Meyers carefully unveils Poe’s time in military service, and if he cannot help us decipher Poe’s shunning of the responsibilities that come with outstanding achievement, he at least does not resort to the psychobabble of so many modern biographies.

Poe was appointed to West Point in 1829, earned top grades, and became very popular among his classmates for his acerbic verses on cadet life. (His fellow plebes paid for the publication of his first book of poems but were disappointed to note that his West Point-specific doggerel had given way to serious verse.) Once again Poe, having succeeded at some chosen task, decided to chuck it all, breaking general orders 13 times in an effort to be expelled. For his trouble he was court-martialed for “gross neglect of duties” and dishonorably discharged from the army in 1830. Again, Poe would not own up to these dark episodes in his resume, and Meyers’ reconstruction is an important merit of his book.

Earlier biographers have shown Poe as dissolute from the start, but Meyers dates his decline from his expulsion from the academy. Although immensely wealthy by the standards of his time, John Allan now refused to give his adopted son any support whatever, and he eventually wrote Edgar out of his will. Poe turned to journalism and descended permanently into poverty; he sank into chronic alcoholism as well, prompting the owner of his first employer, the Southern Literary Messenger, to write him this note: “No man is safe who drinks before breakfast! No man can do so, and attend to business properly.” A liquid diet condemned Poe both to failures of his own making and to a marked inability to deal with failures beyond his control; he was all but paralyzed, for instance, when his sole novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), did not find the large market he felt certain it deserved.

In a neat bit of detective work, Meyers retraces Poe’s next (and hitherto unknown) career move: he anonymously, wrote a textbook of malacology, plagiarizing most of it from a Scottish primer published the year before. (Meyers notes that this was the only of Poe’s books to go into a second printing in his lifetime.) Poe’s binge drinking also helped transform hard-earned friendships with such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Russell Lowell into feuds; Lowell was later moved to write, “Mr. Poe is at once the most discriminative, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America . . . [but he] seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand.” Poe’s inconstancy kept him from keeping a steady schedule, let alone realizing his promise, and, despite the success of stories like “The Gold Bug,” Poe earned only $288 in 1847, $166 in 1848, and $275 in 1849; Meyers computes that Poe earned a lifetime total of $6,200 for his work.

When Poe died in 1849—of liver failure, hypoglycemia, and diabetes—the myth-making was already in swing. It accelerated for years, while the actual readership of his books declined until the Second World War, when popular editions for soldiers led to renewed interest in his work. Jeffrey Meyers does a fine job of destroying the falsehoods that surround the writer’s life. More important, his unearthing of the real facts of the case gives us a picture not of the ghoulish, even demonic writer of old, but of a confused soul seemingly bent on his own destruction. Any subsequent reading of Poe will be enriched by Meyers’ careful labors.


[Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy, by Jeffrey Meyers (New York: Charles Scribner’s) 348 pp., $30.00]