In honor of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday today, January 19, I’d like to offer a rare glimpse into the childhood of one of my favorite writers. The formative years are crucial to everyone’s successful (or unsuccessful) adulthood, and Mr. Poe’s were no exception.
As an infant, young Edgar’s nurse often fed him and his siblings bread soaked in gin to keep them quiet while their mother convalesced. Sadly, his mother, Elizabeth Poe, never recovered from consumption and left her three children orphans. Shortly after, Edgar went to live with the Allans, brief acquaintances of the family. Young Edgar was a charmer, even at age three. At the time, someone described him in a letter: “a lovely little fellow, with dark curls and brilliant eyes, dressed like a young prince, and charming every one by his childish grace, vivacity, and cleverness. His disposition was frank, affectionate, and generous, and he was very popular with his young companions.”
During his school years, Edgar had “no love for mathematics” but could write poetry almost as well as an adult with teachers dubbing him a “born poet.” In fact, when Edgar was ten years old, one of his school masters recounted the following:
When he was ten years old, Mr. Allan came to me one day with a manuscript volume of verses, which he said Edgar had written, and which the little fellow wanted to have published. He asked my advice upon the subject. I told him that Edgar was of a very excitable temperament, that he possessed a great deal of self-esteem, and that it would be very injurious to the boy to allow him to be flattered and talked about as the author of a printed book at his age. . . . The verses, I remember, consisted chiefly of pieces addressed to the different little girls in Richmond.
Even then, Master Poe yearned to be published. What detour would his life have taken if Mr. Allan had nurtured the boy’s gifts from a tender age? Then again, Poe’s stories feature the reoccurring themes of strife and struggle and loneliness. Perhaps the school master was right. Perhaps early success would have been “injurious” to Poe’s (already inflated) self-esteem had he received too many accolades in grammar school.
And mischievous doesn’t begin to describe young Edgar. One of his school chums writes that when Poe was eleven, “he (Poe) taught me to shoot, to swim, and to skate, to play bandy, etc; and I ought to mention that he once saved me from drowning — for having thrown me into the falls headlong, that I might strike out for myself, he presently found it necessary to come to my help, or it would have been too late.” And it may come as a shock to many, since most photos portray Poe as a weak, shriveling figure, that he was quite an athlete. He was by far the fastest runner at his school and a fair boxer. Once, when he found himself in a fight with a much larger bully, Poe won by letting his opponent “get out of breath before showing him a few things in the art of fighting.” But he truly excelled at swimming. He even swam six miles along the James River in Virginia just to win a bet!
Born into a family of thespians, Edgar had a flair for the theatrical, and I credit this for his dramatic personality. In fact, he even joined a drama club with his friends during his teen years and acted in several plays. Despite this rather gregarious hobby, he wasn’t much for socializing, however. One of his childhood friends recalled: “(Poe) never asked any of his schoolmates to go home with him after school. Other boys would frequently spend the night or take dinner with each other at their homes, but Poe was seldom known to enter into this social intercourse. After he left the play-grounds at school that was an end of his sociability until the next day.”
As we comb through the pages of history, we find a breadcrumb trail of early brilliance and the foreshadow of success: a troubled childhood, early literary gifts, a slightly inflated ego, a competitive streak, a flair for dramatic storytelling, and the need for solitude. It would be interesting to contrast these personality traits with those of other great writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have a feeling they would overlap.
Mr. Poe, if you’re watching, listening, or judging from on high (I’m betting on the latter), happy birthday! You don’t look a day over two hundred!