Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Poe returns to the city of his birth

Despondent and unable to patch up the latest fight with his foster-father, an 18-year old Edgar A. Poe had determined to leave the Allan family. Because John Allan was no longer interested in providing financial assistance to his foster-son, Poe did not have the option to return to the University of Virginia — where he had been an outstanding student, studying modern and ancient languages. The latest fight with Allan must have involved that, and possibly his illegitimate children.

Leaving from Norfolk, Virginia via coal vessel on March 24, 1827, he made his way to Boston. John Allan, apparently, was not given any information and, in sense, Poe ran away from him. Allan was not particularly concerned. He wrote, "Im thinking Edgar has gone to Sea to seek his own fortunes." Frances Allan, Poe's loving (yet dying) foster-mother, on the other hand, may have had some idea and may have given Poe money to cover his $12 travel expense.

What drew Poe to Boston is anyone's guess. When his mother Eliza Poe died, she left him only two items: a miniature portrait of her self and a watercolor image of Boston, on the back of which she wrote for him to "always remember Boston, the city of your birth." Optimistically, he assumed that things would be easy in Boston, especially as a publishing center. Sure enough, Poe was able to raise enough money to publish his first book Tamerlane and Other Poems — a pathetic 50 copies were printed. Today the book is considered the rarest first edition in American poetry and a single copy (of which only a dozen remain) is worth more money than Poe made in his lifetime.

The book didn't net him profit or significant critical attention. Likely while it was still going to press, Poe made a strange decision. Despite his privileged upbringing in a wealthy mercantile foster-family, Poe enlisted as a common soldier in the United States Army. Conveniently shedding his past, he used the pseudonym "Edgar A. Perry" and claimed he was 22; he was only 18. Poe was stationed at Fort Independence on Castle Island (today open to the public, but be prepared for strong winds if you visit).

Poe excelled as a soldier but his time in Boston would not be long; he was soon transferred to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina. Years later, Poe would publicly chide the Boston culture and the literary scene. Exactly why he turned his back on the city of his birth is not known.

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