Perhaps the biggest event in Poe's life which inspired this blog, what occurred on August 27, 1849 continues to surprise casual readers of Poe who thought they already knew all about the man...
On August 27, 1849, Edgar A. Poe pledged to abstain from alcohol and stay sober indefinitely. It was a Monday evening when he was initiated into the Shockoe Hill Division (no. 54) of the Sons of Temperance, sworn in by William J. Glenn. Speculation has raged as far as how serious Poe was about this pledge. He had to have been somewhat committed to the idea, if only because membership required a fee. He may have done it to impress a potential second wife he was courting in Richmond (more on her another time) or, as biographer Kenneth Silverman speculates, "the effects of his drinking... had frightened him." A few days earlier, after one of his (rare but excessive) binges, a doctor suggested that drinking would kill him.
The reality is that throughout his life, Poe was aware of the problems that alcohol caused him, and he often made an effort to avoid drinking. Extant letters show updates Poe gave to friends and family about his efforts. But, even if we can't trust Poe's first-hand claims, other accounts do exist. For example, one friend reported that Poe went a full eighteen months* without a single drop of alcohol while living and working in Philadelphia. This undisputed account lends serious evidence against the prevalent image of Poe as a perpetual drunk. His joining the Sons of Temperance in 1849 may have been a final declaration that he would win his battle against alcoholism.
What really would have helped Poe stick to being sober this time? I'd speculate that Poe hoped the special nature of his pledge would make a difference: His membership was very public and, within three weeks, several newspapers were reporting about it in Richmond, Raleigh, Philadelphia, and Boston. Temperance advocates considered Poe's membership a great victory and a boon to their cause as they hoped he would lend his pen to the movement. One wrote, "We trust his pen will sometimes be employed in its behalf. A vast amount of good might be accomplished by so pungent and forcible a writer." Poe, in fact, had already written two temperance tales, of a sort: "The Black Cat" and the humorous "The Angel of the Odd." Writing was important to the group as a form of propoganda to get the word out about their movement; the Sons of Temperance would soon even create their own literary journal (edited by T. S. Arthur, author of Ten Nights in a Bar-Room).
The fact that Poe vowed to stay sober has led to further confusion over his final days right before his mysterious death — which will occur less than two months after taking his temperance pledge.
Perhaps ironically, August 27 is also the anniversary of the death of one of the many responsible for exaggerating Poe's drinking habits. Rufus Wilmot Griswold died this day in 1857 at the age of 42.
* There does not seem to be any question over the veracity of this statement. Give Poe credit for what he was doing: Poe kept his alcoholism in check before it was considered a disease, before self-help books, before AA meetings, etc. By the way, the image above is from a great online exhibit by the Library Company of Philadelphia called "Ardent Spirits."