Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Poe's military attempts

On January 28, 1831, "Cadet" Poe was put on trial for the charge of "Gross Neglect of Duty" at West Point. He purposely chose not to defend himself and allowed himself to be forced out of the Academy. The story deserves a more in-depth telling.

Poe had attempted a military career when he thought he had no other options. He first enlisted as a common soldier in Boston under the false name "Edgar A. Perry" (he also lied about his age). This little stint shows that Poe was trying to do anything to be successful, and he was willing to give anything a shot — even becoming a lowly soldier. The soldier's life was also a stark contrast to how he had been raised. John Allan was wealthy enough that Poe was living a genteel Southern American life — making his later poverty that much more ironic. Poe left the Army specifically to enroll at West Point to become an officer, putting him in a position well above the rank of a lowly Army man.

What's important to note, however, was that he was successful both in the Army and at West Point. He was a good soldier and a good student. Rumors abound that center on Poe's perceived unhinged mental state (including the completely false story that he once showed up for drills wearing nothing but his white gloves) but the truth is that Poe really tried to be good at everything he did — including his military stint.

These military attempts are often overlooked as nothing more than a bizarre blip in the biography of Poe, a minor footnote in his attempts to become a writer. I believe it was more important than that. Like many young adults, Poe was trying to find his place in the world and, suddenly cut off from his wealthy foster father, had to do whatever he could to find success. He was also popular in the military and made several friends (especially with his commanding officers) — these friends helped him raise enough money to produce Poems by Edgar A. Poe — he, of course, acknowledged their support: "To the U.S. Corps of Cadets this volume is respectfully dedicated." His fellow cadets were slightly surprised, however, that these verses were actually quite serious, in stark contrast to the humorous poems he had written to make fun of fellow students as well as teachers (Yes! Poe did have a sense of humor!).

This collection was recently presented in a facsimile edition — a term which undermines its rich importance. Private Perry and Mister Poe is a must-have for true Poe aficionados. Editor William F. Hecker added an introduction that doubles the length of the poems — and, frankly, calling it an introduction is inappropriate. It should be the book itself, with the facsimile Poems listed as a less important appendix section. Hecker spent a lot of time delving deeply into Poe's time with the Army and at West Point, researching his daily duties, how well he performed them, and his relationship with others during this time. Hecker was himself a military man and, in 2006, was tragically killed in Baghdad — his funeral was held one day before Poe's 197th birthday.

But, back to our story.

Poe had decided that West Point just wasn't working out for him. He wasn't the kind of person to stick with something he didn't enjoy so he looked for a way out. He stopped attending parades and roll calls for a period of weeks (his trial documents list every single one he missed). He was also specifically charged for not attending classes on January 23, 1831 and for disobeying an order to attend church January 25. He pleaded "Guilty" to the last two but, oddly, pleaded "Not Guilty" to the first charge. In other words, he admitted he missed class once and that he missed church once, but denied that he missed parades and roll calls 20 times. Poe did this quite deliberately; admitting guilt would result in a lesser punishment whereas denying it guaranteed dismissal.

He was correct. Orders for his dismissal were written on February 8 and, pending approval from the Secretary of War, "Cadet E. A. Poe will be dismissed the service of the United States and cease to be considered a member of the Military Academy after the 6th March 1831."

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