The Child of Fortune
For many decades, the night of January 19th would bring a single mysterious visitor to a Baltimore graveyard: dressed in black and hidden by a hat and scarf, he’d raise a birthday toast and then leave behind a bottle of cognac and three roses at the stone marking the original burial site of Edgar Allan Poe. He has never been identified, and the tradition ended in 2009 amid claims that the original “Poe Toaster” had died years earlier. Curious onlookers and reporters still stake out the graveyard each year, though, and pretenders have continued to make the homage ever since, sometimes finding that other toasters have already beaten them to the grave earlier in the evening. That seems entirely fitting. An old graveyard at midnight, mysterious visitors, false identities, and an unsolved mystery: one suspects Poe himself would approve of the whole affair.
But to understand Poe—the father of detective fiction, the master of horror, the critic, the novelist, the poet, the tragic artist—one might better turn one’s gaze from those shadowy figures in the graveyard and instead watch the Baltimore Sun reporter taking notes from the perimeter. There, and not amid the weathered tombstones, is the reality of the living and working writer. Poe’s reputation was not earned through tragedy, but in spite of it: he was a careful craftsman of words, and a man whose deep dedication to understanding art is often obscured by the drama around his life.
Edgar Allan Poe was born into a world of artists struggling to survive. His father was the mercurial namesake son of one of Baltimore’s great patriots of the Revolution—but instead of the law career that had been marked out for him, David Poe Jr. took to the stage. In 1806 he married Eliza Arnold, who had theater in her blood—the child of English actors, she’d first appeared onstage by the age of nine, and was orphaned at fourteen as her family toured America. Renowned for her singing voice and her dancing, Eliza was often given lead parts reserved for pretty, magnetic young actresses; her Shakespearean roles alone included Juliet, Desdemona, Ariel, and Cordelia. A surviving cameo portrait shows a delicate woman with dark ringlets and a bemused look; she was lauded by one theater patron as “a brilliant gem in the Theatrick crown.”
David was not quite her equal onstage. Rarely the lead, he tackled bit parts in Boston and New York theaters with earnestness, sometimes mumbling lines when flustered. The greatest role he ever landed, perhaps, was as Eliza’s husband. When they married, she was nineteen and newly widowed, and now she wasted no time in starting a family. Three children followed in quick succession in 1807, 1809, and 1810: Henry, Edgar, and Rosalie.
Life in the theater was precarious, and after Edgar’s birth on January 19, 1809, David was back onstage the next night at the Boston Theatre. Eliza, after “the recovery of her recent confinement,” was treading the boards again just three weeks later. Soon they were leaning upon Boston’s theatergoers with shows “For the Benefit of Mrs. Poe.” Theater had a culture of such shows—perusing Boston newspapers that same month, one finds benefits for Mrs. Poe, Master Payne, Messrs. Stockwell and Barnard, Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, Miss Worsall—a testament to the changeless struggle of artists to earn their way.
In their scramble for desperately needed money, neither parent could care for Edgar much. Scarcely a month after his birth, Edgar joined his brother Henry with their grandparents in Baltimore. He rejoined his parents six months later, now in New York City, but the infant’s new home was not an entirely happy one. Manhattan newspapers tolerated neither mumblers nor stumblers: one critic labeled David Poe a “muffin face” and mercilessly dubbed him “Dan Dilly” after he mispronounced a character named “Dandoli.” Over the next two years, David Poe would respond with the melancholy predictability of foolish men: he got angry, he drank, and then he abandoned his wife and children. There was no reconciliation, nor could there be: David died in obscurity soon afterwards.
He left behind the newborn and sickly Rosalie, born after a theatrical run by her mother in Virginia—and soon Mrs. Poe herself was ailing. In November 1811, one Richmond local wrote: “Mrs. Poe, who as you know is a very handsome woman, happens to be very sick, and (having quarreled and parted with her husband) is destitute.” A visitor recalled finding the children “thin and pale and very fretful,” and being hushed by an old nurse with nips of opium and gin-soaked bread. Soon an ominous notice appeared in the Richmond Enquirer for another benefit show: “Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance, and asks it for perhaps the last time.”
This was no exaggeration. A month later, one could spot the well-to-do Richmond merchant John Allan and his wife Frances spending the Christmas holiday at a friend’s plantation—and toddling alongside them through the snow, a bewildered and newly adopted young orphan named Edgar.
He was now, an aunt wrote, “truly the Child of fortune.”
Poe was born into a life of art, but adopted into one of commerce, and from this uneasily mixed parentage, both the name and the career of Edgar Allan Poe would emerge. For just as the Eliza Poe was a great talent in her profession, so was John Allan in retailing. At the Richmond dry-goods warehouse of Ellis & Allan, one could find everything from sheet music to coal shovels, “Chamber door Locks” to window glass, and heaped piles of “superfine Broadcloths and Kersemeres.”
A bluff and hardheaded Scottish merchant—one contemporary described him as “rather rough and uncultured”—Allan also possessed more subtle qualities. He’d become a naturalized American, adopted by the country that he had emigrated to in 1795. Like many a hard-driven merchant, he’d never had a college education, and could seem alternately dismissive and ardent in his admiration for culture. “Gods! What would I not give, if I had his talent for writing!” he once wrote of Shakespeare.
The survival of 615 volumes of Ellis & Allan commercial correspondence do not hint at a man with much time to fulfill such dreams. But he acquired the trappings of culture for his prosperous household: they would never lack for Shakespeare, nor for a costly Rees Cyclopedia or a piano in the parlor.
The Allans had both been orphaned as children themselves. At thirty-one, John was now a respectable Richmond merchant with no offspring—none by his rather frail wife Frances, at least. It was Frances who pressed for taking in little Edgar, and by 1812 the Allan ledgers show the telltale touches of parenthood: amid the fine horses and casks of brandy are orders for diminutive suits of clothing, doctor’s visits for the croup, and a child-size bed.
Edgar was, visitors recalled, “a lovely little fellow, with dark curls and brilliant eyes, dressed like a little prince.” Yet he was the prince of an uncertain peerage. John hadn’t formally adopted him—perhaps imagining that Poe’s relatives would decide to raise him, as they had with his siblings Henry and Rosalie. But as weeks passed into months and months into years, Edgar Poe disappeared...