2020-2021 Season,  Illusionary Tales

Edgar Allan Poe: A Brief Biography

by Makenna Johnston, dramaturg


Edgar Allan Poe circa 1840.

Edgar Allan Poe was the second of three children born to traveling stage actors, David and Elizabeth (Eliza) Poe. When Edgar was almost two years old, his father abandoned the family leaving Eliza to fend for herself and their three small children. Eliza died of tuberculosis soon after. Edgar, who was not quite three years old, was charitably taken in by the wealthy, childless family of John and Frances Allan.

Elizabeth (Eliza) Poe


Under the Allans’ care, Edgar received a refined education and the undivided attention of his foster mother Frances. Though he was never officially adopted, Edgar was given the Allan name and was thenceforth known as “Edgar Allan Poe”.

John and Frances Allan


When Edgar was about sixteen-years-old the Allans came into a sizable inheritance, which he assumed would be his eventually. This was not the case. Unbeknownst to Edgar and Frances, John Allan had multiple illegitimate children that required support. So, rather than give money to Edgar, the non-blood charity case, John guarded his money closely, saving it for his biological children. Eventually, Edgar discovered his foster father’s deceit which led to significant growth in mutual dislike each man had towards the other. Upset, Edgar was sent off to the University of Virginia where he racked up significant gambling debts. The miserly John refused to pay off the debts, so Edgar had to discontinue his college education.

University of Virginia Campus

After a particularly intense quarrel with his foster father, in which the two men cut all ties forever, Poe left the University of Virginia for good and headed north to Boston, where, in 1827 he published his first book. He lost money on the publication and decided to join the army. After two years in the army, a few months at the Military Academy at West Point, and the publication in 1829 of a second volume of poems, Poe moved to Baltimore to live with his aunt Maria Clemm and her nine-year-old daughter, Virginia.

In Baltimore, Poe published several short stories and won first prize in a literary contest. His success in the contest led to a job opportunity that brought him back to Richmond in 1835 as an assistant editor on the Southern Literary Messenger. A few years later, Poe married his now thirteen-year-old first cousin, Virginia. Edgar was twenty-seven at the time of their union.

Virginia Clemm Poe

Edgar’s relationship with his wife was described as cheerful, but childlike. To others, the pair seemed to be affectionate siblings rather than man and wife. Edgar and Virginia had no children.

The couple moved to New York and then Pennsylvania to seek better publishing opportunities. During this time in 1843, Edgar published Tell-Tale Heart in the Boston-based magazine “The Pioneer”. In 1847, after a long struggle with tuberculosis, Virginia Poe passed away. Distraught and alone, Edgar traveled between Richmond and Baltimore, giving lectures and readings, filling his time with distractions. Two years later in 1849, Edgar died of unknown causes. At the age of forty, Edgar Allan Poe had at last conquered the fever called “living”. Though he was sick the last two years of his life, his true cause of death is a mystery.

Edgar Allan Poe was buried quickly and without a show in a Presbyterian cemetery. Very few were in attendance.  




  • Lillian Bills

    I really appreciated this biography of Edgar Allan Poe. I think there are parallels between the “brokenness” of his family life and the envy that destroyed his relationship with his adopted father and the sisters in Andrew Justvig’s adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart”. To me, it further reinforces the idea of needing to work past family issues through clear communication and valuing lives over material things. Revenge left Poe and the sister in a darker place.

    Also, I didn’t know about the mysterious death of Poe, (thank you for the link to a longer article!) It makes the author’s legacy all that spookier.

  • sgraham

    Thanks Lillian! I love the connection you made to the broken nature of Poe’s family life and this adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Thanks for the comment!

  • Sophia Acedo

    Thank you for this biography of Edgar Allen Poe! I’ve always thought of him and his work to be so interesting and different from other writers. He was a pretty mysterious guy and I also didn’t know about his mysterious death. I was wondering if ever in your research that you found what would of inspired his works? Do you think that any of his stories could’ve been confessions to crimes he’d done or maybe a crime he witnessed?

    • Makenna Johnston

      Thanks for the great questions Sophia!

      When writing short stories like The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe took inspiration from his surroundings. He used murder stories found in newspapers to detail his violent works with ominous metaphors and graphic imagery. I hope that none of his works were inspired by personal experiences! Poe’s work was also influenced by the American impulse at the time towards violence, as during the 1840s the United States government was taking lands from the Native Americans and enacting unspeakable cruelties on enslaved individuals.

      Poe was also inspired by themes explored in the Romanticism movement to fuel his Gothic literature. Here’s a link if you’d like to learn more! http://americainclass.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Smith_American_Gothic.pdf

      I hope this answers your questions! Thanks again 🙂

  • Reyna Shumway

    This was so interesting to learn about! I’ve always been fascinated with Edgar Allan Poe but never took the time to research him before. What this article left me feeling most curious about is the personality and demeanor of this guy. I know that some people match the art they produce to a T, while others complete contrast it. I wonder if he was friendly, moody, creepy, charismatic, hyper, quiet, or depressed.

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