Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe

 

The very name evokes images of crumbling Gothic mansions, black cats, inescapable diseases, live burials and of course, the iconic Raven.  Where would we be without the Master of Macabre, the Denizen of Death, the Harbinger of Horror? I, for one, would be lost!

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day, January 19th, 1809 at a boarding house in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents, Baltimore-born David Poe and London-born Eliza Arnold  Poe, were both actors then performing Shakespeare’s King Lear on a Boston stage. He was the second of three children, with an older brother Henry and a little sister, Rosalie.

Bleak Beginnings

Edgar’s parents didn’t last long. David Poe, reportedly an abusive alcoholic, abandoned the family in 1810 when Edgar was just one year old. The very next year his mother Eliza, sans husband, gave birth to a girl, Rosalie.  Eliza died of tuberculosis that same year, at the tender age of twenty-four.

David Poe also passed away in 1811, in Norfolk, Virginia.

Little Edgar was taken in by his godfather, a wealthy Virginia merchant named John Allan, and his wife Frances.  Allan made his fortune from a variety of trades including tobacco, cotton, wheat and – yes – slavery.

In 1815 the family sailed to Britain. Young Edgar attended school in Scotland and England. His foster parents placed him in the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School at Stoke Newington, near London where Edgar stayed for three years.

So far, it may seem like a rags-to-riches childhood that should have had a happy ending. Not so. Dark forces were at work all throughout Poe’s life.

John Allan was a bit of a ‘schizophrenic parent’, alternately spoiling and then severely disciplining his foster son. He reportedly had a bad temper. (Don’t forget the man was a slave trader.)  Edgar had had a bad enough beginning – but being shipped off to boarding school probably didn’t help his self esteem. Edgar returned to live with the Allans in 1820 when he was just eleven.

In 1825, John Allan became even richer when his uncle William Galt died, leaving him an inheritance of around  $750,000. (That is the equivalent to $17,000,000 in 21st century money!)  But John Allan was apparently a stingy millionaire.

In 1826, Edgar enrolled in the University of Virginia, with the intention of studying languages. He claimed that his step father did not send him enough money for books and a decent dormitory.  He also began gambling and raked up a lot of debts, which John Allan refused to pay. Within one year, Poe dropped out of school.

Military Life

Left to fend for himself, Edgar worked a series of odd jobs. He was unable to support himself and so, in 1827 he joined the US Army. He lied about his age, claiming he was twenty-two when he was in fact, only eighteen. He also used a fake name, “Edgar Perry.”  That same year, he released his first book of poetry, Timberland and Other Poems.

The army did not sit well with Poe. He  left in 1829 (skipping out on what was supposed to be a five year stint). Apparently, he came clean about his age and name. John Allan then helped him out — but also devised a plan that Edgar be enrolled in West Point Military Academy.

Edgar did not fare well at West Point. As a matter of fact, he hated it so much that he maneuvered a way to get himself thrown out! By behaving consistently badly, Edgar knew he could become eligible for court martial.

On February 8, 1831, Poe was tried for “gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, or church.”  Poe pleaded “not guilty” knowing all the while he would indeed be found guilty and subsequently dismissed.

Clearly, Edgar was not cut out for military life.

A Teenage Bride

Having been officially abandoned by his foster father, Poe moved to Baltimore and reunited with some of his blood kin. He lived with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, her daughter Virginia (Poe’s first cousin who would later become his wife), his brother Henry, and his invalid grandmother Elizabeth Cairnes Poe.

Death still surrounded him. His brother passed away in 1831, due to complications of alcoholism.

Edgar then began working in various writing jobs, including assistant editor for the Southern Literary Messenger and contributing author for the Baltimore Saturday Visitor.

On May 16, 1836 he married his cousin Virginia Clemm. She was thirteen and he was twenty-seven.

This was not so shocking back then as it would be today. Marriage between first cousins was legal in all states before the Civil War, and not frowned upon. Plenty of historical figures married their cousins — including Johann Sebastian Bach, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Queen Victoria herself , who married her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840.

And don’t forget Jerry Lee Lewis, who somehow got away with marrying his thirteen year old cousin in 1957!

In the 19th century, the age of consent for girls in most of the United States was (astonishingly!) just TEN years old! In Delaware it was actually SEVEN years old! Some of these laws were in effect until the 1960’s.

However, the stark age difference between Edgar and Virginia — although technically legal — would have raised a few eyebrows.  For this reason, Virginia lied on her marriage certificate, stating that she was twenty-one years old. (Lying about their ages seems to run in the family…)

Edgar and Virginia were married in church by a Presbyterian minister. Biographers believe their marriage was a happy one. Perhaps Edgar, having been so abandoned in his past, was finally free to enjoy the company of his wife. The couple shared a love of music, poetry, cemeteries, and — believe it or not — playing leap-frog! During their brief years together, it was not all doom and gloom.

Poe the Poet

Poe published his first novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket  in 1838. That same year he became assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. He published numerous articles, stories, and reviews, enhancing his reputation as a critic. Also in 1839, the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in two volumes.

He wrote some of the first literary criticisms, as well as some of the first short stories. He is considered the inventor of crime novels and detective stories. Some of his most famous works include: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, The Telltale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum and Murders in the Rue Morgue.

On January 29, 1845, his poem “The Raven” appeared in the Evening Mirror and became an overnight sensation. It made Poe a household name almost instantly, and is still arguably his most popular poem.

But even in the midst of  his publishing successes, death and disease were not far behind. In The Raven, Poe may have already been mourning the inevitable death of his wife.  “Lenore” of the poem, who would be seen “Nevermore” can easily be compared to Virginia, who had, by then already begun to exhibit symptoms of tuberculosis.

One winter evening in 1842, while playing the piano, Virginia began a fit of spewing blood. She would never recover.  Edgar tended and cared for her devoutly for the next few years as the disease progressed. Virginia passed away on January 30, 1847.

Sadly, and creepily, Poe’s wife died of the same disease, and at the same age, as his mother.

 

On the Streets of Baltimore

Needless to say, Poe never overcame Virginia’s death. His behavior became increasingly erratic and unstable. He tried to court other women but had difficulty sustaining romantic relationships.

Poe’s own death is shrouded in mystery. He had traveled to Richmond where he visited a woman named Elmira Royster, to whom he became engaged. He left Richmond on September 27, 1849 and was heading back to New York, where he had purchased a cottage in what is now The Bronx. Poe never made it home.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found “delirious” on the streets of Baltimore outside  a pub called Ryan’s Tavern. He was “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance”, according to Joseph W. Walker, a printer, who found him.

Walker sent a letter requesting help from an acquaintance of Poe, one Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass. His letter reads as follows:

“Dear Sir—There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance. Yours, in haste, Jos. W. Walker.”

Snodgrass’s first-hand account describes Poe’s appearance as “repulsive”, with unkempt hair, a haggard, unwashed face and “lusterless and vacant” eyes. His clothing, Snodgrass said, which included a dirty shirt but no vest and unpolished shoes, was worn and did not fit well.

Dr. John Joseph Moran, who was Poe’s attending physician, gives his own detailed account of Poe’s appearance that day: “a stained faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat”.

Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in this condition. It was believed the clothes he was wearing were not his own, as wearing shabby clothes was out of character for the usually well dressed Poe. (While promoting The Raven, Poe was known to show up at readings wearing a black cape, a top hat, and other elegant clothing.)

He was taken to the Washington Medical College where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849 at 5:00 in the morning. The true cause of his death is still unknown. Some have speculated he may have had a brain tumor, diabetes, an enzyme deficiency, syphilis,  apoplexy, delirium tremens, or epilepsy. Still other speculate his death may have actually been a suicide due to depression. (One year previous, Poe nearly died from an overdose of laudanum,  which at the time was easily available as a tranquilizer and pain killer.)

Or perhaps he simply reunited with his one true love, Virginia.

Some sources say that Poe’s final words were “Lord help my poor soul”. Suspiciously, all medical records have been lost, including his death certificate.

 But he leaves behind an amazing legacy — a body of literature that includes Gothic tales, dark romanticism and phantasmagorical poetry. The man who spent his life shrouded in death now lives on as a never-out-of-print horror icon.

Happy Birthday Edgar!

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll

 

Lewis Carroll

Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass.  He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought then to life.

His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England.  Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂

Cheshire_Cat

Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors.  In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.

In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with  Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.

LewisCarroll3

It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice.  Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare.  And many of those quotes are really phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor.  Some of my favorites:

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter. 

“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.

“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!” 

“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.”  It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

real

Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.

Alice LIddell

Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.

Alice LIddell 2

Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises  on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!

Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.

matrix

At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his  contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery  of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation.  Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.

alice matrix

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.

Some Fun Facts:

  • He was one of eleven children, the oldest son
  • As a young child, he suffered a fever which left him deaf in one ear
  • He was six feet tall — really tall by Victorian standards.
  • A self- deprecating guy, he often referred to himself as “the dodo” and is said to have modeled the Dodo in Alice after himself!
  • In actuality he was hardly a dodo, more like a near genius.
  • He invented the earliest version of Scrabble — a type of word ladder in which the words were changed by adding one letter.
  • He was an ordained deacon of the Anglican Church.
  • Don’t let the stoic pictures fool you. Although he never married, his letters and diary entries indicate he had relationships with several women, both married and single, which would have been considered “scandalous” by Victorian standards.

 

Happy Birthday Lewis!

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