Poet, literary critic, visionary, inventor of the detective story, master of the macabre: this was Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most important and widely read American authors of the nineteenth century.
Edgar Poe was born in Boston in 1809 to actors David Poe and Elizabeth Poe. His father left the family in 1810, and his mother died in 1811. Poe, his older brother William, and his younger sister Rosalie were split up and sent to live with different families. Edgar Poe went to live with the Allan family in Richmond, Virginia and acquired his middle name, "Allan." The Allans never legally adopted Poe, and he had a complicated relationship with his foster father throughout his life.
The Allans moved to England and lived there from 1815 to 1820. Poe attended schools in Scotland and in and around London. Following the family's return to Virginia, Poe attended the University of Virginia in 1826. Facing significant gambling debts, Poe left the University in his first year and moved to Boston.
Poe enlisted in the army in 1827 and served for two years before confessing to his superior officer that he had lied about both his name and age when enlisting. Poe received a discharge and then enrolled at West Point in 1830. In less than a year, Poe decided that he wanted to leave West Point and actively attempted to get himself court-martialed. He was successful and was dismissed in February 1831.
In 1835 Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, though she was only 13. Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1847, and many critics believe that her death, as well as his mother's, served as the inspiration for Poe's poems and stories examining themes of lost love and death.
Edgar Allan Poe published his first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, in 1827 when he was just 18. He published his second, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, two years later. Poe began writing fiction and won a prize for his short story, "MS. Found in a Bottle" in 1833. This success led to the beginning of his literary career as an editor and writer for magazines throughout the United States. He published prose, poetry, and literary criticism. Today he is probably best-known for his poem, "The Raven" (1845) and his dark, terrifying short stories. Poe is also credited with inventing the detective story in his short stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin.
Poe died October 7, 1849, days after being found roaming around Baltimore in a delirious state. The cause of his death remains a mystery. His some-time friend Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote a derogatory obituary and memoir of Poe that, for years, shaped critical response to Poe and his life.
To learn more about Poe's life and work, explore this timeline.