Harvard Notes By Jeff Benitz

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809. He
was unlikely to be a person of importance, a person who would leave any
legacy, but he did. As one of only a handful of 19th century writers from the
United States who achieved worldwide recognition in his lifetime, especially in
19th century Europe, he left his mark. Most know him for his short stories of
decay and madness, however, he has a much larger impact over time.
He not only wrote macabre stories, and wrote poetry, he was a literary critic.
He wrote about literary theory and is considered the inventor of the
murder/mystery genre with such works as, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
(1841). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was influenced by him for his Sherlock
Holmes series as was Agatha Christie. Even today with television many series
are about detective stories in a visual format of the same.
The richness of his literature didn’t translate into a fortunate life. By the time
he was two both of his parents had died. A wealthy man named John Allan
took him in as a foster child never having any children of his own.. Edgar
grew up with privilege in Richmond, Virginia but was never secure about his
status with the family. He often wrangled with his foster father.
Though not an altogether poor student he was forced to leave the University
of Virginia before graduation. He had also accumulated serious gambling
debts as a student and his foster father refused to pay them. With few options
he joined the U.S. Army as a private. In not too long he achieved NCO status.
John Allan saw this as promise and with some influence got Edgar an
appointment at the United States Military Academy---West Point. He was 21
years old.
Within one year he was expelled and his foster father disowned him. On his
own he began writing for magazines in different capacities and also began to
write on his own. Though getting considerable notoriety there was very little
money in the business. Copyright laws in the early 1830s weren’t protective
as they are today. His work was largely copied and published with no
compensation to the author. At one point he was paying his bills by walking
around the streets of Baltimore with a sandwich board advertising for some
company or another.
He was fired from that job when he was found drunk in his own vomit, passed
out on the sidewalk, advertising for some company or another, who didn’t
think he fit the firm’s image. His writing was still doing well. His adventures into
the heart of derangement were popular and long predated those who would
later call it abnormal psychology like Jung and Freud. By the time he was 40
he was dead. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
After many years of fundraising in 1875, 26 years after his death, a society of
people erected a tombstone on his site. It’s said the epitaph reads, “Quoth
the Raven, “Nevermore””.
At Harvard I used to check out the first edition books of Poe. They were the
hard covered versions with marbleized covers found in Widener Library. You
could see the entire history of his popularity. In the back of the books they
had the records of when they were checked out from the 1840s forward. The
due dates started with quill pen writing, moved on to the ballpoint pen and
then to stamped dates of different styles as the years progressed. Around the
Civil War and WWI readership increased. After WWII the entries dropped off
mostly because students would prefer the newer editions with white fresh
pages as opposed to the yellowed old print of the originals. It was interesting
to consider the books I gripped in my hands had been read by people who
were long dead. These same books will sit in the Harvard stacks one hundred
years after me and other students will go on to read them.
Though I would sit on a bluff at the Hunneywell estate overlooking Lake
Waban and Wellesley College reading these old volumes, in a darker mood I
would take them to Fort Adams. I wrote an earlier piece on adventures at Fort
Adams in Newport, Rhode Island. The ammunition tunnels that go deep
underground were perfect for the atmosphere of Poe. Small passageways
made of red brick, only shoulder wide with arched ceilings, where one had to
crouch to walk through them deep underground. There were stalactites that
had been dripping from the tunnels from the time Poe had put his words to
ink. At the bottoms of the tunnels were the graffiti written by soldiers in pencil
and chalk who had been stationed there since the time of Poe’s birth. With my
hurricane lamp I would sit for hours reading out loud, listening to the weird
echoes of my own voice as it bounced through the tunnels. In such
surroundings, “The Cask of Amontillado” became real. You could look at the
modern cinderblocks blocking off a tunnel and wonder if a man had been
walled up behind them.
When the oil would run low on the lamp I would check to make sure the
batteries still worked on the flashlight. The darkness had a way of sucking up
the light and one wouldn’t want to be caught in the labyrinth without a way
out. It was a strange place in those tunnels. One might enter on a brisk day,
sit warm underground, and when going to leave discover eight inches of snow
had fallen outside and the waves were crashing against the shore. Another
time it might be sunny and when surfacing from the catacombs hours later,
there would be howling wind and a thunderstorm raging. It was all-perfect for
appreciating those antique books of Edgar Allan Poe.
Here’s to a great Bostonian writer on his 198th birthday.