The strange life – and even stranger death – of Edgar Allan Poe

Mathew Brady studio portrait of Edgar Allan Poe
Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe by studio of Mathew Brady - CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images/Corbis Historical

For a man who has been posthumously damned as a deranged, drug-taking madman, Edgar Allan Poe might have enjoyed the controversy that arose during the production of Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix adaptation of his legendary short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. It was thrown into difficulties because Frank Langella, originally cast in a leading role as the Usher patriarch Roderick in the present-day retelling, was fired from the show because of “unacceptable conduct”; this was said to involve the actor telling off-colour jokes and making bawdy remarks on set. The industry title Deadline wrote that “When Langella was fired, there was a profound relief bordering on jubilation among cast and crew.”

It is tempting to wonder what the reaction of Poe himself would have been to the respected actor’s dismissal, which Langella described as “the real definition of unacceptable behaviour.” The author of countless poems, short stories, essays and even an unsuccessful play was, during his brief lifetime, one of the most prolific writers in America, achieving fame (if not fortune) with his 1845 narrative poem The Raven, and devoted himself to literature with a commitment that put virtually all of his contemporaries and admirers to shame.

Yet after his mysterious death in 1849, at the age of 40, Poe’s reputation suffered, not least because his friend-turned-nemesis Rufus Wilmot Griswold published a posthumous memoir of him that portrayed him as dissolute and as wicked as the characters that he wrote about: a piece of character assassination that has continued to colour perception of Poe’s life, a century and three quarters after his premature end.

Yet after his mysterious death in 1849, at the age of 40, Poe’s reputation suffered, not least because his friend-turned-nemesis Rufus Wilmot Griswold published a posthumous memoir of him that inaccurately damned him as a lunatic: a piece of character assassination that has continued to colour perception of Poe’s life, a century and three quarters after his premature end.

As a young man, Poe wished to pursue a literary career, but was stymied from doing so by a continual lack of money – an all too familiar complaint – despite being informally adopted by a wealthy merchant named John Allan, who gave Poe his middle name, after his mother died when Poe was an infant and he was abandoned by his father.

He enlisted in the army as a private in 1827 aged 18, using the pseudonym Edgar A. Perry, and lied about his age, even as he used the relative stability of an army salary to publish his first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, which was simply credited to ‘a Bostonian’. Only 50 copies were ever published, and it remains hugely valuable: the last copy to have been sold at auction, in 2009, reached $662,500.

He later had himself transferred to West Point, the United States Military Academy, and although he only remained there for a matter of a few months, the author Louis Bayard was sufficiently inspired by his time as a cadet to include him as a quasi-detective character in his 2006 historical mystery novel The Pale Blue Eye, which was later adapted in a 2022 film starring the former Harry Potter actor Harry Melling as the young Poe.

Vincent Price in the 1964 film of The Masque of the Red Death
Vincent Price in the 1964 film of The Masque of the Red Death - Alamy

Yet the life of the army was not for the would-be author, and so after he was (intentionally) court-martialled for gross dereliction of duty in early 1831 and expelled from West Point, he began a precarious and difficult life as a writer, working as an editor on various small-circulation magazines and attempting to publish short stories and poetry in the process.

Although Poe won a $50 prize for one 1833 short story, ‘MS Found in a Bottle’, a tale of a doomed sailor which mixed horror and dark humour and which was subsequently praised by none other than Joseph Conrad as “about as fine as anything of that kind can be – so authentic in detail that it might have been told by a sailor of sombre and poetical genius in the invention of the fantastic”, it did not lead to the breakthrough success that he hoped for. Marriage to his then-13 year old cousin Virginia Clemm in 1835 – Poe was aged 26 at the time – only added to his reputation as a man who was willing to stand outside the normal bounds of society, and peer inside at its more respectable citizens with scorn.

It was perhaps as a result of this attitude that Poe now began to build a reputation as a caustic literary critic, or a “tomahawk man” in the parlance of the day. Like many young writers in a hurry to build their reputations, he attacked better-known figures, such as the revered Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, accusing him of the “heresy of the didactic.”

Carla Gugino in The Fall of the House of Usher
Carla Gugino in The Fall of the House of Usher - Eike Schroter/Netflix

Poe was unafraid to make enemies, and the most notable example of this came when he attacked Griswold’s anthology The Poets and Poetry of America – in which he was himself included – for being derivative and unadventurous; he called it “a most outrageous humbug” to a friend. The slight was remembered, begrudged and returned with interest in due course.

Yet Poe was now beginning to establish himself as a writer of real originality, even genius. His story The Fall of the House of Usher was first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1839, and has subsequently been acclaimed as a masterpiece of Gothic horror, with its depiction of a doomed, immoral family living in a decaying mansion and beset by self-perpetuated horrors; along with many similar stories, it was included in the 1840 collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, which is now recognised as a classic, but was all but ignored on publication. Poe was not offered a fee or advance, but merely a small number of free copies.

If he felt snubbed, it did not affect his prolific and increasingly innovative writing. He created the modern detective story with his 1841 tale The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which was the first introduction of the character C. Auguste Dupin, who used what Poe described as “ratiocination” in order to get inside the mind of criminals and thus solve the mystery.

Bruce Greenwood as Roderick Usher in the new Netflix series
Bruce Greenwood as Roderick Usher in the new Netflix series - Eike Schroter/Netflix

Nonetheless, Poe’s solution to this particular conundrum – that the eponymous murders were committed by an incensed orangutan – has often been subsequently described as both unconvincing and ridiculous, suggesting that he may have been ahead of the curve, but it would take the likes of Conan Doyle, himself clearly influenced by Poe, to finesse what he had begun.

It was 1845’s ‘The Raven’ that was his first real success, using Poe’s favourite theme of a man tormented by the loss of a beautiful woman and then beset by the appearance of a mysterious talking bird, who repeats the word “nevermore” and eventually drives the protagonist to madness. Poe was heavily influenced by the Romantic poets, including Byron and Keats, but this Gothic poem was entirely his own voice; it made him hugely famous and even gave him the nickname ‘the Raven’. Nonetheless, the gloomy writer was still impecunious, and complained “I have made no money. I am as poor now as ever I was in my life—except in hope, which is by no means bankable.”

His wife Virginia died in 1847, and Poe spent the last two years of his life despondent, alternating between drinking and attempting to continue his literary career. After several incidents of ill health, he headed to New York on September 27 1849 in a bid to find a job as an editor on a magazine and to remarry, and nothing more was seen or heard of him until October 3, when he was found in ragged clothes that were not his own in a Baltimore tavern, in what was said to be “a state of beastly intoxication” and speaking incoherently and in a state of delirium. He was removed to hospital in Washington but never recovered coherence and died on October 7, creating the final mystery of his life which persists to this day.

The grave of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore, Maryland
The grave of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore, Maryland - Getty

Thanks in part to Griswold’s damning posthumous character assassination of him, Poe was believed to have been either incapably drunk or under the influence of narcotics when he was found in Baltimore, and this was taken as consistent with his unconventional public persona. Debate has raged ever since about the likely causes of Poe’s death, given that subsequent DNA tests have revealed that it was extremely unlikely that he had been drinking alcohol, and it has been suggested that he might have suffered from everything from rabies contracted from a family pet to being infected with cholera.

However, most modern biographers believe that it is likely that Poe was a victim of a scam known as “cooping”, when people would be dragged off the street and forced to vote for political candidates repeatedly, and often coerced with a mixture of beatings and forcibly administered neat alcohol and drugs, as well as being disguised; this would explain both the unfamiliar clothing he was wearing, as well as his confused and incoherent manner.

Yet there has never been a truly satisfactory explanation for what happened to Poe and what led to his death, and it remains a tantalising literary and historical mystery. The 2012 film The Raven, with John Cusack as Poe, attempted to suggest that the author died of poisoning at the hands of a crazed serial killer, who imprisoned Poe’s lover in a scenario inspired by his short story The Tell-Tale Heart and compelled the author to drink a mysterious substance as a quid pro quo for being told where she was.

It is an ingenious (if unlikely) explanation for the writer’s demise, but the film was critically ridiculed and commercially unsuccessful. A more respected novel, Matthew Pearl’s 2006 book The Poe Shadow, took the writer’s death as a starting point for a tale of international conspiracy and the appearance of the supposed real-life inspiration for Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin.

Poe has remained a favourite for adaptation ever since his death, and the author himself is a popular figure to dramatize, appearing in countless novels, films and even an episode of South Park; there is even an actor, Edgar Allan Poe IV, who claims to be a descendant of the writer and has played his supposed great-great grandfather several times. Flanagan’s version of The Fall of the House of Usher is the most high-profile production of Poe’s writing for some time.

But it seems doubtful that it will bear out Alfred Hitchcock’s admiring remarks on the author. “It’s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films,” the director said. “Without wanting to seem immodest, I can’t help but compare what I try to put into my films with what Poe put in his stories; a perfectly unbelievable story recounted to readers with such a hallucinatory logic that one has the impression that this same story can happen to you tomorrow.”