Pity the poor biographer of Edgar Allan Poe. That maestro of the macabre rarely met a hoax or a distortion that he didn't like. Poe so thrived in the realm of the fantastic that even the basic facts of his life somehow became subject to the embellishments of his imagination. It didn't help that the first person to have a go at his biography was his literary nemesis. Shortly after Poe's death, this uber-rival published a slanderous account full of lies about the writer, who obviously couldn't do anything to defend himself, being dead and all. But even if Poe had still been around to write his own biography, it might not have been much more accurate. Poe seemed to genuinely enjoy misleading his readers, perhaps as a way of saying "Take that!" to the polite society that had so often rejected him. "The nose of a mob is its imagination," he once wrote. "By this, at any time, it can be quietly led."1
Edgar Poe was born in 1809 to two impoverished parents, orphaned at the age of two, and then adopted by a man named John Allan whom he never grew to love. He was broke all his life, often begging for money that he soon spent on drink. He died penniless at the age of 40 after being found disheveled and unconscious in a Baltimore gutter. For all of his problems, in the course of his relatively short life Poe revitalized American literature, producing perfectly crafted stories and poems while creating whole new genres (we have Poe to thank for the detective story, for example). The guy who spent his life on the outside is now, a century and a half after his death, considered a member of the inner circle of American literature. It's an ironic twist that Poe himself might have approved.