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Edgar Allan Poe: Death

By 1845, Poe's family was living in New York City, where the writer was working at the New York Evening Mirror. The magazine published a long poem by Poe, entitled The Raven. "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,/ Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,/ While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/ As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door,"13 the famous verses began. The poem was perfectly Poe—suspense that built steadily toward a dramatic end, the haunting specter of a lost love, the eerie presence of the supernatural. The Raven was wildly successful and remains Poe's most famous work. Within months of publication, just about everyone had read The Raven or heard it performed. It brought Poe the fame (but not financial success) that had so long eluded him. Sadly, The Raven was the pinnacle of Poe's life. It only went downhill from there.

Poe had always wanted to own his own magazine so he wouldn't have to answer to a boss. The success of The Raven allowed Poe to realize his dream. He purchased the Broadway Journal, a publication already heavily indebted when Poe bought it. Though Poe solicited financial help with all the finesse of an e-mail scam artist ("I can [save the magazine] easily with a very trifling aid from my friends. May I count you as one? Lend me $50 and you shall never have cause to regret it,"14 read one such plea). But the magazine failed in January 1846.

On 30 January 1847, Virginia Clemm died of tuberculosis at the couple's home in the Bronx. Poe was so distraught with grief that people thought he had gone insane. Poe denied it—"I was never really insane, except on occasions where my heart was touched,"15 he later said—but his wife's death sent him into a downward spiral of drinking and depression from which he would never recover. A problem drinker all his life, Poe now seemed to spin out of control.

In the fall of 1848, Poe proposed marriage to the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who agreed to marry him on the condition that he quit drinking. Poe couldn't get sober, and Whitman called off the engagement a month later. The next summer, Poe traveled to Richmond to convince his childhood sweetheart Elmira Royster Shelton to marry him. She accepted. Poe joined the Sons of Temperance, a social organization that forbade drinking (sort of like a nineteenth-century version of Alcoholics Anonymous.) Then in September, he traveled from Richmond to New York to raise money for a new magazine, stopping in Baltimore along the way.

Poe arrived in Baltimore on 28 September 1849. No one knows how he spent the next few days. On 3 October 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found in a Baltimore street (some reports say in a gutter), semi-conscious and wearing clothes that didn't fit him. He was taken to a hospital, where he spent four delirious days before perishing on 7 October 1849. He was 40 years old.

No one knows exactly what happened to Edgar Allan Poe. Did he drink himself to death? Was he robbed and knocked unconscious? Did he have some other illness? Since he was found on an election day in politically corrupt Baltimore, one theory has it that Poe was "cooped." Political gangs would kidnap people and force them to change into different clothes so that they could vote at multiple polling sites. Victims were sometimes beaten or forced to drink alcohol to get them to go along with the plan. Others have suggested that "cooping" had nothing to do with Poe's death, proposing that the writer instead perished of (take your pick!) tuberculosis or heart disease or brain tumor or epilepsy or diabetes or drug overdose or carbon monoxide poisoning or even rabies. Unfortunately, we'll probably never know the true story.

Poe's reputation was tarnished for years after his death, thanks to the efforts of his literary nemesis, Rufus Wilcot Griswold. Griswold was a former minister who had become an editor. Though the two men had worked together professionally, they deeply distrusted one another. Griswold thought Poe was immoral, and Poe thought Griswold was a literary lightweight. The two had a falling out when Griswold erroneously accused Poe of writing a brutal, anonymous review of an anthology that Griswold had edited. After Poe's death, Griswold tricked Poe's mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, into selling him Poe's papers and allowing him to be Poe's literary executor. His falsehood-filled biography of Poe was the only comprehensive "record" of the writer's life until Poe's friends fought back in the 1870s and wrote their own pro-Poe biography. With sources as biased as these providing so much of the evidence, it's no surprise that debate over the details of Poe's life and mysterious death continues today.

Debate over Poe's legacy is much less fierce. The man whose life ended in the gutter is today hailed as a literary genius, the master of horror and inventor of detective fiction (and perhaps science fiction as well). The French were, perhaps surprisingly, among the first to love Poe, and many French writers (including Jules Verne, Charles Baudelaire, and Stéphane Mallarmé) were heavily influenced by him. Not surprisingly, Poe also influenced Sherlock-Holmes-creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, suspense-meister Alfred Hitchcock, weird-fiction-superstar H.P. Lovecraft, Gothic virtuosos William Faulkner and Joyce Carol Oates, contemporary horror maestros Clive Barker and Stephen King, and Russian kings-of-creepy Feodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov. Also on the list of the influenced are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Charles Dickens. Even Sylvester Stallone is a fan, and is making a Poe movie. The list goes on and on, and is expanding even as we speak.

So there's no question that Edgar Allan Poe's literary legacy is secure. But Poe the man, of course, is long gone, dead and buried in Baltimore. On his headstone is a raven that is sitting—still is sitting!—beneath the carved word "Nevermore," at the grave of one whose pen has been stilled forever more.

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