Edgar Allan Poe’s Love-Hate Relationship With the City - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Edgar Allan Poe’s Love-Hate Relationship With the City
Bronze statue of Edgar Allan Poe in Boston, Massachusetts (NoyanYalcin/Shutterstock)

The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City
By Scott Peeples
(Princeton University Press, 224 pages, $25)

The writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) spent his entire life searching for a place that he could call home. Born in Boston, he lived most of his life in cities, ultimately dying in Baltimore at age 40 under mysterious circumstances. While Poe never felt truly comfortable in the urban environment, his literary ambitions, coupled with his need to provide for his family, forced him to adopt this lifestyle. Consequently, he became vulnerable to depression and mitigated these feelings with excessive drinking. His drinking led to his termination from several editorial positions, further exasperating his financial woes. Yet he achieved his greatest literary success while residing in or near a city, with the city often figuring prominently in his work. Scott Peeples’ biography, The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City, which is soon to be released in paperback, explores the master of the macabre’s complex relationship with the asphalt jungle that paradoxically brought out the best and worst in him.

The book takes its title from Poe’s short story The Man of the Crowd (1840), which concerns a narrator who, while engaged in categorizing the individuals in a crowd, decides to follow a particular older man who did not fit into his classification system. The narrator follows the mystery man through the streets of London into crowded neighborhoods infested with crime and poverty. Poe was familiar with London, having lived there as a student from 1816–1820, an experience that inspired his doppelganger-themed short story William Wilson (1839). Peeples’s book focuses on the four American cities that shaped Poe’s life and works: Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. All four experienced significant industrial development and population growth, along with ancillary poverty and corruption, during Poe’s lifetime.

Edgar Allan Poe was taken in as a foster child at age 2 by a childless Richmond couple, John and Frances Allan, following the death of Poe’s actress mother, Eliza Poe, in 1811. Poe’s father, David Poe, an actor with a drinking problem who had already abandoned Eliza, Poe, and his two siblings, Henry and Rosalie, also died around the same time. Allan, who ran an import/export business and married into an aristocratic family, was able to provide his family with a comfortable lifestyle. Initially, the Allans lavished young Edgar with attention, providing him with access to formal schooling and books. From an early age, Edgar exhibited a passion for reading aloud and would entertain guests with his recitations. By the time he became a teenager, he was writing poetry.

Poe was ill at ease in Richmond because Allan never adopted him or made him his heir. Consequently, he felt financially insecure and unwanted. These sentiments would continue to plague him throughout his life. The writer’s relationship with his foster father ultimately came to blows after Poe, who had left Richmond to attend the University of Virginia, started drinking and gambling. When Poe’s gambling debts exceeded $2,000 (the equivalent of $50,000 today), Allan stopped supporting him, marking the beginning of the end of their relationship. And while they would reconcile a few times, including when Allan arranged for Poe’s short-lived stint as a West Point cadet, their relationship never manifested in a true father-and-son bond. Although Poe would later return to Richmond to serve as the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, he never felt truly comfortable there.

Poe’s relationship with the city of Baltimore was mixed. On the positive front, while in Baltimore, Poe expanded his literary efforts from poetry to also include fiction. He also took up residence with his aunt Maria and his young cousin Virginia, who would become his wife in 1836 when she was 13. Unfortunately, Virginia would die of tuberculosis in 1847. Poe would die two years later on Oct. 7, 1849, in Baltimore. Following Virginia’s death, he desperately tried to find another wife, but, once again, his drinking ended a potential engagement. Poe, who had traveled from Richmond to Baltimore via steamboat, was scheduled to take a train to Philadelphia to edit the work of an aspiring poet. However, he did not complete the journey. Joseph Walker, a Baltimore printer, discovered the writer in a tavern where he appeared “either unconscious or incoherent” and “was wearing clothes that did not fit him.” Poe died five days later. While there is no documented account of his exact activities during those five days, scholars have long speculated that heavy drinking, blackouts, and potentially an undiagnosed disease were involved.

If Poe’s life included a golden age, it would be the time that he lived in Philadelphia. During this time, the magazine industry was flourishing due to the rapidly increasing urban population. As Peeples writes, “Newspapers and magazines provided not only a way to fill short periods of time throughout the day but also the possibility of community in an urban ‘world of strangers.’” Improvements in printing technology also facilitated the explosive growth of the magazine industry. It was the perfect environment for the perennially lonely Poe to find an audience. While residing in the city of brotherly love, Poe wrote some of his most celebrated short stories, including The Man of the Crowd (1840), The Black Cat (1843), The Fall of the House of Usher (1843), and The Pit and the Pendulum (1843). During this time period, Poe also wrote The Murders in Rue Morgue (1841), which has been described as the first detective story. Interestingly enough, the story takes place in Paris, a city that Poe never visited but effectively depicted.

Poe’s Philadelphia stay was a time of great creativity and productivity, as he was experimenting with different genres, including the gothic tale and satire. During this time, he also served as the co-editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. Poe, Virginia, and her mother Maria moved multiple times during their Philadelphia years, with the last residence being his Spring Garden neighborhood residence, which stands today. Although Spring Garden is a very urban neighborhood today, in Poe’s day, it was somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle of downtown. The physical tranquility of his home may have facilitated his creative fecundity.

Poe made the decision to relocate to New York when the literary opportunities for him in Philadelphia started drying up. Furthermore, despite his growing celebrity, he continued to struggle financially. He commenced writing a column entitled “Doings of Gotham” for the Pennsylvania weekly Columbia Spy, which was a man-on-the-street report from New York City for out-of-towners. While Poe initially approached this column with a positive viewpoint, it quickly lapsed into his complaining about the architecture. “I know few towns which inspire me with so great disgust and contempt,” he wrote about Brooklyn. However, Poe’s experiences in New York were not all unpleasant. Poe relocated his family to a farm owned by Patrick and Mary Brennan that was located off Bloomingdale Road (which is now Broadway). As Peeples writes, “Poe was in New York and yet outside of New York, remote and secluded at a time when he was clearly not trying to remove himself from the publishing world, Throughout his residence with the Brennans, he wrote steadily-prodigiously-while planning the next step in his career.” Furthermore, during this stay, Poe was inspired to revise his draft of “a narrative poem about a grief-stricken man visited by an ominous black bird.” The Raven (1845) became a smashing success with which Poe would be forever associated.

The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City is a thoroughly engaging book about the legendary writer and his complex relationship with the urban environment. Peeples is to be commended for deploying a unique lens for further examining the tortured genius of the great Edgar Allan Poe. 

Leonora Cravotta
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Leonora Cravotta is Director of Operations with The American Spectator, a position she previously held at The American Conservative. She also co-hosts a show on Red State Talk Radio. She previously held marketing positions with JPMorgan Chase and TD Bank. Leonora received a BA in English/French from Denison University, an MA in English from the University of Kentucky, and an MBA in Marketing from Fordham University. She writes about literature and popular culture.
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