Object of the Month

The Boston Roots of Edgar Allan Poe

Theatre. Fourth night of Mr. Cooper`s Engagement.

"Theatre. Fourth night of Mr. Cooper's Engagement."

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Jeremy Dibbell
Assistant Reference Librarian

Advertisement for King Lear and his Three Daughters, featuring Mr. and Mrs. Poe, from the Boston Democrat, 30 January 1808. See the online display of the advertisement for their February 1808 appearances in Henry the Fourth and The Romp.

The Peripatetic Poes

In this pair of newspaper playbill advertisements from January and February 1808, we find listed among the cast of actors two people best known not for their own theatrical talents, but for the literary accomplishments of their second child, one Edgar Allan Poe. As we mark the bicentennial of Poe's birth this month (he was born 19 January 1809), it is fitting to remember that while Philadelphia and Baltimore may lay claim to Edgar Allan Poe's legacy, his life began here in Boston (although Poe himself tended to be none too proud of the fact).

David Poe and his wife Elizabeth Arnold Poe were traveling actors, who performed often in the theatres of Richmond, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York before their arrival in Boston in October 1806. They remained in this city for three consecutive theatrical seasons, acting together and separately in such plays as John Bull, The Provoked Husband, and various productions of the works of Shakespeare and Kotzebue. David Poe was known for his supporting-role portrayals of Laertes (Hamlet) and Malcolm (Macbeth), while Elizabeth often played the leading female roles (Ophelia in Hamlet, Cordelia in King Lear).

Just a few months after the birth of Edgar, the Poes' second son (Henry having been born in 1807), the family moved to New York, where David Poe became incapacitated and disappears from the records. The widowed Elizabeth Poe continued to act for the next year in southern cities until her death in December 1811. Young Edgar became the foster son of John and Frances Allan of Richmond, who raised the lad until a violent rupture occurred in March 1827, when Poe left Richmond bound, once more, for Boston.

Poe to Boston, "Nevermore"

Soon after arriving in Boston, Poe enlisted in the Army, giving his name as "Edgar A. Perry" and his age as twenty-two (he was eighteen). He was assigned to the First Artillery Regiment, stationed at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor. It was in Boston that Poe's poems were first published: the now-scarce Tamerlane and Other Poems, by A Bostonian was released by printer Calvin F.S. Thomas in 1827, but it was received with little fanfare and brought Poe none of the acclaim he would receive for his later works. By the time Poe returned to Boston in 1845, he was a known quantity: his tales, poems and often-biting critical essays were widely published in newspapers, literary journals, and in book form (Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, 1839). Although he was engaged in a long-standing feud with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other Boston literary figures, Poe accepted the invitation of the Boston Lyceum to give a public reading there on 16 October 1845; it went particularly poorly. Poe read his early poem Al-Araaf, which his biographer Hervey Allen has described as "the worst poem he could have picked for the occasion--long and utterly unsuited for oral delivery." Although his second poem, The Raven, was greeted with applause, the audience had dwindled during the first portion of the program, and Poe was deeply hurt by the reception.

Responding to negative criticism of the appearance in the Boston and New York papers, Poe wrote a long essay in the 1 November issue of the Broadway Journal to defend himself and assail his Boston critics. "...We like Boston. We were born there -- and perhaps it is just as well not to mention that we are heartily ashamed of the fact. The Bostonians are very well in their way. Their hotels are bad. Their pumpkin pies are delicious. Their poetry is not so good. Their Common is no common thing -- and the duck-pond might answer -- if its answer could be heard for the frogs."

Poe's last visit to Boston was perhaps even less satisfying. After an unrequited infatuation with the married Annie Richmond of Lowell, Poe came to Boston in November 1848 and attempted suicide by taking a large dose of laudanum. The effort was unsuccessful, and Poe eventually returned to Richmond before traveling to Baltimore in September 1849; he died in that city on 7 October 1849 under circumstances which remain mysterious.

Sources for Further Reading

Allen, Hervey. Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe. NY: Farrar & Rinehart, 1934.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

The documents for Poe's military service were published in Woodberry, G. E. "Poe's Legendary Years." The Atlantic Monthly. 54, no, No. 326. (December 1884): 814-828.

For more information on Fort Independence, where Poe briefly served, please see the online display of a manuscript plan of Fort Independence, Massachusetts Historical Society's June 2005 Object of the Month.