For many years and many different reasons both before and after his death Edgar Allan Poe has been characterized as an alcoholic. There were constant stories and opinions concerning his drinking from all kinds of sources surrounding Poe. Some of these sources claimed that he was a maniacal drunk who routinely drank himself into oblivion. Others said that he drank only rarely, and when he did, kept excellent control over himself and was a perfect gentleman. In fact, Poe's attraction to liquor began when he was just a small adopted child of Mr. John Allan. If you take into account all the upsetting events of his life, Poe has many depressing reasons for drinking. He attempted to quit drinking many times, but one event after another set him off again. Most important and unfortunately most disastrous for Poe was the bad effect that his binge drinking had on his professional career. Magazine editing was the profession that might have allowed Poe to make a living, but his failure to perform sober when he had a chance to advance gave him more grief which he promptly drowned. Poe also had many enemies who watched for him to make mistakes and then used the mistakes against him. This attention had a unsuspected side effect though: the portrayal of Poe as an insane, evil, and manically drunk man, like those in his stories, increased public interest in his work, especially after the obituary and compilation of Poe's works done by Rufus Griswold.
First, it is important to say that Poe was not an alcoholic. He had no pattern of consistent drinking and went on long stretches without any liquor at all. Poe was an impulsive binge drinker who, once he started drinking, could not stop until he was out of money or passed out. Many people said that one drink was too much for Poe. His friends said that "a single glass of wine, to most men a moderate stimulus, turned him into a madman," (Meyers 87); and Maria Clemm, who loved Poe deeply and always defended him, said that "when he had indulged in a glass or two...he was not responsible for either his words or actions" (Wagenknecht 30). Poe knew all about the nature of his problem saying his "sensitive temperament could not stand an excitement which was an every-day matter to my companions" (Asselineau 10). This "sensitive temperament" knew no limit or bounds once he began. One drink was too much for Poe because he no longer had control over the amount he consumed. He drank either to oblivion or until he was out of money. Several times he found himself or was found in the street, devoid of all his original clothes and wearing those of some pauper, not knowing what he had done or where he had been. He was found wandering around the woods outside Jersey City in June, 1842, lost a month later in New York City, and once arrested in Philadelphia in 1850 for drunkenness.
Poe was cursed with an upbringing that saw alcohol as a daily staple. Even though temperance societies were popular and drinking was looked upon with distaste somewhat like drug use is in our society, alcohol was always present in the Allan household. As an infant, Poe was quieted with bread soaked in gin and was responsible for toasting dinner guests with wine as a young man.
Poe knew of his genetic tendency toward alcohol. Poe's father was supposed to have degenerated from consumption and his brother died from tuberculosis aggravated by alcohol. Poe was also warned about his genetic disposition towards alcoholism by his cousin William Poe, who "viewed alcohol as the curse of the Poes" (Wagenknecht 31). Disregarding the advice of his cousin not to drink, Poe began heavy drinking as a young man. While at the University of Virginia, he would gulp a full glass of liquor without any sign of enjoyment. He kept a bottle of brandy in his room at West Point and would go to Old Benny's bar and drink until he became a "raving drunk" who was "more like a demon than a man (Wagenknecht 31). Unfortunately, he never outgrew this passion for copious amounts of liquor.
Poe's reasons for drinking are as numerous as his terrible binges. In fact, he drank to escape the drudgery and disappointments of his life.
"I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness, and a dread of some strange impending doom." (Poe as quoted in Meyers 89).
At the heart of what caused these "desperate attempts" was money, or ,rather, Poe's lack of it. Poe was the second American to support himself entirely by his writing. Other American authors such as James Fenimore Cooper and English ones like Charles Dickens had other jobs or means of support and would give work to magazines and books for little or no cost. Poe's necessity of charging for his work left him with a situation in which he was constantly being underbid. On top of his inability to earn substantial income, he had to support Virginia Clemm Poe and her mother Maria. The constant illness of the little family also added to the stress. Virginia ruptured a blood vessel in 1842 and died a slow death because of tuberculosis five years later, all of which emotionally and monetarily drained Poe.
Money was definitely not the only problem though. There was the failure at creating his own magazine, the poor relations with his foster father, John Allan, and his inability to live up to the upper class expectations because of his lack of money. There was the lack of food, brought on by poverty, but solved by liquor, for "drink is always offered before food to a starving man by his friends" and "is about the only thing that is given and taken without a hint of the patronage distasteful alike to giver and receiver," (Wagenknecht 32). He also had courtship to worry about after Virginia's death. Peer pressure had a enhanced effect on Poe's drinking. He was seldom able to refuse a drink in public and this weakness logically led to the perception that he was an alcoholic.
Poe was a dipsomaniac, not an alcoholic. Alcohol was a drug that acted compulsively on him. He tried many times to quit but was invariably drawn back by some new stress upon his system. Early in Poe's career, he claimed that he had no problem and could quit easily for "intemperance with me, has never amounted to a habit; and had it been ten times a habit it would have required scarcely an effort on my part to shake it from me at once and forever" (Meyers 87). Unfortunately, he proved this to be false.
Poe tried different methods of quitting. His most common was long dry spells, but none of them lasted. His longest streak was 18 months beginning in early 1844. He also claimed that there was a four year period from 1836-1840, but other accounts prove differently. In 1849 Poe joined the Shockoe Hill Division of the Sons of Temperance but soon died, probably drunk.
Many people tried to help Poe, but none were ultimately successful. T. W. White, the publisher of the Southern Literary Messenger, tried in 1835--"If you could make yourself contented to take up your quarters in my family...separate yourself from the bottle for ever! No man is safe who drinks before breakfast" (Quinn 229). He never lived with White but did live with the Brennans of New York who vouched for his strict abstinence while living there late in his life.
Poe's works reflect what he thought about the evil of drink. Liquor played a major role in "The Black Cat," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," and "The Man of the Crowd." The narrator of "The Black Cat" is a chronic alcoholic who exclaims "for what disease is like Alcohol" (Poe 224); and in a drunken stupor gouges out his cat's eye because he thought it was avoiding him. Fortunato of "The Cask of Amontillado" is lured by the drug to his death. The drunks of "The Man of the Crowd" staggered to the gin houses
"in shreds and patches, reeling, inarticulate, with bruised visage and lack-lustre eyes" (Poe 477). In this description of wretched drunks, Poe may really be describing himself after a binge when he was commonly drug out of the gutters. In any regard, he attacked the use of alcohol because it is overpowering and destructive. Very seldom did he have alcohol involved if it was not harmful. These characters reflect his inability to enjoy the drug like most people and his seeing it as an instrument of destruction.
Poe's drinking had three major ill effects on his life: he lost his health, he lost his jobs, and he lost his dream of a magazine of his own. Whenever Poe drank, he became violently ill for several days. For example, in June, 1845, he stayed in bed for a week after a few days of heavy drinking. He also commonly lost all comprehension of the world around him and ended up a wanderer. Poe may have died from drinking. It certainly did not help him any. There was no autopsy performed on Poe after his death on October 7, 1849. There are many possible explanations for his death ranging from brain tumor to syphilis, with "the most probable one being hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar--possibly brought on by chronic liver disease,"(Meyers 256). In the week prior to his death, no one knows what happened to him. He drank with friends in Baltimore on his way to New York and soon became unconscious. Six days later he was discovered in a gutter and taken to a hospital where he died four days later. "The one thing certain is that no American writer of Poe's distinction ever died a more lonely or pathetic death" (Wagenknecht 22).
As a major cause for Poe's inability to keep a job as an editor of magazines, alcohol caused the greatest ill effect of all on his life. Poe had no money. It is estimated that he had a lifetime earning of only $6,200. Had he been able to hold a good job and advance he might have gotten more money. Lack of cash was the main drive to Poe's drinking because it was a constant, pressing need. Poe was dismissed from the Southern Literary Messenger in December 1836 for the third and final time for drinking. In May 1840 he was fired from Burton's Gentleman's Magazine for the same reason. The other job he tried to get was with the government. When Poe was refused a job, he scheduled an appointment with then President Tyler, but when he got to Washington, became inebriated and skipped the appointment.
Poe's dream of a magazine to call his own died hard. He tried three times--Penn Magazine, Stylus, and the Broadway Journal. The first two never got off the ground. Poe never got his promised backing from George Graham for Penn or Thomas Clarke for Stylus. On October 24, 1845, he bought the rights to the Broadway Journal for $50. He became partners with Thomas Lane but lost the magazine, and his dream, in December when Poe left on a drinking spree with no one to cover the column and a half he left open at printing time. Once again alcohol wrecked Poe's ambition and plans.
After Poe worked at Graham's, he was replaced by Rufus Griswold, with whom he did not get along well. After Poe's death, and before, Griswold was adamant about gross slander of Poe. He wrote an obituary of Poe that contained many blatant lies, but nevertheless swayed public opinion to see Poe as a inherently bad man. This served to attract attention and "by emphasizing Poe's wicked and scandalous behavior, he ensured that Poe's work would continue to attract attention" (Meyers 263). As for the present interpretation of Poe as an alcoholic, Griswold plays no part in it. His writings have been thoroughly exposed as lies.
Poe was the first in a long series of American authors who felt a need to drink (Meyers 89). Alcohol ruined his life. He had no good jobs. He had no stable world. He had nothing to anchor him to reality, so he induced fantasies and drown fears with a bottle. Therein lies his attraction--would a stable man have been able to write such amazing tales of life, death, the fantastic, and the incredible? No and that is why Poe could not live a normal life, he needed a way out and chose an awful one
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Krutch, Joseph Wood. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965.
Meyers, Jeffery. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: The Modern Library, 1992.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Bigraphy. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1941.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.