Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Poe Shadow

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The Poe Shadow

by Matthew Pearl

The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl
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  • First Published:
    May 2006, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2007, 384 pages

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Edgar Allan Poe was born Edgar Poe in 1809 to Elizabeth and David Poe, both actors. They died when he was three and he was taken in by John Allan, a tobacco merchant living in Virginia. He became estranged from his foster father in the mid to late 1820s and joined the US Army under the name Edgar Perry - he served for two years before being discharged with the rank of Sergeant in 1829. During this time he published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems.

His foster-mother's deathbed wish was that he would reconcile with his foster-father, who arranged for him to attend the military academy at West Point, but while there he deliberately disobeyed orders and was dismissed - and was promptly disowned by his foster-father again.

Poe moved to Baltimore to live with his widowed aunt, Maria Clemm, writing fiction to support himself. In 1836 he married his first cousin, Virginia, who was just 13-years-old.

Over the next few years he established a reputation as a critic and a writer -The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was published and widely reviewed in 1838, and he became assistant editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1839, moving to Graham's Magazine the following year, and all the while continuing to publish large numbers of articles, stories and reviews.

In 1842 Virginia became ill with consumption (tuberculosis); Poe started to drink heavily and left his position at Graham's - eventually landing up as editor of the Broadway Journal in New York. The Raven was published in the Evening Mirror (New York) in 1845.

The Broadway Journal failed in 1846 and Poe and Virginia moved to a cottage close to Fordham University in The Bronx (it is said that the University's bell inspired him to write The Bells) where she died in 1847. Poe's behavior became increasingly erratic and on October 6th, 1849 he was found on the streets of Baltimore "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance," He died in hospital the following morning. A number of mysterious details surround his death which are explored in detail in The Poe Shadow, as are the various theories about what caused his death - which will never be known for sure.

This article was originally published in June 2006, and has been updated for the July 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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