Get Your Premium Membership

Edgar Allan Poe: Living By Literature

by Sherwin Cody

Once more the young poet found himself cast out on the world, without home or friends. He could hope for nothing more from Mr. Allan, after his disgrace at the military academy, and he had found out that army life was not so fine a refuge from starvation as he had thought it. He was a proud, melancholy young man, and in school and college had learned many bad habits. He had no trade nor practical knowledge of any kind of work, though he was quick and ingenious. He had studied the art of writing, and this alone offered him the means of earning a livelihood. How poor and precarious a chance it was, we shall see as we go on.

While waiting for appointment to the Military Academy the preceding year, Poe had made acquaintance with his father's relatives in Baltimore. He formed some literary connections there, and had a volume of his poems published. It was entitled "Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, by Edgar A. Poe." "Al Aaraaf" was a poem about a star that a great astronomer had seen blaze forth and then disappear.

When he left West Point in April, 1831, nearly two years after the publication of his Baltimore volume, Poe was short of money; and to supply his needs his fellow-students subscribed for a new edition of his poems. For this, seventy-five cents was stopped out of the pay of each, and a publisher in New York agreed to issue the book in good style. The cadets thought his volume would contain the many funny squibs he had written on the professors; but they were disappointed.

Poe next went to Baltimore. There he tried to get employment in vain. Friends helped him, but it was some time before he made his first literary success.

It happened at last that a weekly paper called the Saturday Visiter was started in Baltimore. To give the paper popularity, two prizes were offered, one of a hundred dollars for the best short story, and the other of fifty for the best poem. Poe tried for both. He had six short stories, which he copied in a neat little manuscript volume entitled "Tales of the Folio Club." The poem he sent was "The Coliseum."

The judges were well-known gentlemen of the city of Baltimore, one of whom, John P. Kennedy, afterward became Poe's intimate friend. When they met they looked over several stories, which did not interest them very much. They then came to the "Tales of the Folio Club." One was read aloud, and the three gentlemen were so much interested that they kept on till they had read all, and at once decided to give the prize to one of these. They chose Poe's famous story "A MS. Found in a Bottle." Afterward they decided that his poem was the best submitted; but noticing that it was in the same handwriting as the stories, they thought it best to give the prize to another. When they made their report they greatly complimented the stories Poe had sent in, and said they should be published in a volume.

We have said that one of the judges, Mr. Kennedy, became Poe's friend. To show how very poor Poe was, I copy this passage from Mr. Kennedy's diary: "It was many years ago that I found Poe in Baltimore in a state of starvation. I gave him clothing, free access to my table, and the use of a horse for exercise whenever he chose; in fact, I brought him up from the very verge of despair."

Here, too, is an extract from a letter from Poe to Mr. Kennedy:

"Your invitation to dinner has wounded me to the quick. I cannot come for reasons of the most humiliating nature—my personal appearance. You may imagine my mortification in making this disclosure to you, but it is necessary."

Mr. Kennedy did all that a friend could do for the future poet and story-writer. Says Poe: "He has been at all times a true friend to me—he was the first true friend I ever had—I am indebted to him for life itself."

Poe now contributed regularly to the Saturday Visiter, its young editor, Lambert A. Wilmer, becoming his friend and constant companion. It is said that at this time he dressed very neatly, though inexpensively, "wore Byron collars and a black stock, and looked the poet all over."