Almost 200 years after it was first published, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven still terrifies and delights. The poem, about a forlorn lover tormented by a mysterious bird as he slowly descends into madness, permeated both critical circles and the popular consciousness, proving that the macabre could and should share a space with literary fiction and poetry. Poe himself, though famous for his time in Baltimore, called our neighborhood home during the writing of The Raven, perhaps inspired by someone rapping on his chamber door in Greenwich Village.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, Poe spent his early years dropping out of the University of Virginia and joining the army (after lying about his age and using the name Edgar A. Perry). In 1827, while stationed at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor, he published a 40-page collection of poetry titled Tamerlane and Other Poems, attributed with the byline “by a Bostonian.” Only 50 copies were printed, and the book received virtually no attention.
Two years later, Poe transferred to West Point, where he continued writing poetry. He even raised $175 from his fellow cadets to produce his third book, Poems, in 1831. After purposefully getting himself court-marshaled, Poe traveled to Baltimore to visit his aunt, brother, and cousin. His elder brother Henry had been in ill health, in part due to problems with alcoholism, and died several months later on August 1, 1831.
Poe began more earnest attempts to start his career as a writer, but he chose a difficult time in American publishing to do so. He was one of the first Americans to live by writing alone and was hampered by the lack of an international copyright law. American publishers often produced unauthorized copies of British works rather than paying for new work by Americans. Publishers often refused to pay their writers or paid them much later than they promised, and Poe repeatedly resorted to humiliating pleas for money and other assistance.
After his early attempts at poetry, Poe turned his attention to prose, likely based on John Neal’s critiques in The Yankee magazine. He placed a few stories with a Philadelphia publication and began work on his only drama, Politian. The Baltimore Saturday Visiter awarded him a prize in October 1833 for his short story “MS. Found in a Bottle“. The story brought him to the attention of John P. Kennedy, a Baltimorean of considerable means who helped Poe place some of his stories, and introduced him to Thomas W. White, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia. Poe became assistant editor of the periodical in August 1835, but White discharged him within a few weeks for being drunk on the job. Poe returned to Baltimore where he obtained a license to marry his cousin Virginia Clemm. On May 16, 1836, he and Virginia held a Presbyterian wedding ceremony at their Richmond boarding house, with a witness falsely attesting Clemm’s age as 21; he was 26, and she was 13.
In February of 1837 Poe arrived in New York and took up his residence at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place with his wife and mother-in-law. By the spring of that year they had moved to 113-1/2 Carmine Street. Here Poe wrote The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Gold Bug. This house was located across the street from St. John’s Graveyard (also known as St. John’s Burial Ground), a melancholy setting, which must have appealed to his moody, romantic nature.
In 1844, Poe relocated to 85 West 3rd Street. While Poe was known to work on multiple projects, constantly revising and rewriting, it is here that one of his most famous works took flight. Two years earlier, Virginia had begun showing signs of tuberculosis. Poe, distraught, turned to drinking heavily. The thought of losing his wife, some say, fueled the creation of the narrator in The Raven as he pines over his lost Lenore. When the narrator asks if he will ever be reunited in heaven with his love, the raven famously calls out, “Nevermore,” sealing the narrator’s fate and driving him into madness.
Poe first brought The Raven to Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia, one of his many former employers. Graham declined the poem, which may not have been in its final form, though he gave Poe $15 as charity. Poe then sold the poem to The American Review, which paid him $9 for it and printed it in its February 1845 issue under the pseudonym “Quarles.” The poem’s first publication with Poe’s name was in the Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845, as an “advance copy”. Following this publication, the poem appeared in periodicals across the United States, including the New York Tribune, Broadway Journal, Southern Literary Messenger, Literary Emporium, Saturday Courier, and the Richmond Examiner.
In part due to its original dual printing, The Raven made Edgar Allan Poe a household name and turned him into a national celebrity. Many imitators followed, but because he was only paid $9 for the original, the poem was a financial disaster for Poe. Though he would later publish several more collections of poems and stories, he lamented, “I have made no money. I am as poor now as ever I was in my life—except in hope, which is by no means bankable”.
While living at 85 West 3rd Street, he also wrote The Cask of Amontillado, which was published several months later in the November 1846 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, after Poe had already moved to a cottage in Fordham, which still stands today.
The original building at 85 West 3rd Street was sadly destroyed in 2001 by New York University and replaced by the current Furman Hall. In the face of massive protests from the public, NYU agreed to preserve the facade of the original Poe House and reconstruct it in the base of the new building, with a “Poe Room” inside behind it. However when all was said and done NYU actually disposed of all the original material from the facade of the house, constructing nothing more than a facsimile of the original facade in the base of the huge new building.
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance,” according to Joseph W. Walker, who found him. He was taken to the Washington Medical College, where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849, at 5:00 in the morning. Poe was not coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition and was wearing clothes that were not his own. He is said to have repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds” on the night before his death, though it is unclear to whom he was referring. Some sources say that Poe’s final words were, “Lord, help my poor soul”. All medical records have been lost, including Poe’s death certificate.
Newspapers at the time reported Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation,” common euphemisms for death from so-called disreputable causes such as alcoholism. The actual cause of death remains a mystery.
Our neighborhoods have long been the havens for writers, artists, musicians, and actors, spawning new sensations in media and entertainment. Edgar Allan Poe, however, and his poem The Raven have somehow endured for nearly 200 years. He will always be considered a master of horror and the macabre, reentering our consciousness when Halloween rolls around each year, or perhaps when you see a solitary, black bird starring off into the distance, waiting to deliver a message.