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Poe of Virginia

Summary:
The opinion has been often stated that Edgar Allan Poe was bizarre and amoral; that he was a lover of morbid beauty only; that he was unrelated to worldly circumstances-aloof from the affairs of the world; that his epitaph might well be: “Out of space-out of time.” But it is dangerous to attempt to separate any historical figure from his setting. No individual can ever be understood fully until the subtle influences of his formal education, his reading, his associates, and his time and country (with his heredity) are traced and synthesized. Too much has been said, perhaps, about Poe’s “detachment” from his environment and too little about his background—his heritage from Europe and the influences of his early life in Virginia.

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The opinion has been often stated that Edgar Allan Poe was bizarre and amoral; that he was a lover of morbid beauty only; that he was unrelated to worldly circumstances-aloof from the affairs of the world; that his epitaph might well be: “Out of space-out of time.”

But it is dangerous to attempt to separate any historical figure from his setting. No individual can ever be understood fully until the subtle influences of his formal education, his reading, his associates, and his time and country (with his heredity) are traced and synthesized. Too much has been said, perhaps, about Poe’s “detachment” from his environment and too little about his background—his heritage from Europe and the influences of his early life in Virginia. Elizabeth Arnold, Poe’s mother, was born in England in 1787 and was brought to this country when she was a girl of nine. “In speaking of my mother,” Poe wrote years later to Beverley Tucker of Virginia, “you have touched a string to which my heart fully responds.” Judging from his spirited defense of Elizabeth Poe, it appears that Poe never became unmindful of his immediate English origins on the maternal side.

Poe’s ancestry on his father’s side was Scotch-Irish and has been traced through County Cavon to Ayrshire, Scotland. The fact that Poe’s Presbyterian Scottish ancestors dwelled for a time in the north of Ireland has caused even so good a scholar as Arthur Hobson Quinn to engage in surprising speculation about an “Irish strain” in Poe and about a “Celtic” trait of perverseness which he had “discovered” in the Poe family.

There are questions as to how much of the pre-Teutonic Celtic stock survives in the Scottish lowlands, questions about the extent of Anglo-Saxon and Danish incursions there. And so Professor Quinn’s theory about an “Irish” perverseness is truly an idea fetched from afar. In evaluating Poe’s ethnic heritage it is enough to say that his forbears were English and Scottish and, quite likely, predominantly Anglo-Saxon, the strain which, as Poe himself wrote, animated the American heart.

Poe, unlike other great American writers of his time, spent a considerable portion of his childhood in Britain. In 1815, John Allan set out for England, accompanied by his wife, Frances Allan; his sister-in-law, “Aunt Nancy” Valentine; and his six-year-old foster son, Edgar Poe. For a time Edgar attended the small London school of Miss Dubourg (a name which subsequently was to appear in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) and later, for a period of three years from 1817 to 1820, was sent to a better school, the Manor House at Stoke Newington near London. Here Poe, in addition to being affected profoundly by the atmosphere of England, studied French, Latin, history and literature. The Manor House School, with its “Dr.” Bransby, Poe later was to transplant bodily to the semi-autobiographical tale “William Wilson” (1840).

Poe saw a good deal of Scotland, too, on first arriving in Britain and may have attended school in Irvine for a time. It would be difficult to estimate the impact of these formative years in Britain upon the youthful Poe.

Poe’s foster father, John Allan, was himself born and bred in Irvine, Ayrshire, and was a member of the class of English and Scottish merchants of Richmond, Virginia-to which city he had emigrated as a youth around 1795. Scottish merchants represented a very considerable element in the commercial life of Richmond in those years, and many of them, to a considerable extent, maintained themselves aloof from the life of the city. The Scottish influences of Allan and his associates and friends could not have been lost upon Poe.

The Richmond which Poe knew was (more than Philadelphia or New York) aristocratic and English. Virginia society, Poe himself noted, had been as “absolutely aristocratical as any in Europe.” This is not to imply the existence of any chasmal gulf separating the American and British minds, respectively, in the first half of the nineteenth century; but it was in Virginia, probably, that the least divergence was to be discerned.

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