Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Edgar Allan Poe – A tormented literary genius

portrait of Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849

A man attempts to hide from his sins and ultimately from himself. A murderer takes an old man’s life and hides the body under the floorboards. But he cannot silence his guilt, so he keeps on hearing the dead man’s heart in his room. This story is “The Tell-Tale Heart,” written by Edgar Allan Poe, and these were some of the subjects he wrote about: horror, pain, murder, revenge, hauntings, and the dead. So what do we think about the man who could imagine such horrors with such clarity?

Throughout most of his life Poe took alcohol and opiate drugs to excess. In his teens his drinking problem caused him to do stupid, impulsive, and sometimes dangerous things. His emotions and actions never quite seemed to click properly. While at West Point Military Academy, he pulled a prank using a dead and bloody gander to simulate the severed head of one of the academy’s officers. It is most probable that he suffered from insomnia and from alcoholism. Later he also became severely addicted to opiate drugs. He also seemed to have suffered from epilepsy. On top of all of this, he had psychological problems stemming from his hard life.

His life seemed to be a constant and recurring tragedy. In 1809 Edgar Allan Poe was born to David and Eliza Poe. His father left his mother, and he died a year later in Virginia. Edgar’s mother was an ill woman who died in 1811 from tuberculosis, leaving Edgar, his brother William, and his half-sister Rosalie orphaned. The children were taken in by their foster parents John and Frances Allan, where Edgar stayed until 1826. At sixteen he went off to the University of Virginia to study law. But by the end of the year, John Allan pulled Edgar out of school and after a loud and spiteful fight Edgar left home and made his way to Boston. There in 1827 he published his first pamphlet, Tamerlane and Other Poems, and then became bankrupt. So at age eighteen he decided to enlist in the army, lying about both his name and his age.

He then decided to apply to West Point Military Academy. There he was also a misfit—pulling pranks, fighting, drinking and gambling. When he became tired of the academy, he planned to get out by neglecting his duties, and it worked. In January he was court-martialed and discharged. Now free, he left Baltimore and in 1836 married his thirteen-year-old first cousin Virginia Clemm. He was extremely devoted to his young bride and seemed to love her a great deal, but in 1842 she developed tuberculosis, and in 1847 she died. With her death Poe’s will to live seemed to die as well. In 1849 he died after collapsing in a tavern in Baltimore. There are questions about the true cause of his death but ultimately it was ruled as “congestion of the brain.”

His life was filled with pain upon pain—some brought about by the cruelties of life, others by his own hand. He was a literary genius, but many believe that he was truly mad and that it was a miracle that he was not committed earlier. Only with Virginia did he have a glimpse of sunshine and happiness, and that too soon was cruelly wrenched away. He was the genius who wrote “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Raven.” Did his literary genius arise from his life’s trauma, his neurological and psychological issues, or did he always possess this literary prowess? For how could someone write about such horrors without having prior knowledge of them? We will never know the answer to these questions because, unfortunately for the living, ghosts do not speak.



DONNA J. A. OLSON is a young author from Northern Alberta. She loves writing and has always had a fascination with the stories of others. She strives to write strong, thought-provoking words that will leave their reader wanting more.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Winter 2017 – Volume 9, Issue 1
Winter 2016  |  Sections  |  Books & Reviews

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