176 years ago, May 16, 1836, Edgar Allan Poe marries his 13 year-old cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm in the parlor of their Richmond boardinghouse overlooking the Virginia State Capitol. Poe was 27 years old. Virginia was the daughter of his father’s sister. Poe first met Virginia when she was 8 years-old after moving in with her mother Maria (his aunt) in Baltimore, Maryland.
The marriage was conducted by the Reverend Amas Converse, editor of the Southern Religious Telegraph. The couple reportedly honeymooned in Petersburg, Virginia.
Some historians argue one of America’s most celebrated poets, may have married his young cousin much earlier, on September 22, when he took out a marriage license certificate for Virginia and himself. The marriage document was co-signed by his friend, Thomas Cleland who verified Virginia Clemm was 21 years old. There is no hard evidence, however, that a private ceremony was ever conducted in September, 1835, so it remains mere speculation.
Because of her young age, the young couple apparently slept in different bedrooms until she turned 16 and only then began a normal married life.
Imagine, today, if a 13 year-old girl (never mind a blood relative ) married a well known public figure of Poe’s stature; how their scandalous marriage would have been splashed over every tabloid in the country with each salacious detail of the nuptials reported on every 24/7 cable network?
Such was not the case in ante-bellum America. Women in the South, in particular, tended to marry younger than other sections of the country; and first-cousin marriages wasn’t considered uncommon at the time. Cousin marriages, in fact, were perfectly legal in all States prior to the Civil War. Not until the 1880’s did the social stigma attached to cousin marriages become prevalent, which led 13 states and territories to pass cousin marriage prohibitions. And the age of consent to marry was well under 16 until social purity reformers kicked off a campaign in 1885 to petition legislators to raise the legal age of consent to at least 16. The advocacy campaign paid big dividends, with almost all states raising the age of consent to 16–18 by 1920.
Though the marriage may not have been frowned upon in social circles or scorned by his contemporaries, Poe was still self-conscious of his bride’s young age.
Kent P. Ljungquist, a literary critic and a leading authority on the life and writings of Edgar Allan Poe, informs me: ``He [Poe] spoke ambiguously of Virginia's age when the subject came up. He writes to her with an emotional intensity, but evidence suggests that she was "cherubic" and child-like in her appearance at the time of the marriage in Richmond. The early stage of their relationship may have been more like an innocent brother-sister relationship.’’
Since Poe’s own mother died at such a young age, (Edgar was only 2) Virginia's sweetness and innocence, along with her gift for singing was for Poe, many scholars reason, a representation of the young and beautiful mother he was deprived of.
``His [Poe’s] general response to women,’’ Ljunsquist wrote in an email, `` was to idealize them and to refer to them as spiritual presences or beings.’’
Virginia and Edgar were star-crossed lovers.
After breaking a blood vessel while singing, the first sign of tuberculosis, Virginia died in 1847 at age 24 (the same age as Edgar’s mother and from the same illness) after a long painful illness. Poe, emotionally distraught over Virginia’s death, leaped into a series of destructive relationships with other women, developed ``a lesion of one side of the brain’’ and on a trip to Baltimore, was found lying in a gutter, rambling and hallucinating. Rushed to Washington College Hospital (now Church Hospital) in an unconscious state, he died four days later after never regaining consciousness on October 7, 1849 at age 40, just two years after losing Virginia. The cause of Poe’s death was never determined.
Born Edgar Poe in Boston, Massachusetts, January 19, 1809, his parents were traveling actors. After his father David Poe abandoned his family and his mother died of tuberculosis on December 8, 1811 in Richmond Virginia, when Edgar was only two, he was taken in (but never officially adopted) by John Allan, a Virginia planter.
A Footnote: Poe was one of three children but all were raised by separate families. His other brother William Henry Leonard Poe also became a poet before dying at a young age (his literary work was never preserved), and his sister Rosalie Poe later in life taught penmanship at a Richmond girls’ school.
Edgar attended the University of Virginia from February 14 to December 15, 1826, but never graduated after lapsing into wild drinking binges and gambling recklessly, running up debts as high as $2,000.
Flat broke, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, registering as "Edgar A. Perry.’’ Restless, he had his stepfather arrange for his discharge who arranged to have him appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he studied from 1830 to 1831. Poe would eventually be dismissed from West Point for ``neglect of duty.’’
Poe’s first volume of poems appeared in 1827 when he was 18-years old; two years later, a second volume appeared with fresh poems, revealing classical influences from Milton and other characters from classical literature, including the Bible. By 1831, he published his first short stories, some dealing with dark gruesome themes, such as “The Bargain Lost," about a devil devouring the souls of Plato, Aristophanes, Catullus, Hippocrates, Quintilian, and Terence. Poe’s development into the American Gothic genre (he later became known as the ``father of the horror genre’’) became all the more evident with the publication of two other stories in 1839: "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher.’’
Poe introduced his detective hero, C. Auguste Dupin in his short story, `` The Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ in Graham’s Magazine in 1841, which many literary scholars single out as the first detective story.
"The Raven,’’ the poem that made Poe a household name was published in 1844, and during the last five years of his life, literary scholars argue, Poe wrote his two best pieces of criticism, "The Philosophy of Composition" and "The Poetic Principle.’’
Before establishing himself as preeminent poet and author, Poe worked as a literary critic for a number of publications, including the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond ( 1835-36); Burton's Gentle man's Magazine, Philadelphia, (1839-40); Graham's Magazine, (1841-42); The New York Evening Mirror, (1844-45); and briefly as editor and proprietor of The Broadway Journal, (1845-46).
The reason for so many stints at different publications is attributed to Poe’s predilection for engaging in verbal clashes with editors and falling in and out of destructive drinking binges.
Poe was buried alongside his young wife Virginia in Baltimore, Maryland at the Old Western Burial Ground (today, the Westminister Burying Ground) in an unmarked grave in the very rear of the gravesite. In November 1875, his remains were dug up and moved to another more widely visited section of the graveyard at the southeast corner of Greene and Fayette Streets. This move was done in order to accommodate the flood of tourists and Poe admirers who wanted to visit his gravesite.
May 16, 2012