Monday, May 28, 2012

Sergeant Major Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe Memorial Day poppy

How dark a woe! Yet how sublime a hope!
How silently serene a sea of pride!
How daring an ambition! Yet how deep—
How fathomless a capacity for love!

There is no exquisite beauty without
some strangeness in the proportion.
--inscription on a tablet in the library at West Point

For anyone unfamiliar with the details of Poe’s life, it usually comes as a great surprise to learn that he did a stint in the U.S. Army, and, moreover, was a very good soldier. It seems appropriate—or, at least, as appropriate as I could get within the theme of this strange blog—to devote a Memorial Day post to his short, curious military career.

When eighteen-year-old Edgar Poe arrived in Boston from Richmond, VA in April of 1827, he had reached the end of his old life, with no firm plans on how to start a new one. After the end of his first and only term at the University of Virginia, he had quarreled so bitterly with his foster-father John Allan that he quit his adopted hometown altogether, determined to strike out on his own. We do not know exactly what he did during this period, until he enlisted in the Army on May 26 of that year, under the name “Edgar A. Perry.” His reasons for taking this seemingly uncharacteristic career move—and doing so under an alias, to boot—are unknown. It is assumed that he signed up out of sheer desperation, because he was unable to find any other work. If this is the case, Poe must have been in dire straits indeed, as the contemporary military was notorious for, as one historian put it, “Small pay, little recreation, hard duty, and scant opportunity for advancement.”

Poe’s education—highly unusual for the average recruit of the era—served him well in his new position. He quickly became clerk for Company H, 1st Artillery, under Lieutenant Joshua Howard. His duties involved handling routine papers, serving as messenger between his company and regimental headquarters, writing Howard’s letters, and preparing payrolls and muster-rolls. However tedious this work may have been, it at least excused him from the even more tiresome garrison duties of his comrades, and gave him a relatively large amount of leisure time.

Poe was soon promoted to the highly important job of an artificer, with the tasks of preparing the battery’s bombs and shells, and helping to supervise the ammunition supply. His new status gave him a raise in pay—from $5 to $10 dollars a month, as well as “one ration of whiskey or rum per day.” He performed so effectively that on January 1, 1829, he was promoted to regimental sergeant-major—the highest non-commissioned grade in the Army—which was a remarkably speedy rise in the ranks.

However, Poe soon realized that as things stood, his chances for further advancement in the Army were limited. The military was, as he later wrote, “no place for a poor man.” The following month, he wrote John Allan asking his help in procuring an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point. Poe was under the impression that his Army experience would enable him to breeze through his cadetship in only six months or so—an erroneous assumption that would cause him a good deal of trouble later on.

Three weeks after Poe wrote this letter, his foster-mother Frances Allan died, and he obtained a week’s furlough to attend her funeral. During his visit to Richmond, he and Allan came to something of a reconciliation, and they agreed Poe would apply for a discharge from the Army and seek an appointment to West Point. Accordingly, on April 4, 1829 “Sergeant-Major Edgar A. Perry” was ordered discharged “on furnishing an acceptable substitute without expense to the government.” This order took effect—under his real name—on April 25.

Poe had made an excellent impression on his superiors. Lieutenant Howard wrote a letter of recommendation stating that his habits were “good and entirely free from drinking.” Other officers wrote a similar letters to the Academy, asserting that the young soldier was “highly worthy of confidence,” “highly praiseworthy and deserving of confidence,” “free of bad habits,” and would follow the responsibilities of a cadet “studiously and faithfully.” Allan himself wrote an appallingly cold letter on Poe’s behalf that fell into the “with friends like these…” category. He made a point of stating that "the youth" “is no relation to me whatever” and that he had only interested himself in the young man because “every Man is my care, if he be in distress.” This ungenerous letter—written by someone who had raised “the youth” from infancy—alone does much to excuse Poe’s resentful attitude toward the man he once called “Pa.”

Unfortunately, Poe’s attempts at finding a substitute did not go smoothly. Under normal circumstances, he could, with the permission of his commanding officer, pay a bounty of $12 to the first man who had enlisted after he filed the request to be discharged, or deliver a larger bounty to any other man who was deemed acceptable. However, when Poe applied for his discharge, his superiors were all away on other business, forcing him to pay a bounty of $75. He paid $25 in cash, and wrote a note for the remainder.

Poe obtained his appointment to the Academy in the spring of 1830, and on June 28 passed the entrance examinations. Cadet life soon proved to be a surprise for him, and a most unpleasant one. Discipline was much stricter than anything he had previously experienced, his duties were monotonous, if not distasteful, and although he excelled academically, he found his studies unchallenging. What must have been most galling for a budding literary genius were the rules allowing cadets to visit the library only on Saturdays, when they could only check out one book “calculated to assist him in his class studies,” and forbidding them to “keep in his room any novel, poem, or other book not related to his studies.” He had fled one dead-end position for one that was quickly looking even deader.

Poe doubtless found his new circumstances disagreeable, but he appears to have kept his troubles to himself for the first months of his cadetship. However, in January 1831, disaster struck. His substitute in the Army, Sergeant Samuel “Bully” Graves, to whom Poe owed money, (it is still disputed whether or not this loan related to the $75 bounty,) had sent John Allan a letter Poe had written Graves, contemptuously dismissing Allan as a brutal, drunken skinflint.

Allan, unsurprisingly, did not take this well. He had long been greatly dissatisfied with his increasingly uncongenial ward, and he took this opportunity to write Poe a letter announcing that he was washing his hands of the young man for good. Poe—who never did learn the First Rule of Holes (“when you’re in one, stop digging”)—responded with an equally bitter missive detailing every stored-up grievance he ever had with Allan—it was an impressive list—and announcing his decision to resign from the Academy, declaring he was too tired and too poor “to put up with the fatigues of this place.” Allan did not bother to reply, merely annotating the letter with the words, “I do not think the Boy has one good quality. He may do or act as he pleases.”

It was a supreme tragedy for both Poe and Allan—particularly, of course, for the former—that these two men had an uncanny genius for bringing out the worst in each other.

Poe carried through with his threat. He began deliberately missing parades and all other class formations. On January 23, the first record of disciplinary action against him appeared: He was arrested “for absenting himself from his academic duties.” On February 8, he was court-martialed for neglect of duty and disobedience of orders. Poe does not appear to have offered any real defense, and he was quickly found guilty and sentenced to be dismissed from the Academy effective March 6. This delayed dismissal was the work of the Superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer. Thayer was fond of the wayward cadet, and, as a final favor, arranged to keep him on the Academy roster long enough to earn sufficient pay to settle his debts. On February 19, he departed for New York City. He took with him the money he had on credit with the treasurer of the Academy—twenty-four cents.

He left West Point with one of the strangest legacies ever offered by a cadet. Before his departure he solicited subscriptions among his fellow students for a new edition of his poems. One hundred and thirty one cadets (out of a total of two hundred and thirty two) put up $1.25 each to cover the cost of publication. (This suggests Poe was hardly the forbidding, friendless outcast of popular imagination.) Soon after his arrival in New York, the volume—dedicated to “The U.S. Corps of Cadets”—appeared. It contained, among other now-famous poems, “To Helen,” “Israfel,” and "Irene" (later retitled, “The Sleeper.")

It was said many years later that when Poe’s former classmates read the book, they were outraged. They had given Poe their money expecting more of the little rhymes satirizing cadet life he had composed for their amusement. This “ridiculous doggerel” he produced instead, was, they proclaimed, a complete waste of their money.

Poe always did face tough audiences.

(Note: For anyone interested in further details of Poe’s Army period, William F. Hecker’s brief, but highly insightful book, “Private Perry and Mister Poe,” is the definitive work on this under-analyzed period of his life. Major Hecker--a West Point graduate and career military officer, as well as a literary scholar--was, very sadly, killed in action in Iraq in 2006. This Memorial Day post is particularly dedicated to him.)

Image via New York Public Library