The most crucial element of Poe’s life is the fact that at a very early age his life was placed in the hands of a double-barreled bastard. Even admitting that raising someone of Poe’s unusual and complex personality would be a challenge for many people, and that young Edgar possessed a singular knack for bringing out the worst in his guardian—it still remains that John Allan was a largely unsympathetic human being, and the most unfortunate choice imaginable for taking charge of Poe’s upbringing.
Allan was born on September 10, 1779 in Ayrshire, Scotland. Early in 1795 he emigrated to Richmond, Virginia to work for his uncle William Galt, who had established himself there as a prosperous merchant. The next year, Allan formed a mercantile firm with Charles Ellis. By 1803, he was successful enough to marry a beautiful young socialite, Frances Valentine. The couple remained childless. In 1811, Frances Allan was among the charitable Richmond matrons to take an interest in the ailing and indigent actress Eliza Poe, and after Mrs. Poe’s death in December, Mrs. Allan—who was said to have been taken by the unusual charm and precocity of the dying thespian’s middle child—persuaded her husband to give the nearly-three-year-old Edgar a home. Edgar’s elder brother William Henry was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Baltimore, while baby Rosalie became the ward of another Richmond family, the Mackenzies.
Little Edgar received a decidedly mixed blessing in his foster-parents. By all accounts, Frances Allan and her new “son” genuinely loved each other, but the little we know of her gives the impression of a sickly, querulous, and rather shallow woman who was simply an inadequate substitute for the strong maternal figure the boy desperately needed. A letter John Allan wrote in 1816 referred to his wife “complaining as usual.” Four years later, Charles Ellis commented that Mrs. Allan had of late been unusually “even-tempered and accommodating,” and that if she could manage to maintain her attitude, “she would make the path through life much more even to herself.”
Although the Allans evidently maintained a surface harmony, their marriage obviously had its troubles. John Allan fathered at least three illegitimate children, and it is reasonable to guess he was guilty of other affairs that left no such obvious evidences. We do not know for certain that his wife believed him unfaithful, but it is a tenable theory, and such an awareness could alone account for her lack of “even-temper.” We know even less about Edgar’s attitude. It has been speculated that by the time he reached his teens, Poe became aware of his foster-father’s darker side, and this explained the remarkably hostile turn in their relations, but that belongs more to legend and assumptions than to established evidence. There is a particularly ugly Richmond rumor that when Poe was in college, he wrote Allan a bitter letter accusing him of having given Frances Allan a venereal disease which left her sterile. However, I find this story hard to believe. For one thing, Allan’s second wife had no fertility problems, and lived to a vigorous old age. For another, as troubled as the relations between ward and guardian later became, Poe's extant correspondence to Allan during that period show him still hoping for Allan's love, or at least respect. It is impossible to picture such a letter causing anything but an immediate and permanent estrangement. On the whole, I’m inclined to classify such lurid stories as among the many wild myths which cling to Poe like lint.
Although by all accounts Allan had been reluctant to give little Edgar a home, from what little we know of Poe’s childhood relationship with his “Pa,” it appears to have been stable, and even somewhat affectionate. (It must be noted here that Susan Talley Weiss--allegedly quoting one of the Mackenzie sons--wrote that when Allan would become annoyed with the child, he would "threaten to turn him adrift, and that he never allowed him to lose sight of his dependence on his charity." This dreadful story has some plausibility, considering Allan's later attitude, and has frequently been repeated as fact. On the other hand, Weiss was, as I have often said, an unmitigated and utterly shameless liar, leaving me to assume--and, for Edgar's sake, earnestly hope--it was yet another product of her startlingly active and consistently diseased imagination.)
Allan was said to have shared his wife’s pride in their little foster-son—although one sometimes gets the impression they saw him as a pleasing household pet to show off before guests—and his surviving letters from Edgar’s childhood, while they do reveal a rather dispassionate attitude, still speak of his ward approvingly as a "fine Boy." (One of the most touching bits of Poeana is a letter Allan wrote in 1815, soon after the family had arrived in England for what would prove to be a five-year sojourn. In the midst of a list of family news he was giving Charles Ellis, he mentioned that the six-year-old Edgar had asked him to pass on a message: “Pa say something for me, say I was not afraid coming across the Sea.”)
Sadly, Poe’s relations with Allan took a mysteriously nasty turn as the beguiling child became a troubled adolescent increasingly conscious of his outsider status in the Allan household. One of the earliest pieces of evidence for Allan’s increasing disgust with his ward comes from a bizarre letter he wrote to Edgar’s seventeen-year-old brother William Henry in 1824.
Allan expressed a creepily extravagant, fawning attitude towards Poe’s brother, expressing his “desire to Stand as I ought to do in your Estimation.” He compared “Henry,” “my Brave & excellent boy,” with the “miserable, sulky & ill-tempered” fifteen-year-old Edgar. “The boy possesses not a Spark of affection for us nor a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him.” (Considering the image of Allan himself that one gets from his own letter, this is not difficult to understand.) For good measure, Allan referred to Rosalie Poe as “half your Sister,” raising questions about her paternity that will probably never be answered.
The beginning of the end for Allan and Edgar came when the young man was sent to the University of Virginia in February 1826. For reasons which remain a complete mystery, Allan—who was, thanks to a legacy from his uncle, now a very wealthy man—sent Edgar to a highly expensive school with funds that were far short of what was needed for even basic living expenses. Poe—never known for his financial luck—desperately tried to make up the deficit by gambling. The almost-inevitable result was that, in addition to his school bills, he now was burdened with humiliating “debts of honor." Allan evidently refused to pay any of the money Poe owed. The older man’s solution to the problem was to simply force Edgar to withdraw from the university after only one semester—a break that Poe would forever resent.
After Poe returned to Richmond, tensions between the two increased until, like an active volcano finally finding release, they had what was probably their worst quarrel to date in March of 1827. Poe angrily fled the Allan home—essentially for good, as it would turn out—and, obviously still fuming, wrote his foster-father a letter the same day, announcing his determination “to find some place in this wide world, where I will be treated--not as you have treated me.” He went on to list reasons for his departure—reasons that were obviously a rehash of their earlier fight:
“Since I have been able to think on any subject, my thoughts have aspired, and they have been taught by you to aspire, to eminence in public life — this cannot be attained without a good Education, such a one I cannot obtain at a Primary school — A collegiate Education therefore was what I most ardently desired, and I had been led to expect that it would at some future time be granted — but in a moment of caprice — you have blasted my hope because forsooth I disagreed with you in an opinion, which opinion I was forced to express —
Again, I have heard you say (when you little thought I was listening and therefore must have said it in earnest) that you had no affection for me —
You have moreover ordered me to quit your house, and are continually upbraiding me with eating the bread of Idleness, when you yourself were the only person to remedy the evil by placing me to some business —
You take delight in exposing me before those whom you think likely to advance my interest in this world…”
Whatever Poe’s original plans may have been, by May he had enlisted in the Army. After Frances Allan—who had evidently stayed devoted to her foster son to the last—died in February 1829, Poe got a brief leave of absence and returned to Richmond, where he and Allan patched up a truce. The two agreed that Allan would help Poe obtain an appointment to West Point—an agreement Allan eventually fulfilled, but with remarkably bad grace. In his letter to Secretary of War John Eaton, Allan essentially washed his hands of the young man who still thought of him as “Pa,” writing that Poe “is no relation to me whatever; that I have many whom I have taken an active Interest to promote thiers [sp] with no other feeling than that; every Man is my care, if he be in distress.”
The uneasy peace between Poe and Allan was irrevocably shattered by the beginning of 1831. When Poe had sought his cadetship, he hired a “substitute,” a Sergeant Graves, to take his place in the Army. Although he evidently gave Graves his $75 fee, he owed the man other debts. When Graves wrote him on the subject, Poe sent an apologetic reply, attributing his financial confusion to the fact that “Mr. A is not very often sober.” Graves forwarded this unbelievably ill-judged letter to Allan himself, with predictable results. We do not know exactly what Allan wrote to Poe after hearing from Graves, but the general import can be gauged from the reply Poe wrote from the Military Academy on January 3. As it proved to essentially be the epitaph of their relationship, it deserves quoting in full:
I suppose (altho’ you desire no further communication with yourself on my part,) that your restriction does not extend to my answering your final letter.
Did I, when an infant, sollicit [sic] your charity and protection, or was it of your own free will, that you volunteered your services in my behalf? It is well known to respectable individuals in Baltimore, and elsewhere, that my Grandfather (my natural protector at the time you interposed) was wealthy, and that I was his favourite grand-child — But the promises of adoption, and liberal education which you held forth to him in a letter which is now in possession of my family, induced him to resign all care of me into your hands. Under such circumstances, can it be said that I have no right to expect any thing at your hands? You may probably urge that you have given me a liberal education. I will leave the decision of that question to those who know how far liberal educations can be obtained in 8 months at the University of Va. Here you will say that it was my own fault that I did not return — You would not let me return because bills were presented you for payment which I never wished nor desired you to pay. Had you let me return, my reformation had been sure — as my conduct the last 3 months gave every reason to believe — and you would never have heard more of my extravagances. But I am not about to proclaim myself guilty of all that has been alleged against me, and which I have hitherto endured, simply because I was too proud to reply. I will boldly say that it was wholly and entirely your own mistaken parsimony that caused all the difficulties in which I was involved while at Charlottsville [sic]. The expenses of the institution at the lowest estimate were $350 per annum. You sent me there with $110. Of this $50 were to be paid immediately for board — $60 for attendance upon 2 professors — and you even then did not miss the opportunity of abusing me because I did not attend 3. Then $15 more were to be paid for room-rent — remember that all this was to be paid in advance, with $110. — $12 more for a bed — and $12 more for room furniture. I had, of course, the mortification of running in debt for public property — against the known rules of the institution, and was immediately regarded in the light of a beggar. You will remember that in a week after my arrival, I wrote to you for some more money, and for books — You replied in terms of the utmost abuse — if I had been the vilest wretch on earth you could not have been more abusive than you were because I could not contrive to pay $150 with $110. I had enclosed to you in my letter (according to your express commands) an account of the expenses incurred amounting to $149 — the balance to be paid was $39 — You enclosed me $40, leaving me one dollar in pocket. In a short time afterwards I received a packet of books consisting of, Gil Blas, and the Cambridge Mathematics in 2 vols: books which I had no earthly use since I had no means of attending the mathematical lectures. But books must be had, If I intended to remain at the institution — and they were bought accordingly upon credit. In this manner debts were accumulated, and money borrowed of Jews in Charlottesville at extravagant interest — for I was obliged to hire a servant, to pay for wood, for washing, and a thousand other necessaries. It was then that I became dissolute, for how could it be otherwise? I could associate with no students, except those who were in a similar situation with myself — altho’ from different causes — They from drunkenness, and extravagance — I, because it was my crime to have no one on Earth who cared for me, or loved me. I call God to witness that I have never loved dissipation — Those who know me know that my pursuits and habits are very far from any thing of the kind. But I was drawn into it by my companions. Even their professions of friendship — hollow as they were — were a relief. Towards the close of the session you sent me $100 — but it was too late — to be of any service in extricating me from my difficulties — I kept it for some time — thinking that if I could obtain more I could yet retrieve my character — I applied to James Galt — but he, I believe, from the best of motives refused to lend me any — I then became desperate, and gambled — until I finally i[n]volved myself irretrievably. If I have been to blame in all this — place yourself in my situation, and tell me if you would not have been equally so. But these circumstances were all unknown to my friends when I returned home — They knew that I had been extravagant — but that was all — I had no hope of returning to Charlottesville, and I waited in vain in expectation that you would, at least, obtain me some employment. I saw no prospect of this — and I could endure it no longer. — Every day threatened with a warrant &c. I left home — and after nearly 2 years conduct with which no fault could be found — in the army, as a common soldier — I earned, myself, by the most humiliating privations — a Cadets’ warrant which you could have obtained at any time for asking. It was then that I thought I might venture to sollicit [sic] your assistance in giving me an outfit — I came home, you will remember, the night after the burial — If she had not have died while I was away there would have been nothing for me to regret — Your love I never valued — but she I believed loved me as her own child. You promised me to forgive all — but you soon forgot your promise. You sent me to W. Point like a beggar. The same difficulties are threatening me as before at Charlottesville — and I must resign.
As to your injunction not to trouble you with farther communication rest assured, Sir, that I will most religiously observe it. When I parted from you — at the steam-boat, I knew that I should nev[er] see you again.
As regards Sergt. Graves — I did write him that letter. As to the truth of its contents, I leave it to God, and your own conscience. — The time in which I wrote it was within a half hour after you had embittered every feeling of my heart against you by your abuse of my family, and myself, under your own roof — and at a time when you knew that my heart was almost breaking.
I have no more to say — except that my future life (which thank God will not endure long) must be passed in indigence and sickness. I have no energy left, nor health. If it was possible, to put up with the fatigues of this place, and the inconveniences which my absolute want of necessaries subject me to, and as I mentioned before it is my intention to resign. For this end it will be necessary that you (as my nominal guardian) enclose me your written permission. It will be useless to refuse me this last request — for I can leave the place without any permission — your refusal would only deprive me of the little pay which is now due as mileage.
From the time of writing this I shall neglect my studies and duties at the institution — if I do not receive your answer in 10 days — I will leave the point without — for otherwise I should subject myself to dismission.”
Allan does not appear to have directly answered this letter, merely endorsing it with the cold comment: “I do not think the Boy has one good quality. He may do or act as he pleases, tho’ I wd have saved him but on his own terms & conditions since I cannot believe a word he writes. His letter is the most barefaced one sided statement.” (It should be noted that many historians believe Poe was mostly stating the facts.)
Poe, of course, did leave West Point, and there’s no reason to think Allan felt the least concern about where he went or what he did. The attentions of Poe’s erstwhile “Pa” were occupied by Louisa Patterson, whom he married in October 1830. The couple soon had three sons, and this new family made Allan all the more determined to cut his only remaining tie with the old. Although there would be a sporadic correspondence between them over the next several years, Allan made it all too clear that he felt no further sense of responsibility for Poe.
Poe’s letters to Allan during these last years have not endeared him to his biographers. They are often an uncomfortable mixture of self-pity and bombast, where he alternately scorns Allan and grovels to him. This swing between anger and desperate need for love is very typical of the attitude many abused children feel for their adult tormentors--which suggests Poe's ostensibly contented childhood was far bleaker than we assume.
As exasperating as Poe can sound in these letters, it is also impossible not to feel for him when he wrote lines like: “I am sorry that it is so seldom that I hear from you or even of you — for all communication seems to be at an end; and when I think of the long twenty one years that I have called you father, and you have called me son, I could cry like a child to think that it should all end in this. ..I write merely because I am by myself and have been thinking over old times, and my only friends, until my heart is full — At such a time the conversation of new acquaintance is like ice, and I prefer writing to you altho’ I know that you care nothing about me, and perhaps will not even read my letter.”
Poe was probably not without some blame in their relationship, but whatever his errors may have been, it is chilling to see the ease and thoroughness with which Allan was able to sever all ties with an obviously suffering youth who had spent virtually all his life thinking of Allan as a father. Even at his worst, Poe still comes off as human. John Allan does not.
On March 27, 1834, Allan died of a lingering illness of unknown origin, utterly ignorant that he would only be remembered because of the cast-off ward he had despised. Charles Ellis’ son Thomas (citing Louisa Allan as his source) wrote in 1881 that shortly before Allan’s death, Poe had suddenly appeared at the Allan family home, demanding to see his former guardian. Thomas Ellis claimed Mrs. Allan tried to turn him away, but Poe desperately barged his way into Allan’s sickroom, only to have the ailing but still unforgiving man chase the unwelcome visitor out with his cane. The story cannot be confirmed, but it would be depressingly in character for both men to end their relationship with such a mixture of melodrama and farce.
As is well-known, Allan did not bother even mentioning Poe in his will, leaving the young poet nothing but largely painful memories he carried the rest of his life. A biographical sketch of Poe from 1843, which he undoubtedly contributed information to, if he did not actually write it, is openly contemptuous of his guardian, stating that “Mr. Allan’s principal recommendation was his wealth…He treated his young protege with as much kindness as his gross nature admitted…” In an 1839 letter to his cousin George Washington Poe, Edgar was even blunter, stating that when Allan inherited his uncle’s fortune, it “nearly turned his brain, and, worse, confirmed him in habits of habitual drunkenness…[he] gave loose to all the baseness of his nature.” Sarah Helen Whitman gave a similar story. In 1874, she wrote John Ingram that Poe had described Allan as “a man of a gross & brutal temperament, though indulgent to him & at times profusely lavish in the matter of money—at others, penurious & parsimonious.” Annie Richmond informed Ingram that Mrs. Clemm “always spoke in the strongest terms of denunciation” of the Allans and their treatment of Poe, although she added her opinion--one startlingly hostile to both Poe and Mrs. Clemm--that she refused to believe the Allans could have been guilty of any injustice towards him. (As if she could know!)
Allan was undoubtedly the most influential person in Poe’s life, and unfortunately the influence was entirely negative. It goes without saying that if he had continued to treat Poe as his ward, or at least left him some amount of money, the poet’s life would have been radically different. Even more importantly, however, he obviously failed to ever give Poe the emotional grounding such a sensitive and acute boy required. It is small wonder that Poe was later to cling to his aunt Maria Clemm so desperately. With her combination of unconditional love and practical support, she was both the mother and father he never really had. One wonders what his life would have become if she had been the principal figure of his childhood, rather than the materially rich but spiritually deficient Allan.
[A footnote: In 1875 Marie Shew Houghton wrote Ingram that shortly before Virginia Poe’s death, Edgar’s wife had shown her a letter Louisa Allan had written shortly after John Allan’s death. In this letter, Mrs. Allan expressed her desire to see Poe to make amends for having been the sole cause of his estrangement from his guardian. According to Mrs. Houghton, Louisa Allan was jealous of Edgar for being a true blood relative to her husband. Supposedly, he had written a scornful reply, to which she answered pleadingly, “You were always a gentleman to me, always, until now—can you not forgive a fault so humbly acknowledged?”
This soap operatic anecdote has troubled Poe’s biographers ever since. Everyone who knew Louisa Allan stated that she went to her grave with an unremitting antipathy towards the very subject of Poe—a man she could only have personally known from that very brief and unpleasant occasion described by Thomas Ellis. It is virtually impossible that there were any sort of ties of kinship between Allan and Poe. There is no other first-hand account of anyone else even seeing these letters Mrs. Houghton described. Faced with a claim that directly contradicts all known history—not to mention simple common sense—they have shown a strange reluctance to simply classify Mrs. Houghton as a demonstrably deranged fantasist, and have instead retreated into confusion. Arthur Quinn even made efforts to suggest that the first Mrs. Allan had at some point written a conciliatory letter, even while he seemed to sense the feebleness of his own argument.
Even though the idea that one or other of the Mrs. Allans wrote some sort of pleading letters to Poe has become one of the many enshrined fables of his biography, it is long past time to throw the story into history’s garbage disposal where it belongs. The other gossip involving John Allan’s second marriage—that his estrangement from Poe occurred when his ward attempted to seduce the new Mrs. A—is, fortunately, too stupid for even his worst modern biographers to tolerate, but it still stands as a good example of the depths to which Poe Mythology can sink.]