At the end (though he didn’t know this) of his too-short life, Edgar Allan Poe found himself scrambling for money, mourning his recently-deceased young bride, Virginia, and teetering on the edge of homelessness. Although he had welcomed the responsibility and the company of his aunt turned mother-in-law, Maria Poe Clemm (whose pet name, “Muddy,” reflects the mother-son bond the two shared), he was hard pressed to come up with enough money to cover their basic living expenses. Over the past few years, many opportunities to make his writings visible to a larger public, thereby ensuring steady income as well as recognition as a writer, had been wasted, most often due to his own self sabotage.
In June of 1849, Poe was living with Mrs. Clemm in New York City in the tidy cottage in Fordham (now the Bronx) where Virginia had died in 1847. Eager to find funding for his ultimately ill-fated literary journal, “The Stylus,” Poe had decided to embark on a short tour or several northeastern cities, giving readings from his own works and general talks on literature and philosophy. The relatively new “speaker’s tour” undertaken by many writers was surprisingly lucrative, and Poe was desperate to earn money. Though he professed to despise speaking to large groups of people (he saw it as akin to parading his talents before applauding admirers), he was found to have a natural gift for performance. A number of fellow writers, men and women of letters, and a few curious literati who had heard him speak praised his oratorial abilities.
Even so, Poe intensely disliked touring. Before leaving New York, he promised Muddy that he would soon return, and that their “dark days” of poverty and of living hand-to-mouth would be over. He planned to earn enough money to fund the premier issue of “The Stylus,” then wait for the subscriptions to come in, thereby paying back the initial investment and ensuring the financial success and stability of the review. For the first time in his life, Poe was going to be self sufficient.
But the first weeks of the tour proved to be disastrous. In late June, while briefly stopped over in Philadelphia, he was arrested for public drunkenness, and spent time in the Gothic fortress of Moyamensing Prison. While there he fell ill and suffered bouts of hallucinations and nightmares; in the worst one, Muddy was dead, her body being cut into pieces before him. Illness followed him for weeks, and his letters to Mrs. Clemm reveal him to be physically suffering (“from cholera”) and incredibly homesick.
In July the tide seemed to turn for Poe. He arrived in Richmond to a warm reception. “I never was received with so much enthusiasm,” he wrote to Mrs. Clemm. “The papers have done nothing but praise me, before the lecture & since.” His health also seemed to have improved. Having suffered for several weeks, clearly due to a drunken spree, Poe wrote to Muddy towards the end of the month that his experience had served to warn him of the dangers of drink, and that he planned to “extricate myself from this difficulty” for her sake and for their future. In August, he joined the Richmond branch of the “Sons of Temperance,” swearing off alcohol in a very public and accountable manner, as the group was highly visible and its members an influential group of men.
Perhaps most importantly, Poe had secured a future domicile for himself and for Muddy, as by the end of the tour he was engaged to be married to Elmira Royster Shelton, an early love, now a wealthy widow with whom Poe had rekindled a romance. It is unclear how binding their engagement was; following Poe’s death Mrs. Shelton was not forthcoming about their relationship or their supposed engagement. But Poe’s letters show him to have been certain that the marriage would take place.
On September 27, he left Elmira and Richmond, bound for Philadelphia (probably via Baltimore) to gather Mrs. Loud’s poems and his fee. His plan was to continue on to New York City to pick up Muddy, then to move permanently back to Richmond to a new life. This never happened. Poe left on a steamboat in the early hours of September 28, headed for Baltimore. Nothing more was ever heard from him, at least nothing coherent. He was found barely conscious on October 3, in Baltimore, and was transferred to a hospital. He never regained consciousness enough to speak of what had happened to him, and died on October 7.
This is the only extant letter written by Poe to Mrs. Loud, mailed just prior to his departure for Philadelphia:
Sep 18 — 49
Mrs. M. St. Leon Loud,
Not being quite sure whether a letter addressed simply to ‘Mr John Loud’ would reach your husband — that is to say, not remembering whether he had a middle name or not — I have taken the liberty of writing directly to yourself, in regard to a proposition which he made me while here; having reference to your Poems.
It was my purpose and hope to have been in Philadelphia by the 7th of this month; but circumstances beyond my control have detained me; and I write now to say that I find it impossible to leave Richmond before Tuesday next — the 25 th. On the 26 th I hope to have the pleasure of calling on you at your residence in Philadelphia.
There will be quite time enough to have your book issued as proposed: — but should this unavoidable delay on my part have caused you to change your views in any respect, may I beg of you the favor to let me know, by return of mail, if convenient? Under any circumstances I should, of course, feel honored in receiving a letter from you.
Yr. Ob. St
Edgar A. Poe
Poe never arrived at Mrs. Loud’s. Viewing his letter now, with the privileged information that is available to those who come along after the fact seems almost unfair. Our knowledge that he will turn up days later in Baltimore, wearing someone else’s clothes, delirous and unable to communicate, makes us privvy to something that was never meant to be seen. The uncomfortable access to a private moment, the public availability of a letter, the simple fact of death opening up his life to our view put the reader in the uncomfortable position of voyeur. The contents of the letter…Poe’s polite excuse for being late, the charming language, the now-famous signature…are extremely poignant, as we know the way his journey will end. This may be one of the most sad and melancholy of Poe’s letters, given the how the story turns out and our knowledge of the writer’s fate.
In the end, I have to wonder: Is it fair to open up a dead person’s life, turn it upside down and shake out all his momentoes, fears, loves, and weaknesses? As Poe himself hinted at in his texts, do we each become public property at the moment of our death?