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Edgar Allan Poe And His Adoptive Father Feuded For His Entire Life

People | January 19, 2020

Closeups of a very old book by Edgar A. Poe. (Photo by Herbert Gehr/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

One of the best-known American writers and poets, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote stories that were often dark and macabre, with bizarre twists. The author of The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Pit and the Pendulum was unmistakably troubled, and it wouldn't be surprising if it stemmed from the trauma of his mother's death and his father's abandonment in his early childhood. "Daddy issues," as they say. To make matters worse, Poe and his adoptive father didn't exactly get along smashingly. Let's look at Poe's paternal conflicts. 

Poe was sent to live with the Allans when he was three. (thenation.com)

Poe's Early Years

Edgar Allan Poe was actually born just Edgar Poe in Boston on January 19, 1809, the third child born to David Poe, Jr. and Elizabeth Arnold Poe. The family of theater performers was happy for some time, but it was not to last; David Poe, Jr. abandoned his young family the next year, and Elizabeth was dead by the time Edgar was three years old. The three Poe siblings were each sent to live with different families.

John Allen, Poe's foster father. (worldofpoe.blogspot.com)

Edgar Poe And The Allan Family

Three-year-old Edgar Poe traveled to Richmond, Virginia to live with a childless couple named John and Frances Allan. The Allans raised Edgar like their own, and although they never legally adopted him, Edgar appended the "Allan" to his name. By all accounts, Frances Allan was a loving mother who treated Edgar with kindness and affection, but the same could not be said for John Allan.

The home where Poe lived with the Allans in Virginia. (atlasobscura.com)

John And Frances Allan

John Allan, who was born in Scotland, moved to the United States sometime around 1795. He married, but his wife, Frances, was often ill. Unable to have children of their own, Frances's longing to be a mother and John's hope for an heir led them to take in the orphaned Edgar Poe in late December 1812. Some time later, John Allan inherited a chunk of money from an uncle, affording the Allans quite a comfortable existence.

John and Frances Allan, Poe's foster parents. (slideshare.net)

Two Strong Wills

Edgar Allan Poe and his adoptive father were both in possession of strong-willed personalities, and it was all but inevitable that they would clash. As Edgar reached his teenage years, the tension between foster father and foster son reached a pinnacle. It was an age-old family conflict: Poe wanted to become a writer, and Allan disapproved. Having diligently ensured that Poe got the finest education, Allan balked when Poe wanted to enroll in the newly established University of Virginia. 

Poe amassed a large gambling debt. (listverse.com)

Financially Cut Off

Poe refused to give up his literary ambitions, so John Allan refused to continue financially supporting him, even when he was enrolled in college. In desperation, Poe took up gambling to support himself, which worked out the way that plan almost always works out. After sinking into more than $2,000 of debt, he came crawling back to his adoptive father, but Allan refused to give him a penny. He may have been trying to teach his adoptive son a hard lesson about responsibility, but likely, he was just fed up with Poe, who had earned a reputation for disruptive behavior on campus. Furious, Poe parted ways with his adoptive father in March 1827. 

Poe's foster father paid to get him into West Point. (westpoint.edu)

A Rollercoaster Between "Father" And "Son"

With nowhere else to go, Poe enlisted in the army, but his military career didn't last long. After a short time, he requested a release from the army, which John Allan paid to secure before paying again to get him into West Point. Much to Allan's disappointment, Poe quit West Point after only a few months, penning a letter to his angry foster father in which he heartbreakingly vacillates between angry accusations and a desperate desire for affection and approval. The two seemed to patch up their differences after Frances Allan died in 1829, but the old feud was renewed when Poe announced his intention to be a poet and Allan remarried. His new wife was not fond of Poe, who had discovered a passion for booze, which didn't please John Allan much, either.

Poe was cut out of John Allan's will. (pbs.org)

Cut Out Of The Will

The second Mrs. Allen gave birth to a son in 1831, giving John Allan the heir that he so desperately wanted. Having no further need for Poe, he cut his ward out of his will. A few years later, Allan fell ill, and when Poe tried to visit him in February 1834, the new Mrs. Allan refused to let him in. According to stories, Poe pushed his way past Mrs. Allan to get to his sickly foster father, who nevertheless still had the strength to shake his cane at Poe and ordered him out. That was the last time Poe saw the only father figure he ever knew: John Allan died on March 27, 1834, and Poe remained excluded from his estate.

Was Poe an ungrateful brat? (smithsonianmag.com)

Allan Called Poe "Sulky And Ill-Tempered"

While we can only guess at the motivations behind much of John Allan's treatment of his foster son, the letters he wrote that have been preserved give us a glimpse into Allan's feelings about Poe. In one such letter from 1824, Allan wrote that Poe was lazy ("he does nothing") and depressed ("seems quite miserable, sulky and ill-tempered"). He expressed bewilderment at his foster son's demeanor, remarking "How we have acted to produce this is beyond my conception" and lamenting that Poe showed the Allans no affection, seemed ungrateful, and ignored or defied all of his fatherly advice. 

Some letters that Poe wrote to John Allan are still in existence. (natedsanders.com)

Poe Seemed To Beg For Money

Meanwhile, the letters that Poe wrote to Allan hint at a raging storm of conflicting emotions. He flip-flops between bitter criticism and melancholic remorse, although the latter was usually accompanied by a request for money. In one letter, he wrote "I know that I have offended you past all forgiveness" but added "For the sake of Christ, do not let me perish for a sum of money which you would never miss." Poe didn't perish just yet, eventually publishing a pamphlet of poems that received moderate success and launched his writing career, but he died of a mysterious illness just 15 years after John Allan, having never truly come to terms with the father figure with whom he'd had such a fraught relationship.

Tags: adoption | biography | edgar allan poe | literature

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.