Text: Arthur Hobson Quinn, “Chapter 05,” Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941), pp. 97-117


[page 97:]

The University of Virginia

When Edgar Poe entered the University of Virginia on February 14, 1826, the University had had only one year of actual life. It was the culmination of Jefferson’s deep interest in education, and was founded by him, among other aims, “to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instil into them the precepts of virtue and order — and generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.”(1)

It had been only after the most stubborn opposition that Jefferson succeeded in founding his University. Some of this adverse influence proceeded from William and Mary College, his own alma mater, but most of it arose from the nature of Jefferson’s educational ideals. He was acquainted with the methods of English and Continental universities, and he endeavored to build upon the foundations of Central College in Albemarle County, Virginia, a type of university new to American education. In 1818, when he sent his proposals to the Legislature of Virginia, the colleges in the United States, with the exception of Pennsylvania and Columbia, were still largely under denominational influence. Jefferson’s proposal that the University of Virginia be completely non-sectarian was a red rag to the conservative Church of England and Presbyterian elements of the State. But since the very essence of Jefferson’s ideal was freedom, from the choice of professors to the selection by the students of their courses of study, he persisted and ultimately won his fight.

He chose for the site of his University, Charlottesville, lying in the valley between the Southwest Mountains on one side and the Blue Ridge on the other. Toward the south the Ragged Mountains rose, and on the north the land rolled away as far as the eye could reach. [page 98:]

Through the valley the Rivanna River tumbled, with its tributary streams forcing their way through rocky ridges that disputed their free passage. Who can doubt that Poe remembered the view that must have rewarded his climb to one of the nearby hills, when in “Tamerlane” he placed his hero

“on the crown

Of a high mountain which looked down

Afar from its proud natural towers

Of rock and forest, on the hills —

The dwindled hills: begirt with bowers.”

Within this basin of natural beauty, Jefferson built the University. It began in 1817 when the corner stone for one of the pavilions, the modern Colonnade Club, was laid. While the building was slowly proceeding, Central College became the University of Virginia. Jefferson had the advice of practical architects, but the main conception was his. To him is due the lofty Rotunda, modelled on the Pantheon at Rome, and looking down on the West and East Ranges, each with its mingled Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian Pavilions. It still remains one of the most impressive examples of classic architecture on any American college campus, and to a lover of beauty like Poe, it must have been an inspiration.


The University of Virginia [thumbnail]

[Illustration facing page 98]
The University of Virginia in Poe’s day

While the University was being built, Jefferson had been selecting the Faculty. He sought both by correspondence and by sending an emissary to England, Francis W. Gilmer, to secure the foremost men available. The first Faculty certainly contained a number of fine scholars. George Long (1800-1879), a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, although young when he accepted the Chair of Ancient Languages, established standards of scholarship during his brief stay from 1825 to 1828 which have become a tradition at Virginia. Receiving a call to the University of London, he returned to his native country. In his senior class, which Poe attended, he required during each period one hundred lines from Virgil or Thucydides to be read, followed by translations from Horace or some other author, Greek or Latin. At times he varied this program by written tests in Greek or Latin grammar. The grammatical constructions were illustrated by copious references to classical authors, and the class was instructed to follow up each reference and become familiar with the general texts of the authors used. Gessner Harrison, Long’s foremost pupil and his successor in the Chair of Ancient Languages, has testified to the close [page 99:] attention and hard labor that was necessary. Long seems to have taught Latin and Greek with an understanding of history and geography that made them more alive than was usual in those days.(2)

George Blaettermann, the Professor of Modern Languages, was a native of Germany, but living in London, when on the recommendation of George Ticknor, of Harvard, he was appointed to that chair. He was an irascible person, who went so far as to cowhide his wife on the street, and he was dismissed in 1838 at the request of the undergraduate body. But he seems to have been a competent linguist. Poe, according to the testimony of William Wertenbaker, took French, Spanish, and Italian. On one occasion, Professor Blaettermann gave as a voluntary exercise a verse translation from Tasso.(3) Poe was the only student who responded, and his verse was highly praised by the none too genial teacher. That Poe was more interested in his modern language study than in his work in ancient languages may be indicated by the fact that his library cards were signed by Blaettermann, although, of course, this may have been accidental.

The reputation of the University spread rapidly. Among Jefferson’s loyal supporters in the enterprise was General John H. Cocke, a public-spirited citizen. General Cocke was a friend of John Allan and it seems probable that Edgar was sent to the University at his suggestion.

The second session of the University began on February 1, 1826, and Poe was number 136 out of a total enrollment of 177 when he matriculated on February 14th. The following entry appeared in the Matriculation Books: [page 100:]

Name   Date of Birth   Parent or
Place of Residence Professors
  Long     Blätter  
Edgar A. Poe    19 Jan. 1809 John Allen [sic] Richmond 1 1

This entry is not in his own handwriting, or it would be of greater use in establishing his date of birth. But it shows that he registered for the Schools of Ancient and Modern Languages, of which Long and Blattermann were the directors. Apparently the students were permitted to choose not only their studies, but also the subjects of their final examination. At the Faculty meeting on December 15, 1826, the names of the students who excelled were presented by their professors and approved. In Latin they are recorded as follows:

Senior Latin Class


Gessner Harrison


Albert S. Holladay

Berthier Jones

Edgar A. Poe

William Selden

William E. Taylor

Henry Tutweiler

H. H. Worthington


Two other groups follow, of seven and four respectively.(4) The line drawn after Harrison’s name indicates that he was in a class by himself.(5) Poe was one of the second group of seven, arranged alphabetically, and since there were two other groups, all excellent, his rank was high.

The Faculty records also give the names of the excellent students in the [page 101:]

Senior French Class


Philip Ambler

John Cary

Gessner Harrison

Wm. Michie

Conway Nutt

Edgar A. Poe

Wm. Selden

Henry Tutweiler

Here Poe is in the first and only group of distinguished students. Military drill was optional, and he may or may not have taken part in it.

The term ended December 15, 1826. He had then less than ten months of college (he says eight), and his schedule called for two hours daily, six days of the week. In 1826 the first class, to which Poe belonged, began its labors at seven o’clock, had a recess for half an hour to eat breakfast, and then reassembled for another hour.(6) Poe would then have had the day, after nine-thirty, for study, reading, recreation, or those other social activities, which, although intangible, mean so much to the university man of today. We can only speculate on this last phase. Poe says nothing in his two letters, written while at the University, concerning his intercourse with Professor Long or Professor Blattermann, and does not mention meeting any of the other members of the Faculty. In 1875 when Ingram asked Long for his recollections of Poe, Long replied very frankly: “If Poe was at the University of Virginia in 1826, he was probably in my class which was the largest.  . . The beginning of the University of Virginia was very bad. There were some excellent young men, and some of the worst that ever I knew. I remember well the names of both, and I think that I remember the name of Poe, but the remembrance is very feeble; and if he was in my class, he could not be among the worst, and perhaps not among the best or I should certainly remember him.”(7) [page 102:] He would probably have gained most from intercourse with George Tucker, the Professor of Ethics, a creative writer. His Voyage to the Moon, published in 1827 after Poe’s term, seems, however, to have had no influence on Poe’s “Hans Pfaall.” The four English professors apparently kept to themselves. Jefferson made a point of inviting the students to dinner in rotation on Sundays, and Poe probably met him on other occasions, but again there is no record of any impression being made upon the young undergraduate by the founder.

Poe mentions in his letter of September 21st to John Allan that the Rotunda is nearly finished. “The pillars of the Portico are completed and it greatly improves the appearance of the whole — The books are removed into the library — and we have a very fine collection.”(8)

The library reflected Jefferson’s interests, and in 1826 the four hundred and nine titles touching the classics comprehended the largest number of volumes in any department. In English literature, as might have been expected, the older writers were much better represented than those of the newer romantic school. In “President Jefferson’s Catalogue of Books for the University of Virginia Library,” drawn up in 1825, Shakespeare, Dryden, Addison, Farquhar, Vanbrugh, Congreve, and Wycherly found places, but not Byron, or Scott. Jefferson’s conception of the library was that of a storehouse for reference, and the books were to be solid and not for entertainment. The library really began to function only in April, 1826, and was not properly catalogued until after Poe left college. The regulations governing its use were forbidding in the extreme. No student could take out a volume unless his request was certified by a member of the Faculty, and he could not take more than three books. At first the librarian was required to be at his post only once a week for an hour, and only after October 17, 1826, was the library open every day.(9) As Bruce describes the process, “In February 1826, a box was placed outside of the library door, in which the petitions for books were to be dropped the day before the library opened; and on the latter day, the volumes were handed out like loaves of charity through the iron bars of a monastery.”(10) Even for reference work, no student was permitted to enter the room unless he had asked permission in writing the day before. He was then given a ticket, but only twenty such tickets were issued in one day. Even after he had gained access to the room, he could not [page 103:] take a reference book from the shelves without the permission of the librarian, in writing.

The original record book of the library is, fortunately, available, and there are six entries charged to Edgar Poe:

June 13, 1826. 1st, 3d, 4th vols. Rollin’s A. Hist.

Aug.   8. 33d, 34th vols. Rollin (hist. Romaine)

Aug. 15. 1st & 2d vols. Robertson’s America

Aug. 29.  1st and 2d vols. Marshall’s Washington.

Sept. 12.   9.   10. Voltaire.

Nov.   4. 1st and 2d Dufief’s Nature displayd.

There are some interesting connotations, given only in these original records. Poe evidently drew no books until he had been at the University four months, and the library was still open for this purpose only once a week. What effect Poe’s reading had upon his future writing must remain only a speculation. He read Charles Rollin’s Oeuvres Complètes, in the sixty-volume edition of Paris, 1807-1810, still preserved. That he read it in French may have been due to his competence in that language, but in any event he had no option. His references in his poems to the “Babylon like walls,” to the “twins of Leda,” to the Island of Zante, may have been inspired by their description in Rollin’s Histoire Ancienne. While he began with Volume I of this work, he skipped to the seventeenth and eighteenth volumes of Rollin’s Histoire Romaine,(11) which deal with Pompey and Julius Cæsar. “To Helen” and “The Coliseum” show how deep an impression the civilizations of Greece and Rome made upon him, but Byron’s influence may account for the Coliseum, and the use of the two volumes among so many indicates a special task.

Robertson’s History of America, which deals largely with the Spanish discoveries and settlements, had no marked influence upon Poe’s writing, although in one of his earliest reviews, that of Theodore Irving’s Conquest of Florida,(12) he speaks of “the romance in the details of the Spanish conquests in America.” Nor was the legalistic style of Marshall’s Washington, in all probability, attractive to Poe.

Nicholas Gouin Dufief’s Nature Displayed in her Mode of Teaching Language to Man­(13) was a popular textbook which had already run [page 104:] through several editions. It provided Poe with drill in French nouns, phrases, and conversations, besides giving him short pieces of French literature to read. The Voltaire item has not been identified. When Wertenbaker gave his account of Poe in 1869, he listed Voltaire’s Histoire Particulière as the book Poe drew out. This does not correspond to any title of Voltaire I have been able to discover.(14)

Considering the restrictions of the library, any picture of Poe spending many hours there may be dismissed. His general reading must have depended upon the booksellers in the neighborhood. Their ledger accounts show that Byron was the most popular writer among the students, five of his books being sold for one by any other author. The influence of Byron on Poe’s early verse is apparent, and the Byronic pose was appealing to him as to many other youths in those days. Thomas Campbell was next in popularity, and Poe showed the influence of his crisp, almost staccato rhythm in “To One in Paradise” —

“No more — no more — no more

(Such language holds the solemn sea

To the sands upon the shore)

Shall bloom the thunderblasted tree,

Or the stricken eagle soar!”

Poe joined the Jefferson Debating Society, and held office in it. But judging from his letters, his attention was drawn most definitely by other phases of undergraduate activity. His first letter to Allan in May, 1826, is taken up largely with an account of a disturbance in consequence of the indictment for gambling of a number of the “hotel keepers” by the Grand Jury in the spring of 1826: [page 105:]

I this morning received the clothes you sent me, viz an uniform coat, six yards of striped cloth for pantaloons & four pair of socks —  The coat is a beautiful one & fits me exactly — I thought it best not to write ‘till I received the clothes — or I should have written before this. You have heard no doubt of the disturbances in College —  Soon after you left here the Grand Jury met and put the Students in a terrible fright — so much so that the lectures were unattended — and those whose names were upon the Sheriff’s list — travelled off into the woods & mountains — taking their beds & provisions along with them — there were about 50 on the list — so you may suppose the College was very well thinn’d — this was the first day of the fright — the second day, “A proclamation” was issued by the faculty forbidding “any student under pain of a major punishment to leave his dormitory between the hours of 8 & 10 A M — (at which time the Sheriffs would be about) or in any way to resist the lawful authority of the Sheriffs” — This order however was very little attended to — as the fear of the Faculty could not counterbalance that of the Grand jury — most of the “indicted” ran off a second time into the woods — and upon an examination the next morning by the Faculty — Some were reprimanded — some suspended — and one expelled — James Albert Clarke from Manchester (I went to school with him at Burke’s) was suspended for two months. Armstead Carter from this neighbourhood, for the remainder of the session — And Thomas Barclay for ever — (15)

In September Poe’s second letter, after dwelling on the coming examinations, gives details of a still more brutal nature:

We have had a great many fights up here lately — The faculty expelled Wickliffe last night for general bad conduct — but more especially for biting one of the student’s arms with whom he was fighting — I saw the whole affair — it took place before my door — Wickliffe was much the stronger but not content with that — after getting the other completely in his power, he began to bite — I saw the arm afterwards — and it was really a serious matter — It was bitten from the shoulder to the elbow — and it is likely that pieces of flesh as large as my hand will be obliged to be cut out — He is from Kentucky — the same one that was in suspension when you [page 106:] were up here some time ago — Give my love to Ma and Miss Nancy — I remain, Yours affectionately.

Jefferson had hoped that student self-government would be a sufficient check upon disorder, but he was mistaken. The conditions became so bad by the end of the first year that the Faculty were given charge of discipline and naturally there was at first a reaction of stringent rules, which in their turn brought about student resentment and disorder. The undergraduates were recruited from the best families in the State, but their way of life had made them impatient of control. The students’ self-government had broken down partly because their sense of honor forbade them reporting their friends. Some of the trouble could have been averted if there had been an able president in charge, but again Jefferson’s plan made no provision for an executive head.

The responsibility for preservation of order was placed next upon the “hotel keepers.” These officials were primarily providers of food for sections of the dormitory system, but it was hoped by Jefferson that they would also act as guides, philosophers, and friends to the students for whom they catered. They were selected from among some of the leading Virginia families, which at that time found themselves in straitened circumstances. One hotel keeper, G. W. Spotswood, was a distant cousin of Washington, and yet he seems to have been a constant source of irritation to the undergraduates, and was probably a participator in gambling, or at least a sympathizer with the gambling element.

It is obvious that the functions of discipline and catering were incompatible. The hotel keepers declined to report the students upon whom their living depended. Card playing was forbidden, but was frequent. In one of the dormitories Sterling Edmunds lost two hundred and, forty dollars at a single sitting, and horsewhipped another student, Peyton, who, he believed, had cheated him.(16) This happened during Poe’s year at college, and it may well be that he was present at similar episodes, as his card playing is established by his own statements.

Though it seems not to have been noticed by his biographers, there can be little doubt that in “William Wilson” Poe drew a picture of the gambling and other dissipation at the University. He lays the [page 107:] scene, it is true, at Eton and Oxford, of which he knew nothing, but this transfer of locale is obviously necessary. It was safe to speak of Oxford as “the most dissolute university of Europe.” It would hardly have been so safe to speak of the University of Virginia as the most dissipated college in the United States, and yet it would have been true in 1826. The scene in which William Wilson is detected cheating at cards is laid in “the chambers of a fellow-commoner (Mr. Preston).” (17) John Preston, Poe’s friend, was a student at that time, and the use of his name shows clearly that Poe had his alma mater in mind when he drew the pictures of the drinking and gambling that wrecked the life of William Wilson. At first reading, it seems that Poe exaggerated the vices of his hero and his friends, but when we find that in 1826 a drunken student, driving from Charlottesville, publicly reviled one of the Faculty in the vilest language, although the professor was accompanied by his family,(18) it seems that the drinking as well as the gambling may not have been overstressed. Duelling, too, was in fashion, and although the ownership of pistols was forbidden, the law was violated. The riots which punctuated the sessions were made more dangerous, of course, and the culmination of disorder came in 1840 with the murder of Professor J. A. G. Davis while he was attempting to quell a disturbance.

It was in this environment that Poe met his first test of self-guidance, and that it was unfortunate for him can hardly be doubted. The testimony that has been gathered from his companions during this one year is, of course, contradictory in some respects, but in general agreement in others. As usual, one of the most frequently repeated stories, that of his fight with his room-mate, Miles George, and his change of dormitory, proves to be incorrect. George’s letter to E. V. Valentine, sent May 18, 1880,(19) deals clearly and directly with a number of points about which there has been dispute:

Poe and myself were at no time room mates, therefore he did not leave me, or I him. — Poe roomed on the west side of the Lawn, I on the East, he afterwards moved to the western range — I was often in both rooms, & recall the many happy hours spent therein — Of the pugilistic combat so minutely described, I have some [page 108:] recollection: it was a boyish freak or frolic, & both fight & the feeling in which it originated were by consent buried in oblivion never again to be revived — Poe, as has been said, was fond of quoting poetic authors and reading poetic productions of his own, with which his friends were delighted & entertained, then suddenly a change would come over him & he would with a piece of charcoal evince his versatile genius by sketching upon the walls of his dormitory, whimsical, fanciful, & grotesque figures, with so much artistic skill, as to leave us in doubt whether Poe in future life would be Painter or Poet; He was very excitable & restless, at times wayward, melancholic & morose, but again — in his better moods frolicksome, full of fun & a most attractive & agreeable companion. To calm & quiet the excessive nervous excitability under which he labored, he would too often put himself under the influence of that “Invisible Spirit of Wine” which the great Dramatist has said “If known by no other name should be called Devil” —

My impressions of Poe do not agree with the idea that he was “short of stature, thick & somewhat compactly set,” on the contrary he was of rather a delicate & slender mould. His legs not bowed, or so slightly so as to escape notice, and did not detract either from the symmetry of his person or the ease & grace of his carriage — To be practical & unpoetical I think his weight was between 130 & 140 pounds.

Poe’s room, number 13, West Range, now set apart and dedicated to his memory, had nothing to distinguish it from other college rooms then and now. Miles George’s recollections, combined with those of other students, give us in their composite testimony a picture of a boy whom many knew, but with whom few were intimate. Another friend, William M. Burwell, remarks that Poe “was a very attractive companion, genial in his nature and familiar, by the varied life he had already led, with persons and scenes new to the unsophisticated provincials among whom he was thrown.” This superior knowledge of the world might have made him a leader, or it may, on the other hand, have been resented. It all depends upon how Poe made use of it. Burwell also corroborates Poe’s own statement in his later letter to Allan that his reckless card playing “led to a loss of caste among his high spirited and exclusive associates.”(20) His drinking, especially of “peach and honey,” was for the effect and not because of any great liking for the liquor itself. If he took part in disorders, there is no [page 109:] record on the books of the University of any disciplinary action concerning him. He was summoned as a witness in an investigation by the Faculty of charges that certain hotel keepers were in the habit of playing at games of chance with the students. Poe’s name had been given by the chairman as one “who he supposed possessed some knowledge of the facts.” While nearly all the witnesses were examined at length, the record of his examination is very brief. “Edgar Poe never heard until now of any Hotel-Keepers playing cards or drinking with students.”(21)

Notwithstanding Poe’s excellent scholastic record, John Allan refused to permit him to return. There were debts also which he declined to pay. These, largely on the testimony of Thomas H. Ellis, have been set at $2,500. Before accepting this evidence, however, Ellis’s statement, made first in his manuscript account in 1875 and amplified in his article printed in the Richmond Standard, May 7, 1881, must be scrutinized carefully: “Mr. Allan went up to Charlottesville, inquired into his ways, paid every debt that he thought ought to be paid, and refusing to pay some gambling debts (which Mr. James Galt told me, in his lifetime, amounted to about $2,500) brought Edgar away in the month of December following, and for a time kept him in Ellis & Allan’s countingroom (where they were engaged in winding up their old business) — thus attempting to give him some knowledge of book-keeping, accounts, and commercial correspondence.”

The amount of the gambling debts rests, then, on James Galt’s statement. As will be seen from Poe’s letter to John Allan from West Point in 1831, he had applied to James Galt for help to pay his regular expenses, which had been refused. James Galt was to become an executor and contingent beneficiary of John Allan’s will, and was probably not an entirely disinterested party. He may consequently have magnified the amount in order to give himself or others an excuse for having refused Poe’s request for aid. Wertenbaker, quoting Poe himself, from a memory of forty-four years, placed the debts at $2,000, and probably no one knew their exact amount. In any event, the evidence from James Galt is at second hand, and is prefaced and followed by statements that will be seen to be incorrect. Before discussing them, however, it is necessary to let Poe speak for himself. In January, 1831, when he desired to leave West Point, he wrote to Allan, defending himself against charges made by Allan in a letter that has [page 110:] disappeared. These will be taken up later, but the description of the reasons for some of Poe’s difficulties belongs here:(22)

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 8 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 alledged 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 Charlottesville. 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 expences 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 for which I had no earthly use since I had no means of attending the mathematical lectures. [page 111:] 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 anything 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 involved 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.

Poe’s statements concerning the charges of the University are correctly given, and indeed are understated.(23) During the first four years, 1825-1829, one hundred and fifty dollars was always expected from the student for his board. This covered the servants’ attendance, which evidently Poe was unable to pay. For after Poe had ceased to attend the University, two letters(24) from George W. Spotswood were received by Allan, of which the second will be sufficient, since it repeats the request of the first:

1st May, 1827.

Dear Sir,

I presume when you sent Mr. Poe to the University of Virginia you felt yourself bound to pay all his necessary expenses — one is [page 112:] that each young man is expected to have a servant to attend his room.  Mr. Poe did not board with me but as I had hired a first rate servant who cost me a high price — I consider him under greater obligations to pay me for the service of my servant. I have written you two letters & have never recd. an answer to eather [sic] I beg again Sir that you will send me the small amt. due. I am distressed for money — & I am informed you are Rich both in purse & Honour.

Very respectfully


How galling it must have been for Poe to be in debt for such a small sum, it is not necessary to emphasize. That Allan’s refusal to pay Poe’s debts was not limited to the results of gambling is proved also by a bill from a merchant of Charlottesville, who was at times an agent of Ellis and Allan:

Mr. Edgar A. Powe

In Acct. With Samuel Leitch, Jr., Dr.

Dec. 4 To 3       yds Super Blue Cloth $13.00 $39.00    
  “   3         “ Linin 3/   2 yds Cotton 1/6 $2.00    
  “   2 3/4   “ Blk Bombazette   3/   Padding 3/ 1.88    
  “   Staying 3/  1 set Best Gilt Buttons 7/6 1.75    
  “   1 doz. Buttonmoulds 9d. 1 Cut Velvet Vest 30/ 5.13    
  “   3/4 yd. Blk Cassinette 27/ 3.38    
  “   Staying 2/ 16 Hanks Silk, 6d 1.63    
  “   Hanks Thread at 3c 1 Spool Cotton 1/ .44    
  “   1 Peace Tape 9d 1½ doz. Buttons 6d .25 $55.46  
    ———— ————  
  “   1 pr. Drab Pantaloones and Trimmings $13.00 13.00  
    ———— ————  
      $68.46 (25)

The date of this bill is not given, but it evidently belongs to 1826, as Leitch was still trying to collect it from John Allan in June, 1828.(26) These letters disprove Ellis’s statement that Mr. Allan paid all Poe’s legitimate debts. Students were expected to deposit with the “patron,” [page 113:] a financial officer, one hundred and fourteen dollars for clothes and pocket money. Allan evidently saved this sum by sending the uniform required by the University,(27) but failed to send any pocket money at all. To a college where the proctor estimated that the great majority of the young men spent at least five hundred dollars in one session.(28) Poe was sent by John Allan deliberately, without a decent allowance, or even the minimum charges of the institution. There is no possible escape from this conclusion. Allan was in easy circumstances, and yet he refused to contribute for a year’s expenses less than a third of the amount he had paid in England when he was not by any means so well off.

There seems to have been an almost incredible meanness in one of the actions to which Poe refers, the abusing of the boy because he did not take three courses instead of two. There was a provision of the University requiring a student in the academic schools to register in three of them unless the parents requested permission for him to take a smaller number. If the rule was enforced, Allan had it called to his attention, and he must either have given his consent, or else he demanded that Poe register for another school, knowing that he did not have the necessary funds.

Some decided change had come over his relations with Poe. The natural inference is that he wished to have Edgar Poe out of Richmond as cheaply as possible, for fear of his finding out or disclosing certain actions of John Allan that have already been discussed. Of course, the bitterness of Poe’s letter of 1831 must be discounted somewhat, especially in view of the affectionate tone of the two letters of 1826. But the main facts as Poe gave them are indisputable. Perhaps Mrs. Allan sent him some money secretly.

Certainly Poe seems to have enjoyed some phases of his University career. He took long walks in the neighborhood, which are reflected in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.” This story begins, “During the fall of the year, 1827, while residing near Charlottesville, Virginia.” The main plot of the story has no connection with the University, but Poe’s own wandering inspired the description of the hero, Bedloe, “setting forth alone, or attended only by a dog, upon a long ramble among the chain of wild and dreary hills that lie westward and southward of Charlottesville, and are there dignified by the title of the Ragged Mountains.” The story was not published until 1844, but the description of the scenery with its “delicious aspect of dreary desolation,” [page 114:] and the haze of Indian summer, which prepare Bedloe for his curious dream, probably was based on memories too deeply impressed on a young imaginative mind to be forgotten.

Jefferson’s strong interest in landscape gardening had already in 1826 revealed itself in planning more conscious adornment of the campus by the planting of trees and shrubs. “The Landscape Garden” may rest upon the memory of a boy who was watching the efforts of the proctor in this direction. Ellison, the lover of artificial beauty who animates this story, has in him some decided Poe traits, and his very name may be a link with a past in which the name of Ellis is so closely associated.

With the close of Poe’s term at the University of Virginia, his regular education was over. It has not been observed that this training both in school and college was limited largely to those subjects, the ancient and modern languages, whose main purpose, for an American at least, has been the development of the power of expression. This limitation was on the whole not altogether unfortunate for an artist who was to become one of the greatest creators of phrases the world has known. The training was probably thorough, and is distinctly a form of education which makes for power and skill in the choice of words. A broader curriculum might have given Poe wider interests, and more specific information, in history and science. The former he apparently sought in his reading, to judge from the books he drew from the library. But information obtained in college soon vanishes, if not immediately applied — power, particularly linguistic power, lasts longer, epecially if, as in Poe’s case, he was already beginning to write verses.

The conditions of Poe’s life from his return from the University of Virginia in December, 1826, until he left Richmond for Boston in March, 1827, are not very clear. As usual, contradictions are plentiful. T. H. Ellis insists(29) that John Allan placed him in his counting house, where the firm of Ellis and Allan were closing out their business. But Poe’s letter of “Monday,” probably March 19, 1827, denies this. This letter has signal importance. After expressing his determination to leave Allan’s house and his regret at his frustrated college ambitions, he continues:(30)

. . . 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 — [page 115:]

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 —

You suffer me to be subjected to the whims & caprice, not only of your white family, but the complete authority of the blacks — these grievances I could not submit to; and I am gone —

Poe, it is to be noticed, here attributes the failure of Allan to permit him to return to Virginia not to the unpaid bills, but to “an opinion I was forced to express.” This expression points to his criticism of Allan’s conduct, which, it must also be noted, he never makes definite in any of the published letters.

Allan replied at once, but the copy of his letter makes no explanation of Poe’s charges — except that “the charge of eating the Bread of Idleness, was to urge you to perseverance and industry in receiving the classics, in perfecting yourself in the mathematics, etc.” This can hardly refer to the period after Poe’s return to Richmond, and the general tone of the letter is vague.(31) Before Poe received this note, he had written again on Tuesday (March 20) requesting “the expence of my passage to Boston ($12) and a little to support me there until I shall be enabled to engage in some business. I sail on Saturday.”

None of these letters is dated, but another letter dated March 25, 1827, from a friend of Poe, enables us to place them correctly: (32)

Dinwiddie County, March 25th, 1827

Dear Sir,

When I saw you in Richmond a few days ago I should have mentioned the difference between us if there had not been so many persons present[[.]] I must of course, as you did not mention it to me enquire of you if you ever intend to pay it[[.]] If you have not the money write me word that you have not but do not be perfectly silent[[.]] I should be glad if you would write to me even as a friend. there [[sic]] can certainly be no harm in your avowing candidly that you have no money if you have none but you can say [page 116:] when you can pay me if you cannot now. I heard when I was in Richmond that Mr. Allen [sic] would probably discharge all your debts[[.]] If mine was a gambling debt I should not think much of it[[.]] But under the present circumstances I think very strangely of it[[.]] Write to me upon the receipt of this letter and tell me candidly what is the matter.

Your friend EDWARD G. CRUMP.

Fortunately, Allan endorsed this letter “Edw G. Crump Mar. 25, 1827 to E. A. Poe, alias Henri Le Rennet.” Crump’s letter, which evidently never reached Poe, proves that he was still in Richmond “a few days” before March 25th. It also indicates that Poe had borrowed money for some purpose other than gambling. On March 27th Allan wrote a long letter to his sister, concerning the estate of William Galt, at the end of which he said: “I’m thinking Edgar has gone to sea to seek his own fortunes.”(33)

These two letters of Poe, judging from the original scripts, were evidently written by one in great emotional disturbance. The handwriting is irregular and the pages are blotted. Perhaps the sentence which concludes the letter of March 20, “I have not one cent to provide any food,” may explain their appearance. They are pitiful, in any event, in their desperate and defiant tone, and one might be tempted to disbelieve that Allan had deliberately cast him adrift had not Poe definitely repeated the statement in 1831 when he wrote, “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. Everyday threatened with a warrant.”(34)

There was, of course, another reason for Poe’s disturbed state of mind. When he returned from the University he found that his romance with Elmira Royster was over. While his sorrow was in all probability dramatized, yet the pride of a young lover had been hurt, and it is always difficult for an imaginative youngster to distinguish between a grievance and a grief.

Edgar Poe left Richmond, in all probability, on Saturday March 24, 1827. How he obtained the funds we do not know. John Allan evidently did not provide them. Perhaps Mrs. Allan did. He was leaving a home in which he had for many years been treated as a son, and in which at least one woman saw him leave with deep regret. Notwithstanding [page 117:] her nervous temperament, there is plenty of evidence, both in Poe’s letters and in the writing of others, that Mrs. Allan loved him and that he loved her. Of Miss Valentine’s attitude, we really know nothing. Although some biographers have built up a picture of “Aunt Nancy” as a good friend to him, it is all imaginary. According to Thomas Ellis’s account of her in his manuscript, she was little short of an angel. Letters from her own younger relatives speak of her as “Aunt Nancy,” and she seems to have been one of those women who was everybody’s aunt. Yet in no one of Poe’s letters does he refer to her in this way. When he asks to be remembered to her, which he does in about half the letters to Allan, he always speaks of “Miss Nancy” or “Miss Valentine.” The matter is perhaps not of great importance, yet coupled with the fact that after her sister’s death she remained in John Allan’s household, it may indicate either that she did not altogether approve of Edgar’s behavior, or that she was an unimportant element in his life.

Other romantic stories which were at one time believed, disappear also. The mythical trip to Europe, the joining of the Grecian Revolution, must be dismissed. There was no time for them.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 97:]

(1)  For Jefferson’s complete list of the objects of higher education, see Herbert B. Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia (Washington, 1888), p. 89.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 99:]

(2)  See Philip A. Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, 5 vols. (New York, 1920), especially Vols. 1, 2, and 3; the monograph of Adams, already mentioned, and Harrison’s Life for accounts of the University of Virginia in Poe’s day. I have had the privilege of examining the manuscript Faculty Minutes for 1826. All biographers make use of the testimony of William Wertenbaker, who shared some of Poe’s classes and was later Librarian. Wertenbaker prepared a statement in 1860 and later a more detailed sketch of Poe’s career at Virginia, January 19, 1869, which he duplicated to answer many inquiries, and which was published in the University of Virginia Magazine, XIX, 45, and reprinted in Harrison’s Life. Some of his statements are, however, incorrect. The publication of the Valentine Letters and the consequent comment by James Southall Wilson in “The Young Man Poe,” Virginia Quarterly, II (1926), 238-253, as well as other articles by Dr. Wilson (see later references) correct the earlier accounts.

(3)  Copy of Wertenbaker’s statement, University of Virginia, signed May 12, 1860. He refers to Poe’s card playing — but denies that he drank excessively.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 100:]

(4)  Original Faculty Minutes, University of Virginia, Registrar’s Office.

(5)  Through the accident that Harrison is in alphabetical order with Holladay, Poe has usually been stated by his biographers to have been in the first rank in Latin. But the manuscript records show that Long intended to differentiate between Gessner Harrison, who became his successor, and the rest of the class.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 101:]

(6)  According to Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, II, 131. This may not be exact. The Faculty on February 3, 1827, made “alterations” to this effect.

(7)  See “Poe at the University of Virginia” by James Southall Wilson, Alumni Bulletin, University of Virginia, XVI (April, 1933), 163-168. Dr. Wilson printed here unpublished letters by George Long, J. Hewitt Key, and Miles George. In the same issue, of which he was editor, he reprinted “Edgar A. Poe and his College Contemporaries” by William M. Burwell, which had first appeared in the Times-Democrat, May 18, 1884.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 102:]

(8)  Valentine Letters, p. 48.

(9)  Minutes of the Faculty.

(10)  History of the University of Virginia, II, 202.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 103:]

(11)  These are the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth volumes in the complete set of sixty volumes.

(12)  Southern Literary Messenger, July, 1835.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 103, running to the bottom of page 104:]

(13)  Since this book has been quoted by recent biographers as a work in “Natural Science,” the full title is given: Nature Displayed in her Mode of [page 104:] Teaching Language to Man; or, A New and Infallible Method of Acquiring a Language in the Shortest Time Possible Deduced from the Analysis of the Human Mind and Consequently suited to every Capacity. Adapted to the French by N. G. Dufief.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 104:]

(14)  According to Mr. J. C. Wyllie, Custodian of the rare-book collection at the University of Virginia, the editions of Voltaire’s works (Paris, 1817, 25 vols.), or a collection of his letters (Paris, 1785, 12 vols.), both recorded in 1828 in the first printed catalogue, were burned in 1895. Dr. Mabbott suggests that since of several editions of the works published in 1817 none is in 25 volumes (according to Bengesco (2145-2148), the Virginia set was probably incomplete, or bound up in 25 volumes, hence its loss prevents verification, from other copies. Wertenbaker’s phrase suggests the Essai sur les moeurs, the Charles XII, or some other of the “individual historical works” was what he found, consulting the original set.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 105:]

(15)  Valentine Letters, pp. 41-42. Poe’s account is quite accurate, when checked with the Minutes of the Faculty for May 9th. Barclay’s attitude reveals the difficulties under which discipline was administered. He told the Faculty members “they might do as they pleased.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 106:]

(16)  Faculty Minutes, May 24 and 27, 1826. Peyton was expelled and Edmunds was suspended until July 1st, being excused somewhat on account of “the weakness of his understanding.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 107:]

(17)  Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, I, 47.

(18)  Faculty Minutes, February 14, 1826.

(19)  The original letter of Miles George is in the E. V. Valentine Collection in Richmond, and is here reproduced in part. On the Ms. is the following notation: “This letter was given me by Dr. Miles George May 18th 1880. E.V.V.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 108:]

(20)  Alumni Bulletin, University of Virginia, XVI, pp. 168-169.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 109:]

(21)  Faculty Minutes, December 20, 1826.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 110:]

(22)  Valentine Letters, pp. 259-262. The letter is dated “Jany 3, 1830,” evidently an error for 1831, as Poe did not enter West Point until June, 1830.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 111:]

(23)  See Bruce, II, 78-79 for detailed account of the customary expenses.

(24)  Ellis-Allan Papers, L. of C., Poe Volume.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 112:]

(25)  Ellis-Allan Papers, L. of C., Poe Volume.

(26)  In a letter from Samuel Leitch to Mr. Charles Allis [Ellis], June 28, 1828, the former says: “Please let me know if Mr. Allen [sic] done anything with my account agains [t] Mr. Pow [sic].” Ellis-Allan Papers, L. of C., Vol. 261.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 113:]

(27)  See Poe’s letter of May, 1826.

(28)  Bruce, II, 79.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 114:]

(29)  Richmond Standard, May 7, 1881.

(30)  Valentine Letters, pp. 60-61.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 115:]

(31)  Letter Number Five — Valentine Letters.

(32)  Ellis-Allan Papers, L. of C., Poe Volume.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 116:]

(33)  Ellis-Allan Papers, L. of C., Poe Volume.

(34)  Letter Number Twenty-four, Valentine Letters, p. 261.





[S:1 - EAP:ACB, 1941] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. P.: A Critical Biography (A. H. Quinn) (Chapter 05)