Partners and Spouses,
Muses and Lovers,
Relatives and Assistnats,
Neighbours and Friends…
These are the unsung heroes of history.
Discover another literary #SecretSidekicks from The Who, The What, and the When:
JOHN ALLAN 1779 – 1834 – EDGAR ALLAN POE’S FOSTER FATHER
John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia, brought Edgar Poe to live with them in 1811, when he was two years old. Edgar was an orphan. His father, David Poe, had died sometime during the preceding year, his mother, Eliza, early that December. At first, the informal adoption by an affluent businessman without children of his own seemed like a happy one: Frances
Allan and her maiden sister, who resided with the Allan’s, doted on the boy. Household accounts show that Edgar was well provided with books and toys, and in his correspondence John mentions Edgar often and with pride. In surviving early letters, Edgar addresses Allan as “My dear Pa.”
But by the time that Edgar Allan Poe was a student at the new University of Virginia in 1826, something in this relationship had gone wrong. The evidence is incomplete and conflicting, so it is hard to tell exactly what transpired. Poe claimed that Allan, having agreed to support him in his studies, left him without sufficient funds to pay his tuition, room and board. He was forced to turn to gambling, he said, as a last resort to pay his bills, and he ended up in debt. For his part, Allan seems to have formed a bad opinion of Poe’s character during the boy’s adolescence, calling him miserable, sulky, ill-tempered and without gratitude. He claimed that he had come to Charlottesville to pay all of Poe’s debts, apart from those incurred through gambling. It’s not clear whether he indeed did this, or whether he did or did not help Poe find employment later on that year.
What caused the rift? There is no satisfying answer to this question, though Allan’s own biography offers some clues. During Poe’s childhood, Allan suffered financial losses when his attempt to establish his trading business, Ellis & Allan, in London failed. Could this have made him feel less generous, or act less patiently toward his foster son? After the Allan family returned to Richmond, Allan was unfaithful to his wife. Poe, who was devoted to Frances, may have known about this, disapproved, and treated Allan coldly. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that what started as a warm, supportive relationship devolved into fractiousness and mutual dislike, such that Allan in his “recommendation” for Poe to West Point wrote: “Frankly, sir, do I declare he is no relation to me whatever.” When Poe’s foster father was dying, he went to visit him. (John Allan was remarried by then and had a legitimate heir). Edgar had to physically push aside John’s second wife to get to him. As he approached, Allan raised his cane to strike Poe if he came closer and ordered him out of the room. This was the last time that they met.
Allan’s influence on Poe, then, is complicated, to say the least. He was the reason that Poe gained an education. He took Poe abroad, his first and only journey outside the United States. This encounter with the Old World, with the long settled, storied landscapes of England and Scotland, fed the settings of Poe’s fiction. But what about Allan’s rejection of Poe, whether justifiable or not? Allan was one of a list of parental figures to abandon Poe during his young life. So many of Poe’s stories center on houses and families that have turned from noble and grand to unfamiliar, decadent and broken, and on people who at first appear to be one thing but are actually something else entirely. The uncanny, the unheimlich, is most fundamentally a feeling that the skin may slip off the world at any moment, that what is familiar, homey, and welcoming may turn strange and hostile without warning. Clearly, Poe’s early experiences could have engendered such a sense of things. This cannot be attributed entirely to John Allan. But Allan’s apparent inconsistency, his inexplicably altered affections for his foster son, can’t have done anything to dispel this frightening outlook that so permeates Poe’s fiction.
written by EMILY MITCHELL
illustrated by BYRON EGGENSCHWILER