The Young Astronomer
In the swampy heat of the summer of 1825, anyone walking past the mansion on the corner of Fifth and Main could look up and see a slender young man on the balcony making fine adjustments to a telescope. The house stood on Shockoe Hill, sloping down to the James, the tidal river that opened Richmond to the sea. As he peered through the instrument of glass, wood, and brass, the youth alternated between careful motions and patient stillness. By day he could track boats coming in and out on the tide; at night he followed the stars.
The sixteen-year-old astronomer was Edgar Allan—sometimes called Eddie, sometimes Edgar Poe. He knew the constellations as maps, legends, and calculable motions. With bright hazel eyes and sharp, delicate features, he had a quick and supple mind; some compared his animated, dignified bearing to a bird’s. At Richmond Academy, the school for young gentlemen he’d attended since 1821, he excelled in languages, rhetoric, and the “Astronomy, Conic Sections, Algebra, Fluxions, Mechanics” its curriculum boasted.
Edgar was an orphan, the only child in his foster family. He and his friends would run through the woods beyond the city, testing each other in boxing matches, pranks, and dares. Once he swam six miles across the widest expanse of the James, a feat he compared to Lord Byron’s paddle across the Hellespont. He also followed Byron as a poet. His heart, he wrote, was “a chaos of deep passion” that he poured into musical, brooding verses. He lost himself in novels, adventure stories, history books, and the magazines sold in the store owned by his foster father, John Allan.
In appearance and character, Allan had little in common with Edgar. Large and heavyset, Allan was a man concerned with social standing and the satisfaction of his desires. He traded Virginia’s pungent tobacco, the crop grown on plantations to the west and south. Harvested by African slaves, on land seized from Native Americans, its leaves were bundled together and loaded onto carts to Richmond, where it was sold, cured, and packed for shipment to northern states and England. Allan cared about shipping times and arrivals, about weather, prices, and costs.
Richmond from the hill above the waterworks, engraved by W. J. Bennett from a painting by G. Cooke, 1843
The mansion, named Moldavia, was steps from Richmond’s markets for tobacco and cotton; slaves were bought and sold a few streets away at Shockoe Bottom. When he bought the property in June 1825, John Allan had secured his arrival among Richmond’s elite and the self-described southern aristocracy. The white columns and domes of the city’s largest buildings echoed the imperial proprieties of Greece and Rome. Standing three stories high with a pillared portico, Moldavia proclaimed Allan’s rise from struggling businessman to plantation owner and oligarch. Like the home’s portraits, sumptuous drapery, and ornate furnishings, Edgar’s telescope demonstrated wealth and taste. It was also part of the world of facts dear to Allan—a tool of navigation and cartography, crucial for transatlantic trade.
Decades earlier Allan had sailed to Richmond from Scotland, joining his uncle William Galt, a successful trader. With a partner, Charles Ellis, Allan began importing household goods, fabric, and magazines to a well-heeled clientele. He married Frances Keeling Valentine, a planter’s daughter. The House of Ellis and Allan was shaken in the years following the War of 1812, but when his uncle died in March 1825, Allan became one of Virginia’s richest men. He inherited three large estates “with the slaves, stocks, and properties of all kinds belonging thereto,” as well as Galt’s well-placed pew in Richmond’s Episcopal Monumental Church.
John and Frances Allan had taken in the two-year-old Edgar Poe in 1811, when his mother, a celebrated actress and “one of the handsomest women in America,” died in Richmond. In many ways they treated him as a son and a future member of Virginia’s ruling class, giving him hope for a magnificent inheritance of his own one day. Yet Allan refused to adopt the boy. Edgar’s childhood became an unrelenting test to earn Allan’s love and recognition.
By the summer of 1825, when Poe was sixteen, tensions between the blustery patriarch and his ward had increased. Frances Allan had always doted on Edgar, and he returned her affection. Yet to John Allan’s annoyance, Edgar showed little inclination for the life of business; the earliest existing poem in Poe’s hand was written on a piece of paper on which Allan worked out the compound interest on a loan.
Allan had grown indifferent to his delicate, demanding wife. Toward Edgar he behaved condescendingly, dismissively, and angrily. He was a stern disciplinarian, whipping the boy for childish infractions. At times he lavished him with spending money and gifts, but he could be inexplicably stingy. Above all, he never let Edgar forget that he was neither a blood relative nor legally adopted and had no right to any expectations. Other disputes—over Allan’s infidelities and those of Edgar’s birth mother—had begun to fester.
With the telescope, Edgar could travel far. As he crouched before the lens, blurred mist resolved into an absorbing darkness broken by pinpricks of light, revealing a precise, eerie vision of alien places. He also escaped into poetry, plotting a celestial drama in the lines of “Evening Star”:
The stars, in their orbits,
Shone pale, thro’ the light
Of the brighter, cold moon,
’Mid planets her slaves,
Herself in the Heavens,
Her beam on the waves.
The arrangement flatters the moon, the ruler of the night. But after gazing “on her cold smile; Too cold—too cold for me,” he turns instead to Venus, the evening star. He is charmed by “the proud part” it plays
in Heav’n at night,
And more I admire
Thy distant fire,
Than that colder, lowly light.
Though the regal moon draws the world’s attention, the poet reaches for a rarer, more distant pleasure.
These precise, otherworldly lines, written as a teenager, anticipate Poe’s later poetry. They also echo the world of his anxious childhood: a capital city on the water, a commercial center of contradictory values in which classical ideals, fascination for modern science, violently enforced subservience, and the longings, contrasts, and passions of romantic poetry all played their part.
Son of the Stage
Poe was born in the North—in Boston, on January 19, 1809. His mother, Eliza Arnold, had arrived from England in 1796, age nine. She grew up on the stage, charming audiences in roles from singing maids to Ophelia, praised for her beauty and vivacity. Acting was a morally dubious profession in early America; plays were banned in Boston until 1795. On tour, Eliza caught the eye of David Poe, son of a respected Baltimore family; his father, called General Poe, had served as Lafayette’s quartermaster during the Revolutionary War. They married and toured together, though he drank and cut a feeble figure onstage.
Their first son, Henry, was born in 1807, followed by Edgar. Eliza Poe had a third child, Rosalie, though by the time of her birth (and possibly long before) David had abandoned the family. Mrs. Poe’s theatrical run in 1811 in Virginia was enormously well received. Yet in Richmond, where she played Juliet and other celebrated roles, she grew deathly ill.
A beautiful, dying actress surrounded by her small children, the youngest still nursing, made for a pathetic scene. Ladies paid their respects, according to a local merchant: “A singular fashion prevails here this season—it is—charity—Mrs. Poe, who you know is a very handsome woman, happens to be very sick, and (having quarreled and parted with her husband) is destitute. The most fashionable place of resort now is—her chamber.” The Richmond Enquirer noted, “Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance, and asks it perhaps for the last time.”
She died on December 8. The feckless David Poe died in Norfolk, perhaps only a few days later. Henry was taken in by Poe relatives in Baltimore; baby Rosalie was adopted by William and Jane Mackenzie, close friends of the Allans’. At the urging of his wife, John Allan brought Edgar home.
Another public tragedy followed: during a performance of The Bleeding Nun on December 26 at the same Richmond theater in which Eliza Poe had performed, a fire broke out. Seventy-two people died. The city council commissioned a memorial. Guided by the Supreme Court’s chief justice, John Marshall, and designed by a pupil of Jefferson’s, the neoclassical, octagonal Episcopal Monumental Church rose up on Broad Street. Allan’s uncle William Galt purchased a pew, as did several senators, congressmen, and the governor. Accounts of the fire and of his mother’s death were joined in Poe’s memory.
Richmond was the political center of the South, with a strong hold on national government. Plantation owners depended on traders, many of them Scottish immigrants like Allan and his uncle. Their calculating logic and penny-pinching contrasted with the planters’ largesse and long-established bloodlines, but Frances’s family connections and Galt’s wealth secured the Allans’ social position. Each summer, the family left Richmond’s humid heat for White Sulphur Springs. There Edgar was known for “charming everyone by his childish grace” and his “frank, affectionate, and generous” disposition; he was “a lovely little fellow, with dark curls and brilliant eyes, dressed like a young prince.”
Virginia society prided itself on traditions of honor and hierarchy. These were inscribed in the rituals of balls and duels, injected with a dreamy urgency by Walter Scott’s heroic warrior sagas, Ivanhoe and Waverly. Virginia’s slaveholding gentry sent sons to represent their interests in Congress, the courts, and the White House. They prized coolness and bravado, elevated feminine purity and delicacy, and anxiously policed racial borders. Such ideals were undercut by the sexual liberties frequently taken by male slaveholders over enslaved women—a recurrent theme of sensationalist and abolitionist literature.
Poe moved between the parlor, where the Allans entertained friends and family, and the servants’ quarters. In Richmond, more than one-third of the population was enslaved. Races mixed in countless ways, and much of Poe’s early childhood was passed in the care of Black servants, including Allan’s house manager, Dabney Dandridge. His caretakers told him stories. African tales—passed down generations, modulated and reinvented through the Middle Passage—often depicted souls possessed through witchcraft and dangerous obsessions, dead bodies brought back to life, malevolent spirits tormenting the living. Poe’s later tales and poems of hauntings, sepulchres, and zombielike revenants would channel these African and Creole themes.
Some critics have found it peculiar that Poe embraced gothic literature, a European tradition associated with haunted castles and cursed aristocracies, popularized by Blackwood’s Magazine in Edinburgh and the fantastic tales of the German author E. T. A. Hoffmann. Yet in the preface to his first collection of tales, Poe maintained that “terror is not of Germany, but of the soul.” More concretely, in the aristocratic airs of Virginia society and the everyday horror of slavery, Poe found direct inspiration for the atmosphere of morbid decadence in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” the sentimentalized abuse of “The Black Cat,” and the torture devices of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The central place of slavery in Virginia society marked Poe’s later writings as surely as it defined his childhood. The possibility of revolt was constant; rumors of rebellion were followed by ruthless repression.
As Allan’s ward, Poe was steeped in Virginia privilege, inseparably tied to the plantations. Yet he was removed from full membership twice over. Allan belonged to a rising mercantile class only recently arrived among the established gentry. More damningly, Edgar was constantly reminded that he was an orphan and the son of actors, in a culture where ancestry was paramount. The tragedy of his parents’ deaths, especially that of his mother—of whom he cherished a vague, perhaps imagined memory—also hung over his childhood. These were ideal conditions for producing a gloomy, nervous, extremely observant child.
The white elite of Richmond welcomed displays of wealth, learning, and aesthetic sensitivity. They also embraced the modest rationalism inscribed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Common sense—a combination of observation and ordinary reckoning—could uncover both the underlying laws of nature and the motive springs of politics. As Virginia’s governor during the Revolution, Washington’s secretary of state, and the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson exerted a powerful influence on Virginia society. Along with Benjamin Franklin, he was also one of the early republic’s best-known contributors to science.
Science in the colonies had been largely an affair of gentlemen enthusiasts. Jefferson and his planter friends discussed historical and natural matters in Richmond and sent their sons to William & Mary for a classical education. In the North, mechanical arts were valued, but sciences other than medicine were pursued more as pastime than profession; while savants in London and Paris toasted his 1751 Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Franklin had earned his living in Philadelphia as a printer. Until his retirement in 1747, he conducted his research on lightning and Leyden jars—working out the principles of conservation of electrical force, the complementarity of negative and positive electricity—in his spare time.
In colonial colleges, ancient languages, history, and theology prevailed; professors were expected to profess, not to collect, classify, or experiment, and resources for instruments and other equipment were scarce. Medicine offered some scientific opportunities; many who pursued botany, natural history, chemistry, and physics were doctors. Much discussion of natural philosophy happened in informal, locally organized associations. Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society (APS) in 1743 in Philadelphia, and John Adams launched the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite their illustrious participants, they existed without national support, surviving on membership fees and state subventions.
In such clubbish settings, reports of astronomical observations, natural historical curiosities, and new agricultural practices were politely exchanged. At the APS, William Bartram discussed plants, trees, and lichens; David Rittenhouse displayed telescopes, clocks, and orreries—mechanical models of the solar system. While Revolutionary-era men of science cherished the austere proportions of Newtonian theory, much of their knowledge reached people through lively exhibitions, curious objects, and sensory displays, at times open to wider audiences including women and children. In electrical performances, Franklin’s associates literally shocked audience members, bringing them bodily into the sensations of enlightened natural science.
The Revolution was at times cast as the application of rational laws to society. This “bold, sublime experiment” was for Franklin “a glorious task assigned to us by Providence.” In The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine averred that the Revolution “presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics.” Jefferson owned portraits of Bacon, Newton, and Locke, his “trinity of the three greatest men that had ever lived, without any exception.” Madison and Adams referred to Newtonian laws in their arguments for the Constitution’s balance of powers. Attempts to present the early republic as a direct outgrowth of science were mainly rhetorical, however; the framers made no provision for national support for research, keeping science as primarily a local affair.
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote as a meteorologist, surveyor, and naturalist; he was fascinated by materialist philosophies, setting his five editions of Lucretius’s De rerum natura alongside Erasmus Darwin’s cosmological poems, The Temple of Nature and The Botanic Garden. He paid particular attention to the care of plants. “Botany I rank with the most valuable sciences,” he said, for its contributions to “subsistence,” “adornments,” “perfume,” and “medicaments,” while “to a country family it constitutes a great portion of their social enjoyment.” As president, he arranged the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 and sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the continent clear to the Pacific coast, convinced that future settlement would extend that far. Lewis and Clark were given a crash course in cartography and natural history by scientists connected to the APS—including instructions to look for evidence of large animals, extinct or alive, to prove (against the French naturalist Buffon) that America’s nature was large and vigorous, not “shriveled and diminished.”
Jefferson’s Notes also notoriously proclaimed “the real distinctions which nature has made” between races and presented Africans as inferior in beauty and intelligence to Europeans. Benjamin Banneker, a free Black astronomer and surveyor who had helped plot the District of Columbia, urged Jefferson and others “to wean yourselves from these narrow prejudices.” Though Jefferson denounced slavery as a “hideous blot,” his actions were unhurried; rather than abolition he preferred schemes of “colonization” for resettling Blacks in Africa.
Jefferson’s sense of the pleasures of botany, his interest in using science to claim the continent, and his reluctance to extend “universal” rights to those other than males of European descent made him a fairly typical early American man of science. Strictly speaking, such enthusiasts for science were not “amateurs,” because there were few “professional” scientists against whom to contrast them. Jefferson tied the sciences to local practical concerns (he designed the dome and columns of his home at Monticello, filling it with books and mechanical inventions), the conquest of western lands and Native peoples, and international networks. He corresponded frequently with European experts, though he claimed to prefer one evening with David Rittenhouse to a week of parties in Paris.
James Madison replaced Jefferson as president in 1809, the year of Poe’s birth. Two years earlier a British warship had fired on an American frigate off Virginia’s coast and seized four sailors. While it waged its lengthy war against Napoleon, Britain’s navy captured more than ten thousand American sailors and impressed them into service.
Goaded by hawks in Congress—including Andrew Jackson, resentful of his family’s bad treatment at the hands of British soldiers during the Revolution—Madison stoked tensions with England. Hungry for distraction from domestic dissent, in 1812 he declared war on Britain, calling for a hundred thousand volunteer troops. John Allan and his comrades in a local militia, the Richmond Riflemen, prepared for action. The city was not directly touched by the war, though its merchants anxiously watched their stocks of tobacco and flour accumulate unsold, with English trade embargoed and all shipping under threat.
The War of 1812, the “Second War for Independence,” ended in a stalemate, with a peace treaty negotiated at Ghent in 1814 by a delegation that included John Quincy Adams, Albert Gallatin, and Henry Clay. The country emerged with a strengthened sense of national identity, support for a standing army, and a massive increase in the navy. The war also fueled the political career of Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans.
With the embargo lifted, John Allan needed to unload his stores of tobacco. He sought new buyers for Virginia leaf in Scotland and England. In June 1815 he and Frances, along with Edgar and Frances’s sister, packed up their necessities and auctioned off the rest of their belongings—selling one slave, Scipio, and hiring the others out.
Copyright © 2021 by John Tresch