Articles

Poe on Sullivan’s Island

Edgar Allan PoeBy Genie Seibels

On a chilly autumn day in the year of the new millennium, I head my car out of Charleston, South Carolina up the coast, across the river and marshes to Sullivan’s Island, now a settled community of mostly year round residents. Meandering, I could turn left onto Gold Bug Avenue, or Raven Drive, or turn right onto Poe Avenue, names commemorating a writer’s stay on this little sea island. If I could travel far enough in time I would see a different Sullivan’s Island, one remote, uninhabited, isolated. Such was the Sullivan’s Island of the nineteenth century, the Sullivan’s Island that greeted Edgar Allan Poe.

There probably was a fresh wind whipping the sails of the brig Waltham when she made her way into Charleston harbor on November 18, 1827 carrying the eighteen-year-old Edgar Allan Poe, recently enlisted under the name of Private Edgar A. Perry. Poe was bound for his post in the United States Army at Ft. Moultrie on the tip of Sullivan’s Island. Sullivan’s Island stands guard at the mouth of Charleston harbor, protecting the city from assault by pirates, hurricanes, British and Yankees.

At the time Poe (alias Perry) arrived in 1827, Charleston boasted a cultural life that included the Charleston Museum, the country’s first museum, founded in 1773, and still in existence today. Charlestonians were also fortunate to have a lively theatre. Poe’s mother Elizabeth, an actress, performed in Charleston on numerous occasions. In fact, she performed in Charleston during the winter and spring of 1811, the final year of her life. Her children were present with her during this time in Charleston, although they were quite young. Her husband David Poe, the father of the three young ones (William Henry, Edgar Allan, and Rosalie) had also been an actor, although he knew limited success. David Poe gave his last known performance in October of 1809, and it is believed that he deserted the family shortly thereafter. Elizabeth began a “Southern Tour” that included Richmond and Charleston, but she made these performances alone, without husband David. She played light comedy and melodrama in the summer of 1811, but by autumn her health was failing. Elizabeth died on December 8, 1911, leaving three young orphans. William Henry returned to his grandfather in Baltimore, while Rosalie and Edgar Allan were placed in foster care. Edgar was placed in the home of Mr. John Allan, a Richmond merchant. Thus began his life of struggle and darkness.

Through Allan’s benevolence he later enrolled in the University of Virginia, where he incurred heavy gambling debts that ultimately lead to a withdrawal from the University and a bitter separation from his foster father. Estranged from Allan and with no means of support, the former student enlisted in the army, and thus found himself posted to Ft. Moultrie.

He had enlisted under the name of Edgar A. Perry, rather than Poe. Immediately prior to his departure for South Carolina he published his first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, but not under any of the familiar pseudonyms. Rather, the title page stated the author as “A Bostonian.” “Ghost-like” himself, Poe seemed to appear and disappear, an apparition of changing name and circumstance. Was his name-changing an attempt to remove himself from his father, to escape his debts, or simply an indulgent lapse into his own natural tendency for the mysterious? It is not known, but the air of mystery with which he surrounded himself would have fit perfectly into one of his stories.

Nineteenth century Charleston was a city of refinement, but also was a city of superstition, pagan ritual, and hearsay, all born of the mlange of ethnic and social diversity of the city and the mindset of the 19th century. When science could not produce an explanation for events, the imagination took over. The history, culture, superstition and folklore of South Carolina are intricately woven into the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The Low Country was filled with misty swamps, ghostly legends, buried pirate treasure and African voodoo cults. Such was the terrain, both physical and mental, that met Poe when he settled in at Ft. Moultrie. He took these misty swamps and wandering pirates and created landscapes and characters for his haunting stories. Had Poe had his choice of assignments he could not have found a venue more suited to his innate temperament or his present state of mind. Indeed it was a venue that further inspired his growing melancholy and his frustration regarding the recent acrid arguments with his foster father. The mental terrain of the Low Country would present itself in many of his works. And the Carolina coast would play a part in The Gold Bug, The Balloon Hoax, and The Oblong Box. Pirates such as Stede Bonnet and Black Beard had roamed the coast in the early eighteenth century, and rumors of buried pirate treasure abounded. Poe certainly would have been aware of these legends and he wove them into The Gold Bug.

So Poe arrived at Sullivan’s Island a mental misfit, and yet he was serving as clerk of his unit, a position that had responsibility and put him in contact with his officers. There is evidence that he was well thought of by his officers and this is reflected in the two promotions he received within a short timeframe. It is believed that Poe developed relationships with two prominent South Carolinians. One of them was Dr. Edmund Ravenel, a conchologist and professor at the Medical College, who maintained a house on Sullivan’s Island and practiced on the island. Ravenel is known to have wandered the shore searching for shells. Over the years Ravenel developed a large collection of shells, some which he found himself and some acquired by exchange with other collectors. While there is no concrete evidence – letters, notes or memoirs – documenting the exchange of ideas it is difficult to imagine that the two did not talk, sharing as they did a common interest and living on the same very small, isolated sea island. The Ravenel collection is still in the holdings of the Charleston Museum. Visitors to Sullivan’s Island today can walk the same beaches trod by Poe and by Ravenel, enjoy the same Atlantic sunsets, and search the same sands for treasures from the sea.

There is, however, evidence regarding Poe’s relationship with Colonel William Drayton of Charleston whom he met while stationed at Sullivan’s Island. Colonel Drayton later removed to Philadelphia, and the two continued the relationship. While the exact nature of the friendship is not known, Poe would later dedicate his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque to Colonel Drayton. The dedication is considered significant, providing some insight into this period of Poe’s life. While Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was not written during his time at Fort Moultrie, it is probable that he did write most of the pieces for Al Aaraaf while at Sullivan’s Island. This volume would be published until December of 1829, one year after Poe left the Charleston area.

Poe’s assignment left him some time for his writing and time to wander the wild shores searching for shells. Heavy of heart and still tortured by his relationship with Allan, Poe performed his duties admirably, but military life was not to his liking. Yet he was promoted to the rank of artificer on May 1, 1828 while serving at Sullivan’s Island, and again soon after this received another promotion to the rank of Sgt. Major, the army’s highest enlisted rank. His real desire was to write, and his frustration with army life grew deeper. Also, he realized that he had no real future in the military without tenure at West Point. Despite the sorry state of his relationship with his foster father, he sought Allan’s support in extricating himself from his military commitment.

On December 1, 1828 from his post on Sullivan’s Island Poe sent a request to Allan:

I have been in the American army as long as suits my ends or my inclination, and it is now time that I should leave it – To this effect I made known my circumstances to Lieut. Howard who promised me my discharge solely upon a reconciliation with yourself – In vain I told him that your wishes for me (as your letters assured me) were, and had always been those of a father & that you were ready to forgive even the worst offenses – He insisted upon my writing you & that if a re-conciliation could be effected he would grant me my wish – This was advised in the goodness of his heart & with a view of serving me in a double sense – He has always been kind to me, and, in many respects, remind me forcibly of yourself-

The period of an Enlistment is five years – the prime of my life would be wasted – I shall be driven to more decided measures if you refuse to assist me. 1

Allan’s support was not immediately forthcoming. Ultimately, however, he did support the request, but was insistent that Poe enroll in West Point. As is so well known, he was accepted by the military college, but his career there was to have an ill-fated end, much like his performance at the University of Virginia. Shortly after sending this letter, Poe left Fort Moultrie for his next post, and eventually he received release from his military obligation.

Tiny Sullivan’s Island would become the setting for The Gold Bug, published in 1843, some 15 years after Poe’s assignment at Ft. Moultrie. In the early 19th century Sullivan’s Island was a wild, exotic place, supporting only the few primitive cottages of summer residents and a number of scattered ramshackle huts built by social misfits and recluses who, for various reasons, sought the sanctuary and solitude of an isolated location such as Sullivan’s Island. Poe made one of these huts the abode of the treasure hunter, Legrand, the main character of The Gold Bug. In this story, he goes to some length to describe the dwelling and its surroundings, all lifted from Sullivan’s Island.

Further, Gold Bug is presented by a narrator, thought to be modeled after Dr. Ravenel. The story contains all the characteristics of a classic Poe tale. It is a story full of symbolism and mystery – a note in code leading the way to a tall magnolia tree marking the hiding place of buried pirate treasure, and a gold bug further confirming the location. The story contains all the elements of South Carolina legend and folklore, much of which is still present to this day on Sullivan’s Island.

Poe left South Carolina after only a brief stay, but the mystery and melancholy of the Carolina Low Country stayed with him forever – it is seen again and again in stories published years after his departure from Fort Moultrie.

If you should have the chance to visit this little island, follow the route out of Charleston up the coast. Cross the river and proceed onto the island. Meander around and make your way to Gold Bug Avenue. You can stop for lunch at a creek side restaurant or wander over to the Edgar Allan Poe Library, named in honor of the author. A walk to the end of the island will take you to Ft. Moultrie, which is still standing watch over Charleston harbor. Take your time; enjoy the tingle of salt in the breeze and the slow, constant sound of sweet grass swaying in the creeks. Listen to the clatter of dried palmetto fronds beating against each other in the wind.

Genie Seibels is a free-lance writer living in South Carolina.  She holds a Master’s Degree in Education and Cultural Anthropology with a specific interest in the folklore and culture of the South Carolina lowcountry.  She is currently a full-time student in internet and web design.

1 – Letter December 1, 1828 from Edgar Allan Poe, Fort Moultrie, Sullivan’s Island, SC. to John Allan. Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia.