By Scott D. Peterson
In 1826, Edgar Allan Poe attended the University of Virginia to receive the liberal education promised to him by his foster father, John Allan. Almost 200 years later, I visited Charlottesville in search of background ambiance for a novel I was writing about Poe’s stint as a college student. Although Poe had only turned 17 just three weeks before his arrival, John Allan’s influence with the school’s administrators cleared the way for his charge’s early admission.
Lacking that sort of pull, I was forced to stand outside Poe’s room on the West Range and settle for looking through the glass door. Even so, the August afternoon I spent among the stately brick buildings at the heart of the campus was more than enough to give me a sense of how Thomas Jefferson’s “Academical Village” impacted Poe’s writing and personality during his ten-month stay in Charlottesville.
Poe didn’t declare a major, although we could guess that it would have had something to do with languages since he signed up to attend classes in both the School of Ancient Languages and the School of Modern Languages. John Allan had wanted Poe to attend the School of Mathematics as well (perhaps to prepare his foster son for a place at his business), but he did not send enough money for three classes. Most of Poe’s classmates remembered him as a good student due to his knack for quickly memorizing his lessons in Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian. Others said that he was “tolerably regular” in attending his classes, which lasted from 7:30 to 9:30, five mornings a week. They also recalled that he was the only student to prepare an optional recitation from Tasso, which made him a favorite with his Modern Language professor, George Blaettermann. At the end of the session in December, Poe stood for the exams with students who had the benefit of two years of study and still received citations of excellence from both his teachers.
After classes ended at 9:30, the students had the rest of the day to themselves. Poe filled that time with a wide range of pursuits. He spent a good deal of time in the temporary library (the Rotunda wasn’t finished until October of that year). Library records indicate Poe was an eclectic reader, checking out a history of North America, a biography of George Washington, a volume of Voltaire’s works, and a book on plant biology. Some biographers speculate that Thomas Jefferson, the University’s founder and first president, may have frequented the same room. If so, we have no record of whatever impression the former President of the United States may have made on the young student. Jefferson might have had a greater impact on Poe if the retired statesman had been well enough to continue his practice of inviting the students up to Monticello for dinner individually or in small groups. Although that dinner engagement never took place, the prospect of bringing one of the finest intellects from the 18th Century into conjunction with one of the most intriguing minds of the 19th was what prompted me to write about Poe’s year at the University in the first place.
In the afternoons, Poe was reputed to take long solitary walks through thenearby hills, a recollection that is supported by his later story, “Tale ofthe Ragged Mountains.” On other days, he participated in field sports on the Lawn, the grassy area in front of the Rotunda. The accounts of his fellow students make him out to be a local champion of the running broad jump with a personal best of 21 feet, 6 inches–or just 20 feet, depending on the teller. Despite this victory, they recalled that he took part with a serious, even sad, expression, as if he got no enjoyment from the sport. Other pursuits included trips to the village of Charlottesville, where he could play a few hands of Seven-Up or Loo at Mosby’s–despite the fact it had been declared off limits to the students. Poe also stopped at the local tanner’s shop at least once to roll dice with one of the apprentices there for a book of Hogarth prints. He was not lucky at either establishment and gambling quickly became the one area where he didn’t excel.
Evenings, it seems, were devoted to entertaining his friends in his room. At these soirees, he would read the poetry of Byron or from his own tales. One of his stories had a hero named “Gaffy” and a friend of Poe’s remembered that it was more comic in tone, making it different from the somber and gloomy tales he usually wrote. A budding literary critic in the audience opined that the hero’s name appeared too many times in the course of the story, prompting Poe to throw the manuscript into the fire and leaving us to wonder if he would have written more humorous pieces had it not been for the clever young man who bestowed the budding author with the less-than-flattering nickname of “Gaffy Poe.” On other occasions, Poe would halt his recitations and pick up a piece of charcoal to draw an illustration on the walls of his room. Several students remember seeing wild drawings on Poe’s walls and some of them wondered whether he would become an artist or a poet. One student recalled finding Poe in the process of copying a plate from Byron’s poetry on his ceiling. What sort of unexpected clues to Poe’s imagination might we find if we could somehow strip away the white paint on the walls of his room to reveal the traces of this artwork?
Several students recalled how Poe took part in the time-honored studentactivity of experimenting with alcohol. Some theorized that he drank to calm his restless and excitable spirit and others felt that he had no real love for the taste, but threw it back in one gulp, an act which most often “used him up” in the sense that he rarely went back for more. Whatever the case, it is clear from Poe’s academic record and his absence from the faculty minutes that his drinking in no way approached the near total state of dissipation ascribed to his university days by Rufus Griswold in his slanderous biography of the author. The university’s librarian, himself a student, reported never seeing Poe under the influence of strong drink, indicating that the revels were likely limited to his evening entertainments and to his gambling visits in the village.
After his fellow students had returned to their own rooms, Poe was left todo his writing. During his time at school, it is very likely that he composed “Tamerlane,” the long poem published a year later in Boston. That slender volume contains a poem entitled “Song,” which may have been influenced by “The Bride,” a poem published in July of 1826. (Not by Poe) Although the preface of “Tamerlane” claims the shorter poems were written during the author’s childhood, several biographers feel the maturity of the work and the obvious influences of Byron indicate that some, if not all, of the poems were composed during Poe’s stay at the university. The impact of Poe’s brief college career extends to his second volume of poems, which include metaphors in “Al Aaraaf” that are inspired by the book on plant biology from the university’s library and allusions to the Greek and Roman architecture of the Lawn in “To Helen.” Thus, Poe was clearly serious about writing, unlike many college students who adopt the persona without actually putting anything on paper.
Other aspects of Poe’s mindset during that time are somewhat more elusive. Students offered conflicting impressions of him, indicating that he could be a boon companion one moment and then aloof the next; others simply said that it was very difficult to get to know him in the first place. Three of his surviving letters to John Allan (two written during that year and one written five years later) also offer different views of Poe the student. The first one is thankful for clothes (a uniform coat and striped cloth for pantaloons) and soap from home, while the second expresses fears about the upcoming exams and the fights taking place outside his door. The third adopts a much different tone and reveals how Allan seems to have undermined Poe’s education from the start by not sending him with enough money to cover his initial expenses. Poe claims that he was viewed as a beggar because of this and was forced into borrowing money at high interest. Later he took to writing IOUs to local merchants for goods and services. He also claimed to owe $2,000 dollars in debts of honor to his fellow students. At the end of the term, John Allan paid only the debts that he felt were fair, creating a situation where Poe could not return to Charlottesville without his remaining creditors issuing warrants against him. Plus, Poe did not relish the prospect of facing the students that he owed money to, so it is understandable that he did not protest very much when John Allan refused to enroll him for the following session.
As a result, Poe’s hopes for a liberal education were lost, but this was notthe only disappointment he experienced during that year. Before leavingRichmond, he became engaged to Elmira Royster, whose family lived near the Allan’s. Poe’s letters to his fiancee went unanswered because they were intercepted by her father, who apparently felt she was too young to be engaged at 16. Later that same year, however, she became engaged to another young man, news which may or may not have reached Poe inCharlottesville. Some biographers take this interference on the part of Mr.Royster as an indication that he knew Poe had fallen out of favor with John Allan, thus decreasing the student’s potential as a marriage prospect. We have no way of knowing whether John Allan deliberately under-funded his foster son’s education and then meddled in his love affair with Elmira Royster, but we can be certain that these matters weighed heavily on the young student’s mind while he was away to college.
Despite the protean quality of Poe at that time in his life, his room on theWest Range, the classic order the Lawn, and the hushed splendor of the Dome Room in the Rotunda all had a timeless quality to them that allowed me to place him amid the students of 1826 with their uniform coats, riding boots, and pistols tucked in their belts. He would be the one sitting by himself on the steps of the Rotunda. Even if he wasn’t writing, I would know him by his large, expressive eyes, the Byron collar of his shirt, and the stack of books at his feet. After awhile, he would cease his scribbling and put away his sheaf of foolscap. Gradually, his gaze would return from the distant world of the Mongolian Steppes and he might approach some of his friends, challenging them with the dice in his pocket or amusing them with an imitation of Professor Blaettermann’s terrible puns.
More than likely, Poe’s time at the university only strengthened his desire to become a man of letters, given his academic success and the popularity he enjoyed with his fellow students. On the other hand, he faced the romantic setback of the unanswered letters to his fiancee back home, inviting a comparison to the hero of “Tamerlane,” who gave up love to achieve his ambitions. Perhaps the most significant impact of Poe’s university days came from the financial difficulties he encountered there, which were the start of a recurring theme that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Even so, he was able to use that experience to achieve the escape velocity he needed to leave the Allan household and embark on his literary career.
Poe’s room, Number 13 on the West Range, is maintained by the Raven Society of the University of Virginia as a shrine to its former occupant. A glass door allows literary pilgrims to look inside at the Spartan furnishings. The Rotunda is open to visitors free of charge.
Scott Peterson teaches writing at the University of Maine and has written a novel, The Collectors, about Poe’s days at the University of Virginia.
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