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Cadet Edgar Allan Poe
The young poet became a legendary plebe in the few painful months he spent at West Point
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
His reputation among both cadets and professors was not entirely due to his facility in academics, however. At twenty-one his health was already beginning to fail, and his face, which Gibson described as “worn, weary, discontented,” added a decade to the age difference between him and his classmates. He was outraged at a story some classmates had perpetrated that he had procured a cadet’s appointment for his son and then taken his place upon the boy’s death. George Washington Cullum, in the class ahead of Poe, remembered he had the “look of a man marked for an early death.”
Poe was pleased, however, by another rumor current in the corps: that he was a grandson of Benedict Arnold. He pointedly refused to deny it and seemed to enjoy fostering an aura of mystery about himself; he told his friends little of his former life.
Like most of the cadets of his time—and for two decades to come—Poe more than once sneaked away from the barracks during the evening to patronize the tavern of Benny Havens, just outside the gate. Jones claims that Poe was often drunk, but none of his other friends remember it and there is no record of his ever having been punished for drinking (as were so many others). Furthermore, Jones proves himself a highly impeachable source in his long, detailed reminiscence of Poe’s farewell to his roommates, written three months after Jones himself had been dismissed. Stories about Poe’s drinking feats still persist at the academy, but Gibson, usually a reliable source, was probably nearest the truth: “I don’t think he was ever intoxicated while at the Academy, but he had already acquired the more dangerous habit of constant drinking.”
Poe filled the study hours in barracks with vigorous discourse—generally a monologue—on English literature, and in composing poems lampooning the officers at the academy. Both his memory and his knowledge of English literature were exceptional, and he could hold forth on the English classics for hours. “The whole bent of his mind at that time seemed to be toward criticism—or, more properly speaking, caviling,” says Gibson. “Whether it was Shakespeare or Byron, Addison or Johnson—the acknowledged classic or the latest poetaster—all came in alike for his critical censure. … I never heard him speak in terms of praise of any English writer, living or dead.”
Cullum was probably correct in saying that Poe’s comrades thought him “slightly cracked.” As one classmate wrote home several months later: “He is thought a fellow of talent here but he is too mad a poet to like mathematics.” The matter of his popularity among his classmates was ultimately decided, however, in his favor because of his verses caricaturing the officers; he recited them often to unfailingly appreciative audiences. A typical one was about Lieutenant Joseph Lorenzo Locke of the department of tactics and concerned the reporting of cadets for infringements of regulations:
The satiric lines were not Poe’s only poetic efforts. He was now working sporadically on contributions to a new volume that he would bring out the following year, but the writing did not come easily. The academic atmosphere at West Point was as severe as its military discipline; despite the excellence of its engineering education, the academy was hardly a sympathetic surrounding for a young romantic poet searching for his voice. The cadet regulations for 1830 reveal how sparse his sources of inspiration were:
Cadets are allowed to take from the Library only such books as are calculated to assist them in their class studies. No cadet shall enter beyond the Librarian’s table or take down any book from its place.
No cadet shall keep in his room any novel, poem, or other book, not relating to his studies, without permission from the Superintendent.
On October 1 Cadet Poe, like his classmates, signed a paper obligating him to five years’ service in the Army. Four days later, in Richmond, John Allan remarried. These were two contributions to Poe’s deteriorating outlook, and the final one would follow shortly. He now realized the futility of his hopes for a quick success at the academy and in the officer corps; gloomy years of hard work stretched before him. Further, it was now also apparent that despite his academic abilities he would not be at the head of his class. He was doing well enough to attract the attention of Colonel Thayer, but then, the superintendent made it a practice to know all of his cadets by name.