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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 guardian’s remarriage was a sudden and more serious disappointment. Though Poe probably could not know that the new wife had borne Allan’s illegitimate twins in July, he was convinced she was a fortune hunter; he knew well enough that her presence dealt a severe blow to his hopes for an inheritance. Moreover, he was arguing with Allan again about money. It was customary for cadets to receive allowances from home to supplement their meager twenty-eightdollar-a-month cadet pay, but despite all entreaty Allan would send nothing and Poe was impoverished. He owed money to classmates, and probably to Benny Havens.
Despite all this, Poe, still flushed with the ease of his academic success and hoping to regain Allan’s favor, wrote to his guardian on the sixth of November: “I have a very excellent Standing in my class—in the first section in everything and have great hopes of doing well. … I am very much pleased with Colonel Thayer, and indeed with everything at the institution …”
Suddenly the storm hit. When Poe left the First Artillery in 1829, he had left owing money to “Bully” Graves, whether the re-enlistment money or perhaps a gambling debt. In his correspondence to Bully, Poe speaks of his debts to him and to a Sergeant Griffith at the same time, promising to pay as soon as possible. Shortly before leaving for the academy, having successfully kept his army creditors at bay for more than a year, Poe wrote Graves one more letter, describing his destitute state and promising to give them the money as soon as he could get it from his guardian, which he was having great difficulty doing. He used an unfortunate excuse: “Mr. A is not very often sober—.”
Now, in November, having heard nothing from Poe since he entered the academy, Bully finally lost his patience and sent the letter to Poe’s guardian. Allan was hurt, for he still had some respect for Poe, but his overwhelming reaction was cold, persistent outrage. As Mrs. Allan later remarked, with a touch of vehemence, he “sent him the money and banished Poe from his affections.” In December Allan sent a letter to Poe cursing him and formally breaking all ties, ordering “no further communication.”
Poe’s reply, on January 3, 1831, clearly touches the spirit of all the difficulties between the two men, and the confused, anguished state of the young romantic:
I suppose, (altho’ you desire no further communication with yourself, on my part,) that your restriction does not extend to my answering your final letter …
Did I, when an infant, sollicit your charity and protection, or was it of your own free will, that you volunteered your services in my behalf? [He speaks of his poverty at the University of Virginia and Allan’s condemnation.] … I call God to witness that I have never loved dissipation—Those who know me know that my pursuits and habits are very far from anything of the kind. But I was drawn into it by my companions.
You sent me to W. Point like a beggar. The same difficulties are threatening me as before at Charlottesville—and I must resign. ’
As regards Sergt. Graves—I did write him that letter. As to the truth of its contents, I leave it to God, and your own conscience.—The time in which I wrote it was within a half hour after you had embittered every feeling of my heart against you by your abuse of my family [Allan had on several occasions made references to the illegitimacy of Poe’s sister] and myself, under your own roof—and at a time when you knew that my heart was almost breaking.
I have no more to say—except that my future life (which thank God will not endure long) must be passed in indigence and sickness. I have no energy left, nor health. If it was possible, to put up with the fatigues of this place, and the inconveniences which my absolute want of necessaries subject me to, and as I mentioned before it is my intention to resign. For this end it will be necessary that you (as my nominal guardian) enclose me your written permission. It will be useless to refuse me this last request—for I can leave the place without any permission—your refusal would only deprive me of the little pay which is now due as mileage.
From the time of writing this I shall neglect my studies and duties at the institution—if I do not receive your answer in 10 days—I will leave the Point without—for otherwise I should subject myself to dismission.
On the outside of this strangely confused plea (it was folded into its own envelope) is a note in John Allan’s hand: “I rec d this on the ioth & did not from its conclusion deem it necessary to reply. I make this note on the 10th & can see no good Reason to alter my opinion. I do not think the Boy has one good quality. He may do or act as he pleases, tho’ I w d have saved him but [not] on his own terms & conditions since I cannot believe a word he writes. His letter is the most barefaced one sided statement.” The final break had occurred.
The pay of which Poe speaks in his letter is the travel pay allotted to cadets, which dismissed cadets did not receive; since he had no intention of returning home, he needed it desperately.