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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
The very day—the third of January—on which he wrote the letter, Poe, with the rest of the corps, took a series of examinations ordered by the inspector general. Failure of these examinations meant dismissal, but Poe passed them with excellent grades. When the class standings for the first semester were published on January 9, Poe stood third in French and seventeenth in mathematics in his class of sixty-seven.
In the six days between writing Allan and the announcement of the test results something had gone seriously wrong. Brooding in his room, reading and rereading Allan’s letter of condemnation, the young poet felt disappointment and frustration multiplying in his mind. The total collapse of his fortune, the failure of all the expectations he had desperately been keeping alive, his utter helplessness in his situation, drove him into a frenzy. He refused all intercourse with roommates and classmates. On January 7, the fourth day after writing the letter, he began missing formations.
He knew that Allan could not possibly have received his letter, but apparently he was not yet calculatingly seeking expulsion. His state of mind seems as confused as it was desperate. He wanted Allan’s permission so that he could receive his pay, and as a sign of Allan’s partial understanding, even forgiveness; yet he may also have wanted to disgrace his foster father for all his past cruelties and the present injustice—to defame Allan’s earnestly sought respectability, to begin the retribution—but he had to wait for his answer to be sure.
After missing all formations for three days Poe regained his equilibrium and began attending class again on Monday the tenth. Surprisingly, no direct punishment ensued. All that week he attended classes with erratic faithfulness, hoping for his answer. By the end of the week nothing had come. On Saturday he once again began absenting himself from all formations and stayed in his room, eating little, for a week.
Finally, on January 23, the officer of the day entered his room and ordered Poe to attend chapel; resolutely he refused. He was placed under arrest. Two days later, in the academy’s final attempt, he was once again ordered to attend class and again refused.
Poe’s court-martial was convened on January 28 (Gibson was also tried for violating cadet limits). He was charged with two specifications of gross neglect of duties and also disobedience of orders; he pleaded not guilty to one specification of gross neglect in order to ensure his dismissal upon conviction, and guilty to the rest. He was not represented by counsel, and the character testimony of his only witness, classmate John Henderson, was valueless.
His dismissal was to take effect officially on March 6, but on February 19 he left the academy for New York City. On the twenty-first he sent Allan a pitiful letter begging for money and describing his distressed state:
I left West Point two days ago and travelling to N. York without a cloak or any other clothing of importance, I have caught a most violent cold and am confined to my bed. … I shall never rise from my bed—besides a most violent cold on my lungs my ear discharges blood and matter continually and my headache is distracting. …
A note entered on the back by Allan two years later assures us that the guardian never answered. He thus completed the dissolution of the only family relationship Edgar Poe had ever known.
Poe recovered at least partially from his illness rapidly enough to make sketchy preparations for the publication of the 1831 volume of his verse, Israfel , and then, strangely, to return to West Point. He had received special permission from Colonel Thayer—which indicates the extent of the “mad poet’s” impression upon the educator—to solicit subscriptions for his book among the corps. His classmates subscribed almost to a man, as did many of the upperclassmen, at a dollar twenty-five a volume. This was a measure not of Poe’s personal popularity but of the renown at the academy of his satirical verses, which the cadets believed to be the basis of the book. Poe did not attempt to disillusion them. When the cheaply bound pamphlet finally arrived, containing not a single academy ditty, the cadets were incensed; they had been cheated. Fifty years later the resentment was still strong enough for the venerable George Washington Cullum (who had risen to become superintendent of the academy himself) to remember the now-famous Poe primarily as the author of a book of “ridiculous doggerel.” It may have been largely the book’s fault that Poe’s few contacts with his former classmates in later life were all failures. West Point became an altogether unpleasant memory for him.
Poe’s final formal contact with West Point came on the tenth of March, four days after his official dismissal, when he wrote a strange letter to Colonel Thayer:
Sir, Having no longer any ties which can bind me to my native country—no prospects—nor any friends—I intend by the first opportunity to proceed to Paris with the view of obtaining thro’ the interest of the Marquis de La Fayette, an appointment (if possible) in the Polish Army. In the event of the interference of France in behalf of Poland this may easily be effected—at all events it will be my only feasible plan of procedure.
The object of this letter is respectfully to request that you will give me such assistance as may lie in your power in furtherance of my views.