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Alchemy and Bad Decisions: The Military Career of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is undoubtedly one of the most iconic dark fiction authors of all time the world over. His work is widely regarded not only as great horror fiction but as a stellar literary achievement with many schools across America including his works in their curriculum. I personally was first introduced to Poe through his short story The Cask of Amontillado which we read in my 9th grade English class.

Ask anyone who's ever at least held a book and they will probably know who Edgar Allan Poe is. However, beneath the dark eye shadow of Poe’s literary fame is another piece of his story few people, even regular Poe readers, know about and that is the military career of Edgar Allan Poe.

By the time Poe signed his first military contract (under alias Edgar A. Perry) in 1927, he had already published his first literary work; a book of poems titled Tamerlane and Other Poems, which few people purchased let alone read. Having successfully alienated his wealthy benefactor and foster father John Allan, Poe was financially destitute with considerable gambling debt and running out of options. So, he did what many desperate young men and women have done in his situation, he enlisted in the military.

Poe joined the United States Army as an alchemist for the Artillery where he prepared shells. It is said Poe showed a knack for alchemy and within two years of his five-year contract he achieved the rank of Sergeant Major which was the highest rank available to him. Poe’s successful enlisted career was short-lived, however. In 1930 his foster father soon intervened and secured him an appointment at the prestigious West Point Military Academy.

Poe wasn’t able to replicate his enlisted success in the world of officers. Writing to his foster father he often complained about the rigid discipline and poor food. Instead of studying, Poe spent most of his time at the academy writing short satirical poems (many of them about his instructors) to entertain his fellow classmates.

In 931 Edgar Allan Poe finally pushed West Point to its limit. He was dismissed from the Academy and received a court martial from the military. By then however Poe had already published his third book of poems thanks to funding from his fellow classmates.

Poe’s military service may have been short lived and there is a case to be made that he may have found long term success as a soldier if he had stayed in the enlisted ranks but of course then we may never have gotten one of the greatest dark fiction writers of all time.


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