The young Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) had a remarkable military career of almost four years, which had a lasting effect on his later literary work.
Many Poe biographers speculated about his time in the US Army, but the first who really solved the riddle of Poe’s military life, was Major William F. Hecker (1968-2006), a US Army artillery officer who also had a masters degree in English.
As an assistant professor of English at West Point from 2000 to 2003, Major Hecker had the opportunity to check Poe’s military records, which revealed surprising facts. He presented his findings to an international audience of Poe scholars, at the Second International Edgar Allan Poe Conference (Baltimore, October 2002), where I presented a paper about Poe’s cosmology ‘Eureka’.
In my younger days I served as an artillerist in the Royal Netherlands Army, so I was happy to talk with Maj. Hecker about the military background that we shared with Poe.
Later Maj. Hecker used his groundbreaking research for the book ‘Private Perry and Mister Poe. The West Point Poems’; a facsimile edition of the poems that Poe wrote during his time as a cadet at West Point.[i]
This book was published in 2005, but tragically William Hecker was killed in the service of his country in Iraq in January 2006, so he could never fully enjoy the appreciation for his surprising and original contribution to Poe research.
His death was not only a tragedy for his family, but also a severe loss for the international community of Poe scholars, which lost one of its most innovative members. This essay about Poe is therefore also a tribute to the late William F. Hecker, a field artillery major in the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division.
After Edgar Allan Poe abandoned his studies at the University of Virginia –at 17 he was clearly too young to stand on his own feet- he did not want to go back to his stern foster father John Allan.
So on May 26, 1827 he took the drastic step to enlist in the US Army under the assumed name Edgar A. Perry. He was assigned to the coastal artillery at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston (the location for his later tale The Gold Bug’).
His excellent upbringing and education apparently distinguished him from the average enlisted man, because within two months he was given the responsible function of company clerk, planning and managing the daily activities of his battery. This relieved him of unpleasant duties and it brought him into contact with the commanding officers.
These were so pleased with Poe’s accurate work, that within a year he was selected to be trained as an ‘artificer’. That was the most demanding, precise and dangerous job that the army had to offer: calculating, assembling and timing the fuses, bombs and grenades that the artillery used for different purposes. It required very accurate practical skills, as well as knowledge of applied mathematics, chemistry and physics.
This work brought the young Poe into even closer contact with the senior officers, who on January 1, 1829, when he was not yet 20 years old, promoted him to Sergeant Major. This was the highest enlisted rank in the army, with a doubling in pay and a free daily ration of rum or whiskey.
Poe did in less than two years what other enlisted men hoped to achieve in 20 or 30 years, and often did not achieve at all. He also received letters of recommendation for West Point from four of his superior officers, which made him one of the very exceptional soldiers who leave the enlisted ranks to become cadets at West Point. In fact, during a period of at least five years on either side of his own admittance to West Point, Poe was the only one who managed to do so.
After the long and formal admittance procedure, Poe entered West Point in June 1830. However, at that time his relation with his foster father John Allan had completely deteriorated, after his beloved foster mother Frances Allan Keeling died in February 1829.
The wealthy John Allan had soon found a second wife, and Poe, who was not formally adopted, understood that he would never inherit a penny. So after some time at West Point he concluded that an officer’s life with its social obligations but low income, was no longer possible for him: ‘The Army does not suit a poor man’ as he later wrote.
And, although an excellent student, he deliberately choose the path to a dishonourable discharge by not attending classes, missing roll calls and not showing up for duties. So, finally, in February 1831, he was officially discharged from West Point, but he left there in tears, according to one witness. It should be noted that the formal charges against him did not mention abuse of alcohol. Poe was allergic to alcohol and he was not a regular or heavy drinker, as has often been suggested.
However, Poe’s military training and experiences, especially those as an artificer, followed him his whole life and became a standard for his literary work. Major Hecker describes it as follows:
‘The result is the explosive verse and short prose that continues to resonate almost two centuries later. […] Truly, Poe’s time as a military artificer turned him into our great artillerist-poet, carefully constructing poetic bombs and launching them at his audience in hopes that they would detonate, thereby transporting his readers into a “Holy Land” of beauty, hope and love’.
And for the audience this should be a dramatic and life changing experience, as Poe intended it to be. His poetic bombs were destined to explode in the minds of his audience and transform and elevate their feelings, emotions and opinions: it was creative destruction on a spiritual level.
But creative destruction needs tales and poems that are not only original, but also dark and apocalyptic, like a bomb that annihilates itself to fulfil its destiny. And it is evident that Poe wrote such apocalyptic literature that was meant to transform the mind of the reader.
Like ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and ‘The Back Cat’, two allegories in which he warned his audience how the slavery issue would eventually turn the beautiful American dream into a nightmare that would destroy the fabric of society. (See Edgar Allan Poe essay.)
But destructive creationism can also become a beautiful thing, as he showed in his final masterpiece ‘Eureka. An essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe’. Poe gave his audience a universe that continually destroys and renews itself in an endless succession of violent collapses and brilliant explosions. It was the perfect and revolutionary dream of a former US Army artificer; a dream that indeed strongly resonates, 170 years later, in the science and philosophy of today. (See Edgar Allan poe essay.)
Private Perry and Mister Poe’
The West Point Poems 1831.
Facsimile Edition (165 pages).
Edited and Introduced by William F. Hecker.
Foreword ‘Marching with Poe’ by Daniel Hoffman (Poe biographer and Poet Laureate)
Afterword ‘Poe’s Nom de Guerre’ by Gerard A. McGowan (Associate Professor of
English at West Point)
Louisiana State University Press (June 2005)