Before reading the Poe tribute anthology nEvermore! (review forthcoming), I decided to read this, the only unread Poe-related book left in the house.
Review: Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems, 1831, ed. William F. Hecker, 2005.
As I’ve said elsewhere, the United States Army was the one institution that appreciated Edgar Allan Poe in his lifetime – even if he did get expelled from West Point.
But what did Poe do when he was at West Point and in his days as a private soldier?
The late Major William F. Hecker answers those questions with some unique expertise.
Hecker, before he died from an IED in Iraq in 2006, taught English at West Point. He passes on the folklore surrounding Cadet Poe – stories Hecker’s father and great-uncle heard when they were at the school and that Hecker heard when he was a cadet and from his students. These are stories are of drunkenness and wild ill-discipline.
In fact, Poe doesn’t seem to have drank when at West Point and made a conscious decision to get himself expelled by failing to show up for roll call and not going to class.
But Poe had a distinguished career in the army before West Point. Enlisting as Private Edgar A. Perry in May 1827 when he was 16, Poe joined an army made up of “the scum … of older states, or … worthless Germans, English, or Irish emigrants”. The U.S. Army was the job of last resort. But Poe had a streak of martial ambition from his literary idol Lord Byron and his grandfather Major David Poe, Baltimore assistant deputy-quartermaster during the Revolutionary War. The latter was thought of warmly by Lafayette because of the aid Poe gave him during the war. Edgar Poe, in fact, got to meet Lafayette in October 1825 during the Frenchman’s tour of America when Poe was in Richmond’s Junior Morgan Riflemen. Eighteen months later he was a real soldier.
After learning basic military duties, Poe was a company clerk from July 1827 to April 1828. This got him out of annoying jobs like guard duty, logging, maintenance, and mess work. He also got to rub shoulders with the officers. He came to admire his commanding officer in the artillery regiment, Colonel James House. Poe stood out from his ill-educated peers, and House seems to have been a lax disciplinarian which appealed to Poe.
In May 1828, Poe was promoted to an “artillery artificer”. This was a very technical job preparing “bombs” – hollow iron shells custom filled with iron fragments, explosive powder and a fuse all calculated to explode at a desired time. Hecker quotes some of the precise specifications laid out in The American Artillerist’s Companion which Poe would have used. Poe was also responsible for all bombs used by his regiment. Miscalculation could lead to death, and senior artillery officers referred to the firing of their cannons during training as “experiments”.
In January 1829, Poe was promoted to a Sergeant Major. His new rank put him in contact with many officers he admired, most graduates of the relatively new West Point Academy and several gave him letters of recommendation for West Point. After the death of his stepmother, Poe got an honorable discharge from the army in April 1829. In June 1830, he entered West Point.
So why did Poe leave West Point in February 1831?
Hecker speculates that the character of the officers he met did not match the officers he admired as an enlisted man. He also seems to have had some personal animosity to the tactical officer he was assigned to, an officer he had served under as an enlisted man. Poe himself said “The army does not suit a poor man”. (Obviously, from a financial standpoint, that decision didn’t work out too well for him.)
Poe was popular with his fellow cadets and known for his satirical verses on officers and academy life. In fact, the work that forms the bulk of this book, the 1831 edition of Poems, was financed by subscriptions from those cadets. Many were no doubt puzzled by poems very different to those they were used to seeing from Cadet Poe.
Hecker does note how this edition differs from later ones. In particular, the famous couplet
The glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.
To the beauty of fair Greece
And the grandeur of old Rome.
The main value of the book is what Daniel Hoffman (he of Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe) concisely summarizes in his introduction. Poe’s early military life is too often overlooked by Poe biographers. Hoffman speculates that his days as a soldier contributed to Poe’s love of repetition, formulaic and rigid theories of composition (think his “A Philosophy of Composition”), and a theory of fiction that was modelled on those bombs – narratives precisely timed and staged for explosive effect.
Hecker mentions that he intends to look at some of Poe’s stories in light of his military experience, in particular Poe’s satiric “The Man that was Used Up”. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet come across any evidence he got to do that before his death.
More reviews of Poe related material are at the Poe page.