Museum News

Private Perry is Mr. Poe

Poe in 1848 wearing his West Point Great Coat

Poe in 1848 wearing his West Point Great Coat

John Limon argues that Poe was one of the first American writers who was important both to the fields of literature and science because he engaged in literary mediation, or “negotiation with science.” Limon notes that Poe’s works provide abundant examples that he anticipated forecasted several future developments in technology, e.g., exploration of the Poles, astronomy, physics, space travel, photography, electronic communications, and the forensic sciences. He wrote about these technical subjects in imaginative ways that captured the public’s interest and concludes that lay writers like Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, or those who wrote “without “letters,” also struggled with the professional class to establish their authority to speak on emerging scientific issues “(19).

Poe had not received any formal training as a scientist. However, he had considerable exposure to scientific ideas in his education, in his training, and in his investigations of science. He believed that an interested, observant, and skilled writer did not need credentials from any official accreditation organization before he was qualified to write about scientific topics. Therefore, in the present column, I will discuss Poe’s early technical preparation, activities, and some of his experiences that likely inspired his interest in writing about science as a poet, journalist, fiction, and non-fiction writer.

Poe’s early schooling and military training inspired and shaped his interest in science. According to Kenneth Silverman, Poe’s secondary education started after his foster parents moved from England to Richmond. In 1821, “Edgar attended the private academy of Joseph H. Clarke,” which served to prepare young gentlemen to obtain “an honorable entrance in any University in the United States.” One of his classmates wrote a testimonial that Poe was one of the top students in the class (23).  Thomas and Jackson list the classes that students typically enrolled in while at that school. They included English, Languages (French, Latin, and Greek), Arithmetic, Geometry, Trigonometry, Navigation (using celestial observations), Gunnery and Projectiles, Optics, Geography, Maps and Charts, and Astronomy (41, 48). Continuing a description of Poe’s education and experiences, Silverman writes that in February 1826, Edgar Allan Poe was among the first group of students enrolled at the University of Virginia. School records there indicate that he was a bright and dedicated student. Despite not being able to afford to pay for his college textbooks, he was one of the top students in several  of his classes. However, hefty financial and gambling debts to the University and to his classmates left him hopelessly in debt. When his foster father refused to continue paying for Poe’s college expenses, he was forced to drop out near the end of his first term (Silverman 29-34).

Major William F. Hecker, the author of Private Perry and Mister Poe, writes that Poe enlisted in the United States Army on May 26, 1827, under the alias of Private Poe. He spent three years as an artilleryman stationed for the longest period at Fort Moultrie, in a coastal area outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Poe spent much of his Army service learning cannon drill and maintenance. This task needed to be performed by a soldier who had extraordinary expertise and skill in the areas of measurement, logistical planning, and design. Army records indicate that Poe “was the most technically competent artillerist in his battery.” He was assigned to “oversee the ammunition supply of the battery.” He was quickly advanced to an artificer, a technical job concerning the “weights and measures of iron and chemicals” (xxxiv).  According to Army records, “Poe was the army’s expert bomb artisan, carefully designing, preparing and constructing inter-connected systems of iron and chemicals with the ultimate goal of explosively destroying his creation” (xxxv-xxix).  It was extraordinary for that time that Poe was promoted to a Sergeant Major in less than two years after he enlisted (xxix), and then enrolled in the United States Army Officer’s School at West Point. At the military academy, he took some classes in French, astronomy, math and navigation, but decided to get himself expelled in 1831 so he could pursue his interests in being a writer. Once again, lacking the necessary financial support from his foster father, Poe wrote: “The army does not suit a poor man—so I left abruptly,” and “threw myself upon literature as a resource” (Poe).

Hecker concludes that Poe’s four years in the Army did not detract in the least from his future career as a writer. On the contrary, it exposed him to many disparate subjects to write about, such as Cryptography, Geography, Oceanography, and Astronomy (xii). Also, he was able to incorporate many of his experiences relating to science into the themes of his poetry, journalism, fiction and non-fiction works. In the next column, I will explore Poe’s earliest published writing on science, a poem entitled, “Sonnet—To Science.”



Poe, Edgar Allan. “Memorandum in Poe Manuscript, May 29, 1841. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.

Hecker, William F. Private Perry and Mister Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Limon, John. The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar Allan Poe: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Thomas, Dwight and David Jackson, Ed. The Poe Log- A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849. Boston: G.B. Hall and Company, 1987.


 Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and  a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine.”He also serves as a board member, volunteer, tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Poe Museum in Richmond. See picture blow:

Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum


The Challenge of Evaluating Poe’s, Eureka: A Prose Poem

Was Poe Searching for Gold in Eureka: A Prose Poem?

In my last column, I discussed the reasons that I decided not to focus my entire Master’s Thesis research on Poe’s Eureka: A Prose Poem. That conclusion became obvious to me after I examined all of the clues that were available to me at the beginning of my investigation. First of all, I found that Eureka was extremely technical and too difficult to interpret. It appeared that when Poe was warning critics not to evaluate it during his lifetime, he was also sending out a cautionary note to me that I should not take on such a big project before I was ready. Poe’s culminating work is extremely challenging because it spans several genres and,thus, cannot be compared to any other poetic, literary, historic, scientific, or metaphysical works; however, it is a combination of all of the aforementioned genres. I was left with the impression, that was also concluded by other researchers, that  it is too literary to be considered a scientific work and too scientific to be considered a literary work. However, Poe described his book as a scientific treatise on the origins and future of the Universe. In Eureka, he writes extensively on the history of science, integrates much of what was already known about science in the nineteenth century, and proposed several original scientific and metaphysical theories. Therefore, I decided to focus my research inquiry on Poe and Science, even though the book also spans several other genres.

At the 2013 Positively Poe Conference at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Virginia (see my last Poe and Science Blog), I explained that when miners found gold in the nineteenth century, they needed to assay it against a known gold standard to determine its value. I noted that, perhaps, Poe was inspired to name his book after the exclamation that the miners in his lifetime shouted after they struck gold. Their joyous exclamation, “Eureka” means, “I have found it!”  He wrote that his book was the most profound work about science “since Newton’s discovery of gravity.”  Poe may have believed that he had would become rich and even more famous as a renown science writer after he published his book. Unfortunately, there were few other critics in his lifetime who agreed with him, since there weren’t any established standards to determine the value of his work. Unfortunately, the book is no easier to evaluate today than it was when Poe wrote it 1848. It has been speculated, though, that Poe was defying critics to attempt to write an evaluation of a book that could not be compared to anything else.

Consequently rather than attempting to deal with the challenges of evaluating Eureka directly, I believed that a more manageable project would be to  determine the extent to which Poe’s final work might have been influenced by the literary, historical, philosophic, and scientific contexts of the nineteenth century. I was also curious to find out if Poe’s interest in science was first initiated in Eureka, or whether he expressed an interest in other scientific topics in his earlier works of poetry, journalism, and fiction.

I concluded that my project would focus on Poe and Science. I would start with examining his poetry and technical training, and then how he wrote about the science as a journalist and a writer of  science-based fiction. It was my hypothesis that if I attempted to examine what Poe wrote about related to science prior to Eureka, it might help me to understand what he was trying to express in Eureka: A Prose Poem. Ultimately, looking at the ways that Poe wrote about science in each of his writing styles, and then discussing the ideas that he was attempting to express about science became the way I organized and reported my research. It also helped me to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of Eureka then I had after my initial reading of Poe’s most enigmatic book. In my future columns on Poe and Science, I will reveal what I discovered about Poe and Eureka. I hope you will join me and share your reactions about this topic.


 Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and  a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at [email protected]

Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum

In the footsteps of Poe – The University of Virginia

In 1826, Poe left Richmond to attend the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He enrolled at the university on February 14th, 1826. He was part of the second class to matriculate at Mr. Jefferson’s University. While in Charlottesville, Poe studied Ancient and Modern Languages and distinguished himself in both subjects. He appears to have been well-liked by other students and teachers and his room (number 13!) on the West Range at the University was a popular gathering place where Poe would entertain friends with tales of his own devising.

Unfortunately, Poe’s time at the University of Virginia was short-lived. His foster father, John Allan sent him to Charlottesville with insufficient funds to cover Poe’s school expenses. Mr. Allan did not respond to Poe’s requests for financial help, so Edgar resorted to gambling in an attempt to pay his bills. Edgar had no luck at this and wound up about $2000 in debt (bearing in mind that by his estimation, his bills at UVA would have totaled about $350 for the entire year). He left the University of Virginia on the 15th of December 1826 in disgrace.

Poe’s time at UVA has come to be appreciated in the ensuing years and his legacy there is maintained by The Raven Society, a prestigious honor society founded in 1904. The Raven Society lovingly maintains room # 13 on the West Range much as it must have appeared in Poe’s time and sponsors scholarships and fellowships to honor academic excellence.

Here is a picture of Poe’s West Range room from the Raven Society’s website:

Poe's room at the University of Virginia - Raven Society photo

On December 5, 2011, I got to attend a Virginia Association of Museums workshop at the University of Virginia Art Museum with fellow staff member Jennifer. We were inspired by the workshop and decided to do a little touring of UVA after we’d finished for the day.

We tracked down Poe’s dorm room on West Range and took pictures (of course!). We are geeks about such things here at the Poe Museum! (Endearing geeks. We hope.)

Jennifer visiting Poe's dorm room at UVA Melanie visiting Poe's dorm room at UVA

Jennifer and Melanie in 2 different photos by the door to room #13 West Range

We also checked out the nearby historic marker devoted to Poe and visited the Rotunda, the centerpiece of Jefferson’s plan for the University. (It would still have been under construction when Poe was there.)

Jennifer with Poe's Historic Marker at UVA

Jennifer with Eddy’s historical marker

UVA Rotunda on a cloudy December Day

The UVA Rotunda on the day of our visit – it was a bit cloudy, but rather appropriately atmospheric under the circumstances

For more information on Poe at the University of Virginia, check out the Raven Society’s website – it’s worth the visit!