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Private Perry And Mister Poe: The West Point…

Private Perry And Mister Poe: The West Point Poems, 1831

by Edgar Allan Poe

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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 told him and that Hecker heard when he was a cadet and from his students. These are stories 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 that was “the scum … of older states, or … worthless Germans, English, or Irish emigrants”. The US 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 the 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 step-mother, 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.

is here
To the beauty of fair Greece
And the grandeur of old Rome.

The main value of the book is what Daniel Hoffman 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 have found no evidence he got to do that before his death. ( )
  RandyStafford | Apr 16, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0807130540, Hardcover)

Writing poetry and inspecting artillery bombs for the army do not seem like compatible endeavors, which is perhaps why many biographers and critics have overlooked Edgar Allan Poe’s stint in the military, dismissing it as an odd aberration in his literary career. William F. Hecker, however, is in a unique position to appreciate the influence that military culture and training had on the young poet. A professional artilleryman and a Poe scholar, Hecker offers a lively, nuanced account of Poe’s experience as an enlisted soldier and West Point cadet and relates it to his writing, especially his Poems (1831), presented here in facsimile for the first time since 1936.

Military service appealed to Poe’s romantic sense of adventure, and in 1827 he joined the army under the name Edgar A. Perry. He rose quickly through the ranks—most notably learning cannon drill—but suffered as a social misfit in the field and at West Point, where legends about a brilliantly defiant jester still abound. Shortly after being dismissed from the Military Academy for neglecting his duties, Poe published his third book of verse, Poems (1831), which he dedicated to his fellow West Point cadets and funded through subscriptions to them.

Hecker explores these events, filling in biographical gaps and drawing connections to Poe’s poetic vision. Poe’s desire that his poems act as aesthetic bombs—deranging the senses, striving for Beauty but failing explosively—emerges as a key theme. With a foreword by poet and Poe critic Daniel Hoffman and an afterword by Gerard A. McGowan addressing the martial element in the poems "Tamerlane" and "To Helen," among others, Private Perry and Mister Poe offers the definitive statement about Poe’s military experience while making the early versions of many of his most famous poems widely available.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:59 -0400)

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