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In an age in which Mrs Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) would portray America as a land of philistinism and pour scorn upon its “insect authors,” the city where Edgar Allan Poe grew up, Richmond, Virginia, was regarded by Americans themselves as conspicuously unsophisticated. In 1826 Poe attended the University of Virginia (situated sixty miles outside of Richmond), which had been founded by Thomas Jefferson with an intention of cultivating unprecedented academic freedoms. There were informal relationships between students and lecturers and, by the standards of the day, an unconventional lack of discipline, but in practice this model was not successful. At the University, Poe witnessed pistol brandishing, arm biting, unattended lectures, and the repeated attempts of the authorities to subdue a riotous campus. In 1834 the Southern writer James E. Heath would lament that there was not a single literary magazine published south of the Potomac. Heath attributed the literary failings of the region to a sort of collective mindset weakened by “either indolence, indifference, or the love of pleasure.” Heath’s complaint was echoed over a hundred years later in Wilbur J. Cash’s The Mind of the South (1941), which was unsparing in its assessment of the South’s “intellectual and aesthetic attainments”:

…the majority of the colleges were no more than academies… the South far overran the American average for (white) illiteracy… not only the great part of masses but a considerable number of planters never learned to read or write…a very great segment of the latter class kept no book in their houses save only the Bible… In general, the intellectual and aesthetic culture of the Old South was a superficial and jejune thing, borrowed from without and worn as a political armour and a badge of rank.

Edgar Allan Poe was initially taken with the recklessness and anti-intellectualism which characterised Southern life, and this attachment is evident in the portrait of Poe’s own school in his short story “William Wilson,” which was first published in The Gift in 1839. Poe’s foster-father John Allan moved to Britain in 1815 with the ambition of establishing a London tobacco house, and Poe consequently attended the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House school in Stoke Newington. Two of Poe’s most recent biographers, Kenneth Silverman and James Hutchisson have contended that Poe’s time at Bransby’s school was an unhappy one: Silverman claims that Poe was “lonely” at the school, whilst Hutchisson speculates that, in arriving in Britain so soon after the American Revolution, Poe may have received a “cool reception” from his classmates. Yet the pseudonymous narrator of “William Wilson” describes Stoke Newington as a “dream-like and spirit-soothing place” and he portrays the school as a “palace of enchantment” and a wondrous architectural chaos of “windings” and “incomprehensible subdivisions.” The transformation of a Stoke Newington boarding school into a realm of almost Oriental mystery surely reflects the pleasure which Poe took in recalling his own schooldays:

The morning’s awakening, the nightly summons to bed; the connings, the recitations; the periodical half-holidays, and perambulations; the play-ground, with its broils, its pastimes, its intrigues; – these, by a mental sorcery long forgotten, were made to involve a wilderness of sensation, a world of rich incident, an universe of varied emotion…

Bransby’s school would have provided Poe with a welcome respite from what he knew as “home.” In London, his foster-father was preoccupied with the failing fortunes of his business, whilst his foster-mother was confined to her room with hypochondria. Like many examples of modern children’s fiction, “William Wilson” compares the adventures experienced at a boarding school to the dreary constraints of home. Whatever is meant by Wilson’s opening allusions to his “total triumph” over his parents’ “feeble and ill-directed efforts” to control his “evil propensities,” it was certainly curtains for them. Wilson never refers to them again and his story proceeds without parental obstruction. At school, he acquires an “ascendancy” over his schoolmates, and no teacher impedes his “supreme and unqualified despotism.” Most of “William Wilson” unfolds in a succession of educational institutions – Bransby’s school, Eton college, and Oxford University – and all provide the setting for a regression into the irresponsibility and unconstrained freedoms of infancy. Indeed, Wilson claims that he “out-Heroded Herod” at Oxford University.

John Allan suspected that his foster-son was over educated, and he grumbled that Poe received “a better & more expensive Education than ever I had.” He believed in hard work and self-improvement, and he regarded education as only a means to this end. In a 1827 letter to his charge he raged that, “it is true I taught you to aspire, even to eminence in Public Life, but I never expected that Don Quixotte, Gil Blas, Jo: Miller & such works were calculated to promote the end.” Although it was written years after his death, “William Wilson” may present a fantasy about the annihilation of John Allan. Yet the educational institutions portrayed in the tale equally recall the anarchy at the University of Virginia rather than the disciplines of a British private education, and they ultimately reflect a sense of carefree and high-living Southern gentility which was at odds with Allan’s bourgeois ethic of self-improvement.

Allan could not tolerate the idea that literature may be read for its own sake and, had he lived to read it, he may have been particularly unimpressed by Poe’s 1836 review of a new Harpers’ edition of Robinson Crusoe:

How fondly do we recur, in memory, to those enchanted days of our boyhood when we first learned to grow serious over Robinson Crusoe! – when we first found the spirit of wild adventure enkindling within us, as, by the dim fire light, we labored out, line by line, the marvellous import of those pages, and hung breathless and trembling with eagerness over their absorbing – over their enchanting interest!

It seems that reading Robinson Crusoe achieved, for Poe, a literary equivalent of the escapism and social irresponsibility which characterised Southern life. The novel initially presents a man living in total isolation, and Cash would argue that the “mind of the South” was similarly characterised by “perhaps the most intense individualism the world has seen since the Italian Renaissance.” Like Crusoe’s island, the Southern plantation was, according to Cash, “a self-contained and largely self-sufficient little world of its own.” Cash demonstrates that the Southern mind was not only characterised by “a naïve capacity for unreality,” but that its dreaming and escapism was invariably associated with aristocracy: Southerners “seem to have believed… that in acquiring rich lands and Negroes they did somehow automatically become aristocrats.” Yet Poe’s own attempts to associate with the Southern gentry at the University of Virginia had left him with over two thousand dollars worth of gambling debts, and Allan had consequently withdrawn him from the university and employed him in the distinctly un-aristocratic setting of a counting house. Poe was further removed from aristocracy through his estrangement from Allan, who, for all his talk of self-reliance, eventually inherited a considerable fortune, complete with a mansion and slaves.

Although Poe’s first two volumes of poetry, which were published in 1827 and 1829, were dreamy and otherworldly in tone, he was already concerned with the financial success of his writing, and he hoped that it was “more than probable that the work will be profitable & that I may gain instead of lose.” He eventually resorted to disciplined study at a military academy to acquire a more practical education than that which he had received at the University of Virginia, and he subsequently studied mathematics, civil engineering, topographical drawing, analytical geography, physics, and French. To the modern reader, Robinson Crusoe’s detailed accounts of cultivating crops and domesticating goats may amount to a sort of anti-adventure, or one in which adventurous exploits are substituted for the bookkeeping of a farmer and financier. For many of Defoe’s early readers, Crusoe’s adventures undoubtedly symbolised a fantasy of achieving economic self-sufficiency. Robinson Crusoe, in this respect, not only reflected aspects of Southern gentility, but it also presented Poe with a protagonist who rather resembled his own penny-pinching foster-father, and it may seem apt that Poe “learned to grow serious” over the book. Significantly, William Wilson is equally unable to maintain a life of aristocratic irresponsibility, and whatever his namesake and doppelganger may ultimately represent, his haunting recalls John Allan’s attitudes towards Poe: “the disgusting air of patronage which he assumed toward me”; “his frequent officious interference with my will”; his “imperious domination”; and his “apparent omnipresence and omnipotence.”

Poe (despite his hiatus in England) was raised in a region where education was often wilfully disregarded, but he became increasingly conscious of the need to acquire a practical education. He therefore rejected the escapism and romantic anti-intellectualism of the South in favour of more profitable, literary forms of irresponsibility.