Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography

By Arthur Hobson Quinn | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
The Heritage

On April 15, 1796, at the end of the second act of Andrews' Gothic melodrama, The Mysteries of the Castle, a little girl of nine came out on the stage of the old Boston Theatre and sang the popular song of "The Market Lass." It was the first appearance of Elizabeth Arnold on any stage, and her mother, who had come from England in January to strengthen the Boston Company, undoubtedly sent her out as a tribute to the friendly audience who had honored her on her benefit night.1

From that moment the life of Elizabeth Arnold was the life of the American theatre. Fortunately, perhaps, the little girl could not look into the future. She could not foresee that day on January 19, 1809, when, again in Boston, struggling against anxiety and uncertainty, she had left the stage of the same theatre for a brief respite, to become the mother of Edgar Poe. To some women the joy of watching the genius of their sons develop and the recognition of their achievements have been given in full measure. But Elizabeth Poe, dying in Richmond in 1811 under distinctly miserable circumstances, could leave her two- year-old boy only her high heart, her unremitting industry, and that indefinable charm which made her a favorite from Boston to Charleston among the theatre-goers of that day.

Since we know so little of Edgar Poe's parents in their personal histories, the records of their careers in the theatre become of unusual significance. What was their professional standing, what characters did they portray, and above all, how did the circumstances of the actors' life affect the lives of their children? As we shall see later, a close search of the theatre records has revealed for the first time the date and circumstances of their marriage.

It was indeed a hard life that little Elizabeth Arnold entered in 1796. To a large section of the public, especially in New England, the theatre was an immoral institution, the resort of the vicious and the extravagant, and the actors were without the pale. Four years before, the legislature of Massachusetts had refused to repeal the laws pro-

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1
Massachusetts Mercury, April 15, 1796.

-1-

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