William Hervey Allen began writing poetry in the 1920’s, but his work in this form was overshadowed both by the scholarly achievement of his two-volume biography Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe and by Anthony Adverse, a novel of historical romance unsurpassed in sales by any other until Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was published three years later. During the author’s lifetime, one and a half million copies of this twelve-hundred-page picaresque tale of adventure were sold.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Allen was educated at the United States Naval Academy but left before graduating to take a degree in economics at the University of Pittsburgh in 1915. On his return from France, where he was wounded while serving as an officer during World War I, he went to live in Charleston, South Carolina. Friendship with another Charleston writer, DuBose Heyward, led to their collaboration on Carolina Chansons, published in 1922.
Three more collections of poetry soon followed, the most ambitious being Earth Moods, and Other Poems, an attempt to depict evolution as a legendary conflict ending in the supremacy of humans. New Legends may be Allen’s most successful book of poems, a volume reflecting his poetic absorption with the Bermuda islands, where he stayed for five years while completing Anthony Adverse. The adventurous exploits of Anthony Adverse, born the illegitimate son of a runaway wife and a Spanish father and adopted by his grandfather, a Scottish merchant, are mingled with philosophical musings to create a story filled with vivid scenes.
In his next venture into historical fiction, Allen restricted himself to the Civil War. Action at Aquila is a rather conventional story of a gallant Union hero and a Southern belle. The novels The Forest and the Fort, Bedford Village, and Toward the Morning were to have been parts of a series of six related novels tentatively titled “The Disinherited” and spanning American history from colonial times through the 1920’s, but Allen died while working on this ambitious project. The three novels and part of a fourth were collected under one title, The City in the Dawn, in 1950.
Perhaps Allen’s most distinguished work was his biography of Poe, which attempted to connect Poe’s literary achievements and failures with the conditions of his life. It is a work of careful research that also leans on Freudian psychology to explain Poe’s personality.