Will this be the Fall of another of Poe's Houses?
There’s something fascinating about the afterlife of an author. Mainly, and most importantly, a great writer lives on in his or her writing. On the other hand, visiting a house where a writer once lived and composed his or her body of work, stepping where he or she once stepped and seeing objects that once belonged to him or her also gives a thrill to fans and admirers, and represents the reality that this soul once lived, and was as human and real as you and me.
I’ve been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe since longer than I can remember. His stories are gripping, full of imagery and imagination. As a teenager, Poe’s life and talent intrigued me. I have to admit, while I didn’t have posters of teen heartthrobs on my bedroom wall, I did have a little oval portrait of Poe.
Though I’ve grown out of my teenage crush, I still immensely admire Poe’s writing and its power to make me and audiences around the world feel. It’s impressive that even today, Poe still has a very perceptible influence on literature and popular culture, be it in film adaptations, homages, and parodies of his classic stories and poems, or in the continuation of the detective story, a genre he invented. Penned nearly two centuries ago, his works are thus are full of obscure words and sometimes outdated diction - yet people still read, enjoy, and relate to them just as much today, as when they were written. Poe is one of those authors who transcend our own ever-evolving language’s barriers.
But regardless of all that Poe contributed to literature and the fascination he still holds for readers today, the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore is in danger of closing its doors. Poe didn’t pen his most famous stories in this house, but it holds an extremely important place in his personal life; it’s here that he came to live with his beloved aunt Maria Clemm (“Muddy”) and his cousin and future wife Virginia, from around 1833 to 1835. Poe wrote here, and was surrounded by a family he loved. Shortly after he left to take a job with a newspaper in Richmond, he found out the family was in financial trouble. He proposed to Virginia and asked her and his aunt to come to Richmond with him. The house represents a time of beginnings, and of the end of one life and the start of another.
The official website for the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, Baltimore, informs potential visitors that, in addition to the house, which is more or less exactly as it was in Poe’s time, the museum has a collection of dishware owned by the author’s stepfather, and a sextant and travelling desk owned by Poe himself. There are also bottles of cognac left by the famous Poe Toaster, and, according to an article from the online version of L'Express, even locks of the author’s hair. Definitely a treasure trove for any Poe fan.
But due to the economic crisis, the City of Baltimore has decided to cut all funding to the site. Though there is hope, including renewed publicity from “The Raven”, a Poe film that will be released next year, I’m genuinely worried about this house’s fate.
I’ve already seen one Poe house fall.
Poe moved around a lot during his short, tumultuous life. One of the houses he rented was located near Washington Square in New York. Here, he wrote classics like “The Cask of Amontillado” and edited “The Raven”. When I was a student at NYU, the property was bought by my alma mater. Unfortunately, the intention wasn’t to preserve it, but rather to demolish it in order to expand the much more lucrative law school.
I understand that progress and greed can’t be stopped or reasoned with – especially in a city like New York, where most early 19th century buildings have been accidentally or intentionally destroyed. On the other hand, that a university would do such a thing disgusted me, and still does. In the end, after protests and appeals, NYU agreed to remove the house’s façade and place it a few doors down from the original site. Poe fans took offense at the fact that the facade was reconstructed with contemporary brick, not the original, and that while the building behind the façade has a room devoted to Poe just inside its door, it can only be visited by appointment.
At the time, though, we could somewhat console ourselves with the knowledge that three more of the houses where Poe had lived and worked were still standing and open to visitors – those in Philadelphia, the Bronx, and Baltimore. But what traces had been destroyed with the demolition of the Washington Square house?
What does a house really mean, is the ultimate question. I live in an apartment building that was constructed in the late 1920’s. So many events happened between the walls that surround me. On the surface, though, it seems hard to notice that; the only previous inhabitant we know anything about is the man whose death put the apartment up for sale. He himself had bought the place in the 1980’s. There seem to be no memories here - recorded or lingering. But recently my boyfriend was re-doing some of the wiring in our hallway. The old wires, which dated to the building’s construction, were wrapped in fabric, instead of in rubbery casings like wires today. It was one of those first-hand observations that may not have been recorded in history books. One evening, he called me excitedly over; inside a hollow space in the wall was a balled up page of a newspaper from 1929. We think the original electrician must have gotten lazy, and plugged up a hollow spot with whatever was lying around, rather than use mortar or another material. There the newspaper was, untouched since it was placed there by the hand of a now-dead workman. Paris hadn’t yet seen World War II, or television, let alone the computers we use in our apartment every day.
I wonder how much could have been found in Poe’s old Washington Square house? Maybe even things he himself had left behind, traces like marks on the walls he and his family continually brushed past, or worn doorknobs.
If enough money can’t be earned from ticket sales to cover maintenance, rent, and other fees, what will be the fate of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore? A very informative article in The New York Times tells readers that since it’s been classified as a historic monument, it can’t be demolished. But it can be closed to the public.
Whether it falls or just shuts its doors, what will we truly lose? Thirteen years ago, I visited the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site on a trip to Philadelphia with my father. I remember surreptitiously lying down on the old floorboards of Edgar Allan Poe’s Philadelphia home. Was it only the imaginings of a dramatic teenager, or was there truly something otherworldly in the air, in the wood and fibers of the building where he and his family – and their cat – had once lived? Whatever the answer, I know that my visit to Poe’s house was a moving experience, and a new way for me to connect with a favorite author.
Maybe we don’t need writers’ houses as much as we need their writings, but there is something special and unforgettable about seeing where these legends lived and worked, ate and slept, and went about their days. They are a convergence between the everyday and the sublime, between the mortal and the immortal.
If you’re interested in making a donation or finding out other ways to help save Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, click here to buy a limited edition raven print by local artist Gaia (all proceeds benefit the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum).
Or visit the official website for information on how to contact the Poe House and Museum directly.