Poe stands for every fucked up soul who wandered a graveyard on a dark and lonely night. For every person who has grieved to the point of madness, and who can draw a line between dread and fear with a sharp point pen. Poe is the beacon of darkness, the one who first reached the black inside all our souls, and birthed it screaming into the light.
When it comes to name recognition and horror authors, there’s Poe and there’s everyone else. Because it’s not just that he helped define the canon, his popularity today dwarfs what it was in his lifetime. There aren’t a lot of horror authors whose popularity continues to grow that long after they’ve shuffled off the mortal coil. A lot of former greats are still popular. But none on the level of Poe.
For all that, I’d wager that the vast majority of people who recognize the name, can rattle off a few movies they’ve seen, but haven’t actually read any of his work. In addition they’ll tell you he had a troubled life, trouble with women dying, and was an alcoholic. Likely an opium addict as well. And they’d recognize his photo.
I’d like to think that he’d get that smirk of a smile if he knew this. But knowing what I know of him, he’d likely be inflamed by the inaccuracies of the biography, and raving mad with anger that more people aren’t reading him. And ask for an advance on his royalties.
I was living in New York. I had to go to Charleston, South Carolina. Baltimore is along the way, scenes from his early years as well as his mysterious finale. It shared a common trait with Charleston … a Poe themed restaurant. Good things come in threes. New York City was an hour train ride away. It was here he fought for recognition, lost his wife and quite likely his mind for a bit … and another restaurant with a Poe connection.
That made three. This was an expedition, if not a quest. Fate. Three of the formative settings in Poe’s life. Three restaurants. A good series comes in threes.
In that I turned out to be wrong. There were four. So in addition to this forward dear reader, you get an afterward as well.
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I split a semester in high school between Poe and Twain, so I wasn’t coming into his life or work totally blind, or dependent on Vincent Price movies. Poe set out to create great literature. Much of it is. He helped to define science fiction, which was then in its infancy. He invented an entirely new genre – detective fiction, and raised the bar on horror writing. No, Poe didn’t write horror, he wrote life. Twisted, horrible life, but there’s almost always the question … is it supernatural, or is the narrator simply mad.
For to Poe, true horror was madness. It doesn’t matter if came from opium, alcohol or illness, physical or mental. It was an ever present fear, along with the longing for the women he lost in his life. It’s likely the latter that kept his own madness simmering.
Poe was the original doomed rock star. The Raven made him famous, but didn’t pay the bills. He wrote for a living, the first American author who really tried that. In addition to the stories and poems he’s known for, journalism, obituaries, and literary criticism paid the bills, if only just barely.
He was a vicious critic. Writing was a craft and discipline, as much as an art. He pandered to the audience, his personal life tore him apart, and left him a bit scandalous. He was the original Jim Morrison, coming back from the dead to grow more popular than in life, both of their graves now a pilgrimage.
And nobody did dark like Poe. It’s hard to find a hopeful message from his body of work. You could make the case that he didn’t give up, he was hopeful to the end, still searching for love. If that glimmer of hope can warm the cockles of your heart even a bit, bear in mind a few weeks later he was laying face down in a gutter dying.
Poe wrote the white man’s blues. Pain through the eyes of privilege squandered, He had an amazing sense of rhythm. When he wrote scenes set in the mind, he built a cathedral of the psyche, so you could feel what the narrator felt. You feel your pulse rise with his. It wasn’t an accident. Poe was a master.
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Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins was born in Britain, her mother an actress. Her father died in 1789, and in 1795 Eliza and her mother sailed for Boston. She first went on stage at the age of nine to acclaimed reviews. She stuck to the stage, she married at fifteen and was a widow by seventeen. In Norfolk, Virginia in 1806, she met David Poe, Jr., originally from Baltimore. He was destined to be a lawyer till he was swept off his feet by Eliza and abandoned that pursuit to become an actor.
For a while they continued to travel and perform, before settling in Boston. There they had a son, William in 1807, then Edgar in 1809.
Eliza was well received wherever she performed, was quite versatile, handling both drama and comedy, as well as song and dance. David didn’t fare as well, as one reviewer of the time stated that “the lady was young and pretty, and evinced talent both as a singer and actress; the gentleman was literally nothing.”
With the birth of Edgar, the couple found themselves in dire financial straits. They pulled up and moved to New York City, Eliza was pregnant again in 1810, and by July of that year David Poe had disappeared from history.
Rosalie was born in December, and Eliza’s life was almost unbearably difficult. She stayed on through the season before going south to Richmond, joining up with a lesser theater troupe. Overworked, desperate to feed three young children, Eliza took on an exhausting schedule. While performing in Richmond, Virginia in 1811, she began to show signs of consumption, and by December of that year, she was dead. It is said that Poe had to spend the night alone with his mother’s corpse while caring for his baby sister on the night she died. It’s also believed that David Poe died shortly after Eliza, though official history is silent on the matter.
In a letter to Beverly Tucker, an acquaintance of his mother, Poe wrote “In speaking of my mother you have touched a string to which my heart fully responds. To have known her is to be the object of great interest in my eyes. I myself never knew her – and never knew the affection of a father. Both died… within a few weeks of each other. I have many occasional dealings with Adversity – but the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials.”
The people of Richmond appeared to open their hearts to this tragic tale, showing a great interest in the well being of her children. On her death the kids were split up, with William going off to live with David’s parents, and Edgar and Rosalie going to different homes in Richmond.
Edgar found a home with the Allans. Frances Allan had helped care for Eliza during her illness, and it’s said that she took a particular interest in the young Edgar. Her husband, a fairly successful merchant who traded in everything from tobacco to slaves seemed to dote on Edgar at first, though he really didn’t want to take him in.
In an attempt to expand his business he took the family to Britain, where they stayed about six years. Edgar went off to school for a while in Scotland, the birthplace of John Allan, before returning and studying in various boarding schools around London. One of the schools was the Manor House School, which was administered by the Rev. John Bransby, who in Poe’s later work William Wilson, is mentioned by name. The school itself also becomes a setting in the story.
While they were gone things happened in the world which would have an influence on his chosen profession. 1816 was the year without a summer, where winter held on all year. More important to the field of horror which Poe was to delve into, Mary Shelley wrote and published Frankenstein, as part of a competition thought up on a bizarre night in the company of her husband, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Also present that night was Byron’s doctor, John Polidori who a year after the publication of Frankenstein published The Vampyr, a book which would greatly influence Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Poe was at the time at least, a rather robust young man. He studied dance while in Britain, and at one point swam six miles upstream in the James River against a heavy tide. In 1824, General Lafayette visited Richmond and was welcomed by the Richmond Junior Volunteers, outside the house which later became the Poe Museum in Richmond.
The Allans never adopted Poe, which certainly bothered the young boy. It’s said that when he was in trouble later on, Allan would threaten to cut him loose. It’s true he often berated the young Edgar as time went on.
Allan was a notorious philanderer, and sired more than one illegitimate child. That he wasn’t overly fond of his wife, who remained childless is evident from his letters. He bemoaned her complaining, her lack of an even tempter, though by all accounts Allan was an asshole. Frances was also by accounts, as Allan portrayed her. As time wore on, Edgar remained devoted to her though, while his relationship with John Allan grew more and more strained.
When Poe was fourteen, he developed what some have called a crush on a friend of his, Mrs. Jane Stith Stanard. She was in her thirties and when Poe would become angry or upset at home, he sought solace in her, and she didn’t turn him away. Unfortunately for Poe, like many of the women in his life she was also sickly, and in 1824 she lost her mind, and shortly thereafter her life. Afterward her son and Poe would keep vigil at night by her graveside.
Later he composed the poem, To Helen in her honor. She hated her name and so Poe had called her Helen. Writing in a letter, Poe explained that he wrote the poem of his “passionate boyhood, to the first, purely ideal love of my soul — to the Helen Stanard of whom I told you”
When Poe was sixteen, he fell in love with the girl next door, Sarah Elmira Royster. She fell for him as well, and the two became secretly engaged. Whether it was a formal engagement or not, Poe certainly saw it as such. When he went away to school, her father intercepted Poe’s letters to her and destroyed them. Believing that Poe had forgotten their vows, she went on with her life and married another. By the time Poe found out, it was too late. She was to become one of his earliest muses however, inspiring quite possibly a number of his doomed female loves in his tales and poems, but certainly the lost Lenore of the Raven. This also is believed to be about Royster:
TO — —
I saw thee on the bridal day;
When a burning blush came o’er thee,
Tho’ Happiness around thee lay,
The world all love before thee.
And, in thine eye, the kindling light
Of young passion free
Was all on earth, my chain’d sight
Of Loveliness might see.
That blush, I ween, was maiden shame:
As such it well may pass:
Tho’ its glow hath rais’d a fiercer flame
In the breast of him, alas!
Who saw the [[thee]] on that bridal day,
When that deep blush would come o’er thee, —
Tho’ Happiness around thee lay;
The world all Love before thee.
In 1826 Poe went away to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Allan, having inherited a vast fortune, for some unknown reason provided Poe with less than enough money to pay for school, books and living expenses. It might have been possible for Poe to have made his way, had he been frugal and perhaps taken some initiative. Instead Poe took up gambling, which was forbidden on the campus. Whether the money problems flowed from that, or whether as he said, he turned to gambling to make up the shortfall in his expenses, the end result was bad. Poe was no better at gambling than he would prove to be at finances.
He also started drinking, something that classmates attested to the fact that he was equally awful at. Poe had a tendency to not drink much, but drink incredibly fast. One of his classmates, Thomas Goode Tucker, long after Poe’s death wrote that “he would seize a full glass, without water or sugar, and send it home at a single gulp. This frequently used him up; but if not, he rarely returned to the charge.” By most accounts however, Poe was usually sober.
Poe did well in his classes, but he was forced to turn to Allan for more money, to pay his gambling debts. Instead, Allan pulled Poe from college after one semester. The relationship soon turned disastrously bad, and Poe fled the house.
He wrote to Allan, saying “After my treatment on yesterday and what passed between us this morning, I can hardly think you will be surprised at the contents of this letter. My determination is at length taken — to leave your house and endeavor to find some place in this wide world, where I will be treated — not as you have treated me.”
Poe went on in classic Poe fashion, to demand money to make his way north, where he would never be seen again by Allan. It wasn’t the last time he made this promise, or threat, which I’m sure Poe hoped it would be seen as. He ended it with a P.S., “It depends upon yourself if hereafter you see or hear from me.”
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Richmond proved to be fairly easy to get around in. It was a spur of the moment decision actually. I knew about the Poe Museum, but I was running late and there was no restaurant. It fell out of the boundaries of the assignment. But I wanted to visit Eliza Poe. I knew this trip would end at Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, so I thought that a fitting way to start the trip.
The Old Stone House, home to the Poe Museum was easy to find and there was even on street parking less than a block away. The Old Stone House turns out to be an old stone house, the oldest house in Richmond. There’s no evidence that Poe went inside that I know of, though he was outside it on at least one occasion. And was certainly familiar with it as it wasn’t that far from the house where he was brought up.
You go in through the gift shop, so they also get you coming out. A young man and woman were working inside, slightly gothic but nothing extreme. The gift shop ranged from the tacky to the scholarly. It tries to be fun, as Poe is after all, a bona fide cultural icon. But the mission of the museum is a bit dry, and mere camp can’t reconcile the two.
The focus of the Poe Museum is on his years in Richmond, though his entire life is well covered. It contains one of the most comprehensive collection of letters, manuscripts, first editions and personal belonging. Relics from his life and career are on display as well,
Poe’s childhood bed is there, as is several pieces of furniture from the Allan household, and that of his sister. A silk vest once belonging to Poe is on display, as is his walking stick and a lock of his hair.
Thou wast that all to me, love,
For which my soul did pine—
A green isle in the sea, love,
A fountain and a shrine,
All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers,
And all the flowers were mine.
From To One in Paradise
A garden memorializing Poe is based on his vision of paradise, from his poem, To One In Paradise. It’s populated with plants mentioned in his work, ivy taken from his mother’s grave in Richmond, John Allan’s garden and from the home of Sir Walter Scott. It’s paved with bricks from the Southern Literary Messenger, a Richmond publication where Poe got his start in journalism and writing, along with other features from the building.
Noted visitors have included Vincent Price, Gertrude Stein, H.P. Lovecraft, Henry Miller, and Salvador Dalí.
It was an interesting visit, time well spent. But I left there still not feeling like I knew the man any better than when I walked in the door. I bought a fake raven and a couple boxes of Poe matches, and slipped away.
A few blocks from the Poe Museum is St. John’s Church, most famous for Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty, or give me death!” speech. Somewhere here lies what’s left of Elizabeth Arnold Poe, Edgars mother. There’s a monument to her, sadly not so much to her life, but to her famous child. I had the place to myself, and it reeks with history. It’s easy to imagine Poe wandering here at night, and I wonder if he knew where his mother was buried? Or perhaps he wandered aimlessly, trying to feel her presence? We know of Poe’s attraction to the grave, from Annabel Lee we tend to think that if he could, he’d crawl down into the earth to be with his mother.
But that’s one of the dangers of Poe. He often wrote in the first person, so it seemed like him talking. The truth is, we’ll never really get inside the mind of the man. It was never his intention to let us inside. Poe explored thoughts never before brought to light … “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
Perhaps that’s how he tried to exorcise his demons. He failed in that, his demons never stopped coming at him. He found fame, but never fortune, never lasting happiness. And perhaps it’s that elixir of sorrow that haunts us to this day. It’s not understanding the darkness that attracts us to it. It’s the mystery of it, and Poe never has lost his sense of mystery.
So I wandered back to the car and headed on to Charleston, to meet up with Poe once more.