Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Poe's Philadelphia, evermore

By Arielle Emmett You wouldn't know from a reading of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination that his dead wife showed up on stilts to dance with him one night. You wouldn't suspect from the richness of his poetry and short stories that Poe and his family were

You wouldn't know from a reading of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination that his dead wife showed up on stilts to dance with him one night. You wouldn't suspect from the richness of his poetry and short stories that Poe and his family were starved for calories for much of their lives. And you wouldn't guess from the bitter obituary written by his literary executor and rival Rufus Griswold - who claimed that Poe "had few or no friends" and that few would grieve for him - that his reading public not only adored Poe, but would soon elevate him to the status of dark literary god.

Nothing about Poe seems obvious: not the literary squabbles that cost him the support and admiration of people who could have furthered his career; not the scandals surrounding his flirtations with drugs, booze, and married women; not even the details of his mysterious death in a Baltimore hospital.

Poe remains a giant of mysteries, and Philadelphia was where many of those mysteries were born. He spent his most productive years as a writer here, from 1838 to 1844, penning 30 of his short stories while struggling as an editor and book reviewer. Poe received a pittance for his work: $10 from Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine for "The Fall of the House of Usher," for instance, and nothing save a few free copies for his first two-volume collection of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, published by Philadelphia's Lea & Blanchard.

nolead begins

Crucible for genius

Poe's is the Philadelphia of fallen leaves and whitewashed walls, where ravens caw and shadows overtake reason. His Philadelphia incubated the Moskoestrom whirlpool of "Descent into the Maelstrom," with ships hanging upside-down inside a giant ocean funnel whose "perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth."

"Philadelphia was the crucible for Poe's imaginative genius," the literary historian Edward Pettit said during the "Great Poe Debate" at the Free Library in 2009. "While living here, he wrote the stories we still read today: 'The Fall of the House of Usher,' 'The Black Cat,' 'The Pit and the Pendulum,' 'The Masque of Red Death,' 'The Gold Bug,' 'William Wilson,' 'Tell-Tale Heart,' 'Murders in the Rue Morgue.'

"Poe invents the mystery and detective story while living in Philadelphia," Pettit continued, citing the invention of the gumshoe in "Rue Morgue." "Poe began writing his poetic masterpiece, 'The Raven,' here. The six years he lived in Philadelphia were the most successful and productive of his career."

nolead begins

An eerie waltz

It is not so surprising that Poe found his literary home in Philadelphia, then the publishing capital of America. What's more intriguing is that Philadelphia still clings to Poe today.

In this season especially, Poe's relationship with the region seems heightened. These autumn months are full of local Poe events that don't seem entirely coincidental, including the Brandywine River Museum exhibition "Picturing Poe" (through Nov. 15), which features his greatest illustrators - a surprising list that includes the French artists Gustave Doré and Édouard Manet, along with Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke, Arthur Rackham, Paul Gauguin, James Ensor, James Carling, F.O.C. Darley, and Robert Motherwell, among many others. The artists' work spans two interpretive centuries ranging from flesh-eating fidelity (Clarke) to impressions of loneliness and the abyss (Manet and Motherwell) to ghoulish cartoons and satires (Rackham; Steampunk: Poe). Brandywine also plans a "Tell-Tale Art Gallery Talk" (Oct. 31) and a Hedgerow Theatre performance of Tales From Poe (Nov. 7) with a "POE'try Slam" featuring original poems by middle and high school students that were inspired by Poe's writings and the work of his illustrators.

Last month, local theatergoers were treated to a stunning run of Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, a contemporary opera about Poe staged at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre during the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe. Mounted by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental in collaboration with Wilhelm Bros. & Co., the production provided a pantomime-filled "speculation" on the last 10 days of Poe's life.

On Sept. 27, 1849, Poe had set out on a lecture tour from Virginia to New York to help raise money for a planned second marriage. The tour failed, as did his epic prose poem "Eureka." Days later, a train conductor spotted Poe in Havre de Grace, Md., wearing the ill-fitting clothes of a stranger, headed south, and holding a wrong-way ticket. Later, he was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore. On Oct. 7, 1849, he died.

No one knows what happened to Poe - whether he was drugged, mugged, or something else. But in this fine production, both plot and character are driven by Poe's insatiable grief and longing for his dead wife, Virginia, who succumbed to tuberculosis at 24 after spending six impoverished years with Poe in Philadelphia. Virginia appears to him crawling out of graves, and also as a mutely elegant Annabelle Lee in antebellum finery, serving Poe tea and then eerily waltzing with him on stilts.

nolead begins

El Dorado

Why Poe? Why now?

True, it is autumn, a time of gathering-in, storytelling, and paeans to ghosts, ghouls, and lost souls. But there is something more.

As a child of Poe - I read the original 1933 Harry Clarke-illustrated Tales of Mystery and Imagination, which my parents left on a low-hanging bookshelf - I see our continuing obsession with him as appropriate, even inevitable. This election season is a shadowy time. America seems on the verge of discovering its essential nature, whether greedy, perverse, and laissez-faire, or compassionate and bound to a common quest.

Poe's experience of Philadelphia reflects this duality. He was alternately driven mad here by poverty and the exploitation of local publishers, but also buoyed by the promise of an El Dorado - his own literary magazine, financial stability, and a better life for his family.

Poe is a mirror of our extremes - the genius who lies somewhere in each of us, and the drunken lout who can't quite control his telltale heart. What the 21st century has sanitized with technology and silicon, Poe revitalizes with obsession and macabre attention to detail. He used his time in this dark, dappled city to document the insanity, humor, and bizarre truths of our mortal souls.

So it was with Poe. So may we repent for treating him and his family so poorly in their lifetimes. So may we embrace him now.