Edgar Allan Poe’s Richmond, Part 1: Edgar Allan Poe Museum
December 23, 2011 — In the horror version of the word association game, the name "Edgar Allan Poe," elicits a range of responses: macabre, author, poet, alcoholic, raven, moustache. One response that I'm pretty sure it doesn’t elicit, though, is “Southerner.” But it should. Sure, Poe was born in Boston and lived substantial parts of his life in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, but the largest swathe of his short time on this black Earth was spent in Richmond, VA, the capital of the Confederacy.
Poe was born in 1809, and after the death of his parents in 1812 was taken in by a wealthy Richmond couple named John and Frances Allan. As a result, he lived in the city off and on for about a third of his life, and it was in Richmond that many of the fence posts of his life were planted.
For instance, it was in Richmond that he was engaged (and dis-engaged) to Elmira Royster, in Richmond that he started making his mark on the literary world at the Southern Literary Messenger, and in Richmond that he married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm. It was also Richmond that was the stage for the central story of Poe’s life, his extremely bad relationship with his foster father.
But much more than mere biography facts connect Poe to this often overlooked city. Graves of family members, plaques, historical houses, and a statue all proclaim the city’s Poe-ness. But I’ll cover all that in Part II, because the best bit of Poephernalia in the country this side of his Baltimore grave is Richmond’s Edgar Allan Poe Museum.
Established in 1922, the Poe Museum is located downtown at 1914 East Main Street and consists of a series of mostly early 20th century buildings surrounding an oblong courtyard. The small, stone house that is the entrance was build circa 1750 and is the oldest building in the city, predating Poe himself and offering the compelling image of a man slouching past it, completely unaware that 70 years after his death it would be dedicated to his legacy.
Inside that building is the gift shop and an adjacent exhibit room that was filled with period furniture upon my visit, including the piano forte of Poe’s sister Rosalie.
From there, we entered the courtyard, which they call the Enchanted Garden. Inspired by his poem, To One in Paradise, it’s basically a shrine that was created a year before the museum itself where admirers would gather to celebrate a genius unrecognized in his life.
The area is mostly open, contains a fountain, and is bordered at the far end by a deceptively plain brick portico of sorts made out of salvaged bricks from the building that housed the Southern Literary Messenger, where Poe was an editor. Centered inside this somewhat-sacristy is a single white bust of the author. While we were there the courtyard was set up for a wedding for a couple much cooler than the rest of us.
From there we went into the Model Building, so-called because the small exhibit space inside is dominated by a giant model of Richmond as it was during Poe’s time. Various points of relevance to Poe’s life are marked on it, including the many places within the city that he lived, loved, and loathed.
Also here is furniture from his childhood home with the Allans. Most interesting among these otherwise ordinary-looking pieces was Poe’s actual bed, a small, hard, disagreeable-looking thing that testified to the existence of a humanity whose sense of comfort had not yet evolved to its current advanced state. It’s also where, I assume, Poe had his best and most influential childhood nightmares. They should rent it out to writers-blocked horror authors.
Another building, the Exhibits Building, is used was for temporary installations. On the bottom floor at the time of our visit, was a room-sized reproduction of the scene from The Pit and the Pendulum, very much like a room one would pass in a haunted house attraction quality-wise. Upstairs was an open room full of paintings of Poe, his family, and various scenes from his stories that makes one wonder, if Poe had been a visual genius instead of a literary one what eye-gouging horrors he’d have blinded us with.
However, despite all the fascinating bits of Poe’s life and legacy we’d seen thus far, the best building by the length of a conqueror worm is the Elizabeth Poe Memorial Building. Inside this building dedicated to his birth mother were artifacts from his adult life and literary career.
These artifacts includes clothes that he wore, hair from the head of his corpse, autographs, first editions of his work, and other such objects. In one corner was a set of stairs saved from one of his homes. Against the wall was a large trunk and a matching broken key, the latter of which had been found in his pocket during his final fevered and insensate days.
Against another wall was a desk from the aforementioned Southern Literary Messenger. Poe’s actual desk, the one where I’m hoping he snuck time to work on his own projects, is in the collection of the Henry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. However, Poe’s actual desk chair was there in Richmond, the back of which Poe had hacked off to improve his posture. There was also an exhibit on Vincent Price and the Roger Corman Poe films, proving once and for all you can top a cherry with a cherry. Heck, this is probably where the wedding should have been held.
Like so many others, I often demi-deify Poe. Like he wasn't an actual human being that stumbled over sidewalk cracks and waited in lines at post offices and forgot what he came into the room to get. That he was instead some kind of special literary force that pervaded the ether and incarnated itself into neatly spaced writing that captivated readers whenever it so deigned. So to see actual, physical objects from his life...well, it didn't change any of that for me. Instead of humanizing him, the objects themselves turned into holy relics.
It was hard to exit back through that front building and leave so much of Poe behind, a feeling that was only somewhat salved by having the chance to buy a plush version of the poet or a T-shirt with a black cat whose outline glowed in the dark or a necklace made out of silver orangutan fingerprints (just kidding on that last…but you can buy that at my Etsy shop).
As with any artist, though, the work they leave behind and, in his case, which sits just 10 feet behind me as I write this—heck, as I write anything—is still so much more palpable than anything else that survives, even if it is a pair of stockings and a vest.