Poe-lier Club: The Grolier Club Edgar Allan Poe Exhibition

November 24, 2014 — I’ve said it at every one of my Poe-Land talks so far: “If you hear of an Edgar Allan Poe exhibition with either the name Susan Jaffe Tane or Peter Fawn attached, go to it.” They’re the top two Poe collectors on the planet and if they’re curating or contributing to an exhibition, you’re guaranteed to see something rare and extremely cool.

In September, the Grolier Club opened “Evermore: The Persistence of Poe,” a large exhibition curated by Tane and mostly featuring pieces from her unmatched collection of original Poe manuscripts and artifacts.

Visiting the Grolier clubhouse is a treat in itself. Established in 1884, the Grolier Club is the oldest bibliophile society in the country. It’s dedicated not to literature per se, but to the physical books themselves as pieces of art. It’s a private club, but they open the lower two floors of their six-story clubhouse (where they’ve resided since 1917) in the upper east side of Manhattan for public exhibitions.

And, on Saturday, I squeaked in for the last day of “Evermore.”

Normally, I’d feel bad extoling the virtues of an exhibition that has already closed, but there’s still a big reason to do so that I’ll get to at the end of this post. I mean, besides the usual compulsion to document everything I do.

Poe's walking stick, on load from the Richmond Poe Museum

The exhibition was on the first floor of the clubhouse in a single, open, rectangular room with large glass cases inset into the two long walls. Above, a balcony lined with books wrapped around the room. In one corner of the balcony, a life-sized cardboard Poe with a raven perched on his shoulder gazed down in bemusement at the people fascinated by the artifacts of his life and influence in those cases.

Each case was themed, with those themes ranging from the biographical (“Women in Poe’s Life,” “Poe’s Early Successes,” “Poe’s Growing Fame”) to the cultural (“Illustrations of Poe’s Works,” “Poe in Music and Film,” “Poe in Comics”). There were about a dozen of these cases, and each one was filled with astounding treasures, both old and new.

Now, here’s the thing for me. Thanks to the access I received while writing Poe-Land, I’d gotten pretty intimate with many of these artifacts, both Tane’s and some of the items she borrowed from other collectors and institutions just for the exhibition. I’ve even seen quite a few of them multiple times. Then there were the contemporary pop culture items, some of which I have in my very own collection. Basically, much of what I was seeing was very, very familiar to me. Nevertheless, it was no less a head-trip to see it all displayed together so elegantly and to realize anew what a direct connection we still have to Poe and his work, whether that’s sprigs of his hair or the engagement ring he gave to Sarah Elmira Royster before his death or the original letters and manuscripts that survive and, thanks to people like Tane, are accessible to us.

Poe's engagement ring for Royster, engraved inside with "Edgar."
Of course, that’s not to say that Tane didn’t assemble quite a few pieces that I’ve never seen, because she did, in both the artifacts and cultural influence categories. Like the locket containing both Poe’s and his wife Virginia’s hair from the personal collection of celebrity hair collector John Reznikoff. Or the delightful poster for a fictitious Abbot and Costello movie, Abbot and Costello Meet Edgar Allan Poe.

The whole place glowed with highlights. It was a fantastic exhibition well worth penetrating into the glossy chaos of Manhattan for, with superb diversity and density and many staggeringly rare treasures, all arranged in the perfect venue for it.

Which brings me back to why I feel fine posting about a closed exhibition. All those items are currently being carefully crated up to be sent back to Tane’s living room or wherever else they belong. In the past, Tane has been extremely generous in showing her Poe treasures to the public, as have been others in the Poe collecting community. But we cannot take it for granted that these artifacts will emerge into public view very often or even ever again. So if they do, hopefully I’m convincing you to go and see them straightaway, to witness firsthand an original Tamerlane or the wooden maquette that became the Boston Poe statue or one of the rare Poe daguerreotypes or a piece of his original coffin.

Because who knows if you'll ever have the chance again. And you don't want your kids and grandkids pissed at you for not having that story.

A chunk of Poe's original coffin (his restless spirit was reinterred twice).

An 1843 edition of Rufus Griswold's The Poets and Poetry of America, a volume more
entwined with Poe's eventual destiny than Poe could ever have known.

Decanter set of Poe's foster father and namesake, John Allan.

Poe's first ever published work, of which only 12 known copies exist,
with the last sold at auction in 2009 for $660,000.

How Stefanie Rocknak's Boston Poe statue started out.

Original 80-year-old, Poe-influenced sheet music, from the collection of Peter Fawn.

Wait...what's Washington Irving's grave doing in this post? I took this photo in Sleepy Hollow, New York, the morning I went to see the Grolier Club exhibition, which made it kind of the perfect day for me—a little Irving in the morning, some Poe in the afternoon. And then the exhibition featured the below artifact, perfectly tying off my day: A letter from Poe to Irving, where Poe is basically asking Irving to make him famous. You can read the full text here.

And, of course, every Poe-related post I do for the rest of my life
now doubles as an advertisement for this book.