Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I visited the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site

Wuthering Expectations is back from its peripatetic, baby-centric American vacation. Babies have little to do with 19th century literature, unfortunately. I did make one stop, though, that I am compelled to mention here, at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia.

The site, a few blocks north of the core of 18th century buildings around Independence Hall, is in a plain house of the 1820s, the only survivor of several houses Poe and his wife (and mother-in-law) inhabited in Philadelphia. The house itself is nothing too special,* aside from the orangutans in the closet, presumably a prop for the guided tour. Don't miss the "Black Cat" basement.

The materials - the short film, the photos and testimonials, the interactive displays - do their best with a difficult job. An impossible job. How many ways are there to experience Poe, really? One can read his work, or listen to someone else read it. Everything else is peripheral. The Poe site has to find some way to include the visitor with only the vaguest sense of who Poe was along with enthusiastic amateurs and real experts, the person who knows "The Raven" from The Simpsons and the American literature professor and me. Hopeless.

Still, it's a struggle worth some effort, and I have no suggestions for improvements. I learned a few new things and enjoyed immersing myself in Poe's real world (meaning family life, changing houses, badly paying publishers, and so on) for a bit. And it could be worse. Heaven knows what goes on at the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site in Danville, California. Visitors staggering about in sleveless tee-shirts yelling "Stella! Stella!", polite park rangers calmly suggesting that they might be thinking of someone else.

One room was a surprise. Earlier this year I wrote about Poe's story or sketch or curiosity "The Philosophy of Furniture" (1840/1845), the climax of which is a detailed description of the ideal room, including every painting, decoration, and stick of furniture, down to Poe's friend asleep on the sofa. The reading room, left, reproduces that room. I mean, to the limited extent possible. The original is much larger, and oval, and as you can see the sofa is unoccupied. Readers of Roberto Bolaño will remember that one of the writers in Nazi Literature in the Americas also reproduces the room, and that Bolaño simply plagiarizes Poe in his description. So it was great fun to see an attempt at the same thing. Ridiculous, hilarious, inspired. Too bad they couldn't really do up the whole thing. My photo gives no sense of how beautifully crimson the room is, just like the story specifies.

Poe Calendar Rob used to work here. Rob, I mentioned to the two genial, informative rangers that I read your blog. They said nice things about you. The link, by the way, goes to a nice bit of enthusiasm that Rob mischaracterizes as "gushy." No, spot on.

* The rooms are unfurnished, the walls stripped. As a result, wandering through the empty rooms, one is presented with fantastic abstract masterpieces that could serve as illustrations to Eureka.


  1. I really enjoyed this post--especially your finding the ideal room. I haven't read much Poe, but now I'm motivated. Sounds like a good pilgrimage.

    Loved the joke about Stella :)

  2. Well worth a visit - if you're in Philadelphia, skip those infamous steps and the cracked bell. I loved interpreting Poe's life and works to a mainstream audience with no distracting artifacts to force my persepctive. The house is a blank slate and allows for any number of stories to be told.

    I was one of the few that used the orangutan doll, by the way!

  3. Your post is lovely. I have been to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, VA.

  4. Your anecdotal comment ("Heaven knows what goes on at the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site in Danville, California. Visitors staggering about in sleveless tee-shirts yelling "Stella! Stella!", polite park rangers calmly suggesting that they might be thinking of someone else.") suggests a bewildering conflation of O'Neill and Tennessee Williams; I assume you base this on actual occurrences, but how--I wonder incredulously--could anyone confuse those two very different playwrights! Perhaps you're just being playful with the suggestion that something like that could really happen.

    As for Poe, had he lived longer, he could have produced some amazing work; alas, we are left with too little to ponder, and it leaves me weak and weary to think...oh, what might have been, what might have been...but Poe is, alas, nevermore, nevermore. (Sorry, but I couldn't resist it.)

  5. Now, hang on... As for Poe, had he lived longer, he could have produced some amazing work. This comment is somewhat unfair. Poe did produce some amazing work - and he did it by the age of 40. His death did not stifle amazing work, because amazing work had already been produced.

  6. Of course he produced amazing work when he lived. Perhaps I should have said "more amazing work." It was in my mind, but it never made it to the keyboard. Mea culpa.

  7. Ah, good. A slip of the tongue (or whatever the equivalent is online) is perfectly excusable.

  8. Jane, since my own posts on Poe are among the things I called "peripheral," I probably should not direct you to the two weeks of Poe I did back in February. But I am weak and can't resist linking to the graph.

    Rob, I see what you mean. I'm eager to visit the Longfellow house, too, but there has to be a lot more "what's this thing, what's that thing." And, of course, there are so many ways to tell Poe's story, so many sides to him.

    Jew Wishes - thanks. If I'm ever in Richmond...

    RT, I made up the Stella thing. I'll just suggest that Williams and O'Neill may seem more dissimilar to us than to your average high school student. Poe should be easier to tell apart from his peers, from everyone.

    I'll also say that after reading 2,800 pages of Poe, I did not immediately think "If only there were more." But you and Rob are both right, Poe died with his creative powers at their peak - see "Hop-Frog." We readers lost a lot.

  9. Not all critics admire Poe. Harold Bloom, if I recall correctly, said--and I paraphrase from memory--that Poe is one of those short story writers whose work is improved by translation into languages other than English. Rather harsh, Bloom.

  10. That sounds like Bloom. In The Western Canon, p. 268, he writes: "Poe is too universally accepted around the world to be excluded [from the American canon], though his writing is almost invariably atrocious." Ha ha ha! And I've read a sentence or two (hundred) of Poe's where I see Bloom's point.