Traveling with Edgar Allan Poe


– “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.'”

Now those are words to conjure with! They are, of course, from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven.” Poe casts a uniquely powerful spell among American writers. Even people who have never read him have probably heard bits of his poetry or know the titles of some stories, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Although he is most famous for dark and gloomy tales and verses, Poe was also the inventor of the modern detective story and a pioneer of science fiction.

If you’re a true Poe aficionado, you owe it to yourself to make pilgrimages to some of the important places in his short, strange life. And when you do, get a sense of the author by reading works that he wrote in those places. Castle Books’ Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe is a handy volume to travel with. Or you can use your laptop to access all of Poe’s writings at The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore’s website.

What follows are some suggestions for visiting the important spots in his life, and some corresponding reading…Born in Boston in 1809, Poe was abandoned by his actor father in 1810. After his mother died in 1811, he became the foster son of John and Frances Allan in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond’s Edgar Allan Poe Museum is one of the finest shrines to his life and career. Although Poe never lived in the museum building, it is the oldest structure in Richmond, so it’ll give you a feeling of what life was like back then. There, you will find Poe’s actual furniture and a model of how Richmond looked in that time. While visiting, start dipping into Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which he wrote in Richmond. You’ll have trouble putting down this bizarre and seldom-read fantasy that influenced Herman Melville’s much more famous Moby-Dick.
Poe spent a short time studying at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The university’s Raven Society has preserved Poe’s student living quarters at 13 West Range (contact the society about visiting this room). While there, read “Song,” a short poem written in Poe’s youth.

Poe also lived in Baltimore, Maryland, where his home at 203 Amity street is now the Baltimore Poe House and Museum. It features videos, Poe memorabilia, a portrait of his wife Virginia, and a lock of his hair. During your visit, read Poe’s delightful science fiction story about a moon voyage, “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” which he wrote while living there.

Poe spent some of his happiest and most productive years in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At 532 North Seventh Street, you’ll find his only surviving Philadelphia home. Maintained as the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, the house has been left eerily empty and unpreserved. But in neighboring houses, you can view a film about Poe and visit a reading room furnished in a style advocated by Poe himself. It was here in Philadelphia that Poe created the modern detective story. Indeed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — the creator of Sherlock Holmes — called Poe’s mysteries “a model for all time.” So while roaming Poe’s empty home, read his detective story “The Purloined Letter.”

In 1844, Poe moved with his sickly young wife, Virginia, and her mother, Maria Clemm, to New York City’s Greenwich Village. His first Manhattan residence no longer exists; it is now the site of O’Hara’s Pub at the corner of Greenwich Street and Cedar Street. Stop in, buy a drink, and read “The Balloon-Hoax,” a playful work that Poe wrote while he was living at that very spot. First published in the New York newspaper The Sun in 1844, it describes the first-ever crossing of the Atlantic in a powered balloon. Thousands of readers believed the tale, even though Poe made the whole thing up!

While in Greenwich Village, Poe and his wife and mother-in-law also lived at 85 Amity Street. The facade of this house has been moved about a half a block to 85 West 3rd Street. While standing in front of it, be sure to read a stanza or two of “The Raven,” which he wrote while living there.

Poe’s last residence was a charming and cozy cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx in New York. Although it has been moved to its current location at Kingsbridge Road and the Grand Concourse, it is excellently preserved. Unfortunately, the house is closed for renovations during 2010-2011. Check its website for news about when it will reopen. When you are able to visit, you’ll be able to see Poe’s own rocking chair and the bed where his wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis at 24 in January 1847. Have a handkerchief handy as you read Poe’s great poems of love, loss, and mourning, “Annabel Lee” and “Ulalume,” which were written after her death. Poe himself outlived Virginia by only two years. He died under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore in 1849 at the age of 40.

Wim Coleman is a poet, playwright, and novelist, who recently edited a unique collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s works, The Poe You Don’t Know: Humor and Speculation. Read his blog on Red Room.

[Photos: Flickr | chucka_nc; RTLibrary; RTLibrary; Gruenemann]