By John M. Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
It was a dark and gloomy day when I undertook my Edgar Allan Poe pilgrimage, my soul filled with a rising dread for the unknown horrors I felt awaited me. Ever since discovering I shared a birthday with the great writer, I had become convinced that some malign influence was ineluctably drawing me to the hideous heart of a foul, unspeakable mystery. And in 2009, the bicentennial of his birth, there will be more reason than ever to go to Richmond, where he lived a third of his life. In various cities he lived in or visited, there will be exhibitions, book signings, lectures and performances, but the heart of the mania will be Richmond's Edgar Allan Poe Museum, which claims the world's finest collection of Poe manuscripts, letters, first editions and personal belongings.
I tried in vain to think of another writer who has remained so popular for so long. Only Shakespeare and Dickens came to mind, and my purpose remained clear. All those Poe poems and stories came flooding back, haunting me with their cunning titles: "The Raven," "Annabel Lee," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Fall of the House of Usher."
On arriving in Richmond, my eyes fell upon a decrepit building at 15th and Main streets. The site had once held the offices of the Southern Literary Messenger, where Poe, as editor, began to establish a lasting reputation. The building now houses a seedy "gentleman's club." Was this, I wondered, a subtle clue, or simply a mocking symbol of depravity?
It scarcely mattered, because as I in morbid fascination entered the old Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, looking for that air of decay that had lately hung over this erstwhile commercial area, I was mildly disappointed. The late-19th-century tobacco warehouses and factories have been converted into restaurants, nightclubs, shops and apartments. All very nice . . . yet (I smiled inwardly) still retaining an unvarnished flavor of antiquity.
A few blocks away, the Poe Museum is centered on a decidedly pre-Poe building, the Old Stone House. Dating from the mid-1700s, it's the oldest residence in Richmond, and though Poe didn't live here, he would certainly have recognized it. A camellia was blooming when I visited, though the rose bushes were bare.
Exhibits are located in the house and three other buildings. One exhibit details Poe's early life and includes his narrow bed and furniture from his foster parents' house. Poe's father abandoned his mother when the boy was 2; his mother died of tuberculosis the following year when she was in Richmond with a traveling theater company. Tobacco merchant John Allan and his wife took in Poe and gave him the best schooling money could buy. As a young boy Poe may have been a satisfactory addition to the household, but Allan described the teenage Poe as "that damn actor's son," a "quite miserable, sulky, & ill-tempered" youth. He excluded Poe from his will.
In fact, as museum director Kat Spears told me, Poe was a complex character, torn between his poor roots and his privileged upbringing. His early friends remembered him as a leader who often got his followers in trouble, a young man who was by turns capricious, imperious and generous, yet "not steadily kind or even amiable." He famously married his 13-year-old cousin when he was 27; she would die at age 24, another crushing blow. As for his reputation as a drunk, Spears maintains that such a depiction is incomplete: "A lot of young people who come here . . . sometimes have the idea that alcohol makes you more creative. What we stress is that he was a disciplined writer: He didn't drink and write." She likens his mood swings to bipolar behavior. "He drank to buoy himself at times."
Spears told me this as we stood in a room that holds samples of his tight, neat handwriting and a leather trunk that contained nearly all his worldly belongings: clothes, a mirror and manuscripts. It was left in his room in Richmond when he took a trip to Philadelphia in 1849. After stopping in Baltimore for reasons unknown, Poe was found outside a tavern in a delirium. He was taken to a hospital and, never regaining full consciousness, died four days later, at age 40; the coroner termed the cause of death "congestion of the brain." Over the years various theories regarding his death have been proposed: epilepsy, rabies, heart attack, diabetes, alcohol poisoning and murder, to name but a few.
There is no definitive answer, nor is there an answer to the mystery of Poe the man, though the museum helps you understand him better. I ended my tour in the gift shop, amid Poe action figures and shot glasses. I asked museum curator Chris Semtner why people still care about Poe after two centuries.
"His works are still modern," he said. "Everybody has to read him in school, and he's the first writer they actually like. His works explore the deepest recesses of the human mind. He's the quintessential outsider and rebel, and people sympathize with that." Events and education coordinator Kappy Anklam could not help chipping in her thoughts, noting that lots of Goths visit the museum, attracted by Poe's obsession with the weird and morbid.
The museum plans a 24-hour birthday bash on Jan. 19. But any time is a good time to go to Richmond and delve into America's first great lyric poet, inventor of the modern detective story and early master of the macabre.
As for myself, from that numinous chamber I fled, aghast. I cannot give tongue to what I found there. Yet I would not hesitate to return.