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Yo, Poe
In Richmond, a Museum Rises From the Dead

By Lloyd Rose
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 10, 1998; Page E01
   


The Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, aka the Poe Shrine, is in a small complex of old buildings in which Poe never lived, though the long-gone offices of the Southern Literary Messenger, where he worked as a young man, were once nearby. You can still smell tobacco from the river warehouses, which seems appropriate, since the adoptive father Poe never got along with, John Allen, was a tobacco merchant. For many years the onetime propinquity of the SLM and the odor of tobacco were the only truly Poelike things about the little museum, which featured genteel touches such as "The Enchanted Garden" of 1922 with its "shrine" built of stones from the torn-down Messenger building, and tended toward docents in tam-o'-shanters they had crocheted themselves who would tell visitors firmly "Mistah Poe did naht have a drinking problem. He was just constituted in such a way that if he took one single drink he fell down."

Those were the days. There was -- and still is -- a scale model of Richmond in Poe's day, the work of an enthusiast that looks rather like something a class of talented fourth-graders would construct. It was during the stop here that you often heard the revisionist version of Poe's drinking habits. There was a slide show with faded pictures and a droning narration about Poe's life. Most spectacularly, there was "The Raven Room," painted blood-red floor and ceiling and boasting a life-size raven on a pedestal. Originally, this was a

stuffed raven, an inferior bit of taxidermy that showed a decided list to one side. It was succeeded in the early '90s by a rather uninteresting carved wooden raven with folded wings, but now that too has flown away to the night's Plutonian shore.

I don't mean to have gotten anyone's hopes up about glories that are no more. Though in some ways the beside-the-pointedness of the Poe Shrine was a perfect memorial to the author's wretched, misunderstood life, the refurbished museum (a new board of trustees took over a couple of years ago) wipes all longing for amateurish tackiness out of your mind. Particularly now through Oct. 7 (the 129th anniversary of Poe's death), when the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection of Poe manuscripts is on display.

Not to mince words, this exhibition is superb. The jaws of both gawkers and scholars will drop at the sight of Poe's first published book, "Tamerlane and Other Poems: By a Bostonian." Self-published by Poe in 1827, when he was 18, this little volume is the rara avis of American literary history: Only 12 copies are known, and the last one auctioned went for a couple of hundred thousand dollars.

Other wonders await. There are manuscripts in Poe's own hand of "Eulalie," "Siope,"can't find this...cq? "Epimanes" and "The Spirits of the Dead" (a reworking by the 18-year-old Poe of a poem in "Tamerlane"). Contrary to what one might hope, Poe's handwriting is small, well-formed and exceedingly neat, quite easy for a modern reader to decipher.

There are the first appearances in print of "The Raven" (American Review, February 1845); "MS Found in a Bottle," for which Poe won one of his first literary prizes ( Baltimore Saturday Visitor, Oct. 19, 1833); and "The Fall of the House of Usher" (Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, September 1839). Not to mention several letters, Poe volumes from Franklin Roosevelt's library, and a number of first editions: "The Raven and Other Poems," "Tales," "Tales of the Grotesque And Arabesque".

Then there's the piece of coffin.

Yes, seriously. When Poe's body was moved in 1875 from the Poe family plot in Baltimore to its present resting place in Baltimore's Westminster Presbyterian Church

burying yard (where every year an unknown admirer leaves a birthday rose and bottle of whiskey), the original coffin "was so much decayed that it fell in pieces on the ground."Obviously, someone picked those pieces up, because here one is, box-framed and authenticated. Another frame presents a lock of Poe's spider-web hair, cut from his head by the doctor who found him dying in a Baltimore gutter on Oct. 3, 1849. (These artifacts are not from the Tane, Collection but belong to the 19th Century Shop and the Poe Foundation, that is to say the museum, respectively).

Nor is this by any means all.

The Poe Museum owns one, and is presently displaying another, of the 12 known existing portraits of Poe made during his life. The museum's portrait is one of the famous daguerreotypes by which most people have gained their mental image of the poet: the so-called Ultima Thule daguerreotype, taken in 1848 only four days after Poe had attempted suicide. It's the most Poelike of all the portraits, showing as it does a worn-looking man with despairing eyes.

As it happens, our present-day idea of what Poe looked like applies to only the last couple of years of his life, before which he was cleanshaven. All of the daguerreotypes of him, however, were taken during his hirsute final years, and so he is destined to live for posterity. The other Poe image on display (from the 19th Century Shop) was held in a private collection for 70 years. Initialed EAP, in what looks like Poe's hand, this little silhouette shows a fellow with a fine, sharply-cut profile and thick, feathery hair that has not yet begun to retreat from the steep brow.

Though not an original, the most interesting image of Poe in the Tane collection is the frontispiece to George Woodberry's 1909 "The Life of Edgar Allan Poe." A copy of a 1835 to check painted portrait, it shows a blandly handsome, clean-shaven fellow of around thirty with a pretty little mouth and light brown hair.

The docents are of a different stripe than in the past. On my visit, the guide was a local college student named Ben Anderson, who wasn't even an English major but appeared to know everything about Poe, including all the latest theories on what he died of (1995 theory: rabies. 1996 theory: murder by a rival. The contemporary judgment remains the maddeningly vague "lesions of the brain.").

The museum still exhibits, as it always has, a re-creation of Poe's boyhood bedroom with his original bed. And one can still view with admiration, or whatever emotion is appropriate, the 1880s neo-classical memorial to Poe and his parents, commissioned by the Actors Guild of New York, on which a marble woman in flowing draperies lifts a wreath up to the rather stiff bust of the author.

Where the slide show used to be, there is now an exhibit about Poe's influence on popular culture, with posters from movies, a pennant for the Baltimore Ravens, a 1998 Richmond phone book with the Poe Museum on the cover, a selection of New Yorker cartoons featuring Poe and a raven, an Asolo Theatre program for John Astin's one-man Poe show "Once Upon a Midnight. ..."

And there remains the Raven Room.

True, it is now ravenless. But it is still red. And its walls are still hung with what used to be the most remarkable exhibit -- and remains one of the best -- in the whole museum: a series of illustrations to "The Raven" by a young English immigrant and former vaudeville caricaturist named James Carling. Carling entered a contest to illustrate the poem that was won by Gustave Dore, to whom he compared his drawings thus: "Mine are stronger, wilder and more weird; they are horrible."

Artists are rarely the best judges of their own work, but Carling was right on the money: Compared with Dore's rather classical (and, it must be said, much better drawn) pictures, Carling's are extremely creepy. Shadows, and other things too, slither in Carling's illustrations. Ghostly skeletons waft smokelike from the fireplace. The eyes of the poem's narrator roll wildly in fear as the raven stares grimly down at him from the bust of Pallas Athena. Sometimes the effect is a bit comic, but quite often it's genuinely shivery. Carling wasn't anywhere near the draftsman Dore was, but he clearly identified with, felt, the poem. The Raven Room needs no other bird but his.

Leave this strange, scarlet room and go down the stairs and out the door into the kindler, gentler world of the little '20s garden. You will find cookies and soft drinks awaiting you under the arches of the shrine.

The Edgar Allan Poe Museum (1914 E. Main St. in Richmond) is open every day except Christmas; hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and Monday.

Guided tours on the hour, last tour at 4. Admission: $6

. Information: 804-648-5523, http://www.poemuseum.org.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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