Poe House Schmoe House: Lit Prof Says Let Doors Lock
Baltimore Fishbowl readers may recently have learned that the Poe House at 203 Amity Street can expect no further financial support from the city. In certain quarters, this revelation will no doubt cause much brow-beating and hand-wringing, but I have always seen the Poe House as something of a “purloined letter”—that uncanny object which, as Poe aficionados well know, cannot be properly seen because it is lying right in plain view.
Poe is often seen as Baltimore’s native son; what better evidence for his local importance than the name of our football team: The Ravens. Poe’s 200th birthday in 2009 was commemorated by a number of local activities, including an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art called “Edgar Allan Poe: A Baltimore Icon.” Yet, as some might be surprised to discover, there were four other cities also celebrating Poe’s 200th birthday in 2009: Boston, Charlottesville, Richmond, and New York, all of which have at least as strong a claim on Poe as Baltimore (and in some cases, I would argue, their claim is stronger).
A quick reminder: Poe was born in Boston in 1809, and moved to Richmond the following year. As a child, he spent five years at school in the London suburb of Stoke Newington. He went to college in Richmond, and when in the army, he was stationed in Charlottesville, Virginia. He moved to Baltimore in 1833 and lived at the “Poe House” on Amity Street until some time in 1835, when he moved back to Richmond with his young cousin-bride, Virginia. He spent the rest of his life moving between Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, and it was in New York, where he lived at nine different addresses, that he wrote most of his best-known works. In short, less than three of Poe’s 40 years on earth were spent in Baltimore. Even his death here seems to have been a mistake—the consensus historical view is that he was trying to get to New York from Philadelphia, but took the wrong train by mistake.
Let me hasten to add that I consider myself a Poe devotee. I subscribe to Poe Studies, I teach a course on Poe at MICA, and I have published articles on Poe’s philosophy (and Poe is definitely underrated as a philosopher). His work, I believe, speaks for itself. There is no need to make a fetish of the house he lived in, the room he slept in, the desk he might or might not have used. To the author, the material of everyday existence was nothing; what mattered was thought, language, and the infinite world of the imagination. So let the Poe House split to fragments like the House of Usher. As long as Poe’s works remain, very little, I would argue, has been lost.
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