July 17th, 2010

Raven Nevermore

Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia

In a residential neighborhood on 7th Street in Philadelphia, just north of Spring Garden Street, is the Edgar Allan Poe House, part of the U.S. National Park System. Admission is free, and it's a strangely solitary sort of place to learn about Poe, with guided Ranger tours on the hour.

Hubby and I arrived today at 12:57 - two visitors entering a house containing two uniformed Rangers plus another guy who seemed like he also worked there, but was probably just stopping by on his day off or something. The Ranger set us up to watch the 8 minute film on a large TV, then gave us a personalized guided tour of the building. The building contained a number of portraits and images of Poe, but none I like nearly as well as the one in this post, which was done by Kevin Slattery.

It is not a large house. We were able to tour all four levels - basement, ground floor, first and second floors (Euro-style) or second & third floors if you prefer the U.S. floor numbering system. Anyhoo: the ground floor consisted of a parlor (not large), a staircase, and a kitchen (also not large).

The next floor up contained one large-ish bedroom (probably about in the 10x12 to 12x14 range) containing a fireplace and two closets full of shelves ("shelves in a closet - happy thought!"), and what is now another small room, but would, in Poe's time, have been a landing that was likely a sort of private sitting room for the family. It is believed that the large bedroom was Edgar's, and it is likely that he wrote in that room, it having the best light, and Poe having been known to have written while located in the bedroom of another of his residences.

The top floor contains two equally-sized bedchambers, each with low, partially sloped ceilings. It is believed that Virginia Poe occupied one and her mother the other, separate bedrooms being quite common back in the day, and especially given that by the time they moved to this particular house (their 5th home in Philadelphia in 6 years), Virginia was already suffering from tuberculosis.

The basement has a brick floor (at least half of which is contemporaneous with construction of the house - the other half may originally have been dirt), a low ceiling, and a partially open false chimney much like the basement and false chimney featured in Poe's tale, "The Black Cat", which is known to have been written while he lived in this house.

There is not a single thing that belonged to Poe in the house, although in the museum section, located in a room that was part of the neighboring house now co-opted for Park uses, there are two literary magazines containing Poe stories. There's also a "reading room", furnished in accordance with an essay Poe once wrote on how rooms ought to be furnished, where you can sit on the damask-covered furniture and read from the books on the shelves, including the complete works of Poe as well as some of his contemporaries, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Or, if you prefer, you can listen to someone reading you the works on CD. It's really a lovely idea, and possibly my favorite part of this particular museum/park building.

Things that were fascinating (to me):

1. This was the largest house the Poes ever lived in (Edgar, wife Virginia, and mother-in-law Muddie). And it's not large, as I've already stated.

2. Poe received a rejection letter for a poem called "The Raven" while he lived at this address. It's unknown whether it's the same version of the poem that eventually brought him so very much fame, which was not published until after the Poes had relocated to New York City. I suspect it was either the same or an earlier draft of the same poem - odds of him having written two poems on the same topic seem slim.

3. The highly knowledgeable Park Ranger told us that it's believed that Charles Dickens's pet raven might have been the impetus for the poem in the first instance. Poe met Dickens at the U.S. Hotel in Philadelphia when Dickens toured the United States.

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