Museum News


Poe Museum is in Search of Next Edgar Allan Poe


Who will be the next Edgar Allan Poe? The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia intends to find out. From June 21-27, 2015, the Museum will host its annual Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference for high school students. Designed and founded in 2004 by Edgar™ Award-winning author and Edgar Allan Poe’s cousin, Dr. Harry Lee Poe, the Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference attracts students from across the country to take part in a unique and intensive writing experience. In addition to participating in daily workshops, the students will learn from writing professionals including award-winning novelists, editors, journalists, poets, and playwrights. What makes the conference special is its Poe connection. Richmond, Virginia was home to Edgar Allan Poe for thirteen years, and it is here that he began his literary career. Students will learn from and be inspired by Poe by studying his craft as well as by visiting the sites that inspired or served as settings for his greatest works.

Past speakers have included Nero, Lefty, and Shamus Award-winning author Brad Parks; Hammett Prize winning novelist and journalist Howard Owen; Edgar Award™ winning biographer and educator Dr. Harry Lee Poe; and Theresa Pollack Award winning editor Mary Flinn.

The conference is designed to empower students to be leaders, educators, and writing professionals. So far, past students have become published authors and have been accepted into prestigious university writing programs.

To learn more about the conference or to apply, please click here of call the Edgar Allan Poe Museum at 804-648-5523 or [email protected] Click here to download an application. Applications are due April 1.

More Information about the Young Writers’ Conference:
The Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference empowers high school students with the skills they need to become the next generation of great writers. In the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, who encouraged and inspired young writers in his own time, the Poe Museum’s annual conference brings together students with professional journalists, editors, novelists, poets, and others who have devoted their lives to writing. The program is designed to encourage future innovation, expression, and leadership in Richmond’s literary community.

Conference Components

Lectures
The participants will learn from the professionals who have devoted their lives to writing. Each morning of the conference, professional editors, technical writers, journalists, playwrights, novelists, and poets will share their experiences and advice with the participants. These speakers have included winners of such prestigious awards as the Edgar™, the Nero, the Lefty, and the Shamus.

Seminars
Each day of the conference, the students will practice the craft of writing by participating in group writing exercises with an advanced writing instructor.

Practicing the Craft
Each day’s rigorous schedule would not be complete without time for attendees to practice their newly learned skills by crafting a composition that will be completed by the end of the week.

Focus on Poe
We believe great writing is grounded in an appreciation and understanding of the writers who came before us. Therefore, each day of the conference, time is dedicated to special field trips and activities focused on learn about the art and techniques of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing.

Salon
Art is not created in a vacuum but is the result of the sharing of ideas and experiences. Each evening of the conference is devoted to building a fellowship and cooperation among the participants as well as enabling them to one become leaders in the larger writing community.

Young Writers’ Conference Points of Interest
Fifty eight students have completed in the conference in its eight years
Many graduates of the conference have been accepted to prestigious writing programs and Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere.
Two Notable Conferees:
Joy Thomas’s work has been published in Style Weekly.
Rachel Martens has published a series of novels called The Poe Series.




The Raven Turns 170


One hundred seventy years ago, the most famous poem in American literature made its first appearance in print. Edgar Allan Poe had initially shown his poem “The Raven” to the staff of Graham’s Magazine, which rejected it. Afterward, George Colton agreed to publish the poem in his magazine, The American Review, a Whig Party publication. Colton probably paid Poe about fifteen dollars, which was standard based on space rates for the magazine. That would be about $468.75 in today’s money. Different sources relate that Poe might have been paid $9, $10, or even $30 for the piece.

“The Raven” appeared in the February issue, which came out in the middle of January. The editor prefaced the poem with this comment:

Although the poem first appeared under the pseudonym “____ Quarles” instead of under Poe’s own name, the identity of the author was soon revealed when the Evening Mirror reprinted “The Raven” in the January 29 issue. The editor, N.P. Willis, provided the following introduction:

We are permitted to copy (in advance of publication) from the 2d No. of the American Review, the following remarkable poem by EDGAR POE. In our opinion, it is the most effective single example of “fugitive poetry” ever published in this country; and unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent, sustaining of imaginative lift and “pokerishness.” It is one of these “dainties bred in a book” which we feed on. It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it.

The New York Express claimed the poem “far surpasses anything that has been done even by the best poets of the age…In power and originality of versification the whole is no less remarkable than it is, psychologically, a wonder.”

The poem soon caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Elizabeth Barrett (now know as Elizabeth Barrett Browning) wrote Poe, “Your ‘Raven’ has produced a sensation, a ‘fit horror,’ here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the ‘Nevermore,’ and one acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a ‘bust of Pallas’ never can bear to look at it in the twilight.” Poe would proudly show this letter to guests to his home.

When Poe issued the book The Raven and Other Poems in 1845, he dedicated it to Elizabeth Barrett. Having just read Poe’s terror tale “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” she wrote her future husband Robert Browning, “I send you besides a most frightful extract from an American magazine sent to me yesterday…no, the day before…on the subject of mesmerism—& you are to understand, if you please, that the Mr. Edgar Poe who stands committed in it, is my dedicator…whose dedication I forgot, by the way, with the rest—so, while I am sending, you shall have his poems with his mesmeric experience & decide whether the outrageous compliment to me EBB or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.”

Around the same time, the young British artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti read “The Raven” and drew some illustrations for it. He also wrote a poem, “The Blessed Damosel,” inspired by it. This became Rossetti’s first popular poem, and he went on to become a prominent poet and painter.

A month after its first printing, “The Raven” was parodied when the Mirror printed “The Owl: A Capital Parody on Mr. Poe’s ‘The Raven’” by “Sarles.” This was followed by “The Veto” by “Snarles” in the February 22 New York World, “The Craven” by “Poh!” in the March 25 Evening Mirror, “A Vision” by “Snarles” in the April 15 New World, “The Gazelle” by C.C. Cooke in the May 3 Weekly Mirror, “The Whippoorwill” by “I” in the June 7 Weekly Mirror and “The Turkey” in the June 25 Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.

The popularity of “The Raven” allowed Poe to perform his poetry to large audiences in the nation’s major cities. He became so associated with the poem that his nickname became “The Raven.” In spite of its success, the poem made Poe very little money. Without effective copyright laws, his works were reprinted multiple times without Poe being paid.

After seventeen decades, “The Raven” remains a favorite with readers, it is read countless times at Halloween, and even has an NFL team named after it. In honor of the anniversary of the first printing of Poe’s greatest poem, we will end this post with a reading by that master interpreter of Poe’s works, Vincent Price.




Hundreds Celebrate Edgar Allan Poe’s Birthday


Over nine hundred people gathered at the Poe Museum for its annual Poe Birthday Bash, which featured twelve hours of entertainment and tours. One of the days highlights was the Poe Birthday Cake (pictured above). Below is a shot the people lining up for a slice of cake.

Kids enjoyed fun and games throughout the day. Here is a photo of the craft table staffed by historical interpreter Debbie Phillips, dressed as Poe’s last fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton.

One little girl came dressed as a raven.

Some kids enjoyed the model of Poe’s Richmond.

Some liked the Richard Corben exhibit.

Others just liked the hitching post.

Adults also got into the act by making their own Poe mustaches.

Three bands performed, including The Embalmers.

Actors Michael Fawcett, Davide Michero, Dean Knight, and Debbie Phillips performed Poe’s works including “The Raven,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “Berenice.”

Guests also enjoyed walking tours of Poe sites in the neighborhood. Here is one of the groups visiting the Church Hill Overlook.

Here they are at St. John’s Church.

The Sisters in Crime discussed the art of mystery writing.

Professor M. Thomas Inge from Randolph-Macon College gave an interesting presentation about the Poe illustrations of Richard Corben, whose work is now on display in the Poe Museum’s Exhibit Building.

Poe’s last fiancée returned from the dead to give a performance and tour of the sites she and Edgar used to visit together.

The evening culminated with the midnight toast to Poe in the Poe Shrine.

The Poe Museum would like to thank everyone who joined us for Poe’s Birthday Bash, and we look forward to seeing everybody back here next year.




Lecture Explores Four Decades of Poe Illustrations


The Poe Museum is proud to announce that M. Thomas Inge of Randolph-Macon College will deliver a presentation about Richard Corben’s Poe illustrations at 5p.m. at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibit exploring four decades of the illustrator Richard Corben’s Poe-inspired artwork. The event will be part of the Poe Museum’s annual Poe Birthday Bash, which features twelve hours of Poe performances, historical interpreters, live music, walking tours, and more. Admission for the day is five dollars.

The subject of Dr. Inge’s presentation is “Masters of the Macabre: Edgar Allan Poe and Richard Corben.” According to Dr. Inge:

Without Edgar Allan Poe and some of his fellow popular writers, there might not have been a comic book or a graphic novel. That is to say, in the early days of the comic book industry, desperate to meet the insistent and inevitable monthly publication deadlines, writers and artists turned for inspiration, or outright piracy, to the popular short fiction of such authors as O. Henry, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, or Guy de Maupassant. Before them, the nature and structure of the short story had been fully defined by Poe in his reviews and critical essays in the nineteenth century. Poe did not invent the short story, but he so successfully outlined what an effective piece of short fiction should be that everyone used his standards by which to measure their own work. Reading Poe was like taking a master class in writing fiction.

Little wonder then that the early pioneers of a new art form more frequently turned to Poe than any other author for source material and inspiration. It has been estimated that over 300 adaptations of Poe’s stories and poems have appeared in comic books and graphic novels from 1943 to the present. While nearly every major and most of the minor comic book authors and artists have turned to Poe at one time or another in their careers, only one has dedicated a major part of his life’s work to adapting his poems and tales—Richard Corben. Emerging from the underground comix movement in the 1960s, he quickly became a major force on the larger comic book scene with his work for Heavy Metal magazine and the Warren publications. Those who picked up copies of his early work like Den, Rowlf, or Fantagor, were immediately absorbed by the maturity and beauty of his style. Readers knew that they were in the presence of an extraordinary talent. Corben’s imagination pushed the boundaries of the visual possibilities of aesthetics in comic art in amazing new directions.

Beginning with his adaptations of Poe for Creepy , Eerie, and other Warren titles, especially the brilliantly rendered version of “The Raven” in Creepy No. 67 (December 1974), Corben has proven to be the most acute and creative interpreter of Poe in comics history. All of his comic book work, in fact, has been imbued with the same gothic sensibility and keen eye for the grotesque that possessed Poe himself. Thus his alliance with Poe has been a fortuitous and productive one. It is a marriage made in …, well one hesitates to say heaven. Time and again Corben has turned, or returned, to his favorite poems and stories, each demonstrating an original vision, a new way to interpret or understand Poe’s themes. This paper will provide an appreciative overview of Corben’s fascination with Poe throughout his career and what his vision has added to our general understanding of Poe’s cultural importance. Quite likely Poe would have loved these graphic versions of his work and recognized in Richard Corben a soul-mate.

About Dr. Inge:

M. Thomas Inge is the Robert Emory Blackwell Professor of Humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, where he teaches and writes about American humor and comic art, film and animation, Southern literature and culture, William Faulkner, and Asian literature.
Inge has been writing about the comics and animation for over thirty years. He has written essays for fan publications, popular periodicals, reference works, and scholarly journals. He contributed for over twenty five years a chronology of the history of the comic book to the annual editions of Robert M. Overstreet’s Comic Book Price Guide. His books on the subject include Comics as Culture (1990), Great American Comics (1990), Dark Laughter: The Satiric Art of Oliver W. Harrington (1993), Anything Can Happen in a Comic Strip (1995), Charles M. Schulz: Conversations (2000), The Incredible Mr. Poe: Comic Book Adaptations of the Works of Edgar Allan Poe (2008), and Mark Twain in the Comics (2009). Most recently he edited the collected essays of Charles M. Schulz which appeared as My Life with Charlie Brown (2010). Inge is serving as General Editor of the “Conversations with Comic Artists” and the “Great Comic Artists” series for the University Press of Mississippi.
His publications on animation include “Walt Disney’s Snow White: Art, Adaptation, and Ideology,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 32 (Fall 2004); “Mickey Mouse” in American Icons (Greenwood 2006); “Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, and Ichabod Crane” in Going My Way: Bing Crosby in American Culture (Hofstra/Rochester 2007); and “Mark Twain, Chuck Jones, and the Art of Animation,” Studies in American Humor, N.S. No. 17 (2008). He wrote the biography of Walt Disney for the Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 22 (Gale 1983) and is working on a book-length study of Disney and adaptation.
Inge wanted to be cartoonist but was diverted into academic work. He would rather draw and considers himself a failed comic artist who became a professor because he couldn’t do any better.




Poe Museum Celebrates Poe’s Birthday with 12-Hour Birthday Bash


On January 17 from noon until midnight, the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will host Edgar Allan Poe’s Birthday Bash, the world’s biggest celebration of the author’s birthday. The event promises twelve hours of performances, live music, historical interpreters, and games for audiences of all ages. The Museum will also be opening two new exhibits: a retrospective of Richard Corben’s Poe illustrations and Chambers of the Red Death, an installation of shadow boxes recreating “The Masque of the Red Death” by Nicole Pisaniello. Additional activities include a children’s theater, a craft table, book signings, and a walking tour following the trail of Poe’s last night in Richmond. Don’t forget the birthday cake at four followed by a talk about Poe in the comics by Randolph Macon professor Dr. M. Thomas Inge at five and a performance and walking tour by Poe’s last fiancée, Richmond’s Elmira Royster Shelton (as portrayed by historical interpreter Debbie Phillips) at six. After twelve straight hours of activity, visitors will toast Poe’s memory at midnight in the Poe Shrine.

Partial Schedule:
11a.m-Noon Author Talk by Maggie King, Rosemary Shomaker, Teresa Inge, Maria Hudgins, and Heather Weidner
Noon to 1:30p.m. Live Music by The Embalmers
1:30 Children’s Activity
2:00p.m. Performance of “The Cask of Amontillado”
4:00p.m. Birthday Cake Served
5:00 Dr. M. Thomas Inge speaks about Poe in the comics
6:00-7:30p.m. Live music by Margot MacDonald
7:00p.m. Tour of Poe Museum led by C. Auguste Dupin, detective from “Murders in the Rue Morgue”
7:30p.m. Elmira Shelton speaks about her engagement to Poe
8:00p.m. Elmira Shelton begins walking tour of area sites she and Edgar enjoyed
8:00p.m. Performance of “The Raven”
9:00p.m. Performance of “The Tell-Tale Heart”
10:00p.m. Live Music by Fool’s Errand
Midnight Champagne Toast in the Poe Shrine

Schedule is subject to change. Check back often for a complete schedule and the latest updates.




Halloween Weekend at the Poe Museum


Here are some photos taken during Halloween Weekend at the Poe Museum.

Victoria and Raven Price

Victoria Price signing books

Vincent Price Signature Wine Collection




Get the Latest Poe Museum News


Find out about Poe to Go, the Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference, and the 2015 Unhappy Hour Season and more Poe Museum news in the Fall 2014/Winter 2015 of the Museum’s newsletter Evermore. Click here to read more.



Fall2014Newsletter




Poe Museum’s New Exhibit is Mesmerizing


The Facts behind “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

Now showing until December 31 at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond is an intriguing exhibit devoted to Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a tale of the power of mesmerism to suspend the process of death. Made possible by a loan of items from the collection of James Vacca, Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar explores the popularity of mesmerism in Poe’s time and belief among his contemporaries that this gruesome story might be true.

Mesmerism in the Nineteenth Century

Mesmerism, originally called animal magnetism, was developed by German physician and astronomer Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815) who theorized that a natural energetic transference occurred between all living creatures. Though he failed to receive scientific recognition for his theories, Mesmer believed this force could have healing properties.

Mesmer

While experiments in mesmerism abounded from 1780 until 1850, many quack mesmerists staged performances and published sensationalized accounts of their powers. By Poe’s time, in the 1840s, some practitioners even believed that mesmerized people could demonstrate clairvoyant abilities. The November 18, 1843 issue of the New York Brother Johnathon carried the following notice:

ANIMAL MAGNETISM! — A series of experiments are now going forward in different parts of this Country, with different subjects, by different magnetisers — wholly ignorant of what others are doing — and by people who have not direct communication with one another; all of which go to prove that the Moon is inhabited — that the people have a written language — and make war. The most miraculous coincidences have happened. We are quite serious.

Poe and Mesmerism

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was Poe’s third tale on the subject of mesmerism. “A Tales of the Ragged Mountains” (1844) and “Mesmeric Revelation” (1844) also dealt with the theme. The latter would be the first of Poe’s tales translated into French by the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. The French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix declared the story “a bizarre and profound piece of writing which throws you into a state of contemplation.”

In addition to his fictionalized accounts of the controversial pseudoscience, Poe also wrote reviews of other authors’ books on the subject. In the April 5, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, Poe called Chauncey Hare Townshend’s book Facts in Mesmerism (London, 1840) “one of the most truly profound and philosophical works of the day — a work to be valued properly only in a day to come.” How seriously Poe actually regarded mesmerism is debatable. In some works, he poked fun at the mesmerist Andrew Jackson Davis, who gave a number of public demonstrations in New York while Poe was living there.

Davis

Poe’s writings about mesmerism caused some of his contemporaries to believe he had special knowledge of the subject. Mary Hill Hewitt wrote in an 1846 letter to Poe’s future fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, “People seem to think there is something uncanny about him, and the strangest stories are told, what is more, believed, about his mesmeric experiences, at the mention of which he always smiles.”

Poe’s Hoaxes

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was not Poe’s first hoax. In 1838, he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, an account of a trip to Antarctica, thought to be true by English readers. Six years later, in 1844, he convinced New Yorkers that scientists had successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air steering balloon in a story now known as “The Balloon Hoax.”

The Balloon Hoax

Also dealing with the theme of mesmerism, Poe’s story “Mesmeric Revelation” was so realistic it was reprinted in the November 29, 1845 issue of the London Popular Record of Modern Science.

The Public’s Response

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was rejected by at least one magazine before the American Review printed it in its December 1845 issue. Within months, the story was reprinted in The Broadway Journal (New York), Spirit of the Times (Philadelphia), Sunday Times (London), the Morning Post (London), the Popular Record of Modern Science (London), and the Boston Museum. The following year it was published as a pamphlet in London. Although many readers believed “Valdemar” to be a true story, the editor of the New York Herald wrote, “whoever thought it a veracious recital must have the bump of Faith large, very large indeed.”

To this, Poe answered in the Broadway Journal,

For our parts we find it difficult to understand how any dispassionate transcendentalist can doubt the facts as we state them; they are by no means so incredible as the marvels which are hourly narrated, and believed, on the topic of Mesmerism. Why cannot a man’s death be postponed indefinitely by Mesmerism? Why cannot a man talk after he is dead? Why? — Why? — that is the question; and as soon as the Tribune has answered it to our satisfaction we will talk to it farther.

Poe’s statement cannot, however, be taken entirely seriously since he frequently ridiculed the Transcendentalists. When asked by a London pharmacist if “Valdemar” was true, Poe responded, “‘Hoax’ is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar’s case . . . The article . . . is now circulating in France. Some few persons believe it — but I do not — and don’t you.”

Poe was so amused by the receipt of a letter from a believer in the story’s veracity that he printed it in the Broadway Journal:

Collection of James Vacca

The story’s popularity was such that he reprinted it in the Broadway Journal, adding the following note:

In London, the story was reprinted as a true account of the powers of mesmerism, and the London publisher Short and Little issued it as a pamphlet, Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis in 1846.

Collection of James Vacca

Collection of James Vacca

At least one British poet was not a fan of “Valdemar,” Elizabeth Barrett (the future Elizabeth Barrett Browning) sent Robert Browning a copy of the story and wrote:

I send you besides a most frightful extract from an American magazine sent to me yesterday…no, the day before…on the subject of mesmerism—& you are to understand, if you please, that the Mr. Edgar Poe who stands committed in it, is my dedicator…whose dedication I forgot, by the way, with the rest—so, while I am sending, you shall have his poems with his mesmeric experience & decide whether the outrageous compliment to me EBB or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.

Valdemar’s Legacy

Collection of James Vacca

Thanks in part to Poe’s story, the Spiritualist movement associated mesmerism with communication with the dead and used it for that purpose. One of Poe’s fiancées, Sarah Helen Whitman, was a devout Spiritualist who held séances while in a mesmeric trance.

Whitman

Over time, popularity of both Spiritualism and mesmerism declined. The meaning of the word mesmerism has also evolved. In 1843, the Scottish physician James Braid proposed the term hypnosis, which is now the usual meaning of word mesmerism.

Poe’s use of realistic and scientifically based details made “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” an early and influential example of modern science fiction. The story’s gruesome conclusion in which the mesmerized patient suddenly “rots” into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity” has been an inspiration to modern horror writers concerned with shock and gore. Since Poe’s time, the story has been reprinted countless times and translated into several languages. It has been adapted to comics and movies, most notably the 1963 Roger Corman film Tales of Terror starring Vincent Price and the 2002 black comedy The Mesmerist starring Neil Patrick Harris.

Vincent Price as Valdemar

Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar will be on display on the first floor gallery of the Poe Museum’s Exhibits Building until December 31, 2014. On display on the second floor galleries of the Exhibits Building are The Halloween Gang Presents: The Black Cat (until December 31) and The Raven Room. The Poe Museum’s other three buildings contain permanent exhibits of the Museum’s renowned collection of Edgar Allan Poe personal belongings and memorabilia.




Poe’s Final Mystery Remains Unsolved


Coffin placed in the Poe Shrine, Richmond on the anniversary of Poe's funeral

Edgar Allan Poe is so famous he shows up almost everywhere. Whether it’s a Beatles album cover, an episode of South Park, or on the side of Raven Beer bottle; his face is so familiar, many people likely think they know him. Especially around this time of year, students across the country are learning about Poe’s life and work. So how is it that we still know so little about someone this famous? Maybe it began with his death.

This October 7 marked the 165th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe. After all these years scholars are still debating what caused his untimely demise at the age of forty. In fact, there are dozens of published theories, and the number continues to grow. Why the mystery? In today’s age of modern medicine, it is difficult to understand how little doctors in Poe’s time knew about internal medicine. Many diseases that medicine has since controlled were still unidentified or misunderstood. Poe died in Washington College Hospital where his attending physician John Moran paid close attention to the author’s condition, but Poe still died after four days in his care. According to the below record of 1849 Baltimore deaths, Poe’s cause of death is listed as “Phrenitis.” On this list, the date, name, and age are correct, but Poe’s occupation is incorrectly listed as “Physician” by whoever transcribed the information. (We are grateful to Sabrina Ricketts for finding and providing the Poe Museum a scan of this document.)

Phrenitis is an archaic medical term that means inflammation of the brain. The term was later replaced with the word delirium, and the symptoms are now most commonly associated with meningitis or encephalitis. The cause of these conditions may be attributable to a variety of different viral and bacterial sources. This means scholars are still not much closer to unraveling the mystery of Poe’s death.

Knowing what happened to Poe in the days immediately preceding his admission to the hospital might help determine the cause of his condition, but that information is also missing. We know that Poe had survived a bout of cholera in the summer of 1849 and that he was ill during his time in Richmond between July and September. On September 26, he visited his fiancée Elmira Shelton who later recalled, “He was very sad, and complained of being quite sick; I felt his pulse, and found he had considerable fever, and did not think it probable that he would be able to start the next morning, (Thursday) as he anticipated.”

Poe left Richmond on the morning of September 27 on a trip to Philadelphia, but his whereabouts are unknown until he was found in a Baltimore polling place on October 3. He was already very ill and was asked if he knew anyone who could help him, so he called for magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass.

Poe was delirious and unable to tell what had happened to him or why he seemed to be dressed in someone else’s clothes. That’s right–he appeared to be dressed in ill-fitting clothes that looked nothing like his usual mode of dress, so some people speculated he may have been beaten and robbed of his clothing. When he entered the bar-room of the tavern in which the voting was taking place, Snodgrass recounted he “instantly recognized the face of one whom I had often seen and knew well, although it wore an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder…But perhaps I would not have so readily recognized him had I not been notified of his apparel. His hat — or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in exchange — was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled; his coat, of commonest alpaca, and evidently “second hand”; and his pants of gray-mixed cassimere, dingy and badly fitting. He wore neither vest nor neckcloth, if I remember aright, while his shirt was badly crumpled and soiled. He was so utterly stupefied with liquor that I thought it best not to seek recognition or conversation…So insensible was he, that we had to carry him to the carriage as if a corpse. The muscles of articulation seemed paralyzed to speechlessness, and mere incoherent mutterings were all that were heard.”

After Poe’s death, Snodgrass clipped the small lock of Poe’s hair now in the collection of the Poe Museum. Snodgrass also wrote lectures and articles about Poe’s death to promote his agenda to ban alcohol in America.

At the same time, Poe’s attending physician wrote articles and a book contradicting Snodgrass’s account. If Snodgrass’s retellings were distorted in order to portray Poe as a hopeless drunk, Moran’s were skewed in order to show the poet as a perfect saint.

Both versions grew more colorful with each retelling. As just one example, we can cite Moran’s recollection of Poe’s last words. In a November 1849 letter, Moran said they were “Lord, help my poor soul.” In an 1875 article, Moran said they were “Self-murderer, there is a gulf beyond the stream Where is the buoy, lifeboat, ship of fire, sea of brass. Test, shore no more!” In his 1885 book, A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe, Moran recorded them as, “He who arched the heavens and upholds the universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being, and upon demons incarnate.”

If these accounts did not do enough to spread confusion about Poe’s death, Poe’s rival Rufus Griswold attempted to defame Poe’s character in a scathing obituary and memoir of the author. Griswold’s obituary begins, “…This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” His memoir of Poe became the first widely distributed biography of Poe but was so riddled with distortions and fabrications that some of those who had known Poe felt the need to come to the poet’s defense. Among these were John Moran and Poe’s fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman.

We will probably never know the exact cause of Poe’s death, but scholars will continue to try to solve Poe’s last mystery. If you would like to propose your own theory, you can read more about Poe’s death and submit your ideas here.




Poe as a Popularizer of Nineteenth-Century Sceince


Sir Isaac Newton Working on Geometric Problem – 1795 Ink and Water Color by William Blake (Public Domain Image from www.blake.archive)

Poe as a Popularizer of Nineteenth-Century Science

Several important modern-day science historians have conceded that their present understanding of how Industrial Age technologies affected society is limited, and some have started to focus their research on this period. Bernard Lightman argues “Scholars have barely scratched the surface in their attempts to understand the popularization of Victorian [nineteenth century] science” (206). He writes, “As scientists became professionalized [during the nineteenth century] and professional scientists began to pursue specialized research highly, the need arose for non-professionals, who could convey the broader significance of many new discoveries to a rapidly growing…reading public” (187). He proposes that the nineteenth century “popularizers of science” may have been more important than that of Huxley or the Tyndall [important nineteenth-century scientists] in shaping the understanding [of science] in the minds of the reading public…” (188).

During this period, there was a need for a new class of writers who could write about emerging scientific information in a way the new consumers of science information could understand, and in ways that was relevant to their daily experiences. The newly emerging class of professional scientists in the United was neither equipped nor interested in communicating with the public. Lightman refers to those writers who did attempt to communicate to the public about science as the “popularizers of science,” and suggests that “Their success… was partially due to their ability to present the huge mass of scientific fact in the form of compelling stories…” (188). Therefore, he suggests that it is essential for our present understanding of nineteenth-century culture to explore writers like Edgar Allan Poe, who skillfully and prolifically commented on many of the important popular scientific trends of his lifetime. John Tresch asserts, “Poe’s writings force us to reconsider the relationship between science and literature” (The British Journal of Science, 275-276). Also, in Between Science and Literature, Peter Swirski argues that Poe’s “writing may be a suitable barometer of the role that science and philosophy had on nineteenth-century society… and that he threw “literary bridges over to the scientific mainland,” These bridges, he concludes, were just as important in helping is to understand how scientific changes influenced society as they are in helping us to understand how literature started to change to reflect scientific developments (X-XI). John Limon, writing in The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science writes that Poe engaged in literary “negotiation with science,” asserting that his works both foreshadowed and critiqued several emerging scientific developments and trends of the future (19). Faytor also argues “there was a two-way traffic between science and science-writers in the nineteenth century. He notes that many of the inventions and writings of professional scientists helped to shape science fiction and that many ideas imagined by science fiction writers found their way into actual scientific inventions. (256). Most scholars acknowledge that Poe was one of the most important leaders in developing both the genres of science fiction and detective fiction. His works in those areas provide abundant examples that he anticipated and forecasted future developments which are accepted today in a variety of technical areas such as exploration of the Poles, astronomy, physics, space travel, photography, electronic communications, replacement of body parts, and the forensic sciences.

During Poe’s lifetime, lay writers or those without “letters” who were interested in writing about science struggled with professional scientists to establish their authority to speak about the newly emerging scientific issues. Poe had not received much formal training as a scientist but had considerable exposure to science ideas in his early education, in his technical experiences in the military, and through his exposure to science news stories as a journalist. He believed that an observant and skilled writer (like himself) was more qualified to interpret and discuss the meaning and impact of the newly emerging sciences and technologies than most professional scientists.

Poe looked not only to the events of his era to inform his view of truth in his science writing, but he was also inspired and informed by several of the most renown philosophers and science writers of antiquity. In his 1848 culminating science narrative, Eureka A Prose Poem, he outlined the development of scientific thinking from antiquity through his era, and provided his own unique theories about the creation, operations, and destiny of humanity and the Universe. A list of the ancient writers of science and the philosophy of science he commented on in Eureka includes Archimedes, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Kepler, Francis Bacon, and Sir Isaac Newton. Also in Eureka, he discussed the works of philosophers and scientists closer to Poe’s lifetime such as Auguste Comte, Sir John Herschel, John Stuart Mill, Pierre Simon Laplace, and Friedrich Heinrich Humboldt – to whom Poe dedicated Eureka. Several contextual influences in the areas of literature and technology likely influenced Poe’s subsequent choice to embark on a career that emphasized science narrative writing. These will be discussed in the November 2014 posting. For comments, contact [email protected] or [email protected]

Sources:
Faytor, Paul. “Strange New Worlds of Space and Time: Late Victorian Science and Science Fiction.” Victorian Science in Context. Ed. Barnard A. Lightman. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997.
Limon, John. The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Lightman, Bernard. Victorian Science in Context. Ed. University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.
Tresch, John. “The Potent Magic of Verisimilitude: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mechanical Age.” The British Journal of Science 3.3 (1997): 275-90. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.
_______. The Romantic Machine. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Sir Isaac Newton Working on Geometric Problem