Museum News


Poe Museum Sheds New Light on Endangered Portraits


Blog-1

What in the world happened to Caroline Griswold’s face? Rest assured, she still looks the same as she did last week. We just photographed her under different lighting conditions. By lighting the portrait from an angle, the conservator is better able to see the surface cracks that need to be repaired. Below is the portrait under normal illumination. The cracks are not quite as easy to see this time.

Blog-5

Now look at this photograph taken under ultraviolet illumination.

Blog-11

This lighting causes organic substances to fluoresce while inorganic substances absorb the light and look black. The organic resin varnish added as a protective layer over the finished painting is fluorescing, but there are also dark splotches that show the presence of paint applied on top of the varnish. This is the result of restorers covering up areas of missing or damaged paint with matching paint. The only problem is that, because they didn’t clean the painting before adding the patches, the patches match the color of the dirty paint. These means that, when the painting is cleaned, the patches will no longer match the painting. Figuring out which parts of the painting are original and which are not helps our conservator get a better understanding of how the painting originally appeared. This provides him a kind of road map to follow during the conservation process.

Notice that some of the patches are lighter than others. These are likely older patches painted by a previous restorer. The light spots on the painting appear to be another organic residue, maybe splattered food or mold.

This detail of the lower edge of the portrait shows the presence of organic residue that dripped down the paint surface.

Blog-6

Now let’s take a look at some of the conservator’s photos of the Rufus Griswold portrait. This is a photograph under normal illumination. Under this light, one can already see how dirty the painting is, but looking at it with different lighting will show us even more.

Blog-3

Here is one taken with raking light to show the cracks. Especially evident is a bulge on the lower edge of the canvas caused by the accumulation of dust and debris between the back of the canvas and the stretcher. This will have to be repaired by removing the canvas from the stretcher and flattening it before restretching it.

Blog-12

Here is one taken under ultraviolet illumination. (Notice the varnish on the easel is also fluorescing.) You can see some large areas where missing paint was restored.

Blog-4

A detail of the lower left corner of the portrait taken under raking light shows the bulge, a vertical crack with missing paint, and a major hole in the canvas.

Blog-10

The same area shown under ultraviolet illumination reveals extensive repairs made by a past restorer.

Blog-8

By taking multiple photographs using different kinds of light, our conservator will determine which parts of the painting are original and which are not as well as which parts should be cleaned and which should be removed. This guided him when he performed a test cleaning on Rufus Griswold’s face.

4

These kinds of tests will help the conservator get a better idea of how the portraits underneath 176 years of grime and dirty varnish should look after a successful cleaning. Only after careful study, planning, and testing, will the conservator be able to begin the treatment process, which may take months to complete.

Since the portraits of Rufus and Caroline Griswold arrived at the Poe Museum a couple months ago, we have had several visitors ask about them. If you would like to see the portrait of Rufus Griswold in its current state, please visit the Poe Museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building where it is hanging above Edgar Allan Poe’s trunk.

If you are interested in helping out with the conservation process, please vote for the Rufus Griswold portrait to be Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifact for 2016. Just click here to vote.




H.P. Lovecraft Visits the Poe Museum


HP Lovecraft by Semtner

HP Lovecraft by Semtner

Last Saturday, August 20, would have been the 126th birthday of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), author of such influential horror, science fiction, and fantasy tales as The Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, and At the Mountains of Madness (which was inspired by Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym). Lovecraft’s influence on both horror fiction and popular culture has been vast. Several of his works have been adapted to film, music, and even games. In his tales of cosmic horror he created a shared fictional universe known as the Cthulhu Mythos, which continues to live on in the works of legions of later authors.

Lovecraft was also a great admirer of Poe’s works and devoted an entire chapter of his 1935 book Supernatural Horror in Literature to him. In that chapter, Lovecraft writes,

Before Poe the bulk of weird writers had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or legs of conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism, acceptance of popular standards and values, and striving of the author to obtrude his own emotions into the story and take sides with the partisans of the majority’s artificial ideas. Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove — good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing, with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathizer, or vendor of opinion. He saw clearly that all phases of life and thought are equally eligible as a subject matter for the artist, and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, decided to be the interpreter of those powerful feelings and frequent happenings which attend pain rather than pleasure, decay rather than growth, terror rather than tranquility, and which are fundamentally either adverse or indifferent to the tastes and traditional outward sentiments of mankind, and to the health, sanity, and normal expansive welfare of the species.

Never a terribly famous writer during his lifetime, Lovecraft would likely not have been recognized by the staff when he visited the Poe Museum in Richmond in May 1929. On May 4, he wrote Elizabeth Toldridge, “In Richmond the chief object of interest for me is the Poe Shrine—an old stone house with two adjoining houses connected as wings & used as a storehouse of Poe reliques. Here I have spent much time examining the objects associated with my supreme literary favourite—to say nothing of the marvelous model of Richmond in 1820, housed in one of the wings.”

The Poe Museum’s Old Stone House, Enchanted Garden, and model of Richmond remain much as they were in 1929, so today’s guests can still feel much of the atmosphere that must have inspired Lovecraft during his visit. The following photographs date to about that time.

The Poe Museum in June 1929.

The Poe Museum in June 1929.

The Enchanted Garden in early spring of 1929.

The Enchanted Garden in early spring of 1929.

Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building in about 1928

Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building in about 1928

Lovecraft was not the only famous cultural figure to make a trip to the Poe Museum. Vincent Price, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein also visited. Click their names to read about their Poe Museum experiences.




Poe Museum Portraits Nominated to Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifacts


We nominated-blog

Each year, the Virginia Association of Museum’s accepts nominations for Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifacts, and this time the Poe Museum’s newly acquired portraits of Edgar Allan Poe’s worst enemy Rufus W. Griswold and his wife Caroline made the list of nominees. This honor means that people realize the significance of these historical artifacts and how important it is to preserve them. As we have seen in a previous blog post, these portrait have not been cleaned since they were painted back in 1840. The 176 years of accumulated dust and tobacco smoke have almost completely obscured the surfaces to the point that it is difficult to tell there are even portraits under there. The paintings also suffered from severe cracks and paint loss resulting from being removed from their frames and stored rolled up for years.

Rufus-and-Caroline-for-blog

The good news is that much of the original paint is still intact underneath all the grime. A conservator recently tested the paintings to determine just how bright the colors once were and how easily they can be returned their original appearance. Once the process is complete, we can be among the first see the paintings as Griswold himself would have seen them.

You can help bring these treasures out of the shadows and allow the public to see them for the first time. Just click here to cast your vote for the paintings of Rufus and Caroline Griswold to be Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifact for 2016. For more information about the program, click here. To donate to the conservation effort, please click here.




Poe’s “Oval Portrait: and The Picture of Dorian Gray: the Artist, the Subject, and the Audience*


www.goodreads.com

Poe’s Bride in ” The Oval Portrait” (www.Goodreads.com)

After reading Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), I was struck by how much his theme about the value of art resembled the one found in Poe’s 1842 short fictional work, “The Oval Portrait.” Both stories focus on the relationship between the artist, his subject, and the viewer, or, in the case of literature, the reader.  In Poe’s story, the young artist is driven to paint the ultimate portrait of his beautiful new wife. His goal was to produce a masterpiece that would portray a symbol of youth and vitality that would last an eternity. Poe writes, “As a thing of art, nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself.” The artist writes about the bride (the subject of his art): “She’s  a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover.” However, she wanted to satisfy her husband and sat idly for days, while the artist was engrossed in his creation. He “turned his eyes from the canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife.” After his last brush stroke, “the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought.” Instead of joy, “he grew tremulous, very pallid, and aghast crying with a loud voice, ‘This is Life itself!’ [and] turned suddenly to regard his beloved—She was dead!” Poe’s story shocks readers and forces them to make a judgment on the artist’s values, as well as their own values. Some  might conclude that the story demonstrates that the value of even the most beautiful art is diminished when an artist lives without compassion and positive connection with humanity. Others might conclude that the value of art exceeds the human sacrifice it took to produce it. “The Oval Portrait” also foreshadows the idealistic relationship that modern artists have with their work, as they splash images of their creations across social media and urge people to “Like” them. In many cases, they value their work more than they try to establish and maintain positive human interactions.

Wilde writes, in his Preface of the Picture of Dorian Gray, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.” Wilde, like Poe, focuses on the relationship between the artist, his subject, and the reader: In the opening pages, he writes, “As the painter looked at the gracious and comely form he had so skilfully mirrored in his art, a smile of pleasure passed across his face.” The artist was deeply satisfied and even “riveted” by the profundity and beauty shown in his painting. The viewer of the painting, Lord Henry, who also symbolizes the reader, or the critic of art, remarks, “It is your best work, Basil, you must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor.” The painter remarks that he cannot send it the exhibition, because “I have put too much of myself into it.” Lord Henry, acting as the art critic remarks, “What odd chaps you painters are. You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away.” Although Basil is still interested in having his art recognized, he cannot risk showing Dorian’s portrait because he fears that it will expose the darkness of his soul. The artist believes that he has become too emotionally connected to his subject to allow the purveyors of art to view his creation. Basil was once as scornful of his painting as Poe’s young bride was. However, he becomes enthralled with it after it is finished, and wants to keep it as a symbol of his youth. He makes a Faustian-like request: He wishes to remain eternally young and beautiful, and in his steed, his portrait would age with time. As this a Wilde novel, he is granted his wish. As he ages, he decides that he must hide his painting in the attic for fear that someone might discover that he has found the secret formula to eternal youth. Poe was also consumed with writing about the secret of longevity and eternal life and developed this theme throughout his career in several fictional works, including “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and “Some Words with a Mummy,” and in his final science treatise, Eureka: A Prose Poem.

Since he is granted long-lasting youth, Basil’s youthful appearance does not change after several decades. However, his life becomes increasingly decadent and even more violent than any character in a Poe story! He heartlessly scorns his lover, Sybil Vane, because she proposes to love Dorian rather than to continue as being a famous Shakespearean actress. In her final stage role, she portrays Juliet, who died an unnecessary death in Shakespeare’s tragedy. When she ceases to be an idealistic object of worship for Dorian Gray, she becomes totally undesirable to him. Dorian’s heartless rejection of her also causes her to commit suicide in real life. Afterward, Dorian and his mentor, Lord Henry, coldly justify that her dramatic death was even more profound than her life would have been as a faded actress and wife of an artist. The scenario with Sybil reminds readers of the wife, in Poe’s story, who was more dedicated to her husband than to his art, and of her the husband, who was more dedicated to his art than to his loving wife. The tragic suicide of Sybil, a word meaning an auspicious omen, foreshadows the tragic downfall of Dorian and, by psychic connection, of Basil, the artist who painted him. Due to Dorian’s decadent human activities, his portrait increasingly begins to mirror his corrupted soul. In the final scenes of the book, he must decide what he is going to do to relieve the guilt he feels when he looks at his hideous portrait. He tries to resolve his tormented soul by killing the artist who painted the work and by destroying the picture. But, does he succeed? Not all that we see in Gray is certain. Readers are as shocked about the conclusion of Wilde’s book as they were about The Oval Portrait. But,  they are not certain if Dorian Gray was conveyed realistically or whether it was entirely imagined in the mind of both the artist and his subject. The creator of the novel, Oscar Wilde, provides little to no clues to help unravel the mysteries of his well-constructed story. Instead, he challenges us to draw our own conclusions. There are several unanswered questions. For example, Did Dorian’s immoral behavior cause the painting to deteriorate? Was there a psychic connection established between the artist and the subject which caused both of them to see the painting in the same way?

Oscar Wilde’s book, Dorian Gray, was also continuing a trend that was pioneered by Poe, which introduced indeterminate endings. In this type of literature, readers had to use their own resources to unravel the loose ends of a story. For example, we do not anything about the relationship between Poe’s artist and his wife before he created his painting. We also don’t know if or how the artist changed after his wife’s death. Readers and literary critics are uncertain whether Gray’s actions caused the portrait to revert back to its former youthful vibrancy, or whether the changes seen in the portrait were only in the minds of Dorian and the artist who created the painting. Wilde wrote that art imitated life and that life imitated art, concluding that readers could understand much about themselves by the ways that they interpreted literature and art. If they thought that the lack of morals caused the tragic destruction of Dorian Gray,then that would be one conclusion about the over-arching theme of the story. However, if they concluded that Dorian lived a full and productive life of hedonistic pursuits, then they might consider that his death could be considered as noble. After all, he did try to reach for eternity. I have stopped a bit short of fully describing the final ending so that readers might explore it and draw their own conclusions about The Portrait of Dorian Gray! However, if you do like that book, I suggest that you also read any of Poe’s stories—many of which had a strong influence on Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece!

*This article was originally posted on Murray Ellison’s, www.Litchatte.com Website.

##############################

 Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and  a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at [email protected]

Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum

Murray  at the Poe Museum




Salvador Dali Meets the Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe


Salvador-and-Edgar

May 11 marks the 112th birthday of one of the twentieth century’s most important artists, Salvador Dalí. What does the great Spanish Surrealist painter Dalí have to do with Edgar Allan Poe? More than you might think.

Dalí mentions Poe at the beginning and the end of his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. In the first anecdote, Dalí describes the cultural climate in Paris in the 1930s and how everyone was reading Poe and Marie Bonaparte’s new psychoanalytical take of Poe’s work. Bonaparte’s search for hidden Freudian meanings in Poe’s work appealed to Dalí and the Surrealists, who were trying to tap into the powers of the subconscious.

Dali painting in Virginia

Dali painting in Virginia

At the end of Dalí’s autobiography, he describes the process of writing the book. By that time he has fled the war in Europe and is living with friends in Virginia, about an hour north of Richmond. While there, he began Daddy Long Legs of Evening—Hope! (1940), his first picture painted entirely in America, and Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940).

During his stay, newspaper accounts say Dalí visited Richmond movie theaters and museums. One of his housemates, the author Henry Miller, signed the Poe Museum’s guest book. Dalí likely also visited the Poe Museum at that time, but his signature has not been located in the guest book. After either hearing Miller’s description of the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden or after seeing it for himself, Dalí decorated the garden at the house at which he was staying and entitled his work “The Enchanted Garden.”

Dali's Enchanted Garden in Bowling Green, Virginia

Dali’s Enchanted Garden in Bowling Green, Virginia

Whether or not Poe influenced Dalí’s landscaping, he apparently inspired the painter’s writing. In fact, Dalí claimed Poe helped him write his autobiography. According to Dalí, “on certain nights the spectre of Edgar Allan Poe would come from Richmond to see me, in a very pretty convertible car all spattered with ink. One night he made me a present of a black telephone truffled with black pieces of black noses of black dogs, inside which he had fastened with black strings a dead black rat and a black sock, the whole soaked in India ink.”

After leaving Virginia, Dalí took America by storm, producing some of his best paintings, painting celebrity portraits, and collaborating with Hollywood directors Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney. Click here to read more about Dalí’s stay in Virginia.

Dali's painting Soft Construction in Boiled Beans (1936)

Dali’s painting Soft Construction in Boiled Beans (1936)




2016 Young Writers’ Conference


The Edgar Allan Poe Museum presents

THE 2016 YOUNG WRITERS’ CONFERENCE

June 19-23, 2016

DEADLINE FOR APPLICATIONS EXTENDED TO MAY 1!

The Edgar Allan Poe Museum, located in Poe’s hometown of Richmond, Virginia, is proud to announce its 2016 Young Writers’ Conference, to be held June 19-23, 2016.  The Young Writers’ Conference is a five-day residency program for high school students who would like to hone their writing skills in a stimulating environment with other like-minded young writers.

Designed to encourage and develop the writing skills of all participants, the conference will feature a variety of experiences, including lectures from visiting writers across a range of genres, intensive workshops, discussion of craft and the artistic process, a focus on Poe through lectures and field trips to places he knew, and much more.  The conference concludes with a reading in which students will share the work they’ve produced throughout the week.

As the conference is sponsored by the Poe Museum, one of its goals is to further the legacy of Poe, who was not only a short story writer but also a poet, journalist, editor and critic.  Poe grew up in Richmond and began his literary career here, but he also returned to this city throughout his life. The Poe Museum contains the world’s largest collection of Poe’s manuscripts, letters, first editions, artifacts and memorabilia, making it a rich place to study both Poe and the craft of writing.

DAILY SCHEDULE: Each morning of the Young Writers’ Conference begins with breakfast followed by a keynote speaker who would give an hour-long presentation centering on his or her writing specialty.  That lecture would be succeeded by an intensive workshop focusing on the presentation topic.  After lunch, the afternoon schedule varies from day-to-day and might include a walking tour of Poe’s old neighborhoods, a talk from the Poe Museum’s curator about Poe’s life and work, a trip to Charlottesville where Poe studied at the University of Virginia, visits to historic sites in Richmond such as Monumental Church and Shockoe Hill Cemetery, or a movie night at the famous Byrd Theatre.  Every afternoon would include dinner and time for the students to write.

MORNING PRESENTATIONS:  The talks in the morning will focus on different kinds of writing each day.  Authors who specialize in fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, non-fiction and other genres combine theory and practice to tell the students about the challenges, techniques and rewards of their various fields.

WORKSHOPS:  Every morning following the lecture the students participate in a workshop in which they will read from their own work; receive critique, instruction and support from their workshop leader and peers; and engage in exercises and writing prompts that will serve to develop their skills.

HONING THE CRAFT OF WRITING:  Time will be set aside each afternoon for the students to practice their writing—often by experimenting with the things they have learned in the morning and on previous days.  An essential part of the program, this independent creative time  concentrates writing activity and allows students to develop a piece to read aloud on the last evening of the conference.

FOCUS ON POE:  Taking advantage of the staff and resources of the Poe Museum and its location in the historic neighborhood of Shockoe Bottom in Poe’s hometown of Richmond. The conference will provide students with several chances to engage closely with Poe’s life and work through lectures, tours, presentations, and activities.

ELIGIBILITY:  The 2016 Young Writers’ Conference is open to anyone who is enrolled in the 9th, 10th, 11th or 12th grade at the time of application.

LOCATION AND RESIDENCE:  The 2016 Young Writers’ Conference is centered at the Linden Row Inn, at 100 East Franklin Street, Richmond VA 23219.  Students will reside at the Inn throughout their stay; some meals and many activities will be there as well.  This is a residential program, which involves the students living together as a community of writers wherein the participants encourage and creatively engage each another through conversation, reading each other’s work and sharing a common routine and schedule.

COST:  The 2016 Young Writers’ Conference is $750 per participant.  This fee includes four nights’ lodging at the Linden Row Inn and three meals a day for the four full days of the conference, plus dinner on the first night after arrival.

RULES:  Those who apply to the 2016 Young Writers’ Conference should be high school students who are actively engaged in writing and serious about improving their skills and contributing to a residential writing community.  Attendees are not allowed to bring or use tobacco products or alcohol.  The residence is gender segregated and visits to the rooms of members of the opposite gender are prohibited.

TO APPLY:  Those interested in participating in the 2016 Young Writers’ Conference must submit their application by MAY 1, 2016.  The application process is open to anyone enrolled in high school in the spring of 2016; those applying should demonstrate a serious interest in writing and the ability to live in a residential writing community for five days.  All applicants will receive notice of the result of their application by May 6, 2016.  Those accepted will be expected to send a deposit of $100 to secure their spot by May 27, 2016.  The remainder of the fee will be due in full before or upon arrival at the Conference.

APPLICATION FORM:  2016 Young Writers’ Conference Application




Poe Museum and James River Writers Start New Literary Salon


On February 11 from 7-9 p.m. at the Patrick Henry Pub and Grille in Richmond, the Poe Museum will team up with James River Writers to bring back the grand tradition of the salon, an intimate setting to meet & fraternize with local authors as they in turn guide you in your own writing practice. Whatever your genre, this will be a great way to connect, to learn, and to philosophize. There is no cover charge. We welcome writerly types of all experience levels and readers, thinkers, and artists of every sort. To top it off, the building in which we will be meeting was the home of J.W. Fergusson, Poe’s assistant at the Southern Literary Messenger and one of the few people to attend Poe’s wedding. The theme for the first salon will be “The Secret Heart–Considering the Dark Side of Romance” with speaker Slash Coleman.

PatrickHenryPub-web

Here are the Details:

February Topic: The Secret Heart – Considering the Dark Side of Romance
Speaker: Slash Coleman
Thursday, February 11, 7:00-9:00 p.m.
Patrick Henry Pub & Grille, in the upstairs salon
2300 East Broad Street (free street parking)

About the Speaker:

Slash-Coleman-cc3

NPR calls award-winning storyteller Slash Coleman “Extremely provocative and entertaining,” and WGBH says the NYC based author, “has the power to change the way people think.”

The author of The Bohemian Love Diaries, the personal perspectives blogger for Psychology Today, and an advice columnist at howdoidate.com (Ask Uncle Slash), Slash is best known for his PBS Special The Neon Man and Me and is currently creating The New American Storyteller for PBS. Slash’s performances have been featured in American Theatre Magazine, Backstage Magazine, The Washington Post, and most recently on the NPR series How Artists Make Money.

Click here for more information.




Tell Us Your Favorite Poe Story


Poe Montage

What’s your favorite Poe story? The Poe Museum is determined to find out which is Poe’s Greatest Hit, and you can help. Just vote right now for your favorite Poe story from the finalists on this list. Voting continues until January 16 at 5 p.m. Eastern. The winning story will be announced at 5:30 p.m. during Poe’s Birthday Bash on January 16 at the Poe Museum in Richmond, and we’ll post it on our blog and social media.

What will the winning short story receive? The Poe Museum will feature it in the new exhibit Poe’s Greatest Hits and will develop special programming around that story in the near future.

Here are the finalists. You can click each one to read or reread it.

“Berenice”
“The Black Cat”
“The Cask of Amontillado”
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
“The Gold-Bug”
“Hop-Frog”
“Ligeia”
“The Man That Was Used Up”
“The Masque of the Red Death”
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
“Never Bet the Devil Your Head”
“The Oval Portrait”
“The Pit and the Pendulum”
“The Purloined Letter”
“Some Words with a Mummy”
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
“William Wilson”

Vote below for your favorite Poe story.




Could this be the real Annabel Lee?


Stella Letter detail web

From the man who sneaked into his dead wife’s crypt to spend the night on her corpse to the woman who believed she was in communication with Poe’s spirit after his death, colorful characters seemed to flock to Edgar Allan Poe. But Stella stands out even among this crowd. It is said that, when he saw her approaching his front door, Poe fled through the back door to avoid her. She may have even convinced her husband to pay Poe to write positive reviews of her work. In spite of that, she told Poe’s biographer John Henry Ingram she had been Poe’s good and trusted friend, and she boasted that she had been the inspiration for his poem “Annabel Lee.” The Poe Museum now owns a strange letter she wrote to one of Poe’s biographers. Because it reveals some entertaining insights in her personality and her relationship with Poe, we have named it the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.

Stella-web

Estelle Anna “Stella” Lewis (1824-1880) was a moderately successful writer and the wife of lawyer Sylvanus Lewis. She first became acquainted with Poe around 1846. She soon joined a group of Poe’s female admirers in helping the poet, his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, and his gravely ill wife Virginia in a time of need. After Virginia’s death in January 1847, Stella continued to visit Poe and his mother-in-law. According to Stella, she became his trusted confidant, but other sources believed she was really trying to bribe him to write complimentary reviews. Meanwhile, Stella’s “trusted confidant” Poe wrote in a June 16, 1848 letter to Annie Richmond, “If she [Stella] comes here I shall refuse to see her.”

Poe was close enough to Stella to write the following acrostic poem for her. The first letter of the first line, the second of the second, and so forth spell out her name.

“Seldom we find,” says Solomon Don Dunce,
“Half an idea in the profoundest sonnet.
Through all the flimsy things we see at once
As easily as through a Naples bonnet—
Trash of all trash!—how can a lady don it?
Yet heavier far than your Petrarchan stuff—
Owl-downy nonsense that the faintest puff
Twirls into trunk-paper the while you con it.”
And, veritably, Sol is right enough.
The general tuckermanities are arrant
Bubbles—ephemeral and so transparent—
But this is, now,—you may depend upon it—
Stable, opaque, immortal—all by dint
Of the dear names that he concealed within’t.

Unlike many of the poems Poe addressed to women, there is no hint of romance in this one. He also had this daguerreotype of himself made for her.

stella daguerreotypeweb

He gave Annie Richmond another, very similar, daguerreotype taken at the same session.

Stella later told John Henry Ingram, “I saw much of Mr. Poe during the last year of his life. He was one of the most sensitive and refined gentlemen I ever met. My girlish poem — ‘The Forsaken’ — made us acquainted. He had seen it floating the rounds of the press, and wrote to tell me how much he liked it: ‘It is inexpressibly beautiful,’ he said, ‘and I should like much to know the young author.’ After the first call he frequently dined with us, and passed the evening in playing whist or in reading to me his last poem.”

On his last night in New York before starting his ill-fated trip to Richmond, Stella invited Poe and his mother-in-law to her home for dinner. As Stella told it, “The day before he left New York for Richmond,” continues Stella, “Mr. Poe came to dinner, and stayed the night. He seemed very sad and retired early. On leaving the next morning he took my hand in his, and, looking in my face, said, ‘Dear Stella, my much beloved friend. You truly understand and appreciate me — I have a presentiment that I shall never see you again. I must leave to-day for Richmond. If I never return, write my life. You can and will do me justice.’ ‘I will!’ I exclaimed. And we parted to meet no more in this life. That promise I have not yet felt equal to fulfil.” Poe died a few months afterwards. Stella died three decades later without fulfilling that promise.

In the years following Poe’s death, Stella invited his mother-in-law to live with her. It seems that, in order to endear herself to Stella, Mrs. Clemm told her she had been the inspiration for “Annabel Lee”—even though nothing in the poem suggests this. Stella almost immediately told her friends, and the rumor appeared in the papers not long after that. Another of Poe’s friends, Frances Osgood, responded in the December 8, 1849 issue of Saroni’s Musical Times that Poe’s wife was the only woman he had ever loved and was unquestionably the true subject of “Annabel Lee.” Osgood continues, “I have heard it said that it was intended to illustrate a love affair of the author; but they who believe this, have in their dullness, evidently misunderstood or missed the beautiful meaning latent in the most lovely of all its verses…” Most people now agree with Osgood.

Poe’s ex-fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, however, (who also thought she had been the inspiration for “Annabel Lee”) was so insulted by Stella’s claim that she spread the rumor that a New York writer familiar with all the parties involved told her Maria Clemm had only been flattering Stella to repay some favors and that Osgood had invented the claim that Virginia was the real Annabel Lee solely to spite Stella. (In case you’re counting, that’s three possible Annabel Lees in this blog post.)

Just to make sure her role in Poe’s life was recorded for posterity, she befriended his enemy and biographer Rufus W. Griswold. She still failed to convince the public she could have been the real Annabel Lee.

In 1858, Stella divorced her husband, began a feud with Maria Clemm (who apparently sided with Sylvanus Lewis in the divorce), accused another writer of stealing from her, and headed for Europe. About this time, Martin Van Buren Moore (1837-1900), a young reporter from Tennessee, wrote her for assistance in writing an article about Edgar Allan Poe. In her response, she boasts that Poe himself had entrusted her to be his biographer, calls Maria Clemm the “black cat” of Poe’s life, talks about her divorce, and asks Moore if she should change her name to La Stella or Anna Stella. She eventually settled on the name Stella. Here is a photo of this note.

Stella Letter-web

The text of the letter reads:

Dear Van,
I had not time to reply to you [sic] letter which reached me the day before I sailed for Europe. I called at Mr. Scribner’s on my way to the vessel and told his brother to say to you that I would write the notice of Poe–I will if you can wait. It was his last request of me– “Write my life–you know better than anyone else.” he said. If any one else should write it do not permit the name of that old woman who calls herself his mother-in-law to appear in it. I have heard that she is not his mother-in-law–That she has something else on him. Any how. I believe that she was [the] black cat of his life. And that she strangled him to death. I will tell you about it when we meet. If you get the work out before I return to America put Poe first, and Stella next in the Poets of Maryland. You cannot get it out till next year as it ought to be– do wait–that is a good Van.
I intend to drop the name of Lewis–but cannot do it at once–What do you think of La Stella or Anna Stella. Call me Stella on all occasions–ring on it in biographical notice– You know that the Divorce was all in my favor–That is after trying for a year they could not get anything against me–and gave it up–say this in the notice–say that I stood unscathed against the treachery of a half dozen Lawyers. Let me hear from you the moment you get this. Direct to care of Mr. John Monroe, Banker, no 5, Rue de La Paix, Paris—
Ever Yours
Stella

After leaving the United States, Stella meandered around Europe before settling in London around 1874. While there, she provided information about the poet to another of Poe’s biographers John Henry Ingram. At the same time, Poe’s nurse Marie Louise Shew and his fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman were also supplying Ingram sometimes contradictory accounts of their own relationships with Poe.

Stella Sappho 1878 web

Stella still found time to write poetry and plays. Her major works include the tragedies Helémah, or the Fall of Montezuma (1864) and Sappho of Lesbos (1868). The latter was printed in seven editions and translated into Greek to be performed in Athens. The Poe Museum owns a autographed copy of this, her most celebrated work. In 1865 she composed a series of sonnets about Poe. Her other works include The Child of the Sea and other Poems (1848), The Myths of the Minstrel (1852), Poems (1866) and The King’s Stratagem(1869).

Stella Autograph-web

Stella died in London in 1880. By then, the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine deemed her the “Female Petrarch” while Ingram considered her merely a “harpy” who had preyed upon Poe in his final years.

Martin Van Buren Moore Manuscript (1)A

Martin Van Buren Moore eventually wrote his essay about Poe. The manuscript for it is also in the Poe Museum’s collection. His grandson Otis D. Smith of Richmond, Virginia donated both the Stella letter and the manuscript to the Museum in 1979 but kept the envelope because he thought he might be able to sell it to a stamp collector.

On this page from Moore’s manuscript, he acknowledges the assistance of the “brilliant” Stella to whom he is “indebted for many of the facts in regards to Poe’s life” that were used in the essay. Among these facts, he continues, “She stated positively that Poe was born in Baltimore and not in Boston.” Click here to find out where Poe was really born. Fortunately, Moore’s essay makes no attempt to promote the discredited claims that Stella was the real Annabel Lee.

Martin Van Buren Moore Manuscript (6a)cropped

While the Poe Museum owns a number of Edgar Allan Poe’s letters, most visitors do not realize the collection also holds several rarely seen letters from the people in his life. While these are rarely anthologized and seldom read, they nevertheless provide value insights into Poe’s life and work as seen by his contemporaries. Since this Stella letter was written to a person researching an article about Poe, the document reveals the way in which Poe’s biography was shaped (or distorted) by the biases and self-interests of the people who knew him as they provided information of varying quality to his biographers.

Stella-signature-web




New Exhibit Examines Poe’s Secret Code


Illustration for the first printing of "The Gold-Bug"

Illustration for the first printing of “The Gold-Bug”

Armies have been sending sensitive information through encoded messages for thousands of years to protect that information from falling into enemy hands, but it was Edgar Allan Poe who popularized the use of these cryptograms as a form of entertainment and in fiction with his story “The Gold-Bug.” Even before the publication of this trailblazing treasure-hunt mystery, Poe was so interested in cryptograms that he challenged the readers of his magazine to send him codes to solve. From September 24 until December 31, the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will explore Poe’s love of cryptography in the new exhibit The Poe Code: Cryptograms and Puzzles in the Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Visitors to the exhibit will learn how to decode a simple cryptogram and how to hide a name in plain sight by composing an acrostic poem.

While you are here, be sure not to miss the special exhibit Buried Alive, which closes on October 18.

The Gold-Bug

The Gold-Bug