On the corner of Seventh and Spring Garden streets, the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site sticks out from its surroundings.
A large, metal raven stands by the wrought iron gate that encircles the old brick house, now maintained by the U.S. National Park Service. A few trees with knotted old branches are lined outside. Down the block on the corner of Seventh and Green streets, a mural of Poe is painted on the side of a house, with a quote from one of his stories, “Hop Frog.”
Poe lived in Philadelphia between 1833 and 1844, during which his wife was suffering from tuberculosis.
“His life is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together,” said National Parks Service tour guide Maria Schaller.
Although the city most closely associated with Edgar Allan Poe is Baltimore, Philadelphia was his home for six fairly successful and productive years in which Poe published some of his most widely read and acclaimed works like “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” among many others.
In 1978, Congress designated Poe’s house on Seventh and Spring Garden streets as the official U.S. memorial to the writer. In addition to living at a few different locations in Philadelphia during his time in the city, Poe spent time in Boston, New York and, his place of burial, Baltimore. The Edgar Allan Poe House is the last remaining residence of Poe’s from his time in Philadelphia.
Poe’s life is marked continuously by tragedy — his father abandoned him and his mother died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Thirty-six years later, his young wife Virginia died of the same disease at the same age. A frequent theme in Poe’s work is the death of young, beautiful women, and it is clear that these two deaths weighed heavily on him for the rest of his life.
“Annabel Lee” is considered by most literary critics to be a loving dedication to his deceased wife.
Although the original decorations and furniture are no longer present, details of the house show its history. The walls are covered by paint that is chipped and scarred. The rooms are empty, the narrow stairs creak, the walls are bare and the floors are painted black. Low rafters hang in the basement, covered in dust and cobwebs.
Exhibits sum up Poe’s life in detail, shedding light on his time in Philadelphia — a productive and creative period in his career.
The guided tour takes guests through the rooms where Poe, Virginia and her mother lived. In the upstairs room of Virginia’s mother, Schaller excitedly removed a floorboard near the window to show guests the prop heart tucked underneath it. Schaller said the basement is similar to the one described in “The Black Cat.”
Katherine Henry, a professor in the English department and expert on romanticism, said Poe’s time in Philadelphia was “a formative experience.”
“His time here was marked by social unrest, race riots and ethnic riots, and it showed in his writing,” Henry said.
Henry said this can be seen in “The Devil and the Belfry,” in which the old state house’s bell is featured.
While in Philadelphia, Poe rubbed elbows with Charles Dickens. The two bonded about literary criticism and the fact that they were both victims of copyright infringement, as their books were being re-printed and sold overseas.
“Poe and Dickens had a sort of falling out eventually when Poe wanted Dickens to help him get his books printed in England and Dickens declined,” Henry said.
“Poe became friends George Lippard, activist and fellow gothic writer. Poe and Lippard both wrote early science fiction, and Poe’s influence can be seen in H.P Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness,’” Henry said.
Poe also kept company with James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Henry cites her favorite Poe work as “The Casque of Amontillado,” a macabre tale about someone being murdered in a particularly horrible way: immurement, in which someone has a brick wall built around them.
“It’s funny,” Henry said. “People don’t think about his humor.”
Helen McKenna, a National Park Service employee who works at both the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site and Independence Hall, said her favorite part of Poe’s house is a reading room decorated in the style Poe himself described in his essay, “The Philosophy of Furniture.” The room is not part of the original house, but it does have the full works of Poe available for visitors’ reading pleasure.
“My favorite part of his personality is just that he was so volatile in some ways,” McKenna said. “He’s a real gentleman and he’s very intelligent. He was proud and arrogant. He was kind of an impressive character. People who knew him well were impressed with his conversational abilities.”
Poe’s death is his last great mystery — he died on Oct. 7, 1849, after he was found four days earlier incoherent and incapacitated wandering around Baltimore. No solid explanation has been uncovered for his death except for theories including disease, murder, suicide or alcoholism.
“One of the things that’s fascinating about Poe is that you just can’t make blanket statements about him, he was a very complicated character and someone who deserves a lot of study,” McKenna said. “This time of year everybody wants to talk about spooky-spooky Poe and he’s got a lot more going for his character and legacy than that.”
Jacob Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.