Happy Birthday, Mr. Poe
By David Daniel
On this day, sir, in 1809, you were born in Boston, a child of actors. Before long, your father split to chase his own dreams and your mother continued acting to support herself and you—performing the roles of young women—Ophelia, Juliet … young women who died each night on the stage. Then, she too was gone. Tuberculosis.
You were taken in by the Allans of Richmond, Virginia, never adopted but raised by them into early adulthood. You went to U Virginia for a short time but left due to lack of money—a condition that was to dog you your entire life. At 18 you joined the Army and served at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor where (it’s been said) you may have encountered an idea about someone walling up a foe behind a brick wall). You published your first book—or paid to have it published. It failed to get attention. (Fun fact: nearly two hundred years after that book, Tamerlane and Other Poems by “A Bostonian,” appeared, a beat-up first-edition sold at auction for nearly $700,000.)
Later you failed as an officer cadet at West Point, failed at other endeavors; but by then you were bent on pursuing the path of writing. We can skip the details. You already know them; and what the rest of us don’t know we can find out by simply . . . never mind, let’s just say the information is at our fingertips.
Over the next decades you published scores of poems and tales and reams of critical work and journalism, earning a pittance, ever faced with adversity: job insecurity, health crises with your loved ones, substance abuse, literary feuds. And then, forty years old, you were gone. The how or why have never been clear. What is clear—in spades—is that though you missed most of the hurrahs, in your all too brief time you accomplished something monumental. Regrettably, the man who wrote the narrative of your life once you’d passed–Rufus Griswold—was a scoundrel, a knave. In his obituary he began: “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” In a biography he painted you as unbalanced, a madman, a dope-fiend!
My love affair with your writing started when I was twelve and discovered my mother’s collection of your tales. It was (is; I have it still) a 560-page volume published in 1944 and illustrated with wood engravings by renowned illustrator Fritz Eichenberg. One of the first stories was “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which opens:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse . . . a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.
And in those incantations and dark portents your spell was cast on me and it has never been broken. In short order I read “The Gold Bug,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” – some two dozen in all. They haunt me still. This past autumn I revisited them on my iPhone (don’t ask; you don’t need to know; though your protean imagination could well have conceived the instrument). And just so you know, over the 175 years since your passing, your life and work continue to be popular, adapted and readapted and reimagined in books and … let’s just say “other media.”
Long ago, where belles lettres were concerned, America was considered by Europeans to be a howling wilderness. You challenged that. Over time, our European cousins took note and began to translate stories and poems by the “mad” American writer. Readers couldn’t get enough.
Here in this own country, though, things were slower to start. The injustice done you by Rufus Griswold had a lingering effect for some while, but time has more than taken care of it. The power of your work—the language, the rhythms, the ideas, the imagination were not to be denied. You’re a household name. A star. And just so you know… that poem “The Raven” It’s been translated into over 700 languages! Who is Doofus Grizzlebrow now but an ink blot, a cheap stage villain hissed at from the theater seats.
It’s been said—you said, in fact—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” This is everywhere evident in your poems and stories—“Annabel Lee” to “Ulalume,” “Eleonora” to “Ligeia.” One can wonder, did this fixation begin in your infancy when beautiful and gifted young mother enacted on stage doomed young women? Was it reinforced when your child bride, Virginia, died at the same age of twenty-four of that same most consuming of diseases?
But let us leave the “Valley of the shadow.” Hereabouts, in the Merrimack Valley, you are honored. In Lowell there is a bronze plaque in front of the donut shop on the corner of Church Street, identifying the spot as the former site of the Washington House and Tavern, visited by “Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen (sic) Poe.” There’s another plaque on the architecturally striking Wentworth Building on Merrimack Street. The July 7, 1848 edition of The Daily Journal & Courier announced: “Mr. Edgar A. Poe will lecture in Wentworth’s Hall … on the Poets and Poetry of America in which he will introduce recitations from various authors, and, by particular request, his own Poem of the ‘Raven.’ Tickets to be had at …” etc.
Excited at this prospect, wealthy paper mill owner Charles Richmond and his wife Nancy (Locke Heyward) Richmond, admirers of your work, invited you to stay at their home in Westford. In the time you spent with Nancy the friendship bloomed into a (platonic?) romance. This was in the year after the death of your beloved Virginia, and in a poem you titled “For Annie” you spoke of how “the fever called Living” is conquered at last.
A second, longer visit to Lowell followed in late October of that year, including three days in Westford. A third and final visit came in the spring of 1849. Westford has not one but two memorials to you. A historic marker at 11 Graniteville Rd. engraved with a raven commemorates the times you spent there near the end of your life. It was installed by local author Brad Parker whose book “The Saga of Eddie & Annie: Lowell’s Greatest Romance” (1984) recounts your visit to the Heywood home and your friendship and crush on Nancy (Locke Heywood) Richmond, Heywood’s oldest but already married daughter. Along with some very mushy personal letters, she inspired your poem “For Annie” –your name for Nancy. “She tenderly kissed me,/ She fondly caressed,/ And then I fell gently/ To sleep on her breast—” When Charles Richmond died in 1873, Nancy went to probate court and had her name legally changed to Annie.
Last year, fittingly just before Halloween, a new sculpture was unveiled in Westford. The work of local firefighter and artist David Christiana, it celebrates your time in town. Located in the town center, it’s a granite block inscribed with your signature and atop it, cast in bronze, sit a top hat and walking stick. A final part of the installation, yet to come, will be a beguiling raven perched on a granite post.
Local historian Richard Howe, founder of this blog, conducts popular tours of the Lowell Cemetery and will sometimes point out “Annie’s” headstone, which is of great interest to the public. “It’s not a stretch to say Edgar Allan Poe’s girlfriend is buried at Lowell Cemetery,” Howe says.
Were you alive today, you would be amused at the way things eventually turned out for you; and rightly proud of what you achieved. It took some time, but the power of the work—the rhythms, the musicality, the Gothicism, the psychological probing, the rich weave of words—was not to be denied. Your niche in the pantheon of World Literature is secure.
Perhaps there is a better, kinder place where you have claimed exemption from the unfairness of this life. Probably not, but it’s nice to contemplate. Were you alive, would you feel honored and amused to find your image on postage stamps? Would you give thumbs up/down on the books, films and TV series that seem to flow continuously from the tap of your imagination? On your bookshelf, alongside the bust of Pallas Athena (Greek Goddess of wisdom and sanity and courage) would there be an “Edgar”—the commemorative statuette awarded each year for the best mysteries? Would you root for the Baltimore Ravens … ?
All fancy and speculation. For now, a simple wish: Happy birthday, sir.
The University of Massachusetts Lowell has an excellent archive on your local connections. https://libguides.uml.edu/early_lowell/Poe_visits_to_Lowell
Information on Poe’s Westford connection: