Times of Toil, Tales of Terror: Poe’s Philadelphia

by Scott Mastro

Trekking Spring Garden Street north of Philadelphia’s Historical District, one arrives at 530-532 Seventh Street, the only standing structure remaining of Edgar Allan Poe’s five Philadelphia residences. This one complete with brass knocker and United States park ranger’s patches, caps and all, since designated as a national park site in 1978.  Although Poe lived in Boston, Baltimore and New York City throughout his thirty-eight years, this Philadelphia address was Poe’s most prolific hearth and home.

Edgar, wife Virginia, mother-in-law Maria Muddy Clemm, and kitten Catterina, shared six rooms in the left wooden rear of this duplex from some time in 1842 until some time in 1844.  Philadelphia was America’s publishing center then and Edgar hoped to benefit from their habituation in this wood metropolis.

Born in Boston to traveling actors and abandoned by them in that same city, Poe was adopted and taken to England by John and Frances Allan, returning to the States in his late teens.  He attended military high school and Annapolis, Maryland’s West Point, distinguishing himself in Latin and French, but skewering a military career with a penchant for gambling.

The rest of his days he spent as an editor and wrote his stories for pennies per word, dreaming of the successful poet he would one day become. To that end, and to make ends meet, Poe wrote The Gold Bug, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart, and Murders in the Rue Morgue at this Seventh Street address, single-handedly creating a new American genre, the detective mystery, inspiring the careers of Sherlock Holmes, Monsieur Poirot, Perry Mason and the quirky Kinksta, Kinky Friedman. Even Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov tip their hats to Poe’s legacy of literary exploration in science fiction.  His writings transcended Coleridge and infused those of the French Symbolists Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarm.  In America, his effect can be most notably examined in the works of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.

Here in these six rooms on three floors, the walls scraped brittle and now uneven, still echo images of the murky, moaning creatures that Poe’s creations epitomized and eulogized. They are testaments to the fact that it is no honor to die a horrible and frightful death or to live a comparable life. The ghosts of fireplace flames frame echoes of Poe’s pioneering pen strokes poking plot twists like coals in a hoary hearth, from whence Poe fixed murder and mayhem in horribly romantic ruminations.

The posthumously published revenges for Poe’s gruff commentary of a contemporary of inferior poetic skills, one Rufus Griswold, plagued the degree of Poe’s facted or rumored bouts with alcohol, opium, and madness, but the dead cannot defend themselves, as the victims in his tales of terror assure those who walk these sagging, drunkenly angled rooms and wander these creaking, nail-headed halls. This dank and spooky basement must certainly have been stimulation for the tale of The Black Cat.

Upon the death of his beloved Virginia in 1847, Poe’s decline quickened the rupture of his fragiled circumstances and hastened his mysterious October 7, 1849 expiration in Baltimore. There are many conjectured causes as numerous and plumed as meningitis, heart disease, epilepsy, hypoglycemia, cortical lesion, hemorrhage, and congestion of the brain, to being abducted, beaten, robbed, and forced to imbibe spirits and participate as an indentured repeat-voter.

Unlike his contemporaries, among them Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, who received earthly acclaims in their own lifetime, Poe lived, loved, labored, and lettered through his terrors and toils, destined to be hailed in posthumous resound, to stand where he sent so many of his characters to their fear and doom, leaving one listening for their cries, whispers, and moans calling through the ages for justice and salvation, and things that were not to be, for they or their troubled author.

As mysterious as Poe and the workings of his dark stories, the furniture that adorned this Philadelphia location has long since disappeared.  The irony of this manifestation is that Poe wrote an essay entitled A Philosophy of Furniture wherein he satirized the tastes in housewares of Philadelphia’s newly wealthied middle class and their desire to appear as rich as possible, rivaling the old money families in this, his adopted city.

In the Poe family’s personal story, this address holds the key to the last phase in their happy existence, as shortly before their move-in, Edgar’s beloved Virginia was diagnosed with tuberculosis and the house was in fact chosen for its availability to air and light.  There was hope here, they believed; their fortunes were going to turn around.  Life would be better from here on in. Surely, positioned in the heart of publishing America, Virginia’s ingenious husband, and Muddy’s talented son-in-law, would be recognized and rewarded for his singularity.  His eccentricities were tolerated in every respect, he being as lucky as to have a supportive wife and doting mother-in-law.

An attached porch, since torn down, offered the Poes a place to entertain during the warmer months and a place for Virginia to relax while her mother raked or swept or finished the chores of running the household of a soon-to-be famous writer.

In the cooler months on through winter, the Poes received their guests in the parlor, a room with a fireplace and a view to the yard and garden. Edgar traveled among a circle of “writer hopefuls” and it is reported that all who visited, enjoyed Poe’s wit and Muddy’s culinary accomplishments. Virginia would sit at her husband’s side, when she could, her focus trained on his every word.  Many times though illness would overcome her and she would retire early.  Then too, there were times when she was too sick to receive guests and would be confined to her room on the third floor.

With his wife ill and the constant pressure to provide the comforts of a home for his family, Poe constantly struggled with his art, writing at irregular times, whenever the mood struck him.  He would then write and write until exhaustion, falling asleep at his desk many times. Poe himself didn’t realize that his own health was already beginning to suffer his demise. Yet for Poe, fame was just around the corner, always in the next story, the next page, the next sentence. How could Philadelphia not notice his achievements?  Tomorrow, the next day, the next issue would put them over the edge and pull them out of poverty, for whatever we know about his life, we know he struggled through its entirety to seek a living doing what he loved. He felt time away from writing was time wasted.  If he couldn’t make a living writing, then he was a failure.

To honor Poe in the triumph of one of his most famous pieces, a looming statue of a raven has been erected in the yard.  As you approach from the south, the Spring Garden Street side, you realize you’ve reached the famed Poe residence.  The raven watches your arrival and bids you a dark-eyed welcome.  It is a testament to Poe’s contributions.

Walking north to the next corner of Seventh Street, there on the face of a private house, the city has commissioned a mural of the writer, but the residents take no notice.  Cars come to the corner and with a light touch of the accelerator wheel on.

People pass on foot without a turn of the head.  Poe watches the neighborhood, now mostly two-story brick public housing.

Inside again, through the flat, gray drizzle, the ghost of a weakened Virginia asks, “What are you working on?” coming down the narrow staircase and meeting her husband on the landing, himself drained from work and worry. The Gold Bug, netted the author a hundred-dollar first prize in a city-sponsored literary contest.

Philadelphia was a financial paradox for Poe, showering him with as much income from his writings as he would receive in his lifetime, but never enough to sustain a prolonged and stable living situation.

Certainly Edgar’s skills as an editor were employed at a modest salary. When he arrived in Philadelphia in 1838 he was employed as a hack writer, churning out a book on conchology for a Scottish marine biologist, while working in his free time on the stories we’ve come to know him for. This ghost-work led to his becoming associate editor of Burtons Gentleman’s Magazine in 1839 whereupon a year later he quarreled with his employer and was shown the door.  In 1841, he edited Graham’s Magazine and in 1843, The Saturday Museum.  It was within the pages of these last two publications that Poe presented many of his stories at a whopping six cents per word.  He wrote book reviews and critiqued poetry, making enemies along the way.

Before coming to Philadelphia, the Poes lived in Richmond, Virginia where Edgar edited The Southern Literary Messenger and within a year’s time he was promoted to editor-in-chief.  It was here in Richmond that he made a reputation for himself by publishing and receiving notice for some of his stories. He was certain now that his star would rise and continue to ascend until the brightness of his genius would send him exploding high across the literary world and it was here that he, counting on the fortunes that were certain to be borne of his efforts, met and married Virginia Clemm, the thirteen year-old daughter of his paternal aunt. At the same time, comfortable in his new position in Richmond writing circles, Poe embellished his nature with alcohol and gambling and it is most likely this facet of his character led to his resignation from The Southern Literary Messenger, a matter of small concern; he was ascending and there were greater things waiting for him beyond the magazine, and beyond Richmond; it was on to New York now.  He had his eye on the New York Review, but a false start in the Big Apple found the Poes back in Richmond soon after their departure.  But, as quickly as they returned to Richmond, they turned around again and headed back to New York City.  And within the year, 1838, they moved to Philadelphia.  Before leaving New York City though, Poe published, in book form, his longest tale, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

It was left for Edgar to pass in and out of Philadelphia’s literary limelight as one more pen plodding a page and it was not until after his death that his achievements were recognized.

Poe’s work has been translated into languages around the world, but perhaps the most fitting and far-reaching tribute to his contributions in American letters comes from an unusual source, the English comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  Best known for their surreal silliness and absurd comedy sketches, Python member, Terri Gilliam, employs a cut-out bust of Poe in his bizarrely animated and now infamous collage sequences in which the frowning and eye-twitching visage of Edgar Allan Poe lunges onto the screen and then proceeds to pop open across the cranial lobe like a jack-in-the-box spewing everything imaginable: kites, pigs, windmills, rockets, clowns, society ladies, butterflies, policemen, and then the kitchen sink.

Poe wrote his first stories as a child.  During his Army years he penned what would later bring him notice as the poet he aspired to be, but it was his stories of the macabre, the stories we think of when we hear the name Poe, that slipped though the sidewalks of Philadelphia, seeping into the ground and spawning green again in the lawn below that second floor window at 530 Seventh Street after his last footsteps turned to make certain that the lock was tight and that the key was left in the mailbox.

It is midnight now and a frail Edgar paces past that writing-room window, one hand to his chin, pen in the other to his hip, Virginia’s upstairs breathing soft as fire glow, Muddy is damping coals downstairs.  Catterina creeps around the corner, keeping close to the wall. Turning again, Poe steps to his writing table and, in the voice of his Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, he writes a new opening sentence in literary history: “The mental features discoursed as of the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis”.  Summing up what might be his own existence, the American murder mystery is born.

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