Museum Disputes Popular Perception of Poe

Aug 18, 2016

This summer, thousands of tourists will visit the Civil War battlefields of Virginia, its premiere national park, the ornate capital in Richmond and a quirky little spot nearby, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum.  Most expect to learn more about a guy reputed to be depressed, disheveled and often drunk.  In fact, Poe was also known in his time for comedy, and the ladies found him charming.

The Poe Museum is a compound of old, red-brick houses around a courtyard inhabited by a couple of black cats – Pluto and Edgar.  On the last Thursday of each month, visitors are invited here to enjoy cocktails during the city’s only un-happy hour, and it routinely draws people like Joy Heinig and her relatives from Ukraine.

“We are into dark and spooky things, and Edgar Allan Poe was the epitome of dark and spooky things.”

But the museum’s curator, Chris Semptner, says Poe was actually well known for his great sense of humor.  He wrote essays and gave lectures that people said were hilarious, and he was a real ladies’ man:

“Women in Poe’s day thought Poe was just fascinating. They thought he was capable of mesmerism and had mysterious powers, and at these literary soirees, he was the one they came to see and to hear, and he started getting fan mail, especially after his wife died, he got fan mail.  This lady, Sarah Hellen Woodman just out of the blue wrote him a Valentine’s poem how she wanted to fly away with the raven to his nest up in the sky. So, he dropped everything, went up to Providence to meet her, and proposed to her the first day in the most romantic place he could find: a cemetery.”

She said yes – but her mother said no, and her mother prevailed.  That didn’t stop Edgar, who would go on to have several more passionate affairs. 

He was also a serious writer who shook up the literary establishment with new ways of thinking about prose.

“Critics would say a good story is one that had a moral or taught you something or edified you – made you a better person, and he was saying, ‘No!' Art should exist for art’s sake. The poem can exist for the poem's sake; if it's a beautiful poem, that's enough. If it's a story that makes you feel something, that’s enough.”

Some also see him as the father of the modern day detective story.

“He was very interested in the psychology and what made people tick, or how to understand mental illness and Poe was writing about this. He was observing a murder trial which the defendant claimed he was not guilty by reason of insanity, and he wrote about that for one of his magazines. So, Poe was really on the cutting edge of some of this research and incorporating these new ideas and these new sciences into his works.”

Credit Wikimedia Commons

So how did he come to be known as such a derelict?  Again, Museum Curator Chris Semptner.

“A lot of it has to do with Rufus W. Griswold.”

Rufus W. Griswold was a failed poet and clergyman who compiled anthologies and worked, like Poe, as an editor.  The two were rivals, and after Poe’s untimely death at the age of 40, Griswold wrote an anonymous obituary.

“It began, ‘Word of Poe’s death will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.’  He had few or no friends.  He just condemned Poe as a hateful, tortured man who wandered the streets at night mumbling curses towards humanity.”

He also published Poe’s collected works, perhaps hoping to destroy his reputation once and for all.

“He included a memoir of the author, in which he portrayed him as a madman drunkard, womanizing opium addict with no morals. But, it backfired. The complete work sold out in three additions in the first year, more than any of Poe's books sold in his entire lifetime. And, in France it made him a sort of a cult hero. He was called the divine madman drunkard of Baltimore and that was a compliment.”

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday as is the gift shop, where you can buy all manner of souvenirs including raven puppets, Poe band aids and paper dolls.