The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Edgar Allan Poe Didn’t Sleep Here

David Kipen mimics the pose next Poe's bust.

Real Poe and faux Poe

As shrines to ill-fated national figures go, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Va., isn't exactly Graceland. Then again, you wouldn't want it to be. It's a couple of flagstone buildings drowsing beside a busy street, with self-guided tours and an atmosphere of melancholy dignity. The air hangs heavy with the ghosts of departed part-time executive directors.

And yet, for one of America's towering geniuses, saddest sacks and queerest fish, it's about the most perfect tribute a literary grave-robber like me could want. Poe never actually lived here, but we're assured he visited the place during his army days sometime between 1827 and 1829, as part of a detachment attending the visiting Marquis de Lafayette. This is pretty much the literary equivalent of "George Washington Would Have Slept Here If He Hadn't Thought Better of It and Slept Someplace Else," but somehow it works.

The front door creaks open into the gift shop, chockablock with gloom-and-doom knickknacks. Want an obsidian raven to go with your iron-on tattoo of Poe? Look no further. The new exec director (an English major from a nearby college, seemingly undeterred by the fate of her predecessors) takes my donation and kits me out with a laminated tour map, about the size and shape of a coffee-shop menu.

The dank first room holds mostly artifacts from Poe's relations -- a mother's playbill, a sister's blouse, that sort of thing. As holy relics go, this is pretty attenuated stuff, too remote from Poe to rate much of a contact high. Far juicier is the scriptorium, with letters and other manuscripts from Himself.

Someday I should blog about great authors' handwriting. Graphologists lavish so much attention on the scriptorial fingerprints of criminals and random customers, whose complexes are hypothetical and probably not all that interesting. Wouldn?t it be more provocative to look at the scribbles of actual writers, whose psyches are incontestably worth investigating? Poe's hand, for example, is claustrophobic -- tiny, careful, and regrettably quite light. It looks almost typeset, only against a platen overdue for its next inking. You get the impression of a man buried alive and losing strength, conserving both breath and paper.

The few buildings of the Poe Museum huddle around a spooky but peaceful rectangular courtyard, weirdly reminiscent of the church cemetery where Scottie discovers Carlotta's grave in Vertigo. Today the quadrangle is incongruously decked out with a white canvas tent and ranks of matching folding chairs. Seems there's a wedding at 5 o?clock. Anybody mind telling me who'd get married at the Edgar Allen Poe Museum? Board members? Writers? Goths?

At the far end there's a plaster bust of a downcast Poe, looking suitably saturnine on a pedestal under a little Georgian shrine. I struck a parallel pose next to him for a quick snapshot, but next to his, my melancholy aspect looks predictably ersatz ? the funk of a college student in psychoanalysis because he thinks it makes him deep.

Adjacent to the bust is a final gallery devoted to temporary exhibitions, though "temporary" in this time-forgotten hush is a relative term. It's a small, well-arranged show, too, devoted to Poe's continuing relevance to the visual arts. A nice selection of graphic novels repose on walls and in vitrines, but the big draw for me is a Poe issue from the late, lamented Classic Comics series.

Classic Comics, for those like me to whom it's only a secondhand memory, was the brainchild of Albert Lewis Kanter, an eccentric publisher who decided that adapting great novels into comic books might be a way of sneaking literature under the pillows of impressionable children. The titles leaned strongly toward landmarks of melodrama and adventure, starting with The Three Musketeers in 1941 and suspending sadly with Verne's Mysterious Island six years later. Along the way they made time for a "3 Famous Mysteries" issue, which featured a Guy de Maupassant story, Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four, and Poe's redoubtable detective C. Auguste Dupin, who taught Sir Arthur Conan Doyle everything he knew.

I slouched against a black-painted wall in this last gallery, admiring Kanter's short-lived push for great literature among the pimpled and sweaty future of America. Predictably, it couldn't but remind me of The Big You-Know-What. Is this what becomes of quixotic attempts to democratize good books? With my boss relinquishing his chairmanship early next year, will The Big Read wind up under glass somewhere, just another stillborn stab at taking good books down off the medicine shelf and smuggling them under the covers with a flashlight, where they belong?

Not if I have anything to say about it. That's why I'm hitting the road this September in Rosie the BigReadMobile for The Big Ride, a cross-country road trip through roughly 30 Big Read towns in 25 days, designed to spread the word about the program in as splashy a way as possible. More about this as the itinerary crystallizes, with questions and curiosity cheerfully entertained at kipend@arts.gov in the meantime. In other words, don't look now, but the Big Ride is rolling down the road toward a city or town near you, with Steinbeck in back poring over WPA maps, Hammett in the passenger seat violating open-container laws, and Edith Wharton hanging on for dear life?

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