March 9, 2003
Don’t walk there.
Parking not far from where I thought the Poe Museum to be, I set out one sunny afternoon in search of the modest brick house where Poe—along with his aunt, her young daughter (Poe’s future wife), and his brother Henry--lived from 1832 to 1835.
The first few blocks were benign enough, with tidy public housing flanking a broad street. It wasn’t until I came within a few blocks of the Poe House that things became decidedly grim. Groups of vagrants sprawled on doorsteps and milled on the street, the scent of marijuana one of the more wholesome of the odors wafting from the open doorways of derelict buildings. Grass grew between jagged gaps in the pavement and empty whisky bottles, trash, and dessicated rodents lay in the gutter.
Poe would have loved it.
I, however, was fairly rattled by the time I plunged around a corner and spotted, with infinite relief, the police cruiser on duty just outside one of Baltimore’s more sinister tourist attractions. To gain entry to the Poe House, one must be buzzed in after being cautiously regarded through a spy hole. Once inside, the chatty curator of the museum collects the $5 entrance fee and gives a brief orientation to the museum.
There isn’t a great deal on display, which is understandable given the scant record we have of Poe’s life. The tidy house with its cramped rooms has been left much as it would have been in the 1830’s, with uneven wooden flooring and simple whitewashed rough walls.
On the ground floor is a modest display of artifacts, the most poignant being a postmortem portrait of Poe’s wife, Virginia, who died of tuberculosis. Look carefully for the telltale signs of incipient decay written upon her face. There are other household items as well, redolent of genteel impoverishment. Upstairs, the largest of the house’s rooms has been given over to a video presentation featuring an actor playing Poe, declaiming in a suitably theatrical mode.
Still another small room holds Poe’s personal memorabilia: his desk, a lock of his hair, his telescope, and wooden fragments from his coffin, the latter seized by souvenir hunters when Poe was exhumed from a pauper’s grave and reburied many years after his death. It is said that the coffin fell open and splintered, revealing the corpse within. It’s all suitably macabre and of a piece with his mysterious death in 1849 at the age of 40. Speculations about precisely how he died have occupied generations of Poe scholars.
It doesn’t take long to look over the museum’s contents in hushed contemplation. Back out on the street, my eyes require a moment to readjust to the bright sunshine. An ice cream truck is parked just down the street, music blaring from its loudspeakers ("If You’re Happy and You Know It"). Threadbare and abandoned folk patiently queue for ice cream.
From journal Feathered Fish and Sword Swallowers