We’re early (trying to beat the heat), but the attraction is open between 9am and 5pm
Wednesday through Sunday in the winter months and 7 days a week in summer. The door seems
locked, but as I am "gently rapping," a rollicking ranger throws open the door, and
Andrew McDougal welcomes us to Edgar Allan Poe National Historical
We start with the 8-minute film that puts into perspective Poe’s six years (1838-1844) in
Philadelphia. He lived in many houses in the city, but only this one survives. His sojourn
here in his rented "rose-covered cottage" with his wife, Virginia Clemm, and her mother,
Maria, was happy and productive. Even Poe himself tells us that in his poem "Annabel
"The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me--"
Perhaps "that was the reason (as all men know... )" that Congress decided to make this
house on Spring Garden Street the national memorial to one of our most cherished
Other Poe houses can be visited in Richmond, Baltimore, and New York. I "toured" the
one-room residence in Richmond in the late 1970s and found it lacking in interest then,
with only a table displaying some manuscripts. When I offer this comment to Andrew
McDougal, he practically jumps up and down, saying, "No, they have the original
manuscripts of... " (I forget which works).
One thing is for certain: our ranger guide is passionate for Poe! He becomes excited
again and again, and his big eyes light up with enthusiasm as he explains why Poe was
more than a "jingle-maker," a label I remember that Ralph Waldo Emerson assigned him
(probably upon reading, "To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells/ From the bells,
bells, bells, bells/ Bells, bells, bells."
I dare to ask if he really considers Poe an intellectual comparable to the Brahman Poets
of New England or transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau. Oh, boy! This is where I
have my preconceived notions about Poe as a mere technician with adolescent subject matter destroyed! It seems that I
have paid attention only to works that the poet intended for public consumption and to
make a living, not those that established his reputation as critic and editor. I hear figures
representing skyrocketing circulation for Burton’s and Graham’s while he
was editor for those literary magazines and quotes from many leading literary figures that
prove their admiration for his concepts. As for the Brahmans, he corresponded with
Longfellow and Lowell.
This is so much fun that we hate to let go of Andrew so that he can eat his lunch. He
lingers to make sure we understand the circumstances of Poe’s death. I know that he was
found drunk in Baltimore on election day and that rumor has it that overzealous poll
workers may have filled him with liquor to get him to vote their ticket. Andrew teaches us the term "cooping," the underhanded practice of taking voters to a cellar and pouring
whiskey down them before taking them to the polls--then changing their clothes and
taking them back again and again! Do you know that our most famous national poet
was found in somebody else’s clothes? That cinches this rendition of his death for me,
but Andrew still chocks it up to coincidence. On election day and in somebody else’s
We haven’t seen the rest of the house yet, so we get our copy of the self-guided
walk-through. Walls have been stripped of 17 coats of paint and wallpaper, and the NPS
doesn’t know yet what they are going to do with them. They want them to look new, as
they did in Poe’s day, and they’re studying alternative treatments for them as we tour.
The empty house has its original fireplaces, and photos and critical commentary are
displayed on closet shelves. We see the bedroom where Poe wrote by candlelight. He
explains in one of his essays that he considers gaslight "ghastly," so he didn’t use the
fixtures with which his brand-new house in Spring Garden suburb was supplied. We talk
about what Poe might have done with today’s technology. Andrew speculates that he
would have loved to work with hi-tech media.
We don’t want to miss the cellar, the one Poe describes in some of his macabre
It is complete with fake fireplace. The poet lived in this house in 1843-44 and wrote
"The Raven," "The Black Cat," "The Goldbug," and "The Tell-Tale Heart" while he lived
here, but the cellar is described in other works, too.
Another room off the visitor center is interesting. It is decorated according to Poe’s
"Philosophy of Furniture," in which the poet pokes fun at aesthetes and effetes. The
room is well furnished with a sofa, table, and chairs, and a mirror hangs "so high that a
man can’t see himself in it."
There is also a painting of nature, one of classical architecture, and, of course, one of a beautiful
woman (living and healthy!), a Thomas Sully portrait.
Andrew engages us in discussion of planned improvements. Next visit, the house may
look new, as it did in Poe’s day, and window scrims may display what the poet saw when
he looked out. I suggest that a hologram of Poe talking about his own life and works
would be nice--I can just imagine how much fun Andrew might have assuming the voice
of Poe for the recording. His first impression is that "It couldn’t be done. The
technology isn’t available." He doesn’t know that Friendship Hill has one of Albert
Gallatin, and when I impart this information to him, he is anxious to call that
National Historical Site to find out how they have managed to get one.
The site presently attracts only 15,000 visitors each year. Nevermore! What school child
doesn’t recognize the name, even the poetry, of Poe? What American can’t quote the first
stanza of The Raven? This is the American poet the French and Russians want to
visit, since Baudelaire translated Poe into French and engineered his revival on the
continent. (As for Philly poet sites, the French tour here, while Brits and Scots
prefer Whitman House, another ranger tells us.)
We learn that Poe’s residence might have been destroyed if not for Richard Gimbel, the
department store magnate who bought the entire block and donated it to the people of
Philadelphia in 1971. The house has been a National Historic Landmark since 1962 and
was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
If I think visitation here is pathetic, I am appalled to learn that Whitman House in
Camden has only 5,000 to 7,000 visitors each year. What? That site is accessible to Philly
visitors via Riverlink Ferry, and we’re headed there next.