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Destination: Virginia

Poe Forever More

In Edgar Allan Poe's hometown, a venerable little museum with a new, rare collection of manuscripts


RICHMOND, Va. — The Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Va., a.k.a. the Poe Shrine, is in a small complex of old buildings in which Poe never lived, though the long-gone offices of the Southern Literary Messenger, where he worked as a young man, once were nearby. You can still smell tobacco from the river warehouses, which seems appropriate, since the adoptive father Poe never got along with, John Allen, was a tobacco merchant.

For many years the onetime propinquity of the SLM and the odor of tobacco were the only truly Poe-like things about the little museum, which featured genteel touches such as "The Enchanted Garden" of 1922 with its "shrine" built of stones from the torn-down Messenger building, and tended toward docents in tam-o'-shanters they had crocheted themselves who would tell visitors firmly, "Mistah Poe did naht have a drinking problem. He was just constituted in such a way that if he took one single drink he fell down."

Those were the days. There was--and still is--a scale model of Richmond in Poe's day, the work of an enthusiast that looks rather like something a class of talented fourth-graders would construct. It was during the pause here that one often heard the revisionist version of Poe's drinking habits. There was a slide show with faded pictures and a droning narration about Poe's life. Most spectacularly, there was "The Raven Room," with blood-red floor and walls and a life-size raven on a pedestal. Originally, this was a stuffed raven, an inferior bit of taxidermy that showed a decided list to one side. It was succeeded in the early '90s by a rather uninteresting carved wooden raven with folded wings, but now that too has flown away to the night's Plutonian shore.

I don't mean to have gotten anyone's hopes up by detailing glories that are no more. Though in some ways the beside-the-pointedness of the Poe Shrine was a perfect memorial to the author's wretched, misunderstood life, the refurbished museum (a new board of trustees took over a couple of years ago) wipes all longing for amateurish tackiness out of your mind. Particularly now through Oct. 7 (the 129th anniversary of Poe's death), when the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection of Poe manuscripts is on display.

Tane, a member of the museum's board of directors, became a Poe fan after she had to memorize "The Raven" as a schoolgirl. She went on to became a major collector, and her Poe collection is considered one of the best private collections in the world.

Not to mince words, this exhibition is superb. The jaws of both gawkers and scholars will drop at the sight of Poe's first published book, "Tamerlane and Other Poems: By a Bostonian." Self-published by Poe in 1827, when he was 18, this little volume is the rara avis of American literary history: Only 12 copies are known, and the last one auctioned went for a couple of hundred thousand dollars.

Other wonders await. There are manuscripts in Poe's own hand of "Eulalie," "Epimanes" and "The Spirits of the Dead" (a reworking by the 18-year-old Poe of a poem in "Tamerlane"). Contrary to what one might hope, Poe's handwriting is small, well-formed and exceedingly neat, quite easy for a reader to decipher.

There are the first appearances in print of "The Raven" (American Review, February 1845); "MS Found in a Bottle," for which Poe won one of his first literary prizes (Baltimore Saturday Visitor, Oct. 19, 1833); and "The Fall of the House of Usher" (Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, September 1839). Not to mention several letters, Poe volumes from Franklin Roosevelt's library, and a number of first editions.

Then there's the piece of coffin.

Yes, seriously. When Poe's body was moved in 1875 from the Poe family plot in Baltimore to its present resting place in Baltimore's Westminster Presbyterian Church burying yard (where every year an unknown admirer leaves a birthday rose and bottle of whiskey), the original coffin "was so much decayed that it fell in pieces on the ground."

Obviously, someone picked those pieces up, because here one is, box-framed and authenticated. Another frame presents a lock of Poe's spider-web hair, cut from his head by the doctor who found him dying in a Baltimore tavern on Oct. 3, 1849. (These artifacts are not from the Tane Collection but belong to the 19th Century Shop, a Baltimore rare books business owned by collector Stephan Loewentheil, and the Poe Foundation, that is to say the museum.)

Nor is this by any means all.

The Poe Museum owns one, and is presently displaying another, of the 12 known existing portraits of Poe made during his life. The museum's portrait is one of the famous daguerreotypes by which most people have gained their mental image of the poet: the Cornwell copy of the so-called Ultima Thule daguerreotype, taken in 1848 only four days after Poe had attempted suicide. It's the most Poe-like, showing a worn-looking man with despairing eyes.

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