by Margaret Mendel
In the middle of the Bronx, situated on a triangular shaped spit of land named Poe Park, bordered by three busy streets, sits the last residence of Edgar Allan Poe. This month will mark the 162nd year since his death and yet this clapboard cottage still stands and is now under the custodial care of the Bronx Historical Society. In 1980 the cottage was placed on the National Register of Historical Places.
But there was no Bronx back in 1845 when Poe moved his wife, Virginia, and her mother, Mrs. Clemm, into the humble abode that rented for $100 a year. The area had not yet been incorporated with New York City and was still part of Westchester County.
The cottage was located in what was then the Village of Fordham and sat on farmland owned by the Valentine Family. The cottage, a tiny two-story place with a parlor, kitchen and one bedroom had a low-slung ceiling, typical construction back then designed to conserve heat.
By then Poe was a world famous author, though fame had not brought fortune and he was destitute, having lost all of his money in his latest literary venture, the Broadway Journal. At this point he had botched many jobs and his reputation as a heavy drinker and someone with an unpleasant disposition did not make it easy for him to make a living for his family. He’d even gotten into a physical altercation with Walt Whitman and that did not endear him with his peers.
Poe was devoted to Virginia, who was very ill with tuberculosis, and the pastoral setting gave Poe and his wife the opportunity to walk among the woodlands and to sit on the shore of what is now called the Bronx River. While Virginia rested, Poe frequently visited the Jesuit Priests at St. John’s University, an educational institution nearby that had been constructed a year after Poe moved into the cottage.
In 1847, two years after moving into the cottage, Virginia died at the age of 24. Poe was devastated and fell into a deep depression. He began to drink heavily again and it was during this time that he wrote some of his most haunting poetry, “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee.”
In October 1849, while on a fundraising venture for a new literary publication, Poe collapsed in the street outside a tavern in Baltimore and died. He was 40 years old. There is much mystery surrounding what caused Poe’s death. Some believe it was the drink that ended his life, while others claim it was a weakened heart. Yet, there are others that suspected he had fallen prey to “cooping,” a corrupt and violent form of electioneering that kidnapped innocent bystanders, holding them in a room, plying them with alcohol and delivering them from polling place to polling place to vote again and again.
There are no definitive answers to the questions surrounding Poe’s death and, much like his stories of treachery and murder, there will probably never be a conclusive resolution to what happened to him that fateful night he was found unconscious, sprawled on the street in ill fitting clothing.
In 1841 when Poe published The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a tale that introduced the eccentric amateur detective, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, Poe evermore opened the door to limitless possibilities for the storyteller. And, from that point, on Edgar Allen Poe’s writing would profoundly effect many authors, for how could a reader not find a bit of Poe in such writers as Melville, Conan Doyle, Baudelaire, H. G. Wells, Kafka, Nabokov and even Joyce Carol Oats?
The Black Cat translated into French in 1846 created for Boudelaire limitless possibilities in crafting new work. Poe inspired Japanese writers by his ability to depict the terror of the soul and, in using what the Japanese call the twice-told tale, they began to retell folklore with a Poe twist. For writers like Kafka, Poe’s vision of the world helped to create a new consciousness.
For Latin American writers honing their skills around the turn of the twentieth century, Poe became a major literary presence. Carlos Fuentes attributes to Poe his need to write in a way that allows the reader to perceive the world in unaccustomed ways and to discover hidden possibilities. In some countries the “Raven” became a metaphor for the frightening presence of social oppression, while for writers in other countries Poe demonstrated a way to examine evil and how to put visionary experience into language.
Over the years, Poe’s writing has been published again and again while the Poe Cottage fell into disrepair, but recently a major renovation of the little house has taken place. The foundation and walls have been repaired and a paint job has made the cottage look charming once more.
The pastoral walks that Poe once took are no longer nearby, but a bus or subway ride will get you close to the Bronx River where Poe and Virginia used to picnic at the water’s edge.
St. John’s, the Jesuit University that Poe often visited, has been renamed Fordham University, and the bell in the tower of that institute of learning, the bell that first began to toll the hours in 1840, is quite likely the inspiration for Poe’s famous poem “Bells,” the poem he wrote after his wife’s death while he still lived in the cottage. That bell was retired in 1939 but it is now kept under lock and key in a safe on the Fordham campus and has been named “Old Edgar Allan.”
Not only has the Poe Cottage seen major repair, but also Poe Park has undergone enormous renovations. A learning center has been constructed in the park and is a Poe inspired design developed by award winning architect Toshiko Mori. The old worn out bandstand has been refurbished and a new wrought iron fence encircles the park, incorporating designs of Poe themes and images from his stories.
It is hoped that the Poe Cottage will become one of New York’s must see tourist sites. The Poe Cottage is beguiling with the furnishings of days gone by, the bed where Virginia spent her last days, and the chair where Edgar Allan Poe sat while he listened to his muse and comforted his dying wife. It is a place where the common person can see how simple life was in the days after Poe had written such monstrous and vial stories that made way for the extreme and exciting tales that we now take for granted.
Poe was a drunkard, perhaps a womanizer, but he was a devoted husband, and most assuredly a man of contradictions, but do not confuse these traits with his talent. He brought the world a new way of writing and of showing how to depict the soul at it’s most vulnerable.
To keep a watch on when Poe Cottage will be open again for visitors check out their website on a regular basis for updates.
It’s just unfortunate that many alcoholics like Poe never got the chance to check into an alcoholism treatment center for that much needed help.