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Poe launched career in austere Baltimore row house

by on July 20, 2014 1:59 AM

Climb the narrow, precipitous stairs to the attic and peek into the tiny room with its low, sharply pitched ceiling and single window that admits scant light, and it’s easy to conjure up an image of the master of the macabre working here.

Edgar Allan Poe, whose writing career took flight while he lived in this austere Baltimore row house, first scared the wits out of readers with tales he crafted in the cramped garret, which Lisa Lewenz, administrator of the Poe House and Museum, estimates measures 12 feet by 10 feet.

“He was not famous yet when he moved in here,” said Lewenz as she snapped a photo for visitors posing beside a bust of Poe displayed in the parlor. “This is really where he gained his renown. He won $50 in a contest for ‘Ms. [Manuscript] Found in a Bottle,’ which was a huge amount of money for that time.”

His otherworldly piece about a sailor hurled during a storm from his sinking ship onto another vessel, whose extremely aged crew cannot see him, was published in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter (sic) on Oct. 26, 1833. It brought Poe something besides prize money: critical acclaim.

“Up till the time he moved into the house he was pretty much just a poet — or he saw himself as a poet,” said David Gaylin, a volunteer assistant at the Poe House who is writing a book about Poe and his years in Baltimore. “But he realized he was gonna have a hard time making a living writing poetry, so he started writing short stories.”

Poe would pen “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Masque of Red Death” and “The Oblong Box,” write poems such as “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” and become one of the literary giants of the 19th century. But he was still very much an un- known — and very much a starving artist — when he arrived at the North Amity Street house following his dismissal from the United States Military Academy in West Point.

Poe lived in the five-room residence from 1832 or 1833 to 1835 with his aunt Maria Clemm; her bedridden mother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe; and his cousins Henry and Virginia, whom Poe would marry in 1836. Those five were crowded into a space that seems positively claustrophobic by 21st century standards.

“They didn’t have a choice, really,” Gaylin said. “They didn’t have any money. Elizabeth was receiving a pension at the time from the federal government because her [late] husband was a Revolutionary War hero. That’s what paid the rent.

“They didn’t have any water — there was no water system in the 1830s. So they had to go two or three blocks away to a city-supplied water fountain and lug water back to the house to clean and cook with. There was an outhouse out back. They lit the house with oil lamps and heated it with fireplaces. And that’s how they lived … or survived.”

Gaylin suspects the family’s dire state colored what Poe produced in the garret. He fixated on the ghastly and the ghoulish, on gloomy halls and decaying mansions, dank tombs and raving madmen. Premature burial was a recurring theme in his work — one of his short stories is even titled “The Premature Burial.”

“You could say he was a necrophile,” Gaylin said. “He was born for the grave, really.”

“Berenice” ranks as perhaps the most gruesome of the tales Poe wrote in the house. Eg₩us, the narrator of the story, is engaged to a sickly cousin and develops a morbid obsession with her perfect teeth. After she dies — or appears to, since it’s later suggested she was buried alive — he awakens to the sound of screams. A servant, “pale as the tenant of a tomb,” warily approaches.

“He whispered to me of a violated grave — of a disfigured body, enshrouded yet still breathing, still palpitating, still alive!” Poe wrote. Eg₩us slowly becomes aware that his garments are clotted with gore, his hands bear fingernail marks and a spade leans against a nearby wall. He then notices, with a vague sense of horror, a small box resting on an adjoining table. He picks it up but in his agitated state loses his grip. The box falls to the floor and bursts open, scattering the contents — dental instruments and “thirty-two small, ivory-white substances.”

The story, published in the Southern Literary Messenger in March of 1835, scandalized readers, who nevertheless clamored for more.

Other works Poe likely wrote in the garret are listed on a wall panel in the dining room. Among them are the short stories “Morella,” “Shadow: A Parable” and “The Visionary,” and the poems “Enigma,” “Serenade” and “The Coliseum.”

A few of Poe’s personal items are arranged in a second-floor bedroom: a portable writing desk, a telescope with its stand (he was an astronomy buff) and a Windsor chair. A porcelain dinner service and glassware from Poe’s time on North Amity Street are displayed downstairs.

The wall of one bedroom features quotations about Poe by other literary greats: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, D.H. Lawrence, Stephen King and Jules Verne, who said of Poe: “You might call him ‘The Leader of the Cult of the Unusual.’”

There’s also a family tree, a Baltimore map designating places associated with Poe and a wall panel recounting his death in Baltimore at the age of 40. Poe, who was passing through the city en route to New York, was found wandering the streets on Oct. 3, 1849, incoherent, disheveled, wearing clothes not believed to be his own. Dr. Joseph L. Snodgrass, an acquaintance of Poe’s, described his appearance as “repulsive,” with unkempt hair, a haggard, unwashed face and “lusterless and vacant eyes.” Poe was unable to shed any light on his plight before he died four days later at Washington University Hospital.

The panel, in a nod to “The Raven,” notes that “The confusion surrounding Poe’s last days and his untimely death in Baltimore will never be explained and the mysteries will remain … forevermore.”

Poe is interred at historic Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, less than a mile from the house. An 80-inch-tall monument just inside the front gate marks the spot where Poe, Virginia and Maria Clemm repose and where the black-clad “Poe Toaster,” his identity obscured by a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, for so many years crept through the early-morning darkness every Jan. 19 — Poe’s birthday — to leave three roses and a bottle of cognac.

The curious congregated at both the grave and the house on a recent Saturday afternoon. The house, especially, is where visitors truly get a feel for what inspired the dark tales that brought Poe lasting fame. Climb the narrow, precipitous stairs to the attic and peek into the tiny room where he penned so many disquieting tales and it’s easy to feel a little disquieted yourself. Many visitors do.

Even actor Vincent Price, star of so many horror films, felt the vibe during a long-ago visit.

“This house,” he said, “gives me the creeps.”

Bob Fulton is the chief copy editor and occasionally contributes sports, travel and other feature stories.
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