Deep into that darkness peering,
long I stood there,
wondering, fearing, doubting,
dreaming dreams no mortal
ever dared to dream before.
–The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe
Last week, it rained and rained, and Squeakers had his first cold, which he caught from me. We spent the week indoors, pretending we were on the gray moors of Scotland. (I pretended; Squeaks did a lot of cute sneezing.) When he was finally better, I decided to take him to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum on East Main Street. Because really, what better to do with an 11-week-old baby than take him to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum?
Poe’s writing makes me think of autumn: leaves turning and days shortening, lit jack-o’-lanterns leering on front porches, the pungent smell of bonfires. Poe loved all that was dark and dreary. My introduction to his writing came when I was a kid watching The Simpson’s Halloween special, Treehouse of Horror. In this episode, James Earl Jones narrates The Raven, and Homer plays the main character of the poem spooked by the visitor rapping at his chamber door. In eighth grade, on Halloween, my English teacher turned off the lights and shut the blinds in our classroom, lit candles, and had us sit in a circle while she read aloud The Raven. (I love this memory of my school days, and of more innocent times; now a teacher myself, the thought of lighting so much as a birthday candle on a student’s cupcake is enough to stir fear of a lawsuit.)
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum is in an old stone house built in the 1740s, but Poe never lived there. He did live and work nearby, but his homes and the offices of the literary journal where he worked have long since been torn down. On the Wednesday that I visited, it was an oven outside, and poor Squeaks was none too happy about sweating it out in the baby carrier. He told me so by crying out intermittently, but not actually waking up. I opted to do the self-guided tour.
The first exhibit in the main building had a lot of paraphernalia from Poe’s life and the lives of people who knew him, but what surprised me most was not that his childhood bed had somehow been identified and set up for display, but that Edgar himself was leaning against the wall by a framed picture of his mother. I decided to play it cool and ask him to show me around, since I was too sleep deprived to read all the little placards anyway. After a few melancholy sighs, he agreed and told me to get on with it. I started with the obvious: I thought you were dead?
“Most people think that. Given my age, I probably should be,” he said. Poe was wearing a black jacket, vest, and a white collared shirt; his clothes were threadbare and dusty. His hair was characteristically disheveled, and he smelled of mildew. I asked him if he had been drinking, and he replied that he had, that he’d started early and was pretty far gone. He asked me if he could hold the baby. I said no. Instead, I asked him to show me a few of his favorite things in the exhibit.
“I like this picture of my mother,” he said. “She was a stage actress. She died when I was a baby.” He paused, touching the picture through the glass in spite of the sign saying not to touch anything. “Actually, my life is full of tragedy. My childhood sweetheart married somebody else. My foster father never adopted me and refused to support me, and we ended up estranged. I never had any children. My wife Virginia died while she was still angry at me about a made-up scandal. I was an alcoholic and a gambling addict, and now people are saying I had rabies.”
You seem pretty down, I said, and suggested a walk around the museum to take his mind off things. He agreed, and seemed to perk up as he led the way to the next exhibit. He showed me some early editions of The Raven and Tamerlane, but started to seem pretty gloomy again when he remembered that most of the early printings had been lost. “Nobody takes care of anything,” he said. To distract him, I asked him to tell me about the 18-foot long model of Richmond behind glass. “This is what the city looked like when I worked at the Southern Literary Messenger,” he said, pointing to the building that contained the journal’s offices. He also pointed out his house, and the houses of several acquaintances. I commented on how few buildings there were back then, and asked him what he liked most about Richmond today. He replied that he enjoyed the range of food and drink options, and said he often satisfied his sweet tooth with a doughnut.
After exploring the exhibits in the old stone house, we ventured outdoors to a walled courtyard with a garden. Poe held the door for us, then stumbled out, squinting and shielding his eyes against the sun. The bright light made his skin appear translucent, the shadows beneath his eyes more prominent. He pulled a flask from his jacket pocket and drank from it, then said: “Thou wast that all to me, love,/ For which my soul did pine –/ A green isle in the sea, love,/ A fountain and a shrine.” I asked him what he was talking about, and he explained that the courtyard was supposed to look like the one in his poem, To One In Paradise. He showed me the fountain and the shrine, where a black cat was napping. I asked him if it was his cat, and he said yes. “I have several cats,” he said. “I name them all Lenore.” But when he tried to pick the cat up, she slithered out of his grip and darted across the garden. Poe gave chase. Squeakers and I were sweating profusely, so we went into the last building, a two-story brick house at the back of the property with exhibits related to Poe’s place in pop culture: paintings, illustrations, and films inspired by his writing. Squeakers was starting to wake up and get fussy, so we had to leave quickly.
As we left through the garden, we saw that Poe had given up chasing Lenore, and was curled up beneath the fountain, singing softly to himself. We went over to say goodbye, and he said he’d be around if we ever wanted to hang out again. As we walked away, he said, “If you buy anything in the gift shop, buy the lunch box. What child doesn’t want a lunch box with my face on it?”