Off to the Poe Houses

Halloween + Literature = Edgar Allan Poe, right? If you would like to get to know the author better this weekend, you have an...

Halloween + Literature = Edgar Allan Poe, right?

If you would like to get to know the author better this weekend, you have an astounding number of options, as there are restored Poe houses in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City (the Bronx), and Richmond, Virginia. And if that phrase-"The Poe Houses"-sounds odd, then go ahead and pronounce it "The Po' Houses," because all were poor houses in Poe's day, and remain modest houses in poor neighborhoods today.

David Simon made this connection in Season Two of The Wire, when he has a scene of a white tourist asking some guys on a stoop where the Poe House is. "Poe house? Look around you, every house 'round here is a po' house," they answer.

The day I visited the West Baltimore Poe House on 203 Amity Street I was clearly the only white lady driving around the streets in a rental car, slowing down to check for street names. A cop car sat outside the house the entire time I was inside.

The house is open a few afternoons a week, and a sign on the door asks visitors not to give admission money until they get inside the house. It also requests that visitors not encourage panhandlers, and refuse any solicitations. The curator strongly advises against walking to the house from the downtown tourist attractions.

Once inside I paid my nominal admission fee and wandered about the tiny five-room house Poe lived in with about five other family members from 1832 to 1835. While residing in the house Poe wrote "MS Found in a Bottle," which won him a $50 prize from a Baltimore newspaper for best short story. He also married his wife Virginia. But in 1835, his grandmother died, and since she had been paying the rent through her pension, the family had to move.

The tour includes a fact sheet that answers some common questions. Just reading them gives you a sense of the place:

Why does the Poe House have that "old" house smell?

The Poe House is an old house and with the age comes the tell tale odor which only an old house has. Even with limited air conditioning this odor will appear and then vanish. It is most noticeable after it has been raining.

Is the house haunted?

Some people have strong feelings about ‘ghosts' and other related subjects. They are deeply offended by these claims due to religious beliefs. A historic site that claims to have had "ghostly" events also stands the chance of beings accused of making up stories to bolster attendance. For these and other reasons the Poe House has a policy of not discussing supernatural events that may or may not have occurred during its past history. Any soft whispering that you may hear coming from no visible source is your imagination.

Or, of course, your fear of being accosted, a fear that is probably grounded in some truth, but is also stoked by the warnings posted on the door. What spooked me about the house was not this fear but the repetition of poverty: the poverty of the Poe family when they lived there, and the poverty of the neighborhood today.

The house was almost torn down in 1941 so the city could, ironically, build Poe Homes, a public housing project. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore saved it, and today the house is run by the City of Baltimore.

Something of the same experience awaits you at the Poe House in Philadelphia. It is in a state of "arrested decay." That's what they call the home, which is preserved as a ruin. The National Park Service runs it, and the curators keep the Philadelphia house, in a struggling North Philadelphia neighborhood, also the site of public housing, unreconstructed, bare, and cold. The museum is as uncomfortable as life was inside the house in Poe's time. You wander around empty rooms, imagining what it was like when Poe lived there. You have to fill in the blanks. It is an evocative experience, to be sure.

Paying homage to the spooky Poe during Halloween can be ghoulish fun, a way to learn about literary history, or a way to understand contemporary America. Because of their connection to Poe, houses that otherwise would have fallen apart are preserved and open to tourists. So on our way to learning about the history of an author we end up in neighborhoods other tourists skip. And then we can get a short course in the history of American poverty. Certainly worth the price of admission.


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