20 December 2013

Terror of the Soul

The “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, 1848.

My tuxedo cat Poe is named for the master of the macabre so I had to check out the Morgan Library’s exhibit “Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul.” With items from the Morgan’s own collection, the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at The New York Public Library, and the personal collection of Susan Jaffe Tane, the exhibit looks at Poe's work as poet, short story writer, and critic and the influence he had on subsequent artists.

In a gallery fittingly painted blood red there are a variety of Poe’s publications including three copies of his first published work, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), one of the rarest books in American literature (only 12 of the 50 published copies are known to still exist) and the first printing of The Raven in The New York Evening Mirror, which brought Poe fame in 1845. Among the manuscripts is one of only three existing pages of The Lighthouse, which was unfinished at the time of Poe’s death, and The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (1844), which was taped together to form one paper roll, bringing to mind Jack Kerouac’s On the Road manuscript. There is also a large collection of Poe’s criticism, which was the main form of income for him throughout his life.

The most interesting items though are his letters. There are practical letters written to editors with requested corrections to a manuscript and ones to friends in which he promises to do better, in particular to stop drinking. Responding to an aspiring poet seeking advice, Poe wrote, “"Be bold—read much—publish little—keep aloof from the little wits and fear nothing." One of the most touching is to a woman with whom he was romantically attached toward the end of his life, Annie L. Richmond. To her he writes, “I must send a few words to let you see and feel that your Eddy, even when silent, keeps you always in his mind and heart.” Letters like these help to make Poe seem more human.

I have to insert here how shocked I was at how beautiful Poe’s handwriting was. Neat and precise, sometimes impossibly small, it was lovely to look at. And it wasn’t just the letters; there are poems and stories that he copied out perfectly without a single mistake or cross out.

The final part of the exhibit is devoted to writers who have acknowledged their debt to or admiration for Poe, from Oscar Wilde to W.H. Auden to Stéphane Mallarmé (the French recognized Poe’s importance early on). Even cantankerous George Bernard Shaw waxed "Poe constantly and inevitably produced magic where his greatest contemporaries produced only beauty."

Images of the author are found throughout the gallery from the famed “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, taken four days after he attempted suicide by overdosing on laudanum in 1848 to the modern painting done by Michael J. Deas for a US postal stamp in 2009. In all of the depictions there are those familiar haunted dark eyes and broad forehead. Poe may have been difficult to be friends with and certainly a lot of his troubles were of his own making, but it’s hard not to find some sympathy for the artist whose life was filled with tragedy and ended in Baltimore in 1849 at the age of 40.

Yet the exhibit wouldn't be complete without at least one nod to Poe's gory reputation. In a glass case is a piece of Poe’s original coffin (he was dug up and reinterred in 1875). A touch of the lurid lest we forgot who we're talking about.

The exhibit is at the Morgan Library through January 26, 2014. For more information visit here.

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