Tales at the Rue Morgan
An exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library about Edgar Allan Poe’s literary life is a tale worth reading
People like to be scared, certainly by the idea of ghosts or the specters that haunt cemeteries, the moaning sounds of wind that might be interpreted as that of the voices of dead loved ones, and the shadows cast from sepulchers. A talking raven named Nevermore, tapping and rapping on a door, and the ominous tolling of bells are other images that might enter the imagination. These were among the favored props and conceits of Edgar Allan Poe. No writer was—and continues to be—better at scaring readers than he. And he does so in a cadenced language that almost hypnotizes the reader in to his tales.
As an exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library, “Terror of the Soul” (through January 26, 2014), makes clear, much of Poe’s life reflected the gothic gloom about which he wrote. While his prose and poetry may seem to have the power to haunt readers forever, it’s startling to realize that he died at the early age of 40 (1809–49). His literary ghost endures and continues to delight—and scare—readers. The exhibition’s title, refers to Poe’s preface to his short-story collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque: “If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany but of the soul.” Poe was saying, essentially, that while there was, indeed, a distinct Germanic literary tradition of producing stories filled with dread and horror (think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales), his originated in his own soul and imagination—and that such resides in each of us.
With its echoing marble galleries, particularly in the older, original part of the building, designed by Charles McKim in 1906, the Morgan can feel a bit sepulcher-like and, so, perhaps it’s fitting that the exhibition is contained there. Declan Kiely, curator and head of the Morgan’s department of literary and historical manuscripts, and Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library, have assembled more than 100 items, mostly ephemera, related to Poe—original manuscripts in his own hand of poems and stories (known in museum parlance as autograph copies), rare first editions of books, photos of the author (three of the eight daguerreotypes for which he sat are included), even a splintered fragment of his coffin that broke off when his body was exhumed in 1875 and reinterred in Baltimore. Other items are on loan from Susan Jaffe Tane, the most important private collector of Poe-amania, including that corner of the coffin and an autograph sonnet, “To Zante,” that Poe wrote to his first fiancée, Elmira Shelton, with whom he then became re-engaged just weeks before his death.
The most charged and haunting portrait of Poe on view is an early copy of a daguerreotype known as “Ultima Thule,” a term that yet another fiancée of Poe’s, Sarah Helen Whitman, used to describe the picture. She was referring to the term “Thule,” which, according to a description from the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, “references the farthermost regions of the habitable world.” When Poe sat for this portrait, he had just four days earlier tried to take his own life with an overdose of laudanum and, yet, by week’s end, he was engaged to Whitman (though they would never marry). A far more glamorous, painterly portrait of Poe, an oil-on-canvas by Michael J. Deas (2009) that had been commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service for a commemorative stamp, hangs in the show, as well.
Within this one gallery room, a complete visual and literary biography of Poe emerges. As a poet, the role he most cherished, Poe wrote: “With me, poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion.” And as for a definition of poetry, he called it a “rhythmical creation of beauty.” Shortly after his poem The Raven was published in The Evening Mirror of January 29, 1845, Poe wrote a letter to another newspaper editor at the New York Tribune, requesting two revisions to the work. That letter, is the only existing copy of any part of the poem in his own hand. The revised work is on display, as it was published on a classifieds page with ads for Dr. Swayne’s wild cherry cough syrup, home coal suppliers and real-estate listings for farms on what is now the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Much of Poe’s works harken to a lost love—not so much an unrequited one, but, rather, a deceased object of affection. While he was staying at a hotel in Old Point Comfort, Virginia, he gave a reading of his ballad, Ulalume, on the veranda. So struck was a fellow guest, a Miss Susan Ingram, by the tale of lost love, that she spoke to Poe afterwards about wanting to order a transcription of the work. That night, in his room, he wrote out the poem in its entirety (with not a single crossout on the page) and slipped it under her door. That manuscript, on blue paper, is on display.
Despite his chronic penury, the exhibition reveals that he was a much- regarded literary figure of his day. Poe dedicated his book The Raven to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote back to him to say that the book “has produced a sensation…a ‘fit-horror’…here in England. Some of my friends have been taken by the fear of it, & some by the music.” On view are portraits, manuscripts and commentary by contemporaries and later writers influenced by Poe—Oscar Wilde’s autograph manuscript of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a work that echoe’s Poe’s penchant for “double” characters, either twins or the observe images of someone. Poe courted writers of the day, too, including Washington Irving, to whom he wrote a flattering letter about The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The exhibition includes a note Poe sent to Irving, who had remarked that “[The House of Usher’s]…graphic effect is powerful.”
There is a lot to read in this exhibition, enough, perhaps, referencing The Raven, to make you “weak and weary,” but, Nevermore may a show as extensive as this be mounted.