Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Should This House Be Saved?

Edgar Allan Poe is an iconic figure in American literature. He invented the genre we know as detective fiction and he played an important role in development of the genre of science fiction.

Though Charles Brockden Brown is considered the “father of the American novel,” Poe is believed to be the first American who endeavored to live from his writing alone. Despite a decidedly difficult financial life, his literary output continues to influence culture around the world.

Now those of us who love his work have a challenge before us.

During his short life, Poe endured a bohemian and transitory existence, moving up and down the eastern seaboard. Four residences have been preserved and survive as shrines to his memory for scholars and students as well as ordinary tourists.

In fact, Poe never lived in the best known of these—the Old Stone House in Richmond, Va. I say this not to defame the site, which I have visited. The house does preserve his dorm room from the University of Virginia in addition to many other items and rare printings of his work. Upkeep of this facility is in the capable hands of students and staff known as the Raven Society.

The home where Poe resided with his wife, Virginia, and his aunt/mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, in Philadelphia is preserved as a National Historic Site in affiliation with the Independence National Historical Park.

His last home, a cottage in the Bronx, N.Y., is also part of a Historic House Trust administered by the Bronx County Historical Society.

But a fourth residence in Baltimore is endangered.

This small structure at 203 Amity Street operates as a museum and is home to the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore. It is also a National Historic Landmark. For some years its upkeep was subsidized by the City of Baltimore. Now, for the second year, city leaders decided they could not continue this financial assistance.

Their plight is understandable. Charm City officials are as burdened as any other community with difficult financial demands. I’m sure they see better use for scarce dollars than preserving a structure well off the tourist beaten track and not located in the most affluent of neighborhoods. I’ve been there, too.

As a working historian I realize not every structure can be preserved—or even deserves to be preserved. We have three other Poe shrines. What’s the harm in letting one go by the wayside?

I might be persuaded to that viewpoint were it not for two things. First, this is the place where Poe enjoyed his first literary success, winning a short story contest and attracting the attention of the public and editors who recognized his talent.

Second, if the public really values the legacy of Poe, there is no reason why they and not a government entity can’t subsidize the museum. I’m not going to mention names, but there are some big literary guns in Baltimore who could help support the project. I’m not saying they should contribute money, but they could certainly aid in the way of publicity.

That might attract a generous millionaire or two who doesn’t need another yacht or jet. Who knows, ordinary citizens might even be inclined to chip in a few bucks here and there if given the right example to follow.

And what about all the Poe societies out there? There’s more than one: http://www.eapoe.org/links.htm Join me in asking them to clamor for some public attention.


  1. John - You bring up such an interesting question about preserving certain sites. As you say, they can't all be preserved, but I agree that this one is worthy of attention. Thanks

  2. Hey John,

    Great Post!

    Poe wrote two of his C. August Dupin stories while living in Philly. So we're proud of the fact that the modern detective story got its start here.

    Joe DeMarco
    Read: A Body on Pine

  3. I agree with you, John, and not only because Baltimore is my hometown. There are many people there with big money - some write, some play sports, some were born with it - and if one of them started the ball rolling, it would happen.

  4. Someone should ask the Baltimore Ravens to pitch in and save it. There's three reasons this could work:

    1. It's not much money relative to the Raven's budget

    2. Poe gave them their name.

    3. It would be great publicity.

    Does anyone else think that this is a good approach to the problem?

  5. One hopes they find a way to save it.

    I do think the Baltimore Ravens idea is an excellent one. It also would tie in nicely to the NFL's stated goal to improve literacy with kids and adults. Everyone hears about their "play60" deal to promote physical fitness, but the NFL also donates a lot of money to schools to buy books and provide other reading materials. I have helped unpack those shipments from the NFL and they were very much needed in the schools I worked in as so many kids had nothing at home.

  6. I like the Baltimore Ravens idea, though one should not put all (raven) eggs in one basket. I'm also reminded though of "Pennies for Poe," where as I remember it schoolchildren and others had been encouraged to donate money for the memorial sculpture at Poe's shared grave with his wife and mother-in-law in Baltimore. In fact when I was there, although some years ago, people would still leave pennies and other small change on the grave, I believe as donations to the Poe Society. I wonder then if a new Pennies for Poe-type campaign could be mounted -- Dollars to Save Poe's Domicile? -- ideally to establish an endowment to save and maintain the building.