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Edgar Allan Poe exhibit reveals writer through rare items at Peabody Library

William Abbott Pratt, portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. Daguerreotype copy, circa 1854, of an 1849 daguerreotype. From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane.
William Abbott Pratt, portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. Daguerreotype copy, circa 1854, of an 1849 daguerreotype. From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane. (Robert Lorenzon / HANDOUT)

This Edgar Allan Poe is not immediately recognizable. He's clean-shaven and distinguished looking. And a substantial part of his writings are not poems and short stories, but literary criticisms, handwriting analyses, even short biographies.

There was a lot more to Poe, it seems, than the casual fan realizes — a revelation that's at the center of "The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore & Beyond," an exhibit of more than 100 Poe-related items on display at Mount Vernon's George Peabody Library through early next year.

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The exhibit, mostly on loan from New York collector Susan Jaffe Tane, offers "a little bit of a twist on the historical Edgar," says Gabrielle Dean, curator of literary rare books and manuscripts for the library. The idea, she says, smiling as she speaks in a vernacular any fan of "The Raven" or "The Tell-Tale Heart" would appreciate, "is to kind of raise from the dead the historical side of Poe."

Which explains why the exhibit uses as its signature image an 1844 engraving of Poe that makes him look pleased — not at all the dour, sallow-eyed author of popular culture — and downright aristocratic, clean-shaven (though with close-cropped sideburns), with a jaunty cravat around his neck. This is an Edgar Allan Poe who would have been at home at a high-society dinner, not the melancholy writer who helped invent the horror genre.

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"There's a lot more going on," is how Dean puts it.

Says Tane, who has been collecting Poe items since the 1980s, "There is so much more to Poe. A lot of his writing was dark, but I think he offers so much. He was the originator of the short story; he was a critic; he wrote tales. I think he was exceptional in every area, in every literary area."

Not that the Poe we all know — and who lent Baltimore's pro football team its name — is neglected. There's an entire display case dedicated to "The Raven," complete with a "fair copy" of the poem written out by Poe himself (one of the few pieces on exhibit not from Tane's collection, it's on loan from the Free Library of Philadelphia). Two cases are filled with artifacts from his time in Baltimore, including the front page of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter of Oct. 19, 1833, containing the first writing for which Poe was paid, a story called "Ms. Found In a Bottle" (he won a $50 prize for penning it).

Other cases are dedicated to his time in Boston (where he was born in 1809), Philadelphia, Richmond and New York. Among the items in the Boston case is a copy of "Tamerlane and Other Poems," Poe's first published work, from 1827. Only 12 copies are known to exist.

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"This is amazing," said Martin Cox, 74, who was visiting Baltimore on Friday and stopped at the library without knowing about the Poe exhibit. "I'm definitely more knowledgeable now about Poe, after only 15 minutes here. I'm coming back."

Poe's unhappy end on the streets of Baltimore is also well represented. Poe died Oct. 7, 1849, under circumstances never fully explained, after being found roaming the streets of the city, dressed in clothes that were not his. The Peabody exhibit includes a lock of his hair, an 1854 daguerreotype of an 1849 daguerreotype taken just weeks before he died, and a piece of his casket. There's also an original copy of his obituary, published in the New York Daily Tribune of Oct. 9, 1849, and written by his literary nemesis, Rufus Griswold. "This announcement will startle many," the obituary begins, "but few will be grieved by it."

How wrong Griswold was. More than 165 years later, how many people count Rufus Griswold among their favorite authors? And how many sports teams are named for his writings?

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If you go

"The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore & Beyond" will be on exhibit at the George Peabody Library, 17 E. Mount Vernon Place, through Feb. 5, 2017. Free. guides.library.jhu.edu/specialcollections/exhibitions.

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