Two Sundays ago I trekked out to the Bronx to visit the Edgar Allen Poe Cottage. (Although Poe was better known for bouncing between Richmond and Baltimore, he spent several years living in New York City.) As our subway car emerged into the Bronx daylight, I forced my travel companions, Nozlee Samadzadeh and Jarrett Moran, to share their remembrances of Poe. Nozlee recalled reading “The Raven” in an eighth-grade English class. At her school, students could read as much or as little as they wanted to, provided everyone read some. She volunteered the labor of two stanzas, to help speed things along, but admits to having read each “Nevermore!” from the titular bird in a squawking bird voice. Her teacher also read from “Philosophy of Composition,” in which Poe describes taking such a meticulous approach to the craft of “The Raven” that many thought he was being satirical. He writes of trying to find the perfect single-word refrain of each stanza, explaining that, “considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.” Naturally you’d pick the word “nevermore,” too.
We arrived at the site, sandwiched between the Grand Concourse and Kingsbridge Road, around 2 p.m. It was a gray, sleety day. The cottage, built in 1812, sits on what is now called Poe Park. Nozlee, Jarrett, and I just caught a tour starting as we joined a small group crammed into the front room of the cottage, which doubles as a 19th-century model kitchen and gift shop. In addition to our party, there was a middle-aged couple, possibly on vacation, and a group of three college-aged dudes. I don’t know what their deal was. A white-haired man waited for us to cough up (five bucks apiece) before starting the tour. The door kept opening and closing directly behind me due to the bitter wind, since no one has taken the initiative to install a modern, self-closing latch in the place, even though they have electricity running. Intermittent street sounds poured in. I eventually wised up and latched the door shut.
Neil, our guide, kicked off the tour by describing Poe’s extreme poverty, which is noteworthy considering that, not counting the university, the Poe cottage is the only residence still standing from the original Fordham Village. Poe moved there with his wife (also his cousin), Virginia, and his mother-in-law (also his aunt), Maria, in 1846. Virginia had tuberculosis, and it was thought she might benefit from the fresh air of the country, which this part of Westchester was at the time. At the time, Fordham Village was new, having recently sprouted up around the train depot on the New York and Harlem River Railroad line. In 1841, the Catholic Diocese of New York had established St. John’s College nearby, which would later become Fordham University. Poe sought out the company of the Jesuits there, probably the only guys in the neighborhood as well-read as he was. Neil said Poe was known to hang out at the college many a night, drinking, smoking, and playing cards, and joked that they talked about everything but religion.
It usually happens that the homes of the wealthy are the only ones preserved in posterity, so Poe’s home’s current status proves some of his dearness to the people of New York. If he had not been Poe, the cottage would definitely not still be there. The rent Poe paid for the place was $100 a year, though I have little idea how much inflation has occurred since then. Neil pointed out that Poe was trying to make a living as a writer—one of the first, really, to make such an endeavor—and he sold “The Raven” for $8, about $200 today. I know a lot of poets today wouldn’t mind making a month’s rent off a poem, to say nothing of housing inflation today, but Poe also never saw another cent for it. No licensing, no royalties, no residuals. Nothing, even, from Matt Groening. For the time, he was kind of lucky to have gotten what he did for it.
The cottage had been moved to its current location in 1913, when it was originally threatened with demolition. It had also recently been renovated for over a year, reopening back in October. A new visitor center sits across the park with a large window facing the cottage. Our group agreed that the cottage itself is very cute, and bigger than most of the places we’ve lived in the city. Neil led us into the main room and explained that the only two pieces of original furniture in the cottage were the rocking chair that sat before us, and the bed in the adjacent bedroom. A bronze bust of Poe sat in the corner. It had initially stood on a pedestal out in front, but due to threats of vandalism and weathering, it’s been brought indoors.
Neil pointed out that we were not seeing Poe’s original writing desk, but this was a likely desk for the period. The top part could be removed for use as a movable writing tablet, which Neil referred to as the “laptop of the Victorian era.” Though none of Poe’s original affects were there, a small bookcase hung on the wall. Nozlee asked if anyone knew how many books Poe owned, and if anybody knew who was in his library. It is known, Neil said, that Poe prized volumes by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in particular, but most of his personal collection has been lost. While Poe was known for being well-read, he was also poor, and books were very much a luxury at the time.
From there we went into the bedroom, or as many of us as could fit, as it barely fit the bed. Neil said that this was the very bed that Virginia, at age 24, died on. Now, really the only thing surviving is the frame itself, since the blankets and mattress have been replaced many times, but still. The deathbed remains. Once more Neil reiterated the poor conditions of life for the family. They did not own a blanket for their bed at the time, so Virginia used Edgar’s greatcoat from his West Point uniform. While many had mattresses stuffed with horsehair and bits of wool, Virginia’s mattress was made of cheaper straw. Supposedly Poe sat at her head and rubbed her hands to keep her warm as Maria rubbed her feet. Virginia died in January. It must have been just as cold out, and nearly as cold inside, that day.
I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased. O God! what COULD I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased.
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
But Virginia had died in that room in 1847. Poe, himself the orphan of a deceased young mother, wrote in the same essay in 1846: “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” His interest in the subject is clear to those who have only read a few of his better known works. “Annabel Lee,” in fact, was written in the cottage in 1849, and only published shortly after his death in October of that year. Poe had spent the years between in a terrible depression. He was often seen at his wife’s grave, in all the elements and at night. He took to walking back and forth over the nearby High Bridge aqueduct, connecting Manhattan to the Bronx, which was completed in 1848. He left on a lecture trip to Richmond in 1849, but later turned up in Baltimore, disoriented and disheveled. He would die a few days later, and the specific causes of that death are still in dispute.
Neil sent us upstairs, so as not to leave any part of the cottage unexamined. I was surprised that Poe had a second floor at all. We found ourselves in a room with rows of folding chairs and a flatscreen set up with a DVD player. Neil joked that Poe had only been able to afford a cathode ray tube. He hit play, and left us to man the gift shop entrance.
The video begins with an introduction by Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz, Jr. He seems just a bit too excited by what he’s saying to be genuine, at least in regard to the subject matter. He kind of stumbles over the name Edgar Allan Poe, even. Produced by the Bronx Tourism Council, the video then moves on to a smattering of Poe’s historians, which mostly covered the material already given by Neil. They even hired an actor to mill about the cottage in period costume and sigh and look forlornly about. It’s both hilarious and appropriate. In addition to “Annabel Lee,” they added, Poe wrote one of my favorite stories there, “A Cask of Amontillado,” as well as his poem “The Bells.” There seems to be a consensus that the poem referred specifically to the church bell at the neighboring St. John’s College. As such, the bell was later removed, inscribed, and preserved to protect its legacy. The bell is kept on campus today, and is called Old Edgar.
After the video, we slowly descended the very steep staircase as a second tour assembled near the exit. Nozlee, Jarrett, and I stepped outside. We crossed over to the visitor’s center, when Nozlee and Jarrett spotted a Thai grocer across Kingsbridge, and crossed to check it out while I waited back at the cottage to talk to Neil.
After about 10 minutes he returned, having started the DVD for the group upstairs. I’d noticed his accent during the tour, mild as it was, and learned that he grew up moving around the UK before emigrating to America 15 years ago. By trade he was in corporate HR, but since his hobbies focused on history and literature, he’d become interested in the Bronx Historical Society after moving to the neighborhood, and joined up. Neil had only been working at the center since it reopened in October. Based on his familiarity with the material, I suspect he’s had an interest in Poe much longer than that. Apparently he also runs a stained glass blog, and occasionally sells his photographs of stained glass windows. Lots of irons in the fire, that Neil.
Nozlee and Jarrett reappeared in the gift shop as Neil was showing me some of his work on his Kindle Fire, which included stained glass pieces designed by one of Poe’s most famous illustrators, Harry Clarke. They are resplendent. I bought a few postcards and left the change as a donation to the site. We thanked Neil and headed out. Luckily, we didn’t have long to wait at the elevated 4 platform before a train took us out of the windy, darkening dusk and back underground.
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted…