On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Christina Bellantoni
A century and a half after his mysterious demise, Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic and macabre stories and poems continue to influence and inspire. Roundly considered the creator of the mystery genre as we know it today, his legend in death has been larger than his relatively short life might have suggested. We examine his local ties in Baltimore and Richmond, and the lore surrounding Poe and his works.
- Carla Hayden CEO, Enoch Pratt Free Library; Board Member, Poe Baltimore
- Chris Semtner Curator, Poe Museum in Richmond, VA
Christopher Walken Reads "The Raven"
Actor Christopher Walken reads Poe’s famous poem.
James Earl Jones Reads "The Raven"
Actor James Earl Jones reads Poe’s famous poem.
Vincent Price's "An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe"
A 52-minute film featuring Vincent Price reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s stories in front of a live audience.
Life And Legacy Of Edgar Allan Poe
Chris Semtner, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, discusses the life, death, and legacy of America’s most famous author.
Poe's "Annabel Lee" Voiced By Ben Whishaw
Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” voiced by Ben Whishaw.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni, editor-in-chief of Roll Call, sitting in for Kojo. Considered by many to be the master of mystery and suspense, the beating of his "Tell-Tale Heart" still reverberates and haunts today. Well over a century and a half since Edgar Allan Poe's death, writers before and since his time have relied on the power of their pens to set the scene, create an atmosphere and set readers' imaginations loose. But that Poe did it so well is perhaps why so many cities up and down the East Coast lay claim to a piece of his legacy.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIJoining us today to talk about his local life and work are people from two of those cities in our region. Here with me now, in studio, is Carla Hayden. She is the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a board member of Poe Baltimore. Hi, Carla. How are you?
MS. CARLA HAYDENHi. How are you? This is a great time to be talking about Poe.
BELLANTONIIt's a lot of fun, I've got to say. I was excited about this segment. So why does Poe remain so influential, so beloved?
HAYDENI think anyone who has ever read a mystery story and gotten chills down their spine, anyone that's watched "The Twilight Zone," especially, with Rod Sterling and those interesting endings, anyone that is amazed by what happens at "Forensic Files," owes a debt to Edgar Allan Poe. And the fact that he is credited with being the first mystery writer ever -- even though he didn't even use the term detective in his stories -- he used investigator, he was actually the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. So he has -- he resonates with so many.
HAYDENAnd then, of course, his very mysterious ending that we're still talking about 150 years later...
BELLANTONIWhich we are going to get...
HAYDEN...just adds to the mystique.
BELLANTONIYes. That's our tease for a little later, which we're going to get to. How do you think of him as a person and a writer?
HAYDENI think he was actually one of the best examples of a frustrated artist. You think of Van Gogh, you think of Toulouse Lautrec, different, Beethoven -- all of these artists who were -- who had some different issues because they weren't appreciated or it's very hard to be an artist, especially a poet, if you think about it. And so I think he came from a -- well, we know he came from a family that was well respected, but not necessarily that well in terms of monetary.
HAYDENSo that being on the edge of poverty was always a part of his life. And so being frustrated and not feeling that he was achieving through his art and having to take jobs as being an editor and things like that led to, let's say maybe emphasis on the alcoholic spirits. And sometimes you find that. So he was a frustrated artist. And that, I think, came through.
BELLANTONIBrought out some of that darkness...
BELLANTONI...a little bit. Now, it's so nice. So many writers -- great writers, you associate with Europe or maybe other periods of time. This is somebody who was right here, from our region.
HAYDENOh, my goodness.
BELLANTONITell us about his ties to Baltimore.
HAYDENWell, his ties to Baltimore are actually very, very personal. This is where he, of course, rests for eternity with his beloved wife and his aunt who were his closest family. It was also a place of refuge for him. Richmond, of course, was what he -- and he wanted to be a Southern gentleman. He dressed the part. He was, as you know, recognized on the street, just like our own contemporary John Waters is recognized in Baltimore. So he was quite a figure of the time. And he had -- he had the strong family ties and the refuge in Baltimore. And Richmond was the place that allowed him to be that Southern gentleman, and he spent quite a bit of his time.
BELLANTONIBut the family roots were in Baltimore.
HAYDENThe family roots were there. And that's what drew him to Baltimore. And as you can imagine, when he had difficulties to go back to that family aspect really was important to him.
BELLANTONIYou can join our conversation and tell us what legend and lore you might have heard about Poe and his life in this region or even elsewhere. Share those stories with us by calling 800-433-8850. Send a tweet to @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. You mentioned a little bit about the investigator and how this was an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Tell us a little bit more about that.
HAYDENWell, in some of his early short stories, he has policemen -- and he never uses that word, he used investigator -- an investigative person who's independent, who uses hyper-awareness analysis to solve crimes that baffle the somewhat dimwitted police. So you see that in the popular series now, Sherlock. And so you have this person who -- and that independence is very important, because they don't have politics, they don't have other things to influence the outcome of their investigation. And to have analysis that's done by your intellect was a major part of what he made sure came through with this person. So it made you want to, in your reading, and think, Oh, yeah, that, oh, wow. Sure. So you get drawn into the investigation, too.
BELLANTONITake us a little bit through Poe's life in Baltimore. What was his childhood like?
HAYDENWell, he actually had a childhood. And it was -- he was orphaned. And he was adopted by a very prominent family in Richmond. So he left there -- he left Boston when he was about three, to Richmond. And the family was supportive of him. The wife was very wonderful. But Mr. Allan, and that's Edgar Allan Poe, was pretty stern. And over time, Edgar and Mr. Allan didn't get along. And so he fled to Baltimore to be with his widowed aunt on his father's side. And so his father's family was from Baltimore. And that's where he met his 12-year-old cousin, Virginia -- and that's a whole nother story that I hope we get a change to delve into -- and married her at 13.
HAYDENAnd so that tie to Baltimore, you know, the refuge. You know, things aren't going well at home and I'm going to go to the other side, you know, my dad's side and that. And so that became the place. That's why Baltimore just drew him back and he could be just Edgar Poe and not Edgar Allan.
BELLANTONIWe'll be talking a little bit more about his ties to Richmond in a few moments on the show and sort of that side of him. But you have some, what look like really great, old letters and a book here with us.
HAYDENWell, and I have to say, before we get to the Richmond part, remember that Baltimore did name its football team The Ravens, just...
BELLANTONII did notice that.
HAYDEN...just, we do really have quite a connection. And also, this weekend, we have a Bmore Halloween and, as the paper says here, 20 of the spookiest, weirdest and Edgar Allan Boh-approved events in and around the city. So Baltimore really embraces him.
BELLANTONIWe've got a lot of those on our website at kojoshow.org. You can read those.
HAYDENSo the letters -- now, the letters are part of a personal collection that are part of a wonderful trove of Poe memorabilia at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. And that's why I'm here. Because these were letters from Edgar Allan Poe to that wonderful aunt, Maria, who was part of -- and to his wife. And also one that's really intriguing from the attending physician at the time of his death, who describes his death and what happened to his aunt, who unfortunately read about his death in the newspaper. She was expecting him. He was starting a new life. And she just opened the paper and it said, Mr. E. A. Poe has recently died in Baltimore. So -- and remember this is before tele -- all of this. So letters were very important.
HAYDENAnd so when he describes -- the physician describes what happened, he really gives you a sense that this mystery will go on.
BELLANTONIOkay. This might -- could be a little gruesome I'm guessing.
HAYDENIt might be a little gruesome, but...
BELLANTONIAll right. This, again, we're talking with Carla Hayden, who's the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a board member of Poe Baltimore, with this terrific book, she's going to read us what the physician wrote after Poe's death in 1849.
HAYDEN"When brought to the hospital, he was unconscious of his condition, who brought him or with whom he had been associating. He remained in this condition from five o'clock in the afternoon until three the next morning. To this state, succeeded tremor of the limbs and, at first, a busy, but not violent or active delirium. Constant talking and vacant converse was spectral and imaginary objects on the wall. His face was pale and his whole person drenched in perspiration. We were unable to induce tranquility before the second day. He told me that he had a wife in Richmond -- which I had since learned was not the fact -- that he did not know when he had left that city or what had become of his trunk of clothing.
HAYDEN"And so wishing to rally and sustain his now fast-sinking hopes, I told him, I hoped, that in a few days he'd be able to enjoy the society of his friends here. And I would be most happy to contribute in any possible way to his ease and comfort. At this, he broke out with much energy and said, the best thing his best friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol. That when he beheld his degradation, he was ready to sink in the earth."
BELLANTONIWow. I don't know how many doctors write letters like that nowadays.
HAYDENVery dramatic. Very expressive.
BELLANTONISo this is -- I learned a lot while doing the research obviously, Kojo's terrific producers prepared this segment. And I didn't know what -- I guess you'd call it cooping -- is this...
BELLANTONIThis is the rumor about how Poe actually ended up in this state that the physician writes about. So this is, in addition to having the Halloween tie-in, it's sort of an election-day tie-in. So, please illuminate us.
HAYDENWell, I was intrigued with that because I'm from Illinois and Chicago and we do a lot of things with politics there. And this idea that, for three days, Poe was supposedly taken to different parts of the city and being used as what they called a repeater -- someone who would vote in different wards. And they would change the person's clothing so that they could do it. Because when Poe was found, he was in clothing that was not his usual meticulous clothing. So that really was of a concern to people who knew him, because he was usually so distinctive.
HAYDENAnd so this thing of cooping is that you would have someone dress up and go and vote in about three or four wards. And that possibly Poe was given much more to drink than he usually had or given some type of hallucinogenic so that he could be used and trotted around Baltimore to coop -- fly the chicken coop.
BELLANTONIOf course the cynic political journalist in me is curious who won the election.
HAYDENI think that would be a wonderful thing to see and which wards he actually -- and what the vote count might have been in those wards.
BELLANTONIAnd how you end up in a circumstance like that is just very -- spooky in itself. We are going to continue this conversation about Edgar Allan Poe and his local life and legacy with Carla Hayden, the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a board member of Poe Baltimore in just a moment. I'm Christina Bellantoni sitting in for Kojo. And we'll be right back.
BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni, editor-in-chief of Roll Call sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we're talking about the local life and legacy of Edgar Allan Poe just a few days before Halloween here. And I'm in studio with Carla Hayden, the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a board member of Poe Baltimore. So our listeners might have noticed the normal peppy Kojo intro music was preceded by a very particular ominous thumping beat. That was the "Tell-Tale Heart." Why does this still resonate with so many people and be so chilling, Carla Hayden?
HAYDENWell, when you read it, and it's a very short story, the "Tell-Tale Heart," and it starts with a person who is convinced that an old man who has one false eye is looking at him. And he spies on the man and very cautiously looks. And every time he looks in the room the man's eye -- this false eye is looking at him or this eye. And finally he kills the man, the old man. And the police come and different things happen.
HAYDENAnd as he's sitting there answering questions from the police, let's go, everything's okay, he starts to hear this thump, thump. And he's convinced because the police are talking about lunch or something else, they can't hear it but he can hear it and he knows it. And things keep going and it just -- he's hearing it and he's like, when will it stop? Oh, this horrible. And the police are just -- and he's trying to tell this convincing story that, oh, I don't know what happened to the old guy.
HAYDENAnd then finally the thumping becomes so loud in his head that he just screams and says, I did it. He's under the floorboards. Okay. So the guilt and everything, just this thumping that you could just hear.
BELLANTONIAnd it's like a serious, I would say, psychological question that has been repeated in many, many, you know, works of art, movies. But it really gets that central question of guilt. And school children read this and grow up thinking, oh, better always tell the truth.
HAYDENAnd maybe there was a little cautionary part of that. And also when you think about his stories, that sometimes you don't really witness in a story the death or the horror, it's in the person's mind, the imagination. And sometimes that can be even more cruel and horrifying than something you're looking directly into.
BELLANTONISo we've got lots of great things that you can listen to at kojoshow.org and a lot of details and Halloween-themed events. And there's going to be a Vincent Price film that's going to be on the big screen this Halloween. So let's take a listen now to Vincent Price reciting the opening stanzas of "The Raven."
MR. VINCENT PRICEOnce upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. "Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door, only this, and nothing more."
MR. VINCENT PRICEAh, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December, and each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. Eagerly I wished the morrow, vainly I had sought to borrow, from my books surcease of sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore, for the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels called Lenore, nameless here for evermore.
MR. VINCENT PRICEAnd the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before, So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating "Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door, some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door, this it is, and nothing more."
BELLANTONIThat was, of course, Vincent Price making it even so much more spooky. That is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." And we are here in studio with Carla Hayden of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a board member of Poe Baltimore. On our website, kojoshow.org, you can find an audio of actors James Earl Jones and Christopher Walken reciting "The Raven." And we're going to hear a little bit of a take on that as well in a minute.
BELLANTONIBut Carla, I mean, this is so spooky. And just this profound sense of loneliness.
HAYDENAnd we were sitting here looking at each other going, oh my, you're feeling chills in Vincent Price's voice and just the background noises. You can imagine some dark and dreary night in your own house feeling and hearing a noise and wondering what was happening.
BELLANTONIAbsolutely. Now you can tell us, is "The Raven" your favorite or do you have some other favorites? Join our conversation at 800-433-8850. Send a tweet to @kojoshow or email firstname.lastname@example.org. so how has Edgar Allan Poe inspired other artists over the years. You know, what have you really seen as his works at this rich literature continuing on?
HAYDENWell, what we talked about and mentioned Sherlock Holmes and the idea of a crafty person -- think of Agatha Christy and Miss Marple, and of course the Belgian -- the spiffy Belgian with the mustache and all of the great investigators and detectives. And this idea -- and writers like Josephine Tate (sp?) one of my favorites, a British writer, that present stories that seem to be gruesome or something's going on but in the end there's a twist. The locked room syndrome that you have, everyone there and who actually committed the murder or the daring deed or the terrible deed.
HAYDENAnd this building of suspense is definitely something that Edgar Allan Poe brought into the literature and made sure that other people thought this idea of ending that doesn't quite go with what you've been led to believe all the way to the end and keeps you reading because you want to know who done it. It's that whole thing of who done it is his greatest legacy I believe.
BELLANTONIYeah, well, you know, I had a teacher who used to refer to it as patient rhyming.
BELLANTONIWhich is there's just that pacing to it that makes it that much more...
HAYDENRight, his poetry and it builds momentum.
BELLANTONIFun and interesting. Now we have Liza on from Baltimore, Md. wanting to give us a little tease about events coming up tied to both Halloween and something else. Hi, Liza.
LIZAHi. I'm so glad to be speaking with you. I'm Liza Luens (sp?) and I'm the manager of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Poe Baltimore. I'm so delighted Carla is singing our praises because in fact we've been opened to the public now since Memorial Day. And one of the things that I wanted to share, because you're talking about Halloween, and so many people were asking whether we were going to be open for Halloween.
LIZAWe won't but better than that, we're going to be open for the Day of the Dead. And from 12:00 until 3:00 on Saturday and Sunday, that's November 1 and November 2, anyone who comes dressed as a recognizable Poe character will be let into the museum for free. So they can't just put on like a little kind of John Waters type mustache. Poe would have to recognize the character. But we're really excited about that event and we're welcoming people to bring any offerings for an alter that we're going to have outside as well.
BELLANTONIThat sounds like a lot of fun. Carla Hayden was very excited when she hears you're calling.
HAYDENAnd the fact that people can actually go into the Poe House. Liza, could you just -- oh, I don't know if she's still there.
BELLANTONIYeah -- no, we've got her.
LIZAOh, it's such a treasure.
HAYDEN...but that's much of the significance...
LIZAWe have people that come from all over the world and make pilgrimage to Baltimore. And so, for example, two weekends ago we had two separate parties from Germany, from Turkey, from Korea, from Brazil. It's kind of a common thing that people really kind of come to the Poe House. So every Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 am until 4:00 pm we're open to the public. We charge a very small admission. And then people come in. They're able to see the house. We have very knowledgeable volunteers who are there as kind of docents that can share about Edgar Allen Poe and his history in Baltimore.
LIZAAnd what's such a treat is that what really happens is it's almost like a rolling cocktail party without cocktails. And the people come and talk about what they know about Poe and share it. So it's really been a treat for the public. And we have special events, that we just finished a whole series of October Wednesday lunchtime October events throughout the City of Baltimore that was funded through the Baltimore Office of Promotion in the Arts where we had a variety of performers, Sharee Winert (sp?) , an actress who gave a reading of the "Tell-Tale Heart" in the House, Tony Sindus (sp?) did a performance of "The Black Cat" in the cemetery, (unintelligible) who is a beat boxer did an amazing performance at the Poe statue where we had whole groups over 50 young women who -- from an academy were there to hear that performance.
BELLANTONIOh, that's great. Thank you so much, Liza. And we've got all of this information at kojoshow.org. Why don't you give us also your website so people can find that.
LIZA...poe.baltimore.org or they can also become fans on Facebook. The easiest way to do that would be to actually Google Poe Baltimore Facebook because otherwise in Facebook it's a little harder to find. We have a distinctive yellow and black logo. So we really welcome everyone to the museum. We'll be open until the end of the year December 28 and we will close seasonally and open again in the spring. But we welcome everyone to come. And I'm so excited to hear you. And thank you, Carla, for sharing what you're sharing today. I hope I'll see you at our board meeting soon.
BELLANTONIThere you go.
HAYDENOh, you will. And we've been pushing Poe in Baltimore as his personal connection. And I think it might be time to yield a little bit to Richmond.
BELLANTONIWe will definitely get to that. I actually -- I have to use the transition of discussion about beat boxing to play a very interesting rendition of "Mr. Raven."
BELLANTONIThis is an artist named MC Lars. I first heard this in Nebraska, of all places. Here we go.
BELLANTONIYes, it's a little terrible. We got some laughs in here. And joining us now in studio is Chris Semtner. He's the curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Va., also the author of several books including "Edgar Allan Poe's Richmond." Hi, Chris. Thanks so much for joining us.
MR. CHRIS SEMTNERHi. Thanks for having me. Great to be here.
BELLANTONIExcellent. So we've been talking about all Baltimore's claims to Poe, but certainly Richmond has a lot of him as well. Poe's Pub is one of my favorite restaurants down there, but there's so much history in Richmond. Tell us a little bit about his life there and how he's tied to Richmond, Va.
SEMTNEROh, Poe spent more of his life in Richmond, Va. than any other city so he considered himself a Virginian. He wrote a letter where he famously referred to himself as a Virginian. And he was orphaned there at the age of two. He grew up in Richmond with foster parents, John and Francis Allan who gave him Allan as a middle name. It was in Richmond that he began his career in journalism that really shaped the rest of his life. He first fell in love there. He was married there.
SEMTNERHe came back at the end of his life. His sister lived there during all of his lifetime. So now there's several sites connected with him like the home of his last fiancé. He was engaged with her at the time of her death and her house is still standing on Church Hill. The burial sites of his mother, his foster parents are all still there. The house where he gave his last reading of "The Raven" is still standing there. And of course the Poe Museum.
BELLANTONIAnd many of these things are doing celebrations for Halloween or Day of the Dead, is that right?
SEMTNEROh yes. For Halloween we're having Poe Goes to the Movies. And Vincent Price's daughter will be in town. She'll be hosting a film screening of "Tales of Terror" with Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre, a costume contest. And then the day after Halloween, November 1, Vincent Price was a big foodie. So he even wrote a cookbook. We're having Vincent Price-inspired foods inspired by his cookbook prepared by different chefs in town from Can-Cans and the Berkeley Hotel.
SEMTNERAnd then the Vincent Price signature wine collection will be available during that. So there'll be a wine tasting and you'll be able to sample different -- Vince Price's favorite foods.
BELLANTONIHow fun. All these links are up at kojoshow.org so people can check that out. And of course join our conversation. Tell us what Poe has meant to you if you studied it in school. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send a tweet to @kojoshow or email email@example.com. One thing that's interesting and some of your favorites works, Chris, are actually not the spooky works. So he was really a literary first critic and wrote many other works. Some of his best-selling novels had nothing to do with scaring people. So tell us a little bit about that.
SEMTNERYeah, Poe knew that variety was what was going to get him noticed. He wrote that to be appreciated you must be read. They're not going to appreciate your work unless they read it. And he really wanted to stand out from the crowd. And part of that was writing book reviews. It just tore apart the northern writers. And another part of it was creating a persona about himself. He -- we actually have an autobiographical memo in our museum where he came up with fansical tales about him fighting the Greek wars of independence and going to St. Petersburg, Russia. And it really drew attention to him.
SEMTNERBut another way that attracted this attention was by writing totally new things like inventing the detective story and pioneering science fiction and of course the horror stories. And he wrote about 70 short stories. And only about 15 of them were horror stories. So there were a lot more comedies and satires. So among my favorite tales is "Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale With a Moral." And that's one where he's making fun of the transcendentalists.
BELLANTONIWe have a caller from Montgomery Village, Md. who had some thoughts on this as well. Thank you very much for joining us.
BELLANTONIHi. Some of your favorite stories.
UNIDENTIFIEDHow are you, yeah. How are you? Thank you very much for taking my call. And my question is, I have read Edgar Allan Poe short stories, you know, years ago. And I enjoyed most of his short stories and the topic or the issue that he raised and then, you know, tried to convey to the readers. But my question is, I remember his short stories are not -- are a little bit different. And then he called them short, short stories. And that was a new genre during that time. And then I would like your guests to comment on the difference between short stories and short, short stories and basically in relation to Edgar Allan Poe's works. And thank you very much for...
BELLANTONIThank you for calling. yeah, one of -- the "Tell-Tale Heart" in fact, you were showing us is just a couple of pages in this book. Chris Semtner of the Poe Museum in Richmond, do you have some thoughts on that?
SEMTNERWell, Poe considered himself, first of all, a poet. He grew up loving poetry and wanting to write poetry. His hero growing up was Lord Byron. So today you might idolize a basketball star or a rock star, but he idolized Lord Byron, the man who was mad, bad and dangerous to know. And he published three books of poetry before he even published his first short story. So he found out later that these didn't pay the bills. But he started entering his short stories in contests and found out he won a big contest for his adventure story "Manuscript Found in a Bottle. And that segued into him getting a job at the Southern Literary Messenger.
SEMTNERSo he decided that he was going to apply the rules he applied to his poetry to his fiction. And before then a lot of writers thought short stories should be used to edify or to enlighten or to give you a moral example. But Poe thought that the idea of poetry should have a single unified emotional impact on the reader, that the poem should be beautiful for its own sake, that art exists for art's sake and is really ahead of its time. So he thought with his stories he should build them up so that every element leads up to that emotional impact he's trying to get.
SEMTNERSo it's almost like constructing a mousetrap. You just have to make sure it springs at just the right time and all the parts work together. So you see it really effectively in the "Tell-Tale Heart." There's nothing unnecessary in that story. You don't even know the names of the characters because it's not important. You don't even know if the narrator's a male or female because that's not what's important to him. He's just trying to get that emotional impact that just rises to the end with that confession. Tear up the planks here, here, here to the beating of his heart.
BELLANTONIThat's a very good rendition of it too. It's still spooky even not hearing the words.
SEMTNERWell, I could scream it for you.
BELLANTONISo the -- what was his best-selling work actually? It's not something that you'd expect, right?
SEMTNERHis best-selling book during his lifetime was "The Conchologist's First Book." It's a textbook on seashells. A piece of hack work he did. He was -- early in his career he had moved to New York and the magazine he was going to work there failed. He had written one novel but "The Conchologist's First Book" was just a deal he'd made with a professional conchologist who wanted a cheaper version of his own book to sell at lectures. And his publishers wouldn't allow him to do that. So he paid Poe $50 to write a cheaper version of it.
SEMTNERNow imagine this, a year later Poe published his first book of short stories and was paid with 25 free copies of his own book. So there was more of a market, they thought, for seashells than there was for the tales, the grotesque and arabesque.
BELLANTONIAnd then he ended up becoming so famous that people recognized him on the streets of Baltimore now. So Richmond lays claim to him, Baltimore lays claim to him, Philadelphia, Boston obviously. So is there enough of Edgar Allan Poe to go around, Carla Hayden?
HAYDENOh, I think so. And I was -- what really intrigued by the Vincent Price wine aspect and the wonderful things you have in Richmond. But it shows his influence and enduring influence that the cities that he spent the most time in or had the most emotional attachment to really claimed him. And I think that if you are a Poe aficionado to actually be on this side of the United States, you could go to Richmond in one day, go up to Baltimore, all of that and have quite a day.
SEMTNEROne of the great things about Poe is he doesn't belong to any particular city. He moved around. His works are read everywhere. So we really consider Poe's home to be anywhere his works are read. His works are read in Paris, France. He was a big hit over there even during his lifetime. So everywhere you go as long as you're reading Poe's works, you're keeping his memory alive. And that's where he is at that time.
SEMTNERBecause he's really America's first internationally influential writer. He's the first one who really changed the face of world literature. Before him there were popular writers in Europe like Washington Irving, but Poe's the first one who invented new literary genres, who came up with this idea of art for art's sake who really changed the way we thought about art and literature. So his impact is just enormous.
BELLANTONIIt sounds like you could plan an entire vacation around going to Poe spots that I like quite a bit. So give us a call at 800-433-8850 and tell us your favorite Edgar Allan Poe short story or poem. And we will be right back after a short break. I'm Christina Bellantoni sitting in for Kojo.
BELLANTONIWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Christina Bellantoni, editor-in-chief of Roll Call. And we are talking about Edgar Allan Poe's local life and legacy with Carla Hayden of the Pratt Free Library and Chris Semtner, the curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Va. So we know a lot about Poe's darker side and that spookiness, but I'm wondering, Chris, how did romance shape Edgar Allan Poe's work and life?
MR. CHRISSEMTNERWell, from Poe's earliest days he seemed to be in love with being in love. And a lot of his poetry has that romantic theme. We actually had an exhibit at the museum about Annabel Lee back in January. And it was about the different women who thought they were the real Annabel Lee. Even growing up in Richmond his sister went to a local girls' school and he would use his sister to sneak notes to the different girls and send them love poetry. And they really liked it until they figured out it was just the same poem over and over again.
CHRISSEMTNERAnd then, by the age of 14, he fell in love with the woman he called the first purely ideal love of my soul, Jane Stith Craig Stanard. The problem was, he was 14, she was his best friend's mother so he'd have to worship her from afar. She probably thought he was a nice weird kid. And then at 15 he fell in love with Elmira Royster, who was from a pretty wealthy family. And Edgar and Elmira would sneak away to be together. Her father just disapproved of Edgar. Edgar was this orphan, this actress' kid. He had never been legally adopted by the Allans. So they decided to become secretly engaged to get married. As soon as he graduated from college he could take care of himself.
CHRISSEMTNERBut when Poe came back home from his first term at college, she was engaged to somebody else. Broke his heart. He ran away from home. He published his first book "Tamerlane" about that heartbreak and that loss. Didn't find out until later what had happened was when he would send her love letters, her father intercepted them and burned them and convinced her Poe had forgotten all about her so she'd marry somebody more suitable.
CHRISSEMTNERSo years later we fast forward to Poe getting married in Richmond. And Elmira was with her husband at a party and she saw the young couple. And she said in one of her letters later that she got so jealous that seeing them together was agonizing. And she instantly had to remind herself she's a married woman and chase those thoughts as if they were venomous reptile.
CHRISSEMTNERSo then we fast forward later, 1848 and Poe's back in Richmond. He's 39, she's 37. She's lost her husband and she's gone through the whole multi-year mourning process so she's good to go. She can remarry now. And he just showed up at her door one day. And after all these years he looked up and saw her and says, Elmira, is that you? And she said, go away. I got to go to church. But he kept coming back in spite of her reservations. Her husband left her a fortune but he left a stipulation in his will to discourage gold diggers so that if she ever remarried she's lose two-thirds of that. And she's willing to give up that fortune to be with Edgar.
CHRISSEMTNERAnd he actually joined the Sons of Temperance and that's likely for her. He pledged never to touch alcohol again. And they've tested some of his hair and it looks like just based on his hair we know at least for the last couple months of his life he seemed to have stayed true to that pledge. The alcohol had a lot of lead in it and the lead levels just dropped about that time.
BELLANTONIInteresting then of how we talked about how he died and potentially was under some sort of influence, perhaps of some shady collection activity.
CHRISSEMTNERYeah, that might not have made it into his hair yet.
HAYDENI just have to say, one of the letters that we have at the Pratt Library is from Elmira to Mrs. Clemm talking about that time as she said, I remember seeing Edgar and his lovely wife very soon after they were married. I met them. I shall never forget my feelings at the time. They were indescribable, almost agonizing. However, in an instant I remembered that I was a married woman and banished them from me as I would have a poisonous reptile.
BELLANTONIOh boy. Well, we're going to listen to this romantic poem. This is "Annabel Lee" read by actor Ben Wishaw.
MR. BEN WISHAWThe angels, not half so happy in heaven, Went envying her and me. Yes, that was the reason (as all men know, in this kingdom by the sea) That the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee. But our love it was stronger by far than the love Of those who were older than we, Of many far wiser than we, And neither the angels in heaven above, Nor the demons down under the sea, Can ever dissever my soul from the soul Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.
MR. BEN WISHAWFor the moon never beams without bringing me dreams Of the beautiful Annabel Lee, And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes Of the beautiful Annabel Lee, And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride, In the sepulcher there by the sea, In her tomb by the sounding sea.
BELLANTONIWow, that's even -- you know, it's very deep and romantic, but also it's still a little spooky, I would say. You've got thoughts on "Annabel Lee?"
CHRISSEMTNERYeah, that was considered his last poem. And he initially apparently wanted to publish it with his wedding announcement to Elmira. And they do mention she was a child and I was a child so that might refer them being together when they were young. But instead he died ten days before he would've married her. So it was initially published at the end of his obituary two days after he died.
CHRISSEMTNERAnd the writer of his obituary Rufus W. Griswold said that, some of you will recognize the references he made. He wrote this about one of the women in his life. So then people stepped forward thinking they were the real Annabel Lee. There was Sarah Helen Whitman from Providence, R.I. who thought that was an encoded message he'd written for her. And then Stella Anna Lewis who is the one taking care of Poe's mother-in-law after he died. His mother-in-law said, well, you know, you were my Eddie's favorite. You're the real Annabel Lee So she started bragging about it and it was poured in the papers.
CHRISSEMTNERAnd then another one of Poe's friends Frances Sargent Osgood said, absolutely no. He couldn’t stand that woman. He really wrote about his wife Virginia. So then other people speculated, well, her name is Annabel Lee. Maybe he wrote about Annie Richmond from Massachusetts. But going through he was probably writing about his wife but also Elmira thought it was written about her because apparently he told her she was Annabel Lee.
BELLANTONIOr just like sending it to all of the girls when he was a youngster. Maybe it was written about all of them together. We have John from Silver Spring with a question about some Poe memorabilia. Hi, John.
BELLANTONIDo you have a question for our guests?
JOHNYeah, my daughter was at the University of Virginia. And in the bookstore they have some Poe merchandise. And I got a mug there. And it's Poe's picture and below it is the caption, drop out. And I'm just wondering if you could comment on that.
BELLANTONIThank you for calling.
CHRISSEMTNERWell, today's he the University of Virginia's most famous drop out. They even have a bronze bust of him in Alderman Library. And when he went to the University of Virginia it was only in its second year of existence, the most expensive school in the country at $350 a year. But he went there with $110, so immediately started borrowing money so he could pay for his classes, his room and board. And he was in debt from the first day he got there. So he tried to make up the money he couldn't pay off by gambling. He was at least $2,000 in debt the first nine months.
CHRISSEMTNERAnd to give you an idea, this was a wild place -- someplace not really safe to go. Poe's letters home describes how one student just bit one on the arm over and over again from the shoulder all the way down to the elbow. In another letter he says that a student hit another in the head with a rock and then the other tried to shoot at him.
BELLANTONISounds like good inspiration for some scary stories...
CHRISSEMTNERAnd so only stayed there for nine months and just really couldn't afford to go back. But he was never disciplined while he was there. So at least he stayed out of trouble.
BELLANTONIGood history there. Valerie from Alexandria, Va., you're on the line. Thanks for joining us.
VALERIEYes. Thank you. I'm a French Canadian and we read Poe in French translated by (word?) -- I think (word?) right. And I'd like for you to comment on that.
BELLANTONIIt sounds like, you know, he was very popular internationally. We've had some other questions about this as well.
CHRISSEMTNEROh yeah, and even during Poe's lifetime his works were being translated to French. And his story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the first detective story created a big sensation in 1846 because two different authors, both translating, both took credit for it. And then one sued the other saying the other had plagiarized him. And then eventually it went to court and an editor said, well neither of you wrote that. It was some American named Edgar Poe.
CHRISSEMTNERAnd that's how Baudelaire, the great Charles Baudelaire discovered Poe. And he loved this reputation of Al Poe that grew up around him, especially after Poe's death, that Poe was a wild man. And he called him the divine mad man drunkard of Baltimore. And that was a compliment coming from Baudelaire.
CHRISSEMTNERBut later Stephane Mallarme discovered Poe. And what he liked about him was that he was very methodical, not at all a wild man or insane. He liked things like the philosophy of composition where he explained how he methodically created "The Raven" all to build up to that unified effect he was trying to achieve. So different authors found different things in Poe that they liked.
CHRISSEMTNERJules Verne loved Poe's science fiction. He loved the realism, how he took these fantastic stories and added realistic scientific-sounding details. Even Victor Hugo like Poe and said he was the prince of American literature. So Poe's a big hit in France.
BELLANTONIYou can continue to join our conversation by calling 800-433-8850 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. A question for Carla Hayden who is with the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a board member of Poe Baltimore, "We're wondering if" -- this is from Eileen -- "did your guests see the play 'The Completely Fictional-Utterly True-Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe?' This was at the Centerstage Theater in Baltimore debuted in the 2012-2013 season depicting the mysterious final days of the poet and that final engagement with the doctor."
HAYDENOh no, I didn't get a chance to see it. And we really go back to the attending physician's letter when we look at what was going -- he never really said what was the cause of his death though.
CHRISSEMTNEROh yeah, wasn't sure about the cause of his death. And lately we were sent the mortality schedule for Baltimore for 1849. And someone had written phrenitis on there, which means inflammation of the brain. So that could mean a lot of things. And I checked WebMD and just judging by the symptoms, there are about 99 different things it could be. And usually it's associated with encephalitis or meningitis. But there's no real telling now.
HAYDENRight. And when you read all of the symptoms or the different things that he experienced in those last three days, it's just inconclusive.
BELLANTONIDoug from Silver Spring, Md. joins us now. Thanks for being on the line, Doug.
DOUGHi. I just wanted to comment as most people know the vast majority of films that are ostensibly based on Poe's work have very little resemblance to their source. But I just wanted to point out that in the early 1940s, MGM made a 20-minute short based on the "Tell-Tale Heart" that was extremely faithful to the story and was the directorial debut of Jules Dassin who went on to direct major motion pictures like "Night in the City," "Topkapi" and "Never on Sunday."
CHRISSEMTNERYeah, Poe's been a great inspiration for filmmakers. In fact, I don't know if you had talked about it, that Alfred Hitchcock said the reason he made suspense films was because he grew up loving Poe's works.
BELLANTONIWe have an email from -- sorry, lost it here -- Jan who says that Poe met Charles Dickens in Philadelphia or somewhere when Dickens was on the tour of the states. Dickens had a pet raven. Some think this could've been the inspiration for the poem. The question is whether the pet is a stuffed bird residing in the Philadelphia Free Library with the Dickens exhibition there. Any truth to this story, Carla Hayden?
HAYDENWell, I've actually seen that stuffed raven in the Philadelphia special collections department. And so we also have a stuffed raven in Baltimore as well. So you might want to comment on this.
CHRISSEMTNERYeah, the one in Philadelphia is said to be (word?) and we don't know if Poe was actually inspired just by that. He had friends who had pet ravens and there were ravens in literature before that. But Dickens did write "Barnaby Rudge" which included a talking raven. So Poe had plenty of access to different ravens that could've inspired him. But he did meet Dickens in Philadelphia in 1842. Dickens was touring the country and Poe said, well, I get to meet with him and wrote some letters.
BELLANTONILiza, who we talked to earlier about the museum in Baltimore writes in just to say, "Since you're talking about Halloween, I wanted to point out that my mother and I had a longstanding tradition of reading "The Raven" out loud after trick or treating. This is the first year I will have not been able to do that since my mom died this past May." Our condolences, Liza. "And we hope that you will encourage your listeners to pick up that same fantastic tradition with their own families." That's a lovely note to end this on.
BELLANTONIWe had terrific guests here with me today talking about the local life and legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Carla Hayden, CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a board member of Poe Baltimore, and Chris Semtner, the curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, the author of several books including "Edgar Allan Poe's Richmond." I'm Christina Bellantoni. I've been guest hosting for Kojo Nnamdi today. Thanks for letting me sit in, and hope you have a great day and a very happy Halloween.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.