Edgar Allan Poe
By MATTHEW COREY
Edgar Allan Poe, genius of the macabre, was surely the greatest literary giant ever to live in Fordham Bedford.
Poe spent the last four years of his life in the Bronx, his final home, although he died in Baltimore while on a lecture tour of what the Baltimore Clipper called "congestion of the brain."
While living in what was then the Village of Fordham, Poe published terrifying stories like "The Cask of Amontillado" (man coldly walls up his friend in a wine cellar as revenge) and poems like "Annabel Lee" (loving ode to dead girl).
For Halloween, the season of the scary, it's only fit to make a pilgrimage to Poe's cozy cottage at the head of Poe Park on the Grand Concourse.
The little house was one of several built on the Valentine farm and rented to householders, who could plant cabbages in the dirt or raise a milkcow in the yard. The cottage is furnished with a combination of period pieces chosen to mimic descriptions of the house when Poe lived there, and actual furniture that Poe's mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, sold off after both Poe and his wife died.
It is hard not to shiver when confronted with Poe's actual bed, rocking chair and looking glass. The furnishings are sparse, even for the small space the Poes inhabited. According to the earnest Fordham student who volunteers as a Poe Cottage guide, Poe was not only poor but "fighting a rear-guard action against bric-a-brac" with strict theories about proper domestic living.
The exhibit's sponsors, the Bronx County Historical Society and the city Department of Parks and Recreation, lovingly maintain the cottage. The porch was rebuilt last year, and the exterior walls are being stripped for an upcoming painting. The guide claims that the cottage has never been better preserved than now.
The guide credits park volunteers (called the Ravens, after Poe's most famous poem) and the police for making Poe Park safer and cleaner in the past two years, and says the greatest threat to the cottage's integrity is now traffic: subways and buses make the casements rattle and the dishes shake in their cabinets.
Poe's influence lives on in a small way in the neighborhood. Both local public schools are named after him -- PS 46 is the Edgar Allan Poe Literacy Development School and PS 246 is the Poe Cottage School. Likewise, there's the Poe Pharmacy, Poe Medical and Dental, and the Poe Coffee Shop (although legend has it that Edgar preferred stronger stuff).
Along with Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, Poe is the fourth horseman of the literary renaissance of mid-19th century America. Even then, New York City was a national creative center, and, of the four, only Dickinson never lived here.
While they lived in Manhattan (1844-46), Poe's adored wife (and first cousin), Virginia Clemm, was growing ever sicker from tuberculosis. Hoping that fresh air would aid her recovery, Poe rented the cottage in the then-rural Bronx for $100 a year from the wealthy Valentine family. The neighborhood was becoming a favorite of journalists and writers, says Bronx County Historian Lloyd Ultan, for whom downtown Manhattan was less than an hour away on the train.
Throughout his short life, which brought him to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Virginia, England, and West Point, as well as New York City, Poe was always hurting for money. Despite the evident popularity of his stories and poems and his massive influence as a book critic, the magazines of the 1830s and '40s simply did not pay a living wage. Ultan says Poe was paid only $18 for his masterpiece, the chilling poem "The Raven," about a man driven slowly mad by a raven's tapping at his window.
"In one letter, Poe and some house guests were engaged in a game of 'leaping,'" Ultan says, recounting one of the friendly letters which form the best record of Poe's Bronx life, "and at one point he landed from his leap and broke his shoe, which caused great worry since he didn't have the money to pay for a new one."
Socially, Poe mixed with the Jesuits and students of St. John's College, the precursor to today's Fordham University, and loved a quiet stroll by the Bronx River, which he contrasted favorably with the chaos and ugliness of Manhattan.
In January of 1846, Virginia died, and Poe sank into grief, although, modern biographers contend, not opium and drink, as Poe's literary enemies alleged after his death. He rediscovered a reason for living when a St. Louis businessman offered to partially fund Poe's dream, an independent literary journal. It was to raise money for the hoped-for magazine that he embarked on the lecture tour that would end abruptly in his death at 40 in Baltimore.
Poe Cottage is open to the public Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sundays 1-5 p.m. Requested donation is $2 per person.
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