Edgar Allan Poe didn’t get a grand monument in Richmond, so the writer’s admirers built him a unique, serene garden instead.
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Photography by Tyler Darden
As 2009 approaches, a bicentennial birthday bash is in the works for Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s greatest literary innovators and one of Virginia’s most famous sons. The event will have Richmond’s Poe Museum humming with commemorative events on an international scale. A century ago, however, memorializing the controversial genius presented challenges that might have been insurmountable had not a group of determined citizens stood firm in favor of history and scholarship and against character assassination. The result is a living monument of unique design—an enclosed garden made from elements of the demolished Southern Literary Messenger building and modeled on a secret “green isle,” from Poe’s poem “To One in Paradise.”
In the late 19th century, “Richmond was in the business of monument-making,” says Poe Museum curator Chris Semtner, detailing the history of the writer’s memorial. The Lee monument had been erected in 1890, and other Civil War statues rose up in 1906 that would collectively give the wide avenue to the west of the city its name.
At that time, James Whitty, an amateur Poe scholar and collector, moved from Baltimore to Richmond. He did so to spearhead an effort to build a statue of Poe, forming the Poe Memorial Association in 1906. But some opinion leaders in the capital dismissed the idea. In the spring of 1906, an editorial appeared in the News Leader, which read, in part, “This newspaper has taken no part in the movement for a monument to Edgar Allan Poe in Richmond. We find it impossible to develop any internal enthusiasm on the subject. While admiring earnestly and enjoying thoroughly the music and beauty of Poe’s poems, we never have been able to divorce the poet from the man or to feel that Poe’s character was such to entitle him to perpetual honor in this community.” There was not to be a Poe statue.
Poe was a complicated man. His associations with various women had fueled gossip for years. There was also the issue of his unusual reaction to alcohol, a hereditary problem his father and sister shared: One drink of wine made Poe noticeably woozy. There was speculation that he was diabetic, but unfortunately, in that era, any problem with alcohol was considered a moral failing.
Also, Poe’s acerbic satire and frank literary criticism had made him some enemies, including writer Rufus Griswold. Poe had criticized Griswold’s anthology of American writers, saying he had allotted too much space to unimportant people and not enough to important ones. Also, in a Poe short story titled “The Angel of the Odd,” a character gets progressively less intelligent as he reads one of Griswold’s books.
Griswold got his revenge. After Poe’s death, he acquired the rights to the writer’s works from Poe’s mother-in-law—in exchange for anthologizing and editing the works for free. He did, publishing the works as a collection—but in the forward to the book he slandered the dead writer, calling him an addict and womanizer.
Poe had cultivated celebrity in the first age of mass media. He took sensational positions on literary or political issues and occasionally used gimmicks to challenge his readers, once asking them, for example, to send him cryptograms, which he assured everyone he could solve. He challenged John Daniels, editor of The Richmond Inquirer, to a duel over a bad review of his work. (The two later became friends.)
The writer’s dark persona was real and intriguing, enhancing his celebrity. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, acting like a “gentleman” was a priority to him. Poe’s devotees see beyond the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death (he was found unconscious and wearing ill-fitting clothes in a Baltimore public house, the cause never determined) and appreciate the way he distinguished himself in life, despite many obstacles. Poe’s gloomy obsession with death, which infused his stories, reflects his struggle to cope with the loss of his mother, a beautiful and talented actress who died of tuberculosis (it is thought) at age 24.
John Allan, a wealthy Richmond tobacco merchant, charitably took in Poe after Elizabeth Arnold Poe’s death. (Poe’s real father had abandoned the family.) Allan provided Poe with the fine education of a gentleman but withheld the underpinnings necessary to that station: money and the security of a legal adoption. Allan’s wife, Frances, doted on Poe, but she died in 1829 while Poe was in the Army, stationed at Fort Monroe. Allan then cut off his funds. To get through that winter, Poe burned his dorm room furniture for heat. He was forced to drop out of UVA, broke.
To discourage his literary dreams, Allan put Poe to work in his firm as an accountant. On the backs of Ellis and Allan Firm accounting sheets, now in the Library of Congress, you can see poems he wrote that were imbued with sadness. That sadness compounded as he seemed destined to lose every woman he loved.
Just as Poe struggled to rise above his circumstances, many of his admirers also labored in a posthumous effort to restore his good name. Susan Archer Talley, who knew the writer, rallied support by writing an homage titled The Home Life of Poe. Edward V. Valentine, sculptor of the recumbent Lee at the Washington & Lee Chapel, remembered having met Poe and wanted to make a statue of him, but it never materialized.
Poe was the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, which would become the South’s premier literary magazine, for two or three years. Its building would have been a nice home for Whitty’s Poe collection and other memorabilia, but around 1916 the city of Richmond demolished it. (Whitty donated much of his collection to the Poe Museum. The rest he kept until his death, when his heirs sold it to a Baltimore collector, who later sold it to the University of Texas at Austin.) Meanwhile, the Messenger building lay as a pile of bricks until about 1921.
Near the demolished building sat the Old Stone House, the oldest house still standing in Richmond’s original city limits. It, too, was due for razing, but the Valentine family bought it and gave it to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. Initially, that organization could neither use it nor rent it, but then Mrs. Archer Jones conceived the idea of extending the space behind the Old Stone House into a walled garden that would become a living memorial to Poe. Historic architectural elements from the Messenger building would be incorporated into the design.
Jones persuaded the Messenger property owners to donate bricks and chunks of granite to the project as a gift. They agreed. The Poe Memorial Association Society reconstituted itself as the Poe Foundation and named the proposed structures the Poe Shrine. On the expanded Old Stone House lot, Jones designed the garden herself, inspired by Poe’s doleful poem “To One in Paradise”—a lament to a lost loved one. Jones and Mary Newton Stanard made a list of trees and flowers Poe had mentioned throughout his works and planted them in the garden. The inspiration for the garden “paradise” is the spot where Poe met in secret with the sweetheart of his youth, Elmira Royster. (The Linden Row Inn sits on the site today.)
In the end, much of the Messenger building was used to create the Poe shrine, including its façade and granite columns. They even incorporated “the partition ’round his desk” as part of a bookcase constructed for the inside space, curator Semtner explains, citing a letter from the 1920s. The granite blocks became benches in the garden. Soil from Poe’s mother’s grave was used to plant ivy in front of the shrine.
The building to the east of the Old Stone House, the Elizabeth Arnold Poe memorial building, was made using pieces salvaged from the Ellis and Allan building, the Messenger building and Poe’s boyhood home at 14th Street and Tobacco Alley (from which came a staircase, mantels, door frames and woodwork). Prominent Richmonders began collecting and donating furniture from residences where Poe had lived. Based on records from the estate sale at Moldavia (the Allan home at 5th and Main), Whitty tracked down people who had purchased various paintings, china, glassware and furniture. Patrick Henry’s granddaughter contributed her autograph book, which contained some Poe manuscripts. Even Griswold’s grandchildren came through, donating their Poe manuscripts to the Poe Shrine.
Out in the garden, Semtner points out that the current bust of Poe is a reproduction for a good reason. The original was unveiled in 1909 at the centennial of Poe’s birth, but in 1987, while giving a tour, the director turned to point out the statue and was shocked to see that it was gone. Not long after, the museum received a call from a man offering to tell them where the bust was, but first demanding to be read the poem “The Spirits of the Dead” over the phone. That accomplished, he directed the director to The Raven Inn, where he could find the bust. The poet’s admirer had set it on the bar and bought it a beer. The bust is now back in the garden, and the writer’s tortured spirit lives on.
Special thanks to Halcyon Vintage for providing the handkerchief linen dress, and to Bygones for research and the reproduction Empire-style dress and vintage pearl necklace. Hair and make-up by Lou Stevens; the model is Karina Kothe. Both from Modelogic | Wilhelmina.