Today my family and I visited the Edgar Allen Poe House in Philly. Despite my being a long-time fan of the macabre who grew up less than ten miles away, I had never been there before. Poe was born in Baltimore and lived in London, Virginia, The Bronx, and, yes, Philly before he died. He was in Philly for a total of six years, during which time he lived in five different houses. Two of the more productive years of his life were spent in this Spring Garden house, where it is thought he wrote “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven,” among others. I’m not generally superstitious, but I let myself feel a certain frisson while I stood in the room where Poe wrote his masterpieces.
I’ve been making my way through Penguin’s The Portable Poe lately, and I’m reminded why I love the guy’s stuff: not only did he play a major role in inventing horror, detective, and science fiction, but he’s got to be one of the most rhythm-conscious prose stylists of them all (indeed “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a great example). He’s also so good at riding the recursive convolutions of the obsessive mind.
Moreover, Poe was a major influence on the French Symbolistes–Baudelaire especially–who were the poets who most influenced me when I was younger and most given to having my senses systematically deranged.
Poe died when he was forty. I’ll be thirty-nine in January, and while I don’t envy his miserable life “with long intervals of horrible sanity,” I can’t help but think about how paltry my own accomplishments are next to his.
Speaking of which, we also visited the Benjamin Franklin Museum. My man not only discovered electricity, invented bifocals, the post office, swim fins and wind-surfing (he used to swim with a kite as a kid), and played a key role in the founding of a nation, he did much of that after “retiring” at age 42 from the newspaper printing business. We watched a page printed on a replica of an eighteenth-century press. The process is painstaking–especially setting the type a letter at a time, backwards–and the product is really lovely. I’m almost inspired to get into letterpress stuff myself, though I’m not sure I’ll find the time for it anytime soon.