Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx Inspiration

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, artist unknown

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, artist unknown

Perhaps no other American author is as associated with Halloween as Edgar Allan Poe: lyric poet, inventor of the modern detective story, and master of the macabre.  Born in Boston in 1809, he was an orphan by the age of 3, subsequently living in many places: Scotland, England, Richmond, VA and Baltimore, MD, among others – but it was during his stay in the Bronx that he penned some of his best-known works:  The Bells, Annabelle Lee, and The Cask of Amontillado.  You can visit his former home, Poe Cottage, on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (it was originally at Kingsbridge Road, some 450 feet south).  Poe moved there in 1846 with his wife, Virginia, and his mother-in-law (and aunt) Maria Clemm, when the area was known as Fordham Village, in the hopes that by living in the “country”  Virginia’s  tuberculosis would be cured.  Alas, this was not to be – Virginia died there in January, 1847.  Poe lived in the cottage for almost another two years during which he used the library at my alma mater, Fordham University, which was then St. John’s College.  It’s been claimed that The Bells was inspired by the chimes from Fordham’s chapel??  Poe died on  October 7, 1849 in Baltimore – to this day, the cause of his death is still unknown. 

Poe Cottage, Grand Concourse, the Bronx

Poe Cottage, Grand Concourse, the Bronx

Poe Cottage is a lovely one and a half story white wooden frame farmhouse, built by the Valentine family for one of their farmhands.  Even back then, it was like many homes in today’s NYC – not enough space. 

Sitting room/living room Poe Cottage

Sitting room/living room Poe Cottage

And it also has very low ceilings.  On the ground floor you’ll find a kitchen, a living/sitting room with fireplace, as well as the very small room where Virginia lay bedridden for some six months.

Virginia's Bedroom, Poe Cottage

Virginia’s Bedroom, Poe Cottage

The house was known for being sparsely furnished, and a few of the original furnishings are on this floor. The small space upstairs had a bedroom and Poe’s study.  I took a guided tour, and had a great time.  Even if you don’t make it to Poe’s Cottage for Halloween, get up to see it another time!  The Cottage is owned by the NYC Parks Department, which has more information on its website  ; the Bronx Historical Society administers the Cottage and there’s more information on its website.

Theatre Poster for "The Raven"

Theatre Poster for “The Raven”

On Saturday, October 29th, from noon until 3:00 pm, From Poe’s Porch  will feature poets who will read from The Cottage’s porch from 12:00-1:10 P.M. This will be followed by special workshops and panel discussions in the adjacent Poe Park Visitor Center, from 1:30-3:00 P.M., just steps away from the historic house landmark. Tours of The Cottage will be available and both programs are free. More information here  

If you can find Hal Willner’s Closed on Account of Rabies, a record featuring actors and musicians such as Christopher Walken and Marianne Faithfull reading works by Poe, grab it!   You can find bits and pieces on-line at Open Culture – Iggy Pop’s rendition of The Tell Tale Heart is not to be missed!  

Mutilated Money – One Man’s Passion

IMG_2080Tattered, torn bills and rusting coins may not seem like something you’d want to spend a lot of time with, but Harley J. Spiller does, and he’s written a book sharing his passion for them, showing us the beauty in items we might discard without a second thought. Spiller is not only an educator at the Museum of American Finance , he’s also the deputy director of avant-garde art space Franklin Furnace.   In Keep theChange:  A Collector’s Tales of Lucky Pennies, Counterfeit C-Notes, and Other Curious Currencies, he delivers a lively account of not only how he came to hold these objects in such esteem, but also delves into topics such as how US Dollars are made (using Swiss presses and Crane’s “paper”), how it’s destroyed (officially, by the US government), and, most interestingly for me, how artists have used currency in their works – from William Michael Harnett’s 1877 recreation of a $5 bill to contemporary artist J.S.G. Boggs’ freehand illustrations of money.

In one chapter, Spiller provides us with slang terms that have been used to describe money – I was familiar with many, such as Benjamin, cabbage and smacker, but was completely stumped about a number of others, like frogskins and rhino. 

The book contains a number of fascinating factoids: “it takes four thousand double folds (forwards and backwards) before a banknote begins to tear”; or that banknotes created by Benjamin Franklin, in addition to”images of blackberry, willow and other leaves… bore the frightful inscription “‘To Counterfeit is DEATH’”; or that what we call paper money is really made from cotton and flax…

This delightful book is sure to answer many questions and pique your curiosity further.  You can listen to Spiller talk about his book in a video on the Museum of American Finance’s website.  

A Celebration of Artistic Freedom

James Joyce by alex Ehrenzweigh, 1915, restored, from Wikimedia Commons

James Joyce by alex Ehrenzweigh, 1915, restored, from Wikimedia Commons

If you look at the Current Events page , you’ll notice that there are several  “Bloomsday” events on June 16th.  There’s a reason for all this fuss, namely, the fight to get James Joyce’s seminal work, Ulysses, published in the United States, where it ran afoul of the existing obscenity laws.     Paralleling Homer’s Odyssey, (but in prose, and extensively employing the “stream of consciousness” technique) Ulysses chronicles the perambulations and thoughts of Leopold Bloom and several Dubliners as they go about their business on June 16, 1904.  Ulysses first appeared in the US in serial form, in The Little Review, beginning in 1920 without incident, until the publication of Episode 13, which contains obscenities and describes Leopold Bloom pleasuring himself.  That caught the ire of the US Post Office, which declared the material obscene, and burned 500 copies of The Little Review.  Then the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice initiated a trial, with the end result that in1921 the magazine was declared obscene, and the publishers, Margaret Caroline Anderson and Jane Heap, were fined and almost sentenced to prison.

In 1922, Joyce found a publisher willing to print the entire book in the person of Ms. Sylvia Beach, who ran the Parisian publishing house and book shop Shakespeare & Co. (He couldn’t get it published in Ireland or the UK either.) Thereafter, copies from France were routinely smuggled into the US, and in 1928, Ulysses was officially declared obscene by the US Customs Court.  However, Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House wanted to publish the American edition, and arranged for the book to be brought into the US, where it was confiscated by US Customs. And so began The United States vs. One Book called “Ulysses.”  After a bench trial in 1933 in the Southern District of NY, Judge John M. Woolsey – who, to his credit, read the book in its entirety – lifted the ban on Ulysses, finding that it was not pornographic or obscene, but rather that the book showed “Joyce’s sincerity and his honest effort to show exactly how the minds of his characters operate.”  However, that was not the end of the saga, as the case was appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, where, once again ( in a 2 to 1 decision), Ulysses was found to have artistic merit, and to not be obscene when read in its entirety (all of the judges agreed that there were obscene passages in the book).

As I was researching this, I was struck by all the women who played a major role in bringing Joyce’s works to the public, which is rather ironic when, in some of the obscenity trials, passages from Ulysses couldn’t be read, because women were present in the court – even when they were the publishers!  Go figure.

The above is a seriously shortened synopsis of events and legal opinions.  You can find an enjoyable and fuller history on the website of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

You can find the full decision by the 2nd Circuit of the Court of Appeals  on the website of Pen Center USA

So, even if you can’t make it to one of the “Bloomsday” celebrations, raise a toast to James Augusta Aloysius Joyce and the brave men and women who published his masterwork, the judges who allowed it to be published in the US, and to the First Amendment of the US Constitution.