October, Halloween month, is the perfect time to remember the prolific legacy of the great writer Edgar Allan Poe. Poe lived at 206 West 84th Street — where he finished “The Raven” in 1844. Two years later, he moved to a cottage in the “country” — the Bronx, where BARBARA MASSEY recently paid a visit...
Imagine that you are home alone late one night, feeling lonely and sad, missing a cherished loved one. Suddenly you hear a slight knocking at your door. You believe it is only the wind, because when you ask “Who’s there?” no one answers, and when you finally get up the courage to open the door no one is there. Convinced that it is all your imagination, or the sound of a tree branch against the house, you are amazed when a large black bird enters from the top of the entrance, and sets himself upon a statue on a shelf above your door. It never moves; its only utterance, the words “Never more,” over and over again. This is but a sample of the work of the classic writer and poet, Edgar Allan Poe, in his scary poem, “The Raven”. It is but one of hundreds of stories, essays, and poems for which he is remembered.
In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe, the son of an actress, moved to Poe Cottage, at Grand Concourse and East Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. Poe left the crowded, unsanitary, and unsavory conditions of New York City to go to a simple, more rural wood frame farmhouse with the hope that its healthier atmosphere would cure his wife, Virginia, who was dying of tuberculosis. Throughout his life, Poe suffered the loss of several loved ones, and his frustration and feelings of bitterness, anger, and depression show in his writings. Halloween is an appropriate time to review his tales of horror and revenge, and his poems of grief and terror.
Edgar Allan Poe Cottage has been maintained by the Bronx County Historical Society. It is a little bit of poignant history, a remnant of a brilliant writer who has provided the world with tales of terror, tragedy and undying love and romance. There he lived peacefully with his wife and mother-in-law for a brief time before illness, poverty, and alcoholism destroyed him. Poe Cottage is located at the top of a hill overlooking Long Island Sound. Originally there were apple orchards where today a small public park is located, not far from the Harlem River and the Harlem River train line. In 1846, all of the business and hubbub of Manhattan occurred just below 14th Street. Poe enjoyed living in the Bronx not far from St. John’s College, (now Fordham University), and talking with the Jesuits about philosophy and literature.
As one walks up the steps to the white clapboard wood and shingle Poe Cottage, there is a fenced-in porch overlooking a lovely flower garden where hollyhocks dominate. Inside there is a small kitchen, with only one window that didn’t bring in much light, and candlelight was dim. A small fireplace was used for cooking, and a small table and chairs for eating meals and sipping tea. Children might enjoy visiting to pretend what it would be like to live there, as Poe and his family did over 150 years ago. Alas, Poe and his wife never had children. This cottage wasn’t built for a well-to-do family. It was a dwelling more suitable, at the time, for a tradesman such as a blacksmith or a cabinetmaker.
For a while, Poe lived happily at the Bronx cottage, with his fragile wife, and her mother who did all the housekeeping, cooking, and marketing. Next to the kitchen is a room for entertaining visitors, with a rocker of upholstered leather, Poe’s original mirror, a writing desk, and a couple of wooden chairs. This is the more spacious and charming room. Next to this was a small bedroom where Virginia was compelled to stay when she could no longer climb upstairs. (When Virginia died at Poe Cottage, she was 24, and had been married to Edgar Allan Poe since she was not quite 14). A small, steep, twisty staircase (how much smaller people must have been in those days, whose feet covered these little steps!) leads up to the attic, where Poe’s study, and the master bedroom was located. Kids will like the stairs, but adults have some trouble, as it is almost like climbing a ladder! The view from the attic window is lovely, but must have been more so in 1846 when it was more countrified, and there was no automobile traffic.
Poe’s memory of the illness and death of his mother, his foster mother, and wife influenced his writing about beautiful women who are lost to their loved ones forever: poems like “Annabelle Lee” and “The Raven”.
When Virginia Poe lay dying at Poe Cottage, Mary Louise Shrew, a doctor’s daughter, came to Poe Cottage to help. Poe was frantic with misery over his sickly wife, had severe money problems, and was suffering from writer’s block. He complained to Miss Shrew that he couldn’t concentrate enough to write, and that the loud ringing of the bells in the street outside bothered him.
It was Miss Shrew who gave Poe the idea to write verses about the bells. She even gave him a first line. So Edgar went on writing about sleigh, wedding, fire alarm, and then funeral bells. The result was a remarkable work, “The Bells”, covering important stages in life: courtship, marriage, crisis, and mourning. His stanza on grief is the longest, probably because that feeling was strongest in him at the time. On Halloween, rereading this poem and his others makes one appreciate Poe’s talent and technique to evoke terror and rage.
While Poe’s address was still Poe Cottage, the author wrote a shocking and terrifying story called “The Cask of Amontillado”. It depicts a man who can’t leave the past behind. Poe harbored feelings of anger against those who he felt betrayed him, and he felt vengeful. The main character in
“Cask” plots revenge against a man whom he despises, and feels deserves punishment and death for unworthiness and misdeeds. It should be noted that in his lifetime, Poe had disagreements and a falling out with his foster father, and arguments with employers and fellow authors. He was a severe critic, and while he had loyal friends, there were those who disliked him, resented him, and even wished him harm.
At Poe Cottage today, one can see the last residence of a literary genius who continues to shock and scare us with his prose and poetry. There, visitors experience a detailed tour plus a short film about Edgar Allan Poe and his home. The cottage can be enjoyable to children of elementary age, but those who have read or are aware of Poe’s literature, such as junior high age and above, are more likely to appreciate the trip. Reading about the life of this writer and his poems, stories, and essays, is a mournful, thrilling, eerie journey, and at the same time, an educational venture, highly recommended. Parents, teachers and caretakers are advised to go over some Poe tales and verse before or during the visit to Poe Cottage. Encourage the young person to sense the feelings that must have pulsed through Poe’s eccentric and expressive mind. Note how well he symbolically demonstrated his feelings of horror, anger, vengeance, fury, and his frustration at having to deal with his limitations, almost feeling imprisoned, and “buried alive.”
Where: The Grand Concourse and East Kingsbridge Road, Bronx
When: Saturday: 10am-4pm; Sunday: 1-5pm. (Group tours, weekdays by appointment)
How much: $3 per person
Directions by car: From Westchester: Bronx River Parkway to Fordham Road west, past Fordham University, then cross Webster Ave. Keep right and bear right onto Kingsbridge Road; sharp left onto Kingsbridge Road. Poe Park will be on your left, Poe Cottage is at the far end. Or, from Kingsbridge Rd., continue two blocks to the Grand Concourse and make a right. Go one block north and Poe Park is on your right. The cottage is at the far end.
From Manhattan: Major Deegan Expressway (87) to Fordham Road exit, east, cross Jerome Ave. under the elevated subway line, then across Grand Concourse. Then two blocks to Kingsbridge Road, sharp left onto Kingsbridge Road. Poe Park will be on your left, Poe Cottage is at the far end. Street parking only.
For more info: (718) 881-8900
Note: Not far from Poe Cottage are: The Bronx Zoo and The New York Botanical Garden.