I’ve seen and heard some of my all-time favorite exhibitions and lectures at The Morgan Library and Museum, the programming they produce so exemplary I always check their site first when I know I’ll be in New York City. And no matter how many times I walk through Pierpont Morgan’s library, I’m struck by the sacredness I feel given the works that are collected there and the powerful beauty of the interior design elements.
The Morgan Library and Museum
I saw Piranesi’s remarkable drawings of the archaeological site of Pæstum on the Gulf of Salerno south of Naples there, the ethereal compositions feeling akin to a gateway with which to teleport back in time. I also attended a lecture one evening during which Dr. Isaac Gewirtz, a literary curator for The New York Public Library, interviewed author Paul Auster about the influence Edgar Allan Poe had on his writing. The event was in conjunction with the exhibition Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul, which presented Poe’s legacy in artifacts and influence.
I thought I’d share the experience with you today because I will giddily be hitting the pavement in New York City this coming Saturday to return to The Morgan for their latest writerly exhibition, Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will. I honestly cannot wait to see it! The video below gives you a taste of what’s on view so you can see why I’m so excited. For now, though, let’s delve into the influence one American writer had on another and the literary scene back in his day.
It All Leads Back to Poe
Given that October is normally one of the better weather months in NYC, my jaunt will be quite a different experience than the frigid January night I attended the Poe lecture and toured the exhibition when one of the first things I saw was a comment by Allen Ginsberg. It was etched on a placard that declared “Everything leads back to Poe” placed beside a black and white photo of the beat poet reading Howl at Columbia University on November 14, 1981. “You can trace all literary art to Poe’s influence,” the text continued: “Burroughs, Baudelaire, Genet, Dylan. It all leads back to Poe.”
This list could now include Auster, who explained, “Poe didn’t write like twentieth-century writers; his work is a rolling narrative. Most of my work is also a rolling narrative.” Auster calls his introduction to Poe at nine years old an initial confrontation. “The first book I ever bought with my own money was a Modern Library edition of the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe,” he explained. “I paid $3.95 for it in 1956. The pleasure I found in the writing in it was enormous!”
Paul Auster on Edgar Allan Poe
That evening, Auster read from his book City of Glass to illustrate how details from Poe’s life had infiltrated his fiction. As his book was breathed to life by his voice, my attention was drawn to the grainy image above Auster’s head, the larger-than-life projected visage of Poe reproduced from the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype. Given the writer’s pained expression, I was not surprised to learn the portrait was taken four days after he had attempted suicide by overdosing on laudanum. While Auster and Gewirtz, in miniature below, jovially discussed the dead man’s influence, Poe’s anguished gaze haunted the space.
His broad forehead above a crimped brow gleamed while his sunken eye sockets filled with dark, tormented irises were cloaked in shadow. The bags beneath them and the ragged mustache scrabbling his top lip seemed to say a conversation about his frame of mind when he was alive was the ultimate absurdity at this point in time.
Along with his propensity for angst, the men flanking the portrait spoke of Poe’s once-maligned position in the American literary cannon. “The place to begin to explore Poe’s ‘Americanness’ is in his criticism,” Auster said. “He was a journalist, and the bulk of what he wrote was about American writers, many of them obscure now. He was arguing to get rid of the British and European models, and to have a new type of literature for this new place, America.”
Auster noted he doesn’t agree with Nobel Laureate T.S. Eliot, who claimed Poe was “a kind of displaced European.” Instead, he believes William Carlos Williams got it right in his book In the American Grain: Poe was “a genius intimately shaped by his locality and his time,” wrote the Pulitzer Prize winner; “Poe gives the sense for the first time in America, that literature is serious, not a matter of courtesy but of truth.” Auster then drew parallels between Poe and Baudelaire, both of whom he deems outsiders in their own societies. Raising a spate of laughter, Auster remarked, “One reason Americans hated Poe is because the French love him so much!”
Pointing out that Poe deserves credit for the detective genre, which has continued to flourish since he spawned it, Auster said literary achievements such as Sherlock Holmes would not have been possible without the ground Poe paved by being the first mystery writer. “But we have to think of him as a humorist, too,” he added, recommending The Man That Was Used Up as a great example of Poe’s lighthearted side. He also suggests a must-read is the prose poem Eureka, which he holds in such high esteem he called it a masterpiece. “How this man managed to create all he did in his short life while packing away as much alcohol as he did is remarkable!” he marveled.
I was so inspired by Auster’s enthusiasm and passion, I decided to take a pilgrimage a few days later, one that formed in my mind as he was reading from City of Glass. In the excerpt, the main character Quinn mentioned Mt Tom in Riverside Park, telling his companion that Poe loved to go there and sit atop the knobby rock to look out over the Hudson River. When I lived on the Upper West Side, my first New York City neighborhood, I would powerwalk along the stretch of pavement looping below the striated black bulge in the hillside set within its tangle of trees. This made my literary adventure a bit of a homecoming as well as a writer’s homage to Poe.
As I walked along Edgar Allan Poe Street—the stretch of 84th Street leading to the Park—on the gray day, cornstarch snow began to fall. I noticed how the asphalt was ripped to pieces by snowplows, not a surprise given the nasty winter we had had that year. The townhouses along the narrow lane, gracious and well appointed, were counter opposites to the rugged roadbed, and I thought it ironic that these residences, on a street bearing his name, would have been so far beyond Poe’s means.
When I stepped into the Park, the wind from the river blasted up the hillside with an increased vigor and the petulant weather seemed so marvelously perfect for channeling the despondent author’s spirit. I thought about Auster’s remark that Poe had a complex mind as I picked my way along the flagstone-dotted path to Mt Tom’s summit. “Poe was an artist and he was fighting deep within his own subconscious,” Auster had said. “I’m not even sure he knew what he was doing. Some of it, like The Black Cat, was pure madness.”
The word madness reverberated in the auditorium at The Morgan that night, drawing my gaze to Poe’s sunken eyes once again. Half-moons of white sclera cupping the bottom of his dark irises made the fringe of his lower lashes seem as if they were drawn in Goth-like swaths of eyeliner. The author’s mouth, had it been relieved of its place beneath the very long straight shaft of his nose, was sensual—I might even call it friendly.
But set within the composition of his pained face, the secrets it would have whispered if he could have spoken that evening seemed certain to hold the internal terror of “the luckless, misunderstood Edgar Allan Poe, the man who never managed to fit in—but an American just the same.”
I stood atop the massive rock and mouthed these words, which Auster had written in the exhibition catalog. It seemed the perfect silent tribute to the man who managed to leave such a remarkable literary legacy given the destitution of his beleaguered life. When I turned to leave the hillside, the snow stopped suddenly, and the wind gusted nastily, sending a bone-rattling shiver through me. Bitter. Bleak. Biting. I thought as I hurried toward Broadway, not surprised that even the weather on a day so far removed from his time seemed to be leading back to Poe.
It’s quite remarkable to realize that this influence continues still, as the number of videos of people rapping his poems proves, such as Storm Runner Studios’ rap version of Poe’s “The Raven” in the video above. If you want to bring the author forward in your own life with a literary adventure, I came across this terrific Walking Tour of Edgar Allan Poe’s Publishers Row on The Academy of American Poets’ site when I was conducting research for this piece. I took the self-guided tour before I moved from New York City and it was an interesting excursion. I’ll be posting about it soon. The building below, once home to The New-York Tribune, is a stop along the Lower Manhattan jaunt.
The Diary of an Improvateur and The Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by