Tag Archives: Edgar Allan Poe

How to Impress the Modern Teen, or the Power of Poe

Recently my high-school-aged daughter was working on a final paper for her English class.  She was writing about Edgar Allan Poe, comparing the vault setting of “The Cask of Amontillado” with the quiet library used in the poem “The Raven.”  She asked me to proofread her paper and to check her bibliography (I was a bibliographer in a former life and she knows the limits of EndNote). As I read through looking for typos and extra commas, I casually mentioned that she might find it of interest that AAS holds copies of the first printings of both of these Poe works.  “The Raven” appeared under a pseudonym in The American Review in January of 1845. It was published shortly after under Poe’s own name in the Evening Mirror newspaper where it was picked up and reprinted by numerous papers across the country.  “The Cask of Amontillado” was first published in the November 1846 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book which had a national circulation.

My daughter was unimpressed.  She asked if the copies we had were Poe’s own copies.  No, I replied, they were collected by the Society but they were never owned by Poe.  I countered with the fact that AAS also holds many early printings of Poe’s books, including his book on shells (The Conchologist’s First Book, 1839), and a first edition of The Raven.  Again, she was not that interested since these volumes were never owned by Poe himself.  I had to pull out my trump card.  “Well,” I said, “We also have a daguerreotype of Poe that he sent to a friend.  We even have the envelope he used to send it.” That did it – immediately we went to the computer to see the photo and the envelope.  Because Poe had touched this object it had resonance for a teenager interested in the author’s work.  “Cool,” she said, “That is pretty cool.”

Getting high school readers interested in American literature is a challenge.  I am lucky my child had a teacher who mixed up the classics with contemporary writing.  This week there was a piece on our local NPR station about the “dumbing down” of summer reading lists and classroom assignments where high schoolers are reading books intended for fifth-graders (http://www.wbur.org/npr/190669029/what-kids-are-reading-in-school-and-out).

While AAS does not generally serve a high school population in our reading room, we do offer considerable programming for K-12 teachers. We hear a lot from the participating teachers about the challenges of connecting students with historical material.  The language is tough, the dense writing style can be impenetrable, themes feel disconnected from today’s realities.  It takes a determined educator to venture down a path lined with writings by Melville and Wharton or Dickinson and Emerson.  As the distance seems to grow ever greater between Poe and his work and today’s fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, I am glad that we had a teacher who challenged his students, and I am glad that AAS had preserved a photograph and an envelope – objects which electrify the brain and visually relate to the man who captured the very basic idea of fear and uncertainty when he wrote:

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more.”

When Ansel Adams came to town

Without a doubt, many amazing people arrive daily on the doorstep of Antiquarian Hall. They bring research early in its infancy, artistic projects, personal histories, obligations of library pilgrimage – all in need of the AAS touch. In 1813, Isaiah Thomas made clear the intent for the doors and collection be open to all who had reason to use it: “the historian with his best materials…and to the philosopher a faithful source of ingenious speculation” (p. 8 An account of the American Antiquarian Society, 1813).

Edgar Allan Poe daguerreotype in AAS collections

And Philip F. Gura in his Bicentennial History of the Society discusses some of the nineteenth-century notables who made their way to AAS in Worcester, including Henry David Thoreau and the infamous James Audubon tale (if you don’t know the story, be sure to pick up our bicentennial history).

Indeed, the Society is open to all uses. Even if you are doing a favor for a friend who is writing a book on the history of dags and your friend is unhappy with the one he took – even if it’s of a well-known AAS treasure, the 1848 Edgar Allan Poe Daguerreotype by S.W. Hartshorn.  And even if your friend’s name is Ansel Adams.

Black and white copy negative in AAS collections

In the 1950s when Curator and later Director of the George Eastman House, Beaumont Newhall (1908-1993), was researching his The Daguerreotype in America (1961), he wrote to then AAS President and Director Clarence S. Brigham:

…back in 1947 I copied a number of daguerreotypes in your collection for use in my book AMERICAN DAGUERREOTYPES…  I am now happy to write that I am getting the pictures ready for publication at last.  One of the daguerreotypes which I especially wish to features is your magnificent portrait of Poe.  Unfortunately the photograph which I took of it is not at all good.  My friend Ansel Adams has most kindly offered to take another photograph of the daguerreotype…  I am writing to ask if you would have the kindness to allow him to make this copy.  He will get in touch with you directly to make an appointment.  He will bring his own equipment and will only need a well-lighted area in which to make the copy.  I will shortly send you a list of the other daguerreotypes in your collection which I should like to include in the book…

[AAS Archives 1950-1959 Correspondence “N” November 16, 1958]

Now I can candidly disclose that the work of helping to secure permissions, rights and reproductions isn’t always very glamorous (albeit the choices and resulting projects are compelling). The allure of things like copy stands, strobe lighting and negatives of archival items kind of gets lost in the work of the day-to-day. So reading something this exciting is enough to send you bouncing to the signed reader registers (I know, we’re a lively bunch). And there noted on November 21, 1958 is Ansel Adams 131 24th Avenue San Francisco in to photograph the Poe Daguerreotype.

Admittedly, signature gawking isn’t really our specialty (we’re kind of surrounded by manuscripts), but what these moments mean beyond the page makes them more noteworthy. They are kind of like nuggets of archiveness where different professions come together – artist, librarian, historian – around an object and capture that piece of history to share it with others. These little surprises show this intricate overlay where literally one archive is on top of another – through efforts of interpretation, preservation and creativity. It really gives something as already special as the Poe daguerreotype a life beyond the walls of Antiquarian Hall.

The Original Balloon Boy: Edgar Allan Poe?

balloon_hoax_modelHave you heard the one about the balloon boy? No, not that balloon boy.  On April 13, 1844, the New York Sun printed an extra edition reporting that man had finally flown across the Atlantic.  In a balloon.

A postscript in the April 13th morning edition of the Sun taunted readers,

We stop the press at a late hour, to announce that … we are just put in possession of full details of the most extraordinary adventure ever accomplished by man…The Extra will be positively ready, and for sale at our counter, by 10′clock this morning.

balloon_hoax_headlineThrongs formed before the Sun building waiting into the afternoon for their own copy of the newspaper.  In the end though, the readership of the New York Sun may have been more suspicious than those crowded breathlessly around their televisions last week. The Sun, a penny press, had a history of encouraging sales with outrageous stories.

Reporting on the story, the Philadelphia Inquirer reminded readers that, “The Sun, it will be remembered, originally published the celebrated Moon Story Hoax. The foregoing is probably from the same pen.  We have Charleston papers [where the balloon supposedly landed] of the 11th, which of course, do not contain a word in relation to the wonderful adventure.”

The Sun retracted the article two days later, “we are inclined to believe the intelligence is erroneous” but noted that regardless, it “was read with great pleasure and satisfaction.” And the author of the hoax, Edgar Allan Poe, defended his story, “There is nothing put forth in the Balloon-Story which is not in full keeping with the known facts of aeronautic experience—which might not really have occurred.”

balloon_hoax_poeWhere does the American Antiquarian Society fit into the frenzy? We have the only known copy of that April 13, 1844 extra.  On August 29, 1929 in response to a letter by AAS librarian Clarence Brigham, the editor of The Sun Frank M. O’Brien revealed that their archives held no copy of it and thus, “It is quite possible, I should say, that the American Antiquarian Society is the only owner of a copy of the Balloon Hoax Extra.  If so, it is something to be proud of.”