“The chains are for the purpose of increasing the confusion by their jangling. You are supposed to have escaped, en masse, from your keepers. Your majesty cannot conceive the effect produced, at a masquerade, by eight chained ourang-outangs, imagined to be real ones by most of the company; and rushing in with savage cries, among the crowd of delicately and gorgeously habited men and women. The contrast is inimitable!” — excerpt from “Hop-Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe, 1849
Edgar Allan Poe looms in the background of Frank Taylor’s childhood memories growing up at the Spring Garden Apartments public housing complex at 7th and Green Streets. Taylor, 63, used to scale the walls of what is now a one-story Philadelphia Housing Authority office building. From its roof, the neighborhood kids could reach the high limbs of the apple trees that grew in the backyard of Poe’s old house. Grapevines also shot up within reach. “We would pack bags with the fruit,” Taylor says. “You know how the 1960s were. We were poor. But we’d enjoy ourselves with the little things we could get.”
This is his first visit to the old stomping grounds in over a year. People come and go from the courtyard on a Saturday afternoon. He runs into an acquaintance from back when, and they talk about people he doesn’t remember. Except Poe.
Of course, the renowned author had left the neighborhood more than a century prior to Taylor’s youth. Poe spent six years in Philadelphia, the most productive of his life. In 1933, department store scion Richard Gimbel purchased Poe’s three-story row house on North 7th Street–the last place he lived in Philadelphia, before moving to New York in 1844–with the intent of preserving it as a museum. The site has been owned and operated by the National Park Service since 1978.
Edgar. Allan. Poe. The Poe. The Poet. Taylor can’t explain exactly how the lore started. Some older kids in the neighborhood had assigned unimpeachable status to the name. “Poe” was tantamount to cool, respect, bad-ness. One of the teens had even earned the street name of “the Poe.” He was a “hoodlum,” Taylor recalls, “a street life guy” who could be found mingling with Tenderline gang members over on Ridge Avenue.
By the early 1960s, during the era of the Columbia Avenue race riots, the neighborhood around Taylor’s home was neatly segregated save a Jewish-owned grocer or two. Blocks had boundaries. The Spring Garden Apartments were “like the suburbs,” says Taylor, compared to the notoriously crime-ridden Richard Allen projects at 12th and Poplar Streets. Head north to Franklin and Brown and you might have run into “a little bit of static,” Taylor says. Further north were the Moroccos, a gang “going for world domination.” Walking to Benjamin Franklin High School meant going through a war zone.
It’s a startling cry from today’s neighborhood. The Spring Garden Apartments are still standing and still predominantly African American. The German and Latvian Societies carry on their legacies next door. Gentrification has ruffled the fabric of things, but racial tensions are not what they used to be. There are brand new houses being built blocks in either direction, Latino and Asian grocery stores, a bustling nightlife at 10th and Spring Garden.
In the time between, Poe’s legacy in the area has become more prominent on the surface. The Mural Arts Program commissioned a mural of the writer in the late 1990s, with almost cartoonishly windswept hair and wan expression, painted by Peter Pagast. The mural is on the end wall of a row of Spring Garden Apartments houses; Poe’s heavy-lidded eyes look out on his old crib, across the street. Every now and then, a tourist knocks on the door of one of the Spring Garden houses mistaking it for the museum. Tenants patiently direct visitors toward the correct house.
Below his face on the mural are the opening lines of “Hop-Frog,” a lesser-known Poe story laced with heavy racist imagery. “Poe didn’t live in the houses we lived in,” chuckles Taylor, who moved out of the Spring Garden Apartments in the 1970s.
In the form of the mural, Poe has transformed from a neighborly legend into a permanent fixture in the public housing project, one that can see and be seen. His claim to the area seems to be well received now as it was in Taylor’s day. Poe House park rangers say the residents still enjoy living next to the Poe house. But would Poe, an anti-abolitionist, have regarded neighbors with the same courtesy? Or, at the very least, with indifference? His biography would suggest not.
Race Doth Haunt Him Still
Black characters are scant in Poe’s work. What few do appear are not portrayed with the complexity of emotion and intellect as the white protagonists. In the first short story he ever sold, “The Gold Bug,” Poe characterizes the African American servant Jupiter as a comic imbecile, written in a cardboard dialect that makes the modern ear cringe. In Poe’s sole novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in Nantucket, a black man, chef on board a ship, stages a mutiny and slaughters half the crew. Writer Toni Morrison was one of the first to broach the topic of race in Poe’s works in the early 1990s, critically dissecting Pym’s symbolic struggle of blackness against whiteness. “Leap-Frog,” quoted perhaps obliviously on the Poe mural at Spring Garden, features some serious, heavy-handed white supremacy, not limited to the common 19th century comparison of African Americans to orangutans in the piece.
Those examples are outliers, of course. Most of Poe’s writing does not explicitly address race or slavery, nor were such issues always welcome talking points in literary circles.
Born in 1809 and dead over a decade before the Civil War, Poe was very much a byproduct of his Southern childhood. His adopted father, John Allan, was a tobacco farmer reliant on the slave trade in Richmond, Virginia. Later in life, Poe helped his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, whom he affectionately called “Muddy,” manage the sale of her slave.
In the late 1980s, scholar Joan Dayan encountered resistance from colleagues when, in the same lecture, she spoke of Poe’s love poems and a glowing literary review Poe is believed to have written about a pro-slavery book. Dayan was later asked by the Poe Society of Baltimore to publish a paper version of her talk, but to focus on the romance of the stanzas and omit “the dubious part on slavery.”
About a decade earlier, there was a similarly tense backlash against scholars who wanted to discuss race in the work of William Faulkner, says Kate Henry, an associate professor of English at Temple University whose work focuses on civil unrest in 19th century American literature. As with Faulkner, discussing Poe and race is much less controversial today.
“Much of the recent scholarship has asked how Poe’s fiction engages the tensions and anxieties that were produced by the institution of slavery and the racism that underwrote it,” says Henry, in an email.
For example, “The Black Cat” has been read as an exploration of both the literal and psychological violence that evolves from absolute power over another human being. Such readings are made more fascinating in the context of Poe’s life—namely that the institution of slavery may have inspired his genius.
Descendants of the Allan family’s slaves are rumored to still live in the region of Richmond, Virginia. Christopher P. Sumtner, the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum there, traces back to a house slave named Judith who would have taken care of a young Poe.
“Judith likely told Poe ghost stories, and a tradition holds that he sat by the fire with the Allan slaves to listen to their stories. It is possible that the terror tales with which Poe revolutionized world literature had their origins in African American folktales,” Sumtner writes in Edgar Allan Poe’s Richmond: The Raven in the River City.
Legend has it that Judith once told Poe that ghosts could spring from the earth and possess young boys who wandered alone into graveyards. One day, riding past a cemetery with his uncle, young Poe became terrified and refused to detach himself from the uncle’s hip until they passed the burial grounds.
If Poe’s first exposure to the horror did indeed come from African American folklore, it adds some irony to the author’s later fashioning as a Southern aristocrat. And yet these issues do not inform Poe’s mainstream legacy.
Taylor and the Spring Garden kids had their own ghost stories. Around 1963, an elderly woman’s severed head was discovered in a nearby row house on the same street where Federal Donuts pumps out high-end junk food today. Taylor can’t recall if authorities ever found her body, but there were urban legends of blood splattered on the basement walls. The kids dared each other to look inside, and if they found themselves alone at night, you’d sprint past the creepy house.
I ask Taylor bluntly, “If you knew Poe did not like black people, that he had likely been sympathetic of slavery, would it have changed your perspective on him?”
“I don’t think it makes a difference,” Taylor says. “[Poe] didn’t come through in the era of the KKK.” Back then, he adds, “we didn’t really go into who was pro-slave.”
Eric Knight has spent 26 years with the National Park Service at the Poe House, and has the knowledge of Poe’s life and oeuvre to show for it. He nods knowingly when the issue of race comes up, as it occasionally does when visitors ask. There’s only one mention of it inside the house: a placard synopsis of American democracy during Poe’s life, which concludes that “Poe did not support abolition.”
“I haven’t dwelled on it a lot or held it against him or thought dimly of him for it,” Knight says. “I don’t think, at that point, he felt that was his fight. Poe was concerned with the much bigger picture.”
Indeed, Poe matters because he draws out such serious philosophical activity from ordinary people. Reading race in Poe’ writing is not to denigrate his writing, but rather it is one example of how his work can be read unbound across time.
Poe likely wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” from a small sun-drenched second-story room in the Spring Garden house. It’s a story that has since been contextualized within the framework of anti-black and anti-abolitionist violence in Poe’s Philadelphia of the 1830s, despite being set in a far-off Paris. The inexplicable murder at the heart of the whodunnit—spoiler alert—leads back to yet another orangutang, this time an irrational character being led to violence. Certainly, “Rue Morgue” is a brilliant piece of writing that went on to inspire detective fiction from the Sherlock Holmes series to the Batman comics. But it also informed Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, allowing him to explore the entrenched horrors of a racially segregated United States in the early 20th century.
Poe was an observer of both romantic and social issues in Philadelphia. One day, he would be reporting on the brick-flinging anti-railroad protests on Front Street in Kensington, and the next day spilling prose on the “loveliness” of Philadelphia’s rivers (see Poe in the context of his time in Philadelphia in “Disorder,” episode six of the film documentary “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” written by Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin HERE). A lot has changed since then and a lot hasn’t. But bringing those discussions to the public is not without roadblocks.
In 2009, the Poe House in Philadelphia received new exhibits for the bicentennial anniversary of the author’s birth, but beyond that there is little funding for programming. Several years ago, Knight says that an immersed group of five National Park Service rangers were assigned to the Poe House. Now, staffing is down to two rangers a day, and the museum is open just three days a week. Federal budget constraints have winnowed both the staff and the services, as what public funds remain for historic preservation and administrative costs get absorbed by Independence Mall long before they make it to 7th and Spring Garden.
One sad effect can be seen in how the house engages the surrounding community. Knight sees young parents from the neighborhood who he recalls coming in when they were kids. Now they have kids and grandkids of their own. Beyond a “Junior Park Ranger” program, there aren’t many ways to engage the community.
“We have volunteers, but it doesn’t allow us to go out and pound the pavement. Sometimes I’ll walk down to the corner store and say hi to some people that I know or don’t know, invite them to come see the museum,” Knight says.
The Poe House gets visitors from all over the world–Japan and France, especially—but Knight wagers that 80 percent of Philadelphians don’t even know that Poe lived here. There is no reason to expect it to change, especially if funding for programming and administrative costs at the historic site remain perpetually strained and the engaging conversations about Poe’s legacy are restricted to academics and universities.