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Curator's Choice: Among 200 Poe objects, this one stands out

The Ransom Center’s Koester Poe collection contains 72 letters written by Edgar Allan Poe, 16 of which appear in the bicentennial exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. One of these letters has become my favorite item to share with visitors during tours through the gallery. Written in January 1848, the long, newsy letter is mostly a summary of Poe’s professional doings during 1847, but toward the end, Poe suddenly pours out a lengthy description of his wife Virginia’s slow, painful death of tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed Poe’s mother. It is a fascinating document that shows how entwined the personal, the professional, and the poetical were in Poe’s life—a fact confirmed by many artifacts in the exhibition.

The letter is written to George Eveleth, a medical student who wrote Poe a fan letter in 1845, initiating a correspondence that lasted until at least July of 1849, three months before Poe’s own death. Several letters between the men survive. They primarily concern Poe’s professional life and opinions, as well as Eveleth’s desire to purchase various publications of Poe’s works. In July 1847, Eveleth had written Poe a letter containing several questions, one of which referred to an open letter Poe had published in “The Spirit of the Times” in Philadelphia two weeks earlier. In that piece, Poe had defended himself vigorously against charges including forgery and fraud, posed by one of his literary rivals, Thomas Dunn English. In that piece, he defended himself in part by referring cryptically to a “terrible evil” in his personal life. Soon after, he launched a famously successful libel suit against the magazine in which English’s piece was published. This professional crisis, combined with the trauma of Virginia’s long deterioration and death, and Poe’s own illness, made 1847 one of the most difficult years of the writer’s life.

Poe was unable to respond to Eveleth until January of the following year, and the resulting letter seems to mark a turning point; early in the letter he states that he feels “better—best. I have never been so well.” He offers numbered answers to Eveleth’s many questions, ticking through his publishing plans and literary rivalries—including the English affair—with vigor. When he reaches the number ten, the letter shifts tone. He writes, “You say—‘Can you hint to me what was the terrible evil’ which caused the irregularities so profoundly lamented? Yes; I can do more than hint.”

The description that follows is stunning—Virginia’s slow decline is described in painful detail, and the reader has a precious glimpse of this pivotal moment in Poe’s life. But what is most remarkable about the passage is its tone. It does not shift from the professional to the personal, as one might expect; it shifts from the professional to the literary. Poe’s description of Virginia’s death is a beautiful prose construction, equal in artistry to his greatest tales and essays. It is written not in the language of the grieving widower, but that of the great artist performing to his audience; each sentence deserves to be diagrammed. Two in particular seem carefully constructed to manipulate Eveleth just as Poe manipulated magazine readers as the author of Gothic tales. Both set up a strong emotional reaction in the reader by ending with a word or phrase directly opposite what the reader expects: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” and “I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” The second half of each of these sentence shocks, particularly in the second example, in which Virginia’s death is reduced to a cure for her husband’s suffering—not because Poe wished for her death, but because it works so beautifully as a narrative device for his audience of one. Each time I share it with visitors in the gallery, I am as disturbed as they are.

Perhaps Poe’s ability to write with such art is a sign that he can view Virginia’s death with perspective; as such, perhaps this letter is a sign of his (temporary) rehabilitation. Whatever the reason, the lines about Virginia are unsettling in just the manner of Poe’s best tales and poems—but more so, being a description of the death of a real beautiful woman, not just an imagined one.

You can view the original letter in its entirety in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

You can read transcriptions of all surviving letters between Edgar Allan Poe and George Washington Eveleth, as well as “Mr. Poe’s Reply to Mr. English and Others” in The Spirit of the Times on the Edgar Allan Poe Society’s website.

You can see this and many more original artifacts until January 3, when the exhibition closes.

“Existentialism for Beginners”

Franco-Mauritian author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio wrote his first book at the age of eight, published an award-winning first novel at 23, has garnered comparisons to Albert Camus, and won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Decades prior, Le Clézio spent time as a scholar in residence at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more about this lauded author and see his reading list for a 1976 University of Texas seminar on modern French literature in Jesse Cordes Selbin’s article “Existentialism for Beginners.”

From the Author: Alan Furst

The Cultural Compass recently spoke with historical spy novelist Alan Furst, who is reading tonight at the Ransom Center. The program will be webcast live. Here is how Furst has been occupying his time lately:

“I’m hard at work in two ways: maybe the more interesting has to do with promotion. I’ve been a writer for 25 years, 15 books, and now I’ve been led to discover, by Random House marketing people, the literary chat room. On reflection, since printing was invented, no other system of communication like this has ever existed. Short paragraphs, query and response, a kind of intellectual tennis, in minutes not days, achieved by the internet. And the protocols of e-communication seem to enhance, not limit, the discourse. In other words, you point to trails, you don’t go down them, but the person you address may, and the witnesses—audience?—because it’s an open forum—may do so as well.

“Also, not an anti-climax to me, I’m writing the hell out of a new book, about southern Europe in 1940/41, excited to confront new politics, new history, new ethnographies—the anthropological espionage novel!! You heard it first here.”

Learn more about Furst by viewing his reading recommendations, the inventory of his archive, and a profile that explores his writing process using Furst’s archival materials at the Ransom Center.

Listen to Jayne Anne Phillips read from "Lark and Termite"

The Ransom Center has acquired the papers of American novelist Jayne Anne Phillips. Phillips has published six novels and story collections over the last three decades. Her most recent work is Lark and Termite (2009).

Phillips visited the Ransom Center recently and recorded a reading of Lark and Termite, which you can listen to here.

Known for her poetic prose and her in-depth study of family dynamics, Phillips has received critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Phillips is professor of English and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University, Newark.

The acquisition contains manuscripts in multiple states for Black Tickets (1979), Machine Dreams (1984), Shelter (1995), Motherkind (2000), and Lark and Termite, as well as dozens of individual short stories and essays, some never published. Phillips’s school records, early writings, family photographs, notebooks, business documents, fan mail, and related ephemera provide insight into the writer’s life, writing process, family relationships, and publishing history.

Poe Mania: View more than 4,000 Poe-related images, but "I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer"

Manuscripts in scroll form of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Domain of Arnheim," 1847
Manuscripts in scroll form of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Domain of Arnheim," 1847

The Ransom Center has launched the Poe digital collection, where online visitors have the opportunity to see collection and exhibition items, ranging from manuscripts in Poe’s meticulous hand to his annotated copies of the “Tales and Poems” and “Eureka.” The Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram, who curated the From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe, shares his thoughts on Poe and the digital collection:

Edgar Allan Poe has always been a favorite author for visitors to the Ransom Center who want to see a few manuscripts but don’t have a formal research agenda. So many people find a personal connection with Poe. When I was nine, I discovered “The Casque of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I loved the chill down the spine and Poe’s use of “big words” that sent me rushing to the dictionary. Here was an adult author who could also tell a good story!

Poe’s widespread popularity led us to mount digitized versions of all of his manuscripts at the Center, alongside printed copies of his works with his annotations and related materials. We anticipate considerable use of the digital collection by scholars and students, although much of the material has already been published. Whatever the reason for visiting the site, online viewers will be fascinated by Poe’s eerily precise and beautiful script (of course visitors to the Center can see the real thing in the upcoming exhibition devoted to Poe, opening September 8).

Many discoveries were made along the way as we assembled materials for the exhibition and the digital collection. We uncovered some uncataloged materials from the vast Poe collection of manuscripts and printed materials assembled by the Baltimore collector William H. Koester. Among these was a large group of sheet music based on Poe’s poems—these are now all online. Not to mention the book that Poe left by mistake in his doctor’s office shortly before his miserable death in Baltimore. It bears the mysterious notation “Augusta” (in quotes and not in Poe’s hand) on one page.

Even if you work your way through the collection and go on to read or re-read his works and letters, I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer. He remains fascinatingly elusive. There is, for example, the matter of his mysterious death from unknown causes, still under debate. Some critics regard him as a talented humbug, while others claim that he is the most original American author of his century. Take, for example, the manuscript of one of his lesser-known stories, “The Domain of Arnheim,” which is in the exhibition and online. No one can really tell if this is a carefully crafted work of literary irony directed against the excesses of Romantic prose, or an example of Poe’s own tendency to overblown rhetoric. For me, this very elusiveness is the essence of his appeal.

Poe Mania: Can you out-decode Poe?

In 1839, while working as an editor for Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe encouraged his readers to send in cryptographs, or short encrypted texts, that he would then attempt to solve. He explained that the “ciphers” should be simple substitution ciphers, that is, readers should substitute a particular symbol for a particular alphabet letter every time it appeared in a statement. The readers responded, sending, by Poe’s estimate, “nearly one hundred ciphers.” He claimed to have solved all but one, and that one, he argued, was not a true cipher.

Poe was so captivated by cryptography that he incorporated it into his story “The Gold-Bug” in 1843. In this story, the character William LeGrand must solve a puzzle to find a buried treasure.

Learn more about how to solve cryptographs and then practice your decoding skills on the Poe Project website.

Poe Mania: Parody Poe for the chance to win

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” has been one of his most popular poems since its publication in 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror newspaper. This popularity has led to a number of parodies, or humorous imitations, of the poem. The tradition of writing parodies of “The Raven” dates back at least as far as 1853, when Graham’s Magazine published “The Vulture: An Ornithological Study.” Its first stanza begins:

Once upon a midnight chilling, as I held my feet unwilling
O’er a tub of scalding water, at a heat of ninety-four;
Nervously a toe in dipping, dripping, slipping, then out-skipping
Suddenly there came a ripping whipping, at my chamber’s door.
“’Tis the second-floor,” I muttered, “flipping at my chamber’s door—
Wants a light—and nothing more!”

Visit the Poe Project website to compose your own parody of “The Raven,” and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win Poe-centric prizes.