|By Ginger Levit
RICHMOND, Va. — Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) never went to Paris, but 19th century Parisian artists and writers revered his unconventional approach to literature. Known internationally as a master of the macabre, his off-beat poetry and short stories were inspirational to writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. Jules Verne, the father of science fiction, got his ideas from Poe’s science fiction stories and wrote a sequel to one of Poe’s novels.
Baudelaire translated his short stories into French. Artists such as Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin illustrated his books and produced portraits of him. Manet illustrated The Raven and did three Poe portraits.
Poe influenced an inquisitive French avant garde searching for new ideas to explore unknown, terrifying territory.
The entire scenario unfolds in the exhibition Poe in Paris, which opened on June 23 at the Poe Museum, located in Richmond, Va. Francophiles, including three Virginia Alliance Française groups, were invited to attend a special preview on June 22. The exhibition will be on view at the Poe House through Sept. 8.
Early 19th century France was chaotic as writers and artists explored new ideas that would develop into full-blown movements. In less than 100 years, France went through phases in Academic art, Romanticism, Barbizon, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism and other stylistic trends.
Poe was known as a Dark Romanticist and is considered to be the inventor of detective fiction. He delighted in the hideous, the grisly and gruesome. He died 164 years ago, but the Poe legend lives on through classics such as The Fall of the House of Usher, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Pit and the Pendulum and the poems Annabel Lee, The Raven and Lenore.
A personal history
Poe grew up as a foster son of the wealthy Allan family in Richmond, after his actor father abandoned him and his mother died of consumption. He was educated in England and Scotland, and attended Thomas Jefferson’s newly founded University of Virginia. Hardly a scholar, he began gambling and drinking, then dropping out after a year. He was also kicked out of the U.S Military Academy at West Point. He then did a stint in the U.S. Army. His third book was called Poems, and it was entirely financed by his West Point classmates who admired his writing.
He began writing under the pseudonym of Henri Le Rennet. His Tamerlane and Other Poems was anonymously published. Two years ago, that manuscript sold at Christie’s for $662,500. Only 12 copies of the rare, handwritten book are known to exist; 40 copies were printed of the first edition. A copy of The Raven and Other Poems, estimated at $100,000, sold at the same auction for $182,000.
Inevitably, he embarked upon the chaotic life of an unstable genius – debauchery, drinking and gambling. Always broke and depressed, he moved to Baltimore to live with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virginia Eliza Clemm. A year later, he secretly married Virginia. She was his first cousin and only 13 years old.
He had also become assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger; the review published his poetry, short stories and book reviews regularly.
His first detective story was Murders in the Rue Morgue. His protagonist, Auguste Dupin, solved devilish crimes through a process of deduction. It is said that this character influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
The later years
In 1842, Virginia was coughing blood, and later diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis). The Raven was published in the Evening Mirror in 1845. He received $9 as payment. In 1845, his raven-haired wife died while they were living in a little cottage in the Bronx. It is said that he cried over her grave every day, bringing flowers to her.
On Oct. 3, 1849, Poe was found incoherent and erratically wandering the streets of Baltimore, wearing somebody else’s clothes. Four days later, on Oct. 7 at the age 40, he died delirious at Washington College Hospital.
His dying words supposedly were, “Lord, help my poor soul.”
Today, Poe is appreciated for his contributions to world literature and aesthetic. Chris Semtner, the exhibition’s curator said “Poe broke all the rules about what art is all about, inventing a new aesthetic. All along, the French had been searching; Poe opened the door for ’art for art’s sake’ and the new modernism.”
The Poe Museum is located at 1914-16 E. Main St. in Richmond. More information is available at www.poemuseum.org.