Will The Real Edgar Allan Poe Please Stand Up?

In honor of Edgar Allan Poe’s 208th birthday, today we are launching the digital complement to an exhibition of delicious Poe rarities currently on view at the George Peabody Library—The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore & Beyond: Selections from the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection. The digital exhibition lets you explore Poe’s life and work at your leisure, with detailed information about the artifacts in the physical exhibition, plus images you can examine on your very own screen: sweet!

The physical exhibition is on display through Sunday, February 5. On that day, we’ll be hosting a free showing of Spirits of the Dead, a trilogy of campy film adaptations of Poe stories. (More on that later.)

With this exhibition of rare books, manuscripts, letters, magazines, illustrations, and spooky Poe artifacts (like a lock of hair clipped from his head after he died, a fragment of his coffin, a Poe action figure, and the “Poe mask” featured on the TV show The Following), surely we’ve plumbed the depths of the Poe mystery—right? Surely, these amazing materials—over 100 objects on loan to us from Poe collector extraordinaire Susan Jaffe Tane—answer all the questions there are to ask about Poe?

Nope, not even close.

The thing about Poe is, we’ll never know how he died (even the heavy metal analysis of the aforementioned lock of hair is inconclusive), what his temperament was really like (gentle and charming or impatient and selfish? -- there are conflicting reports), or who among his many lady friends was the subject of the poem “Annabel Lee.” We’ll never know what he thought about important features of the world he lived in—the rapidly expanding United States of the 1820s, 30s, and 40s, reckoning with some of the great moral conflicts at its core, like slavery, Indian “removal,” and various restrictions of suffrage. We’ll never know how much his melancholy poems and frightening stories directly reflect his own fears and experiences… or how much they are simply vivid inventions masterfully orchestrated to appeal to readers.

There’s a lot we’ll never know about Edgar Allan Poe the man. However, there is much we can learn about his work: what he wrote, and when, and how. Could close study of his existing manuscripts help us see new connections between his poems, tales, and essays? Could digital tools help us find in his writing traces of what he was reading? Are there important new contexts for his work to be unearthed in the magazines and newspapers where he published?

Here is where an exhibition of Poe’s publications and manuscripts and letters can really help out! We wanted to give you the chance to get up close and personal with these artifacts, so you can: ask new questions, make your own discoveries, or contribute to the vibrant afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe through your own creative work.

Happy Birthday, Edgar! From all of us.

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