We long for ways to relate to one another. More specifically, children to teenagers to adults. Separated by generations, it’s hard to localize the things that we have in common. Take Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Gen Y read it in grade school and they can share the experience and understanding with their parents and grandparents; but sometimes we have to look back even further to find that tissue that connects us even more.
Edgar Allan Poe is the prime example because he is probably one of the most well known literary figures. We read haunting tales like “The Raven” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and we were disturbed by his unusual marriage to his 13-year-old cousin. We know he was crazy, an alcoholic, extremely difficult to love and work with, and that his young death remains a mystery. But even in 2009, the bicentennial of his birth, Poe’s poems and short stories continue to serve as a staple of grade school curriculum, as they should be. His legacy goes on as the creator of detective fiction, a fearless literary critic, and a major influence on 19th-century writers.
The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin is a remarkable research library and humanities museum with more than 36 million manuscripts, one million rare books, five million photos, and 100,000 works of art. This fall, the HRC presents From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe, a comprehensive exhibition that commemorates Poe’s birth with manuscripts, artifacts, portraits, and illustrations that give an overview of his life, lovers, literary career, and influence.
I attended a curator tour over the weekend, and take my advice: this is the only way to truly experience an exhibition at the HRC. It is full of artifacts from five institutions around the country and includes Poe’s desk, first editions of his books, and original manuscripts of “The Raven” from the HRC collection.
The most astonishing pieces were the handwritten letters and manuscripts. Simple as they seem, intact yellow-tinted sheets of paper full of words and exquisite cursive, these pages reveal the absolute innermost mind of Poe in his own hand. In a letter to a friend about the death of his cousin and wife, Virginia, Poe describes himself as we already know him: crazy, isolated, and obsessed. He writes about how his wife continued to fall ill time and time again due to tuberculosis, how he “became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity,” and that he found “the cure to [his] misery in the death of [his] wife.”
In addition, the exhibition includes wonderful illustrations detailing the major themes in Poe’s tales: grief as imagined in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” claustrophobia as in “The Premature Burial,” hallucination as in “The Masque of the Red Death,” and haunted spaces as in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
At the end of my tour, I left feeling completely engaged in Poe’s work and influence, but I think I will always be enamored with the way he lived. No one will ever know what he was really like and how his self-destructive, needy, irresponsible, annoying, and brilliant personality were somehow the basis for his remarkable work and permanence in literature.
The exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center is open until January 3, 2010, and admission, tours, and attendance to special events are free.
The HRC has also digitized their entire Poe archive so scholars and researchers can access the complete collection online at no cost.
Harry Ransom Center
21st and Guadalupe Streets
Austin, Texas 78712