Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Baltimore Poe House Update

News just found its way to me via Facebook, and now the Baltimore Sun Times is reporting it as well: the Poe house in Baltimore--recently shuttered due to financial struggles within the city's tightening budget--has been vandalized.  Its steps were stolen shortly after it closed and now the house has seen other acts of vandalism. 

While, I understand all the reasons why a city has to chose to take care of its citizens in hard times before it can prioritize historic properties, I worry that the plans to reopen the house may be moot if the house is not secured. 

How can we manage historic properties in seriously distressed areas?  How can we steward museums in neighborhoods and cities that are in dire straights?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Another Lost House? Poe's Baltimore House

Poe's Baltimore house museum has been closed.  The Baltimore Sun Times and other sources, indicate that the house will reopen under "new management."   I'm reporting this new quite late in the game, but I am stunned that the City of Baltimore has shuttered the home without a concrete plan in place to reopen it.  It's rare that house museums reopen after a period of financial duress, but I hope this precedent does not apply.

The long-time director there, Jeff Jerome, came to Philadelphia in 2009 and participated in a great event sponsored by the Free Library of Philadelphia: THE GREAT POE DEBATE. (You can listen to the pod-cast here, although I have to warn you this was a spectacle sport and some of it doesn't transfer to plain audio). At the debate, Poe aficionados duked it out over which city had the right to "claim" Poe.  It was both absolutely hilarious and touching.  I attended and dragged Seth, who admitted it was a great time; I was sore from laughing.  There is a great uproarious spirit in these people who love Edgar Allan Poe and who work to preserve his historic sites.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Kate Henry, here at Temple, who is currently thinking about Poe and Philadelphia--how his time here influenced his writing and what this might mean as we seek to understand him, his writing, and history of Philadelphia.  And I have a number of students who are writing about the Poe House this semester.

I have to think, if we didn't have the NPS Poe National Historic Site, it would be harder for us to "see" Poe here in Philly.  Poe was impoverished much of his life.  He lived in several houses other than the one that the Park Service has preserved, but, as far as I know, none of them are extant. We largely remember Poe here, because of the fact--the presence--of this house.

Now with the looming "fiscal cliff," I'm worried about the Park Service's ability to keep all of its Philadelphia sites up and running.  It's much more likely that this Poe house would be shuttered than many of the other sites that make up the Independence National Historical Park system.  And once again, I find myself wishing that the National Parks had been a much larger part of the the recent stimulus efforts--and that local sites like the Poe house in Baltimore had been too.  The CCC, during the Great Depression, insured that we have many of these sites today, and without Federal investment--through the creation of jobs that both teach us how to preserve and do the work of preservation--it's likely we'll see more such sites closed before the economy ticks back up enough to create the revenue that local governments need to keep these sites open.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Literary Philadelphia

With the help of my honors class at Temple this semester, I'm finally returning more concretely to Literary Philadelphia!  Toward first steps in mapping Philadelphia's literary heritage, we have this humble Google map.  I've just begun to plot a few known sites, but some of Philadelphia's most traditionally recognized literary minds aren't quite mapped or easily mappable quite yet.  Among the missing are George Lippard, Christopher Morley, Charles Brockden Brown, and Robert Montgomery Bird, and many others. 

On the left is an image from the City Archives of the Edgar Allan Poe house from sometime before the house came under the City of Philadelphia and before the City donated the house to the National Park Service.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mark Twain's Homes and Literary Tourism

My book Mark Twain's Homes and Literary Tourism is out!  You can find the publisher's description of it here.

If you are in the area, I'll be speaking at Elmira College on October 3rd, 2012 on "Mark Twain’s Homes and Haunts: Mark Twain Museums and Public History." As part of their Trouble Begins at Eight series, I'll be at the Quarry Farm Barn, which is part of the farm where Mark Twain spent many summers with his family and writing.  It's the perfect place to think about Mark Twain and Public History.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Haunted House Museums...and Other Historic Sites

Halloween Edition—
This time of year every historic house museum—well not every, but an ever increasing number—is publicizing its haunted house tour. Even the Mark Twain House in Hartford has been running “Graveyard Shift ghost tours,” and last year had the crew from Ghost Hunters in to film an episode. These tours are popular at historic sites, but they ofen run counter to the museums’ mission to interpret history.

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), here in Philadelphia, runs one of the most celebrated and successful haunted tours in the country—Terror Behind the Walls. ESP is one of my very favorite historic site in the city, so I’m committed to their success as an institution, but Terror Behind the Walls isn’t history—and it doesn’t contribute to their mission as a non-profit. But importantly, it does generate a great deal of the institution’s budget (as much as 65% of their annual operating costs are raised over Halloween). However, ESP is up front about the fact that these tours aren’t history, and that they, in fact, compromise their very mission as a history institution. I appreciate that they can make this admission, and that they point out the financial need that often underlies such tours. There's a great article and blog about this and Seth's Museum Class at Temple this fall here.

Other institutions—the Mark Twain House included—make convoluted arguments that these tours provide historical information and serve their missions. The Twain house countered criticisms last year by arguing that that Sam and Olivia Clemens were at times interested in spiritualism, especially after the death of their young son. Meanwhile, the tours point out that the Clemenses’s daughter Suzy died in the house. Ultimately, these tours lead to speculation about whether the houses are haunted—and they aren't haunted by literature.

Ken Finkel last week wrote a great blog over at The Philly History Blog about the danger that Eastern State Penitentiary has already or will become addicted to the funding that comes from its Halloween tours. He worries that the museum and its staff forget how to innovate within their regular tours, find new programming, or appeal to new audiences because they have a steady stream of money that comes from those who see the blood and guts at Halloween. I hope that the literary houses that have started down this route don't find themselves lost in the mire of the haunted house tour.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mark Twain, USA, Forever

The recent commemoration frenzy surrounding Mark Twain, didn't end with the centennial of his death and the publication of a new and expanded (and best-seller) version of his autobiography. This week the U.S. Postal Service released a new forever stamp that celebrates Mark Twain. Now we can all attach his visage to any scrap of paper we send. I like that the the stamp simply reads:
Mark Twain, USA, Forever. Quite a motto.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

American Literary Tourism

Nearly three weeks ago now, in New Brunswick, I participated in an outstanding panel at the NeMLA annual conference on American Literary Tourism and its contemporary study. Jennifer Harris from Mount Allison University organized the panel and brought together myself, Jane Wood (Park University), Mara Scanlon (Mary Washington University), and Susan Bishop (All in One Tours) to talk about our research in literary tourism. While I spoke about Mark Twain’s birthplace and the likelihood that it, like many other birthplaces, is a fake or a “replica,” others talked about sites associated with Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Walt Whitman, and the rich history of early American literary guidebooks.

Jane Wood discussed the Cather and O’Connor sites, and their various eccentricities. Mara Scanlon told us about her amazing class on Whitman that she ran in conjunction with 5 other Whitman classes across the world (most at or near historic sites associated with periods in Whitman’s life), the partner-classes made use of the fabulous digital resources on Whitman made available through places like the Walt Whitman Archive, and sought out real places with which to connect with Whitman’s biography and work. Susan Bishop’s overview on the history of literary tourism guidebooks was amazing. Although I thought I had uncovered all the early American guides through my amateur searches of various library catalogs, Susan brought accounts and photographs of her collection of rare books dealing with travel to American literary sites—and she was generous enough to share her sources.

I organized a panel on a similar subject a few years ago at an American Studies Association conference in Philadelphia—and had a great cast of participants—Mary Jenkins—now retired administrator at the NSP’s Poe House, Anne Trubek—before her recent Skeptic’s Guide to Writers' Houses, Lawrence Buell, and Karen Sanchez-Eppler. Between this recent panel and the last, it seems like there’s more than enough interest in scholarship on literary sites and literary tourism to put together a well rounded and interdisciplinary collection on the subject.

If you are interested or intrigued, please visit the Call for Papers for this collection here.