Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Early Days of the Poe House in Philadelphia

I’ve spent the last two days of my week-long break at the Independence National Historical Park (INHP) Library and Archives looking into the early history of the Edgar Allan Poe House here in Philadelphia.

Although I’m trying to start at the beginning of the history of this site, it is hard to do. The house was purchased by a rare books and manuscripts collector, Richard Gimbel in 1933 and converted into a house museum. The image above is of the house sometime before Gimbel converted it into a house museum; this photo comes from the Library Company of Philadelphia's collection. It doesn't look much like a literary landmark yet.

In 1933 house museums, despite the Great Depression, were all the rage. Lawrence Vail Coleman, in his book Historic House Museums, wrote that there were twenty house museums open in the U.S. in 1895 and that this number grew to “nearly a hundred in 1910 and to more than four hundred now [roughly 1933].”* The Poe House was one of these new house museums devoted to celebrating famous Americans.

It appears as though Gimbel, the grandson of the founder of Gimbels department stores, saw the house as a traditional house museum. He and his curator Anthony Frayne filled the house with carefully chosen period furniture, but Gimbel also used the house as a display place for his growing collection of Poeana (which is now part of the Free Library of Philadelphia's Rare Books Collection). The museum operated as a small private enterprise, run almost entirely by Mr. Frayne and his wife Barbara until Gimbel’s death in 1971.

In 1971 the house was left to the City of Philadelphia, which deemed the Philadelphia Free Library (a branch of the city) should operate it. The photo above is a HABS photo of the inside of the house in 1976 while it was being administered by the Free Library.

Mr. Frayne died in 1973, but Mrs. Frayne lived well into the National Park Service's acquisition of the property in 1978 and its reopening after restoration and remodeling in 1981. She successfully petitioned the Park Service to let her stay on as the house's "security" after hours. She lived in the adjoining house, led tours and raised a family in the "Poe Complex" for at least 45 years.

I haven't yet been able to track down Barbara Frayne's obituary, or the records from the Gimbel Foundation relating to the 38 years that they kept the house open to tourists. My hope is that these records may be with the Free Library.

Many, many thanks to the INHP's incredibly able Archivist and Library Manager Karen Stevens who made this first foray into research on the house easy and absolutely enjoyable!

* Coleman, Laurence Vail. Historic House Museums. Washington, D.C.: The American Association of Museums, 1933, 18.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pelé's birthplace to become a museum?

Sometimes the news of new house museums--especially those devoted to the childhood of a popular figure stand out in the news. According to a recent article, the 60 year-old soccer star Edson Arantes do Nascimento's, aka Pelé, birthplace is to be rebuilt in Brazil in time for his 70th birthday. It's rare that a public figure's birthplace is preserved or reconstructed during his or her lifetime.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Literary Archives

People who control information wield a great deal of power, whether to manage the historical "truth," legal rights, or literary legacies—as Elif Batuman’s piece in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times on Franz Kafka’s papers and the international disputes over who owns them attests.

Batuman, a Russian literary and language scholar (as well as a damn good writer), points out that those
in possession of the Kafka papers are “doorkeepers” who provide (or chose not to provide) access to Kafka—whose story isn’t “owned” by any one person, but owned collectively (well, maybe). In this case, two elderly sisters inherited the papers from their mother, who in turn had inherited them from Kafka's friend and sometimes editor, Max Brod. They have the papers, and the sisters have over the years allowed a very few scholars and institutions glimpses of these very sought-after documents.

Her piece is like a modern day Bohemian/Czech/Israeli/German remake of Henry James’s short story "The Aspern Papers." Here an unscrupulous literary biographer gains access to the household where the last manuscript papers of “the poet” reside.* (It's a convoluted story--like any Henry James story, and it's complicated to briefly summarize--so bear with me
, or read the "cliff notes" version on wikipedia). The ruthless biographer lies his way into the confidence of an old woman and her ward and then rifles through her ancient love letters in the night to gain access to the last biographical papers that he hasn't readabout the “the poet.”

The biographer might have justified his actions in the same way the National Library of Israel claims Kafka’s papers: the papers didn’t really belong to the woman (who, like
the elderly women in possession of Kafka’s papers, lives in squalor), they belong to the world. The fact that these women (fictional and real) couldn’t care "properly" for these valuable literary documents—in houses full of cats or moldy Venice apartments, or whatever kind of domestic disarray is necessary to justify archival intervention—is only part of the story of how literary legacies are shaped by individuals and collecting institutions.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Reading Rabbit, Run

A house, having been willfully purchased and furnished, tells us more than a body, and its description is a foremost resource of the art of fiction. Every novelist becomes, to a degree, an architect—castles in air!—and a novel itself is, of course, a kind of dwelling, whose spaces open and constrict, foster display or concealment, and resonate from room to room. –John Updike

As part of my effort to understand the state where I’ve been living for the past two years, I’m reading John Updike. I’ve taught his short stories from time to time, but I have never tackled his novels. So, I’m making my way slowly through Rabbit, Run. Set in Brewer, PA--a fictionalized Reading, PA--the book is full of domestic spaces—thickly described.

I find myself astounded by his detailed descriptions. The particular architectural details of the houses and apartments that belong to the characters seem as important as the characters themselves. The twin houses where neighbors refuse to mow a strip of grass, the sober house of the Lutheran minister where visitors feel compelled to kneel and pray. Rabbit runs from his pregnant wife and child, it seems, because the house where they live together is cluttered, chaotic, and full of the noise of television. I want to drive to Reading and find the block where Rabbit, his parents, in-laws, and his high-school football coach all survive in twins and row houses built sharply and claustrophobically into the hillside (except, of course, it doesn't exist except in the novel). It’s not a wonder that Rabbit’s run takes him to a girlfriend, who lives in a simple flat on the other side of town with few distractions and a view of church goers lining up for Sunday services.

As Updike put it:

In my second novel, Rabbit, Run, an entire street—a steep street of row houses, “covered with composition shingling varying in color from bruise to dung”—had to be constructed to give my young couple housing, and then the fleeing husband had to be followed through the labyrinth of Brewer... Truly, the hollowing-out of these habitable burrows, assigning wall tint and texture, visualizing fanlight and doorbell, shag rug and windowsill, constitutes a primary adventure of the fiction-generalizing mind.

Many writers have written about domestic architecture--from Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton to Mark Twain and John Updike. I’m going to begin re-collecting and reflecting on these pieces here for a larger project on the architecture of fiction, the fiction of architecture, and an exploration the Pennsylvania literary landscape.

To read more of Updike’s essays for Architectural Digest see this page.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Stockhom Literary Tourism

I have to admit to having been swept up in the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; The Girl who Played with Fire; The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest). They have risen high on the list of my post-dissertation summer of mysteries, thrillers, and other delicious fiction I haven’t let myself read in, well, years. I really like these books. I like how the female characters respond to violence, the male feminist character, the rollicking plot, the oddly translated and workman-styled prose, and I like the setting.

And apparently, I’m not the only one who sees Stockholm as a new and delightful literary landscape. A recent New York Times piece warns that tourists obsessed with setting of these novels are planning trips, and scoping out Stockholm.

I wonder if this kind of intense literary tourism is a uniquely American phenomenon. It was American tourists obsessed with Dan Brown novels that descended upon the European settings of his Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. And while I know a good number of folks from all over the world visit Mark Twain sites (including Borges, who insisted on wading into the Mississippi River to get closer to Twain). I think the en mass flood of intense literary interest in a place may be largely an American Phenomenon. Tell me I’m wrong. Remind me that there are a great number of Japanese tourists who turn up at Prince Edward Island each year in search of Anne of Green Gables. Who else does this?

What other novels have, in the last 25 years, set off tourist movements?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Missing Trigger

It looks like the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans house museum in Branson, Missouri has closed--long before I ever got a chance to visit and pay my respects to the artfully taxidermed Trigger.
If you are interested in purchasing Trigger, or any other mementos from the Roy Rogers Show, you can find details about the museum's upcoming auction here.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How We Remember the Dead

Dead writers' bodies--or at least their graves--argues one study, were the way that Westerners first "visited" literary places. Long before tourists lined up to see Shakespeare's birthplace, they were lining up to make rubbings of his grave stone. Early literary tourists wrote elegies (like Wilde's) upon poet's gravestones and true fans sought out Shelley's and Keats' final resting places. Westminster Abbey was a literary tourist mecca long before anyone thought of developing historic sites at the childhood and adult homes of the poets.

I spent time at Twain's grave while I was fellow at the Center for Mark Twain Studies. But I have not made literary grave visits a habit (despite the fact that the highlights for me of two recent trips have been cemeteries--Salem, Ma. and Mystic, Co. have wonderful storied graveyards). Literary graves are less appealing. Maybe it's not just me, I think Americans have gotten out of the habit of remembering writers at their graves (with the great exception of the Poe Toaster).

This week, on Wednesday, April 21, many will remember Mark Twain, now dead exactly 100 years. The Hartford Courant ran the very same obituary it did 100 years ago, the New York Times ran a piece on Mark Twain's Library and marginalia, even our local paper the Philadelphia Inquirer did a piece on Twain's time in Philadelphia as a typesetter.

Elmira, New York will stage a reenactment of his funeral and its procession from Park Church to Woodlawn Cemetery. Residents and visitors are invited to look on and carry umbrellas, as the original funeral was on a sober and rainy April day. Many will gather at Woodlawn and think about Mark Twain/Sam Clemens and his legacy and participate in the most ancient kind of literary tourism.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Literary Birthplaces

A recent piece in the New York Times about George Orwell's birthplace posed a question that I have been asking myself the last several years: why do we visit literary birthplaces? What interest do the cradles of our literary heroes and heroines hold for readers? What can any birthplace tell you about the historical person born there?

I'm working on a chapter on spurious history of Mark Twain's birthplace in Florida, Missouri for a collection on birthplaces, and I have been thinking about Abraham Lincoln's birthplace--or rather as the National Park calls it, his "symbolic birthplace cabin." It ends up that a number of famous literary and historical birthplaces are fakes (or if you want to split hairs, symbolic reproductions, reconstructions, or other types of creative commemorations that have little to do with the real historic structures where these figures were born). Abe Lincoln's birthplace at Sinking Spring Farm, Kentucky has the added distinction of possibly being constructed from the logs of Jefferson Davis's birthplace cabin. Both cabins traveled across country, often reconstructed side by side, and were stored in the same cargo holds and warehouses until no one knew for sure which logs were which. Many had long suspected that none really came from the "authentic" birth-cabin of Lincoln. (see Pichathley)

But Lincoln's birthplace is amazing (and sits inside the giant memorial building at the left). It is a site that exists because some Americans, like Mark Twain, believed in its crucial contribution to the narrative that connects the stories of "great men" to the soil of the United States. In a 1907 plea in the New York Times, Twain argued that the Lincoln cabin was a "birthplace worth saving." In a promotional broadside he elaborated:

"Some people make pilgrimages to the town whose streets were once trodden by Shakespeare...But in most cases the connection between the great man or great event and the relic we revere is accidental. Shakespeare might have lived in any town as well as Stratford..."

He goes on: "But it was no accident that planted Lincoln on a Kentucky farm...the association there had substance to it. Lincoln belonged just where he was put. If the Union was to be saved, it had to be a man of such origin that should save it."

Each of these places, as a successful historic site, has to argue that there is substance to the connection between adult writer and infant locale, but is there? Or do we just read this intention backwards onto these historic sites?

Twain's own birthplace has as fraught a history as Lincoln's (though as far as I know wasn't built out of logs from Davis's birthplace). More on it in an up-coming post.

See former National Park Service Chief Historian, Dwight Pitcaithley, “Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace Cabin: The Making of an American Icon,” Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape, ed. Paul A. Shackel (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Gabriel Garcia Marquez birthplace to open to public

One of my favorite living writers is set to have his birthplace opened to the public after years of restoration. Next month literary pilgrims will be able to visit the much expanded house in Aracataca, Columbia.

Though there's little chance that I can get there anytime soon, I do wonder what he thinks of the historic site and its restoration.

Why preserve a literary birthplace? Why visit one?