Dickens and Poe
Katie Bell is a PhD student at the University of Leicester, UK who volunteers for the Museum’s curatorial team, cataloguing Dickens’s letters. Her dissertation is titled, The Diaspora of Dickens and explores the influence that the works of Charles Dickens had upon twentieth century American authors, particularly in the American South.
By Katie Bell
What draws us to house museums? Is it that we as modern-day visitors wish to get a private glimpse of the figures whom we so much admire? Do we wish to come to know these public figures, whose houses are now museums, and to see a side of them not printed in their biographies or literary works? Before I became a volunteer with the Charles Dickens Museum, I knew Dickens through my academic work, but my time at the Museum developed my understanding of him as I worked in the house where he began his married life and had his two daughters. Recently my academic work has taken me on to pursue a deeper study of Edgar Allan Poe, to whom four house museums are dedicated across the eastern U.S. The one in Baltimore was the destination of my recent research trip.
What I particularly love about the Dickens Museum is the way in which his life is curated: personal artefacts are displayed with period pieces in order to create an atmosphere resembling what the house would have looked like when the Dickens family lived there. Upstairs in the servants’ quarters, quotes from Dickens’s own works about the life of workers in the home decorate the walls. Because he wrote such moving pieces about the lives of this socioeconomic class, visitors get the impression from this room that Dickens cared about the happiness of his employees. This along with the familial atmosphere of Catherine’s morning room, the toys which decorate the floor of the children’s bedroom and the jovial living room all help to create a house which shows the Dickens family’s life together in these early days, and a happy life it was.
Katie Bell and bust of Edgar Allan Poe
A bit of context should be given about the Dickens/Poe relationship and why a Dickensian would be drawn to visit the house museum of such a seemingly different nineteenth century author. Dickens’s early works fascinated Poe. He wrote of the mysterious Boz in 1836, ‘we know nothing more than that he is a far more pungent, more witty, and better disciplined writer of sly articles, than nine-tenths of the Magazine writers in Great Britain’. Poe never reached the literary fame in his lifetime which Dickens achieved, and quite often his life was stricken with poverty. He pursued his meagre living mostly through writing literary critiques and became known as ‘the man with the tomahawk’ due to his cutting words against the works of popular contemporary writers; American and British alike, none were spared Poe’s tomahawk. However, Poe hardly had a harsh word to say about the works of Dickens; instead Poe seems to have idolised Dickens as one of the greatest writers of the time. He wrote in 1839 after the identity of Boz became known: ‘Charles Dickens is no ordinary man, and his writings must unquestionably live. We think it somewhat surprising that his serious pieces have elicited so little attention; but, possibly, they have been lost in the blaze of his comic reputation’. From all this evidence, it’s clear that a Dickensian should be interested in Poe. I felt that there would be no better way to achieve an understanding of this than through visiting one of Poe’s house museums.
Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum (Baltimore)
Poe’s Baltimore house is only a modest suburban home, and due to the family’s lack of income, furniture is sparse. However, the museum has done a marvellous job with their use of signage to show what each room’s purpose would have been. Most notable is the museum’s presentation of the upstairs bedrooms: the back bedroom is decorated with quotes of authors (both nineteethcentury and modern) who have been inspired by Poe. This helps to demonstrate the long reach of Poe’s work. The modest garret room is filled with period furniture and most of the mantels and floorboards are original to the house. The visitor leaves the Poe House feeling the warm sense of family that Poe must have had during this time of his life in Baltimore with the Clemms. Family was something he had desperately been seeking in his life, and after the later death of his wife Virginia Clemm, he would sadly continue to seek this sense of connection. That being said, his Baltimore home was a happy one.
What I most loved about my time spent at the Dickens Museum is the way in which it broadened my relationship both to Charles and to Catherine. This is a felt relationship of course, but one which is as rich as my real relationships with my living friends. The Poe House in Baltimore also succeeds in doing this: it fosters a greater understanding of the Poe and Clemm family, but as well, it bridges a connection between modern-day visitors and this often misunderstood figure of nineteenth century America. Poe is probably the most enigmatic figure with whom I have worked, but having visited his Baltimore home, I now feel that I have a deeper understanding of the curious life of one of America’s most influential authors.
David F. Gaylin, Images of America: Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore. (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2015).
The Edgar Allan Poe House of Baltimore, Maryland: http://www.poeinbaltimore.org/museum/.
For literary criticism written by Poe see The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. http://www.eapoe.org/index.htm.