October 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Poe's Portraits & Scrolls

I had the good fortune to see Terror of the Soul, the new Edgar Allan Poe exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum, last week. The array of books, artifacts, images, and manuscripts is nothing short of stunning. When else will you see three copies of the first edition of Tamerlane, when only twelve are known to exist in the world? One of them belongs to Susan Jaffe Tane, a private collector who loaned many items to this show.  

Ultima Thule daguerreotype_Masury and Hartshorn.jpgThere are several images of Poe on exhibit -- an 1860s carte-de-visite long attributed (incorrectly) to Mathew Brady, a linocut portrait by Eduard Prüssen, and this "Ultima Thule" daguerreotype. If he looks more haggard and bereft than usual it is because he tried to commit suicide only four days prior. Another portrait, called the "Whitman" daguerrotype, is thought to have been taken a week after the "Ultima Thule," once Poe had a chance to recover.

In artifacts, a handwritten label fragment once affixed to Poe's coffin gave me the willies, for lack of a better phrase. The label was removed when his remains were transferred to a different graveyard.

But, to my mind, the manuscripts stole the show. Not only did Poe have beautiful handwriting, as evidenced in his June 9, 1849 letter to his editor asking for $10, he had an unusual way of collating them: he pasted individual sheets together to form long scrolls. One example, on exhibit for the first time in its original state, is the manuscript of "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fetner." Poe used sealing wax to affix the narrow sheets end to end. Though it got divided up later on, the scroll was reassembled in 2013. There are several scrolls on exhibit, and another from September 1849, just weeks before his death, is a cool example. On blue paper, Poe made a copy of his poem, "Ulalume," for Miss Susan Ingram. She wrote that he "made quite a scroll and [it] must have taken him a long time to write out. The ten stanzas were written on five large sheets of paper pasted together in the neatest possible way, end to end." Still another scroll, for "The Bells" (July 1849), has mysterious fire damage along one side.

Also, in terms of handwriting, you can see Poe using his natural hand for letters and a minuscule, roman script for fair copies of his literary works. This is most evident on his manuscript "Epimanes" from 1833, where he is writing out the text of the story and then writing a letter to Joseph T. and Edwin Buckingham on the same page.

His correspondence with Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as the manuscripts, books, and ephemera by those he influenced, such as Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Stephen King, effectively brings Poe out of the shadows. If you are in New York City before the exhibit closes on January 26, 2014, you must check it out.  
Image: Studio of Samuel Masury and S. W. Hartshorn; Edwin Manchester, photographer; "Ultima Thule" daguerreotype portrait (contemporary copy) of Edgar Allan Poe, November 9, 1848; The Morgan Library &  Museum, New York, MA 8658; Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909. Credit: Graham S. Haber, Courtesy of the Morgan Library.