Quoth the raven, nevermore

Sacrilege: New York University's plan to tear down a house where Poe once dwelled sends shudders up the spines of all pilgrims who like to stand in the latter-day presence of a writer's talent.

May 10, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

In New Hampshire, the faithful still show up at the edges of J.D. Salinger's property, no matter how many damning memoirs are written about him. In the Florida Keys, normally blase journalists become ga-ga over the prospect of bone-fishing with Carl Hiaasen.

And in Oxford, Miss., so many fans found their way to the home of John Grisham that he finally pulled up stakes and moved to Charlottesville, Va. -- allegedly after he awoke one morning and found someone getting married outside his house.

The homes of famous people have always been a draw, but writers, present and past, do seem to excite the public imagination more than, say, the average electrical engineer. (Editor's note: Electrical engineers may address all complaints to Ed Hewitt, the newspaper's ombudsman.)

And few writers seem to have left behind more homes than the poverty-stricken Edgar Allan Poe, whose peripatetic life included stints in Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia and New York.

Poe's surviving Manhattan address, at 85 W. Third Street, is owned by New York University. Tonight, university representatives, preservationists and Poe partisans will meet to debate the building's future, which seems bleak. The New York City Landmark's Commission has declined to give the house landmark status and the NYU law school wants to tear it down. (The pun "The Fall of the House of Poe" has already been used, alas.)

NYU argues that the building, currently the site of Fuchsberg Hall, has little historic significance and contains no trace of the writer-critic-poet. Poe scholars counter that Poe lived there for eight months in 1845 and 1846, an enormously productive time in which he revised "The Raven" and began "The Cask of Amontillado."

I can pretend no objectivity on this subject. I sit on the board of Mystery Writers of America, which is encouraging its members to sign petitions and write letters of protest to NYU.

More significantly, I'm as much of a writer groupie as anyone. I once drove 1,000-plus miles in a single day, just so I could have the pleasure of touring Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Miss. My parents believed no sightseeing tour of Atlanta was complete without noting the very spot where Margaret Mitchell was killed crossing the street.

Is it possible that people have made pilgrimages to writer-related sites since, well, Chaucer's pilgrims converged on Canterbury? Adult women journey to Anoka, the small Minnesota town that inspired Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series. No serious Steinbeck fan could visit Monterey without looking for traces of "Cannery Row." Hemingway's homes in Key West and Oak Park, Ill., draw fans from throughout the world.

Then there's Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House, home in Concord, Mass., Mark Twain's in Hartford, Conn., the list goes on and on. A quick trip to the Internet brings up a whole subgenre of tour groups devoted to following in writers' footsteps, from Hawthorne Tours in Boston (self-explanatory) to the Joyce Gold History Tours of New York, which promises Walt Whitman, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Alcott, Poe, Stephen Crane, Eugene O'Neill, Ida Tarbell, Willa Cather and Edna St. Vincent Millay -- and that's in Greenwich Village alone.

Writing is the unseen profession, which may explain why those who wish to write are so interested in the most banal details. Last weekend, at the annual Malice Domestic conference saluting the traditional mystery, writers, fans and would-be writers gathered in Washington and asked one another the questions they always ask.

Pen, pencil, typewriter or computer? Mac or PC? Morning or evening? Does your desk face a window? Is your office spartan or filled with things that encourage you to procrastinate? One would think it's comforting to find out there are as many ways to write as there are writers. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

Our interest in writers' lives is so acute that the photographer Jill Krementz once published a book containing 55 portraits of writers' desks, along with their short essays about their work habits. The 1996 book is still in print, and was ranked 29,841 on Amazon.com yesterday.

Now, some will say Poe has plenty of houses -- there's one here in Baltimore, another in Philadelphia. He even has another house in the New York area, in the Bronx. But Poe was something of a rarity in the 19th century, a writer who attempted to support himself through his writing and editing. No wonder he moved so much.

Those who have been to the house on Amity Street here in Baltimore know the drill. Open on a limited schedule that changes seasonally, it sits between Saratoga and Fayette streets, surrounded by the public housing project known as the Poe Homes. A patrol car is parked out front. Knock loudly to gain entrance and then climb the stairs to the literal garret where Poe worked.

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