Monday, August 27, 2018

A tale of two authors.

The girls and I just got home from a weekend trip to Philadelphia. In all the years I've lived in the DC area, I've never been to Philly until now. Which is crazy -- it's closer than New York City, which I've visited several times. So when a great hotel rate came together with an Amtrak sale, I figured it was time.

Philadelphia is known more as the birthplace of the United States than as a hub of literary activity. The Second Continental Congress was held there, after all, at which the Declaration of Independence was approved in July 1776. And the Constitution was adopted there as well, in 1787.

Present for both events, though, was Philly's homeboy -- a well-known and well-respected printmaker named Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is known best nowadays, perhaps, for flying a kite in a thunderstorm. But he started life in Boston as the youngest son of Josiah Franklin, a candle-maker and soap-maker, and his second wife Abiah Folger. Franklin the elder fathered 17 children by his two wives. That's a lot of mouths to feed -- and so young Ben was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer in Boston.

He hated working for his brother. At 17, he ran away to Philadelphia and worked for printers there. Eventually, he set up his own print shop and published, among other things, the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper and Poor Richard's Almanack.

In Franklin Court, not far from Independence Hall, the National Park Service runs a museum devoted to Franklin. There's a cool archaeological exhibit outside where you can view the foundations of Franklin's house (the house itself is long gone). And the NPS has also set up a printmaking shop, so you can see how Ben plied his trade. The most time-consuming part of printing is setting the type; once that's done, a printer who knows what he's doing can print a page using this printing press in maybe 20 seconds.

Later in life, of course, Ben Franklin got into politics. Besides signing all those founding documents, he was the first Postmaster General of the United States, and he also served as ambassador to France. In addition, he became well known for his witty sayings -- and for more practical inventions. If you wear bifocals, for example, you can thank Ben Franklin for inventing them.

But publishing was in his blood to the last. His last will and testament begins: "I, Benjamin Franklin, of Philadelphia, printer..."

And now we fast-forward about fifty years to another famous writer who called Philadelphia home: Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was also born in Boston, but his parents were actors; his father abandoned the family and his mother died the next year. John Allan and his wife in Richmond, Virginia, took the boy in and raised him, but eventually John and Edgar had a falling-out over money; Poe attended the University of Virginia for a year, until the family ran out of money to keep him there, and then joined the Army. Eventually he entered West Point, but he abandoned his military career to become a writer full-time.

He married his first cousin Virginia before she'd turned 14, and her mother moved in with them to run the household. In 1838, the family moved to Philadelphia, and there Poe wrote and published many of his best-known short stories: "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the first detective story ever published. He also worked as editor of several literary magazines -- and he battled melancholy, in part due to his wife's ill health (she died of tuberculosis in 1847). He also had a problem with drinking.


The Poes moved several times while they lived in Philadelphia, but only one of those houses survives. Today the National Park Service runs it as the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. The part on the right in this photo was a later addition, and now houses a small gift shop, some exhibits, and a room where visitors can watch an introductory video. The Poes' rooms are only partially restored, with wall murals standing in for how things might have looked in Edgar's time. The overall effect is somewhat creepy -- in keeping, perhaps, with Poe's writings.

Today, we'd put most of Poe's tales in the horror category, and shunt him off as a genre writer. But he worked for literary magazines, and his fondest professional dream was to publish his own literary journal -- which he did, briefly, before it failed. Financial problems were a recurring theme in his life; even then, it was hard to make a full-time living at writing. But Poe found acclaim for his poetry and literary criticism as well as his prose, and many authors have cited him as an influence on their work (Yours Truly included).

In early October 1849, Poe turned up, ill and incoherent, on a street in Baltimore. He was hospitalized that night and died a few days later, at the age of 40. No one knows why he was in Baltimore. His medical records and his death certificate are missing. In the end, his death was as mysterious as his works.

The Poe National Historic Site is away from the typical tourist trail in Philly, but it's within walking distance of the Liberty Bell, and it's well worth a visit if you're a Poe fan.

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These moments of historical blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.


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