the life and death of edgar alan poe
There are two portraits in wooden frames, resting on a dusty shelf, in the corner of the room. A man with mismatched eyes. A woman with hair in curls. Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman,” the tall librarian leading the tour points to them. She pushes her large spectacles back and continues, “We don’t have nearly enough time to go into the full story, but I’ll give you the briefest of outlines.” Standing at the back of the room between two white-haired ladies, I take out a small notebook from the pocket of my shirt. I place the tip of my pen on the paper. tiny black dot forms and then grows as the ink starts to spread: a beginning.
I first heard of the Providence Athenaeum in “The Brown Reader,” a collection of stories written by Brown graduates about their time in college. The story, “Number One Tofu Scramble with Johnny Toast,” referenced a popular rumor: the curse Edgar Allan Poe had placed on the drinking fountain outside the library. Of course, I wanted to go to the Athenaeum then. I convinced a friend to come along—“Do you want to see an accursed fountain?”—but I didn’t tell him what the curse was. That required a lesson in history.
Sarah Helen Whitman knew Edgar Allan Poe from his writing. Poe too was aware of her. Their romance started when, for a Valentine’s Day party, Sarah Helen Whitman wrote a poem addressed to him, “To Edgar Allan Poe.” Poe replied with a poem of his own, “To Helen.” “What he forgot to mention,” said the librarian, crossing her arms over her chest, “was that he had written the poem years ago for a completely different Helen.” I found myself warming to Poe—such economy was familiar. My last year of high school, I applied to 12 colleges with the same essays and only the name of the school changed. I wonder if the admissions officers saw through the subterfuge? Sarah Helen Whitman did not. And three months later, Poe arrived in Providence.
The drinking fountain was made from stone. Engraved in granite, in Gothic script, the legend: “ Come here everyone that thirsteth.” A rusted metal spout stuck out from the middle of the fountain. There was a new steel drain at the center of the basin. There were orange cigarette butts next to the drain. Yellow leaves. A green discoloration had set in around the basin—near the drain, around the edges, on the spout—and there was no water.
Poe was poor. At the time, no one made a living by writing alone, and Poe’s stories sold for little. Sarah Helen Whitman was a wealthy widow. Poe courted her, and soon they were engaged. “They would sit here, in the Athenaeum, and discuss poetry and stories,” said the librarian. “In the next part of the tour you’ll see some of the books Poe checked out from the Athenaeum and one on which he scribbled his signature.” I stopped taking notes in my little notebook and looked around. We were in the Art Room. The walls were lined with portraits and photographs, marble busts were placed around the room, a few gilt-edged paintings hung on the wall, and two large windows overlooked the rest of the library. The tall shelves filled with books, the warm light making the planks of wood glow like embers. Looking out of the windows, onto the mezzanine, I could see two heads bent over a book, and I heard the sound of laughter–distant, but not forgotten.
“So tell me,” my friend asked, digging his hands into the pockets of his jeans, “What is this horrible curse?”
One of the conditions of the engagement was that Poe—who had a drinking problem—would abstain from alcohol. And one day, while Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman were sitting in the Athenaeum, a messenger came. He gave a slip of paper to Helen. The note said that Poe had been drinking the day before—he had. Helen read it and left. Later she broke the engagement. Poe, heartbroken, prepared to leave Providence. It was then he placed a curse on the fountain. I imagine him standing tall and alone on the Athenaeum steps, a dark silhouette in the purple evening sky, his lips moving, saying the words that no one would hear, but soon everyone would know: “No one who drinks from this fountain will ever leave.” And then, kneeling, tilting his head slowly, bringing his lips closer to the spout, drinking the cold water. If we should believe the stories of the guides of the Providence Ghost Tour, Poe still hasn’t left.
I kneeled beside the fountain and ran my finger along the stone basin. It was dry. My friend, who had just heard the story of the curse, mimicked the teller’s teeth chattering and said, “Let’s go. I’m cold.” My finger traced another pattern in the basin. “Tushar, there’s no water there,” he said. He kicked a pebble towards me. As I slowly got back on my feet, I saw in the distance Carrie Tower and the green rusted hands of its clock, not moving. And I knew why I had come: I too was on the run, from time’s scythe.
“Poe died a year after he left Providence.” The librarian looked at the painting again. I followed her gaze: the wild hair, the set-apart eyes, the drooping moustache, an unmistakable air of sadness. “He didn’t lead a very good life,” the librarian said and then began to recite a series of Poe’s misfortunes. I stopped taking notes. This was not a happy ending—and I’m not good with the other kind.
The ungraspable thoughts started on a Friday night. I was standing outside 315 Thayer, a large Gothic house that Brown renovated into several small dorm rooms, waiting for my friend Mario to open the door. Every Friday at 10 p.m. we’d watch an episode of “Hannibal,” and since he was the one with Netflix and a big TV, I was the one outside in the cold. I rubbed my hands together and sent him another text—“Hurry up or you won’t need a show about murders.” And then another—“There’ll be a corpse at your doorstep.” And the last, my fingers too cold to type, a primal plea—“Mario!” There was no response so I sat down on a bench next to the house, facing the street, and burrowed my hands in my jacket pockets. A few cars passed by. A herd of freshmen, headed for a party. Then, for a while, no one. I checked my phone again for a response. There was none. When I looked up I saw a girl in a dark jacket crossing the road, her face hidden under her jacket collar, only the tip of her nose visible. She looked familiar and I looked closer and immediately regretted it—C, a girl I used to like. As she neared my bench, I considered jumping into a nearby bush, but it looked thick and prickly. I imagined getting stuck in it and the Providence Fire department having to rescue me: a fireman human-chain pulling hard to dislodge me. While I was letting my “I dare not” wait upon my “I would”, she walked by without recognizing me. As I watched her go, black lines passed in front of my eyes. Some came closer and touched, others went apart, separated. I remembered the choices I had made—leaving Delhi and the shade of the banyan trees, sitting at a different table than my freshman friends in the Ratty, unpinning a hand-drawn birthday card from my wall—saw each fracture the lines into many. And sitting on the iron bench in the moonlight, I felt something very close, something infinite, something almost found, and when I suddenly turned—at the metallic click of the door unlocking—I thought I heard the crumbling of other worlds.
A mother. A father. A brother. I am in the Rare Books Room of the Athenaeum, standing in front an exhibition called “Poe & Providence,” making an inventory of all the things that time took. His money (lost gambling), his furniture (burnt to keep away the cold), his fiancee (engaged to another), his foster mother (taken by an incurable disease), his wife (taken by the same disease). I pause to think of the rest of the list. I see the librarian, dressed in black, and remember the end of the story: “When Poe died, Rufus Griswold appointed himself as Poe’s literary executor. Griswold, who hated Poe, wrote a memoir in which he depicted Poe as a madman who wandered the streets, muttered to himself, and was addicted to alcohol and drugs. Sadly many people still think of Poe that way.” I dig my nails into my palm and complete the list: A reputation. A life’s work. A life.
Since my tour of the Athenaeum, I return there most nights. I find a desk between the books, place my taped-up laptop in the center, disable the internet, and write. I write with my sleeves rolled up—not tidily, but unevenly with crooked creases that would make my mother frown. If someone were to see me writing—with my untidy sleeves—they would probably think I was in a hurry, or running to meet a deadline before the library closes. But I am not. I can still sense the passing of time, and hear, whenever I pass Carrie Tower or the Athenaeum fountain, the quiet whispers of the invisible stream, but there is something else now—the memory of a glass wall reflecting light and the presence, almost imperceptible, of an oar.
For all that time took, did it give anything in return? I say the question aloud, but no one hears me: The Rare Books Room is full of people talking and laughing and examining, well, rarities. I am distracted and wandering around aimlessly when the exhibit lights reflect off the glass wall and a drawing on display catches my eye. I step closer, say, “Excuse me,” to a hand-holding couple, wait for them to disentangle, and slip past until I am in front of the lit glass cage.
Inside, a letter Sarah Helen Whitman wrote to Stéphane Mallarmé, in beautiful long flowing cursive—“After Poe’s death and Griswold’s memoir, Whitman began to write in support of Poe and his legacy,” a smile stretches the librarian’s paper-skin, “And this is where it becomes a true love story for me. She found allies: exchanged letters with Mallarmé and John Henry Ingram. She published a book to refute the criticism of Griswold. Sarah Helen Whitman made sure that Poe’s legacy was not forgotten.”
The first page of the first publication of “The Raven”—
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this, and nothing more.”
Inside, the drawing of a raven by Manet, a friend of Poe, for the cover of Mallarmé’s French translation of “The Raven”—hundreds of dark black strokes, the soft feathers of the bird animated, almost alive.
Inside, the only gifts of time.
And standing in the middle of a swirling crowd, I lean my head forward till it touches the cool glass, and I stare and stare and stare.