The Persistence of Poe
FB&C: At what point in your collecting did you realize that you were going to pursue a serious Poe collection?
Tane: The turning point in my collecting career was in 1991, when I became the successful bidder for Tamerlane and Other Poems at the Richard Manney sale at Sotheby’s. There are twelve copies of Tamerlane known to exist; of those, only two are in private hands as opposed to institutional collections, and only eight have both original wrappers intact. Before this auction, I was more of a dabbler than a collector: I had some fine pieces, but nothing that another collector couldn’t easily duplicate. Before the Tamerlane auction, I drove my collection; afterwards, it drove me.
FB&C: What is your most cherished object related to Poe?
Tane: My most cherished object is the engagement ring with which Poe proposed to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster. The two had been young sweethearts during Poe’s early years in Richmond, but her father disapproved of their relationship, and they lost touch when he went to the University of Virginia in 1826. Over twenty years later, quite by chance, the two reconnected when Poe was visiting Richmond. Royster’s husband had died, just as Poe’s young bride Virginia had. The two rekindled their relationship, and in August 1849 Poe proposed to her. He left Richmond, planning to take care of some business in New York before returning to Richmond to marry. He never finished the journey: It was during this trip that Poe died in Baltimore.
My most cherished letter by Poe is one written January 25, 1845 in reply to a note he received from a young farmer from Massachusetts named A.M. Ide. Poe’s response includes detailed constructive criticism of a poem Ide had sent, as Poe demonstrates his famed skills in literary criticism, but it also has praise for the very effort of the poem, showing Poe supporting the attempts of a younger writer—something he is not known to have done often. “I think it a remarkably fine poem. Some of the lines are in all aspects admirable,” he writes, then offers his formula for success in poetry: “Be bold—read much—publish little—keep aloof from the little wits and fear nothing.” It’s a great example of Poe’s warmth as well as his intellect.
My most cherished book is Poe’s own copy of Eureka: A Prose Poem. This is a deeply philosophical work in which Poe describes his philosophy of the universe. Writing it was also an important step in his mourning of Virginia—it was the first long work he completed after her death. In his personal copy, he adds numerous annotations and corrections, including a beautiful paragraph appended to the book’s final page detailing some of Poe’s ideas about the afterlife.
FB&C: What would you like to own that you don’t?
Tane: The manuscript poem “For Annie.” This was a major poem, and one of Poe’s darkest; he wrote it around the time that he attempted suicide by an overdose of laudanum in November 1848. The manuscript was part of William Self’s collection, which was auctioned at Christie’s in 2009. I made a valiant effort at the auction, but ultimately it went to another collector—and set a new record for a nineteenth-century manuscript!
FB&C: How did you set about launching two significant exhibits in New York this year?
Tane: The Morgan Library and Museum’s 2013 exhibit, Terror of the Soul, was a collaboration between the Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, and myself. We drew from all of our collections to show the rarest pieces and Poe’s influence on later authors. It was the first time ever that three copies of Tamerlane (the rarest book in American literature) were ever displayed. It was an excellent exhibit, but I wasn’t its mastermind: co-curators Declan Kiely (of the Morgan) and Isaac Gewirtz (of the NYPL’s Berg Collection) did most of the curatorial heavy lifting. Their exhibit was mostly thematic, focusing on different literary aspects of Poe’s work, and his influence on twentieth-century authors. A big portion of the exhibit was material by other authors who were influenced by Poe, mostly from the wonderful holdings of the Berg Collection.
By contrast, Evermore: The Persistence of Poe is much more “my baby.” Rather than simply loaning a few prized items and high-points, I have used items from my collection to illustrate the entirety of Poe’s life and career—or at least as much of it as will fit in the Grolier’s wonderful gallery space! The narrative thrust of the exhibit is different, taking the viewer from Poe’s ancestors through his career, and into his literary afterlife into the twenty-first century. We’ve focused on Poe himself—his own works as well as adaptations of his work into illustrated editions, music, movies, comics, and all corners of popular culture. (The exhibit’s original title was From Poe to Pop!)
Moreover, this exhibit contains a number of items I’ve acquired only recently, many of which are true prizes of my collection. A wonderfully important and newly discovered letter from Poe to James Russell Lowell concerning “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the only surviving manuscript of the major poem “The Conqueror Worm,” the Poe-Royster engagement ring, and a newly discovered silhouette portrait of Poe made from life are all items that have come to light in the last year or two, and are seen in this exhibit for the first time. There are a few items on display that we also showed at the Morgan—some, like the manuscript tale “Epimanes,” are too important not to show!—but I made an effort to make this show new and different.
FB&C: Why do you think Poe continues to have such a vibrant fan base? What do you think Poe would have thought of his legacy?
Tane: Poe was a trailblazer: he popularized the short story as a literary form, invented the detective story, and wrote landmark works of supernatural and scientific fiction. His tales instill horror and terror in the reader just as powerfully as they did 150 years ago. His poetry is filled with both beauty and clarity that resonates with readers to this day. He was truly ahead of his time, and I think he’d be pleased to know that he finally got the respect and recognition he deserved.