On Poe’s 215th Birthday, UVA Special Collections Preserves His Spirit

January 18, 2024 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

Once upon a midnight dreary, while Edgar Allan Poe pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore in his room on the Range, did he foresee his future standing in literature?

Poe, who turns 215 on Friday, was the first of many literary luminaries to attend the University of Virginia. He is remembered in many ways on Grounds: the Raven Society is named after one of his most enduring poems, his bust resides in Alderman Library, the room at No. 13 West Range is preserved in his honor, and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library holds a collection of his published works, original letters and student records. Among items preserved in the University archives, a library ledger shows the books he checked out and some of the library fines he incurred.

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Yuki Hibben, an associate librarian and curator of print culture at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, oversees the library’s Poe collection. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“If you’re doing research or have an interest in the author, there are all sorts of fascinating materials in Special Collections available for your use,” Yuki Hibben, associate librarian and curator of print culture, said. “The collection of published books and serials related to Poe is substantial. In addition to rare first editions, published during Poe’s lifetime, there are hundreds of subsequent editions, biographies and works of literary criticism that span to the present. There are even modern adaptations in the form of comics and miniature books.

“In terms of manuscripts, we have a small number of letters written and signed by Poe, but unique items are exceedingly rare and provide valuable insights into his life and work. UVA’s collection is really excellent.”

The earliest published books include “Poems” (1831); “Tales” (1845), which is a significant copy because it retains the publisher’s fragile original wrapper; and two first edition copies of the “Raven and Other Poems” (1845).

The library also has two copies of the of “The Conchologist’s First Book” (1839), an illustrated textbook and survey about shells.

“Poe worked on a conchology book, a beautiful little book about shells for which he let the publisher use his name, basically for the money,” Hibben said. “He may have written the introduction and some of the text but a naturalist wrote the book. It has colorful chromolithographic images of over 200 types of shells. We have two copies, and they are quite unique.”

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The library also has Poe volumes translated into other languages.

“We have several copies of ‘Le Corbeau, the Raven: Poëme,’ translated into French by the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé and illustrated by the modernist painter Édouard Manet,” Hibben said. “We have one copy that is signed by Mallarmé and Manet, which is pretty fantastic.”

Original Poe text

The University’s Poe Collection contains first editions of Poe’s publications. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The University archives preserve some evidence of Poe’s time at UVA, but not a lot, since he withdrew after only one year because of his financial situation, Hibben said. In addition to the library ledger, a matriculation book from 1826 documents Poe’s enrollment.

What is in his handwriting are letters he wrote trying to sell his work. 

“The letters to publishers are really interesting,” Hibben said. “He writes to try to sell an article or some other piece of writing, mentioning that he is desperately in need of money.”

The library collection also contains papers of John Henry Ingram, an English biographer and editor with a special interest in Poe. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Some of those sales efforts were successful, and the library has a collection of magazines carrying Poe’s works. Included in that periodical collection is a copy of Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the most widely circulated American magazines before the Civil War, which carried Poe’s “A Tale of Ragged Mountains.”

“As far as I know, ‘Tale of the Ragged Mountains’ is the only story with a Charlottesville setting,” said Poe expert Emily Ogden, a UVA associate professor of English. “And its setting is incidental. For purposes of the story, Poe needed a forest – but there’s no reason it couldn’t have been another forest. Poe was here very briefly, but I’m sure his education did have an impact on his life.”

The library also holds John Henry Ingram’s papers. Ingram was an English biographer and editor with a special interest in Poe. 

The collection has several examples of Poe’s signature. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“Ingram studied Poe, and there was a biography written about Poe by Rufus W. Griswold in 1850 that criticized his character and writing, and Ingram tried to counter that and rescue Poe’s reputation,” Hibben said. “He was born a generation after Poe, but Ingram was able to interview people who knew Poe and worked with him directly. There are letters and other documents from these people in his papers, and he’s an important early scholar of Poe and his papers provide a valuable resource for researchers.”

Poe still draws much interest, both within academia and in the general population. Netflix is offering “The Pale Blue Eye,” a fictional account of Poe as a detective, and the miniseries “The Fall of the House of Usher,” adapted from a Poe story.

“In addition to individual researchers, we have quite a few classes that come in” to Special Collections, Hibben said. “We have an instruction librarian who specializes in teaching with our materials because we serve several thousand students each year. So, our faculty are also really engaged with Special Collections.”

While Poe is a cornerstone of American literature, his material is hard to collect, because of his limited success within his own short lifetime. 

Many of Poe’s letters were written to publishers trying to sell his work. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“He was only at UVA a year and only lived until age 40,” Hibben said. “He traveled all over during his short life. He lived in Baltimore, Boston, Virginia, New York, and he lived in London as a child. He moved around quite a bit and was in the Army, so his paper trail is quite thin to begin with. Book collections and adaptions are widely available, but his personal papers and unique materials are scattered among a few institutions and private collections. 

“UVA is very fortunate to be able to offer both rare books and unique manuscripts for research, learning and inspiration.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications