Exhibition Catalog Introduction
A first edition of Poe's first published work, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Published anonymously, Poe paid to have Tamerlane privately printed in 1827. The Tane copy is one of 12 known surviving copies worldwide, and of those, one of two that is privately owned.
Then there was me: a collector at heart of anything I could get my hands on, from postcards and matchbooks and swizzle sticks in childhood, to art and antiques as an adult.
But I might never have thought to combine these passions, if not for a chance encounter at the New York Antiques Show in 1987, when I stumbled across the booth of a rare book dealer who had for sale a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and Other Poems.
Poe had always been a favorite of mine, going back to my school days, when “The Raven” had elevated the onerous task of rote poetry memorization to a transcendent joy. The idea of owning an original printing of the masterpiece had never even occurred to me before, but once I saw it in the case, I knew I had to have it.
This coffin fragment was obtained when Poe's body was relocated from the Poe family plot to a new marble monument in the burial yard of Westminster Hall in Baltimore. It is framed with along with a picture of Poe and a note by the author that acknowledges the receipt of five dollars from the Southern Literary Messenger, the Richmond literary magazine Poe edited in the 1830s.
That was the day I became a collector.
Ever a compulsive buyer, I could not let this book stand alone on the shelf. I wandered through little bookstores in Massachusetts, fairs in Connecticut, antique shows in New York, and big barns in Maine looking for more. I built around it, thinking I was well on my way to a great collection.
But even though I quickly became much more knowledgeable about Poe, I still didn’t know the particulars of collecting—I was buying books in poor condition, and second, third, or even fourth editions. Then there was all the secondary material. All told, it was a process that had been fun, interesting, and certainly educational, but not one that had created the sort of unique assemblage of Poe books of which I had been dreaming. In fact, from the point of view of collectors, it was totally worthless. Even though I enjoyed them, I could hardly expect these books to sit alongside that wonderful copy of The Raven and Other Poems.
With the guidance of my friend and fellow Poe enthusiast, Stephan Loewentheil of The 19th Century Shop, I composed a list of the important books and gave myself 20 years to acquire them. Always the overachiever, I did it in 19. It was not easy at first. Then, in 1991, Sotheby’s announced the sale of the Richard Manney Collection, which contained several Poe letters and a copy of Tamerlane. While looking over the letters and the book at the auction house, I met Jay Dillon, the head of their rare book and manuscript department. I badgered him for days and finally asked him point-blank which he would buy, given the choice. He told me that there was no question: it would be the Tamerlane. I took his advice, and I am glad I did, even though in the excitement of the bidding I went far higher than I had originally planned. It would be an understatement to say I have no regrets. There are only 12 copies of the book in the world, and to see one being sold more than once in a generation is extremely rare—and now that just mine and one other are left in private hands, it is certain to become even rarer.
An original manuscript of “To Zante.” This 14-line sonnet, part of a letter from Poe to Richard Stoddard, is about Poe’s first love and eventual bride-to-be Elmira Royster, a great source of inspiration for the author.
The same thing happened with “The Raven.” In addition to my copy in wrappers that had been the catalyst for the entire collection, I was able to find the first printing of the celebrated title poem in the Wakeman set of the American Review under Poe’s “Quarles” pseudonym. Then there is the printing of the poem in the Weekly Mirror from February 8, 1845, its first book printing in Vandenhoff ’s Plain System of Elocution, early criticism of it, and a contemporary parody called “The Owl” that appeared in The New York Mirror just weeks after Poe published the poem.
This is how a collection grows. It is an organic process, and one that becomes dearer and more intense with every new item and every new pathway it allows me to travel.
My library today brings me endless joy, from these centerpiece books to my favorite item, Poe’s 1839 letter to Washington Irving asking him for a short word of praise to include with Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. “An act of little moment in respect to yourself—will be life itself to me,” Poe wrote, trying to persuade the man who preceded him as the preeminent force in American horror to help. To be able to fill a room with items like these and the rest in this catalog has been an experience like no other.
Sharing these items along the way has enhanced and magnified this joy. Pieces from the collection have headlined exhibitions at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, at Carolinium’s Prague International in the Czech Republic, and at Cornell University. It has been wonderful to watch others fall in love with these books and papers, and more importantly, to fall in love with Poe through them.
This catalog represents hard work, and special thanks are due to Stephan Loewentheil, Richard Kopley, Jeffrey Savoye and the Edgar Allan Poe Society, Richard Dovere, Isaac Dovere, Katherine Reagan, my daughter Sharon O’Shea, and the rest of my family and friends who heard me moan through the entire process.
S. J. T.