Friend to Cemetery Travel and contributor to Death’s Garden Revisited, Sharon Pajka, PhD, is a professor of English at Gallaudet University and the author of Women Writers Buried in Virginia. On the weekends, you can find her in the cemetery, giving history tours or volunteering and running the website River City Cemetarians.
Sharon has a brand-new book out from The History Press about the graves of people who knew Edgar Allan Poe during his life. I asked her to tell us about it.
Toasting The Souls Close to Edgar Allan Poe
by Sharon Pajka
I have fond memories of visiting cemeteries with my maternal grandfather, a genealogist. I remember him handing me slips of paper with distant family members’ names. I would search to find their graves. Not much has changed since my childhood, except instead of searching for my family members, I now create thematic tours of cemeteries for others and myself.
As a literature professor, I tend to focus on writers. Most recently, I have been searching for graves connected with the author Edgar Allan Poe. For the past few years, I have given an annual tour in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in which I highlight connections between Poe and those interred in the cemetery. The cemetery is 12.7 acres with approximately 30,000 interments. It was much smaller during Poe’s lifetime. He lived with his foster parents in several places in and around Shockoe Hill’s neighborhoods. He visited the cemetery both alone and with his wife to grieve the loss of his foster mother as well as a significant muse. Today, the cemetery includes his foster family, his first and last fiancée, and more friends and acquaintances than any other cemetery. Poe most likely would have been buried in this cemetery if he had not taken that last fateful trip in 1849.
Last year, I expanded my research from Poe’s connections who are buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery to create a grand tour of cemeteries to visit many of the people Poe knew well during his life. Some of the cemeteries I visited were places Poe also visited. Some cemeteries were places where Poe would recognize only the names on the graves; others were places where Poe would both recognize the names and be familiar with the land—although prior to it being established as a burial ground.
There is nothing inherently unique about visiting the graves of individuals whose work was admired during their lifetimes; many bibliophiles make excursions to the graves of their favorite writers. There is something unique about visiting the graves of those who were one degree of separation away from an author. I wanted to meet the people Poe knew when he was alive to have a fuller story of the author based on the people with whom he associated.
I went to cemeteries and visited graves of his mother, wife, foster family, first and last fiancée, bosses, friends, cousins, school peers and instructors. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore lists over 200 correspondents along with “420 surviving letters.” It was not possible for me to visit the graves of everyone Poe knew, at least not in one summer. I conducted research and made several road trips to southern cemeteries, mostly in Virginia and Maryland, along with Washington, D.C., Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia.
I traveled to 19 cemeteries and visited 37 memorials. The names I had read in biographies and museum exhibits were now the names engraved on the tombstones—his birth mother Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, who is buried in Saint John’s Episcopal Churchyard in Richmond, VA; one of the judges for the Baltimore Saturday Visiter literary contest that Poe won and who would later help support Poe financially: John Pendleton Kennedy, who is buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland; southern author and friend, Philip Pendleton Cooke, who is buried in Burwell Cemetery in Millwood, Virginia; the reverend who married Poe to his cousin, Amasa Converse who is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky; William Gilmore Simms, who in Poe’s words was the “best novelist which this country has, upon the whole, produced,” is buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina; and the man who received an urgent message about Poe’s health, Joseph Evans Snodgrass, who is buried in Hedgesville Cemetery in Hedgesville, West Virginia. These were individuals who supported, inspired, and challenged him. There are even a few who attempted to foil his dreams.
Since I was a teen, my father has clipped newspaper articles that he thinks will interest me. Many of the articles that I have kept since the late 1980s are focused on the Poe Toaster, the individual who visited Poe’s grave annually and left tokens at the grave. I have long been enchanted by this shadowy figure’s ritual of visiting Poe’s grave on the author’s birthday for over seven decades. Recently, I have even taken the time to offer my own toasts— although unlike the Toaster, I did not leave roses or cognac.
While standing in each cemetery, I read letters to and from Poe at the graves of those who knew him. It is often too easy to walk through a cemetery admiring the memorials and epitaphs while completely forgetting that these were people with their own interests and stories. I did not want these visits to be solely focused on learning about Poe. I wanted to understand each individual’s life before standing at their stone. They had their own stories, which organically led me to becoming somewhat of The Toaster for each of them. I took a whiff of orris root at the grave of Frances Allan, a perfume Poe’s foster mother was remembered for wearing. I sat by the water near where Susan Ingram gathered with family and friends 173 years ago when Poe read poetry to them. Although we do not have recordings of Poe reading his work, the Poe Museum in Richmond offers several great renditions online, including “Ulalume,” which seemed magical to Ingram.
While I learned much about Poe during this project, I also learned about poets and writers I had not previously studied, including Philip Pendleton Cooke of Winchester, Virginia. Poe delighted in Cooke’s work and valued his opinion, so it was, in fact, Poe who introduced me to Cooke and his beautiful poetry. I read Cooke’s poetry about fall trees at his grave while early spring winds blew pollen around me. I still felt the magic.
Taking this journey — and visiting Poe’s grave numerous times — I was able to learn about him from so many different angles and perspectives. I admire his work ethic and his drive to make a living doing something for which he clearly had a talent. Writing was not pure joy for him. He did not always have an opportunity to advance southern literature or even American literature, frequently churning out popular stories that the newspaper readership demanded.
The amazing part of this project was that I was able to have a deeper connection to Poe’s life, work, literature, and the sacred burial grounds. Visiting the graves transformed me. On August 21, The Souls Close to Edgar Allan Poe will be published by The History Press. I hope that my book encourages readers to make their own connections with cemeteries and to visit some of the graves of Poe’s family, friends, and foes. Maybe you’ll bring your own toast.