Text: Lawrence C. Wroth, “Poe's Baltimore,” Johns Hopkins Alumni Magazine, June 1929, 17:299-312


­ [page 299, unnumbered:]


Librarian, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University

IT IS likely that I am only one of many who have sometimes thought of Edgar Poe as an isolated figure standing sharply detached from the life of a materialistic age, who have exclaimed at the phenomenon of artistic genius making itself suddenly apparent in a country and period given wholly to traffic with Commodity, the ‘bias of the world.’ For my part I have recanted this belief. The wonder of Poe is, indeed, not to be gainsaid, but it is not the wonder of his appearance in that particular place and time that arrests our attention, but a greater and more universal phenomenon, the ancient miracle of genius itself, that owns no country, no father, and no mother but springs straight from God, Who looses the winds and upgathers them at His whim. We are no nearer than ever to an understanding of genius, but at least we have ceased to think of it as the mechanical product of race, milieu et moment. The phenomenon transcends these; it is something out of time and space, but nevertheless it is profitable to study it in relation to the conditions of life amid which it has its being. For if race, physical and historical circumstances, and position in time no longer have credit as determining factors in the creation of a man of genius, they still are esteemed as providing the background against which his figure shows and upon which ­[page 300:] his height and breadth must be measured before he is put into comparison with the governor spirits of the ages.

Poe’s literary life, roughly the years 1820 to 1850, fell into one of those middle periods that, coming between great events, are liable to neglect in the study of a country’s literature, as indeed in the study of its social and political tendencies. Nothing can be less true as a rule than to think of such periods as spiritual doldrums; their peace is not the peace of inanition, but the peace of incubation. The War of the Revolution, the second War with England, the Civil War, have significance in our history only as the physical expression of ideas and principles formed in the brooding quiet of decades peaceful and almost unmarked by notable event. When we examine closely this first half of the nineteenth century, we find it fecund in ideas, big with activity. Great men were learning their letters, the far West was opening, cities were growing, trade was bringing Europe, Asia, and Africa close to America, wealth was accumulating, and the railroad, the steamship, and the electric telegraph were changing the characteristics of an earlier civilization. It is hardly too much to say, allowing for scale, that here was such a burgeoning in the material life of a nation as that which foreran and accompanied the Renaissance in Europe and the Elizabethan age in England. In such circumstances, art breathes deeply; it needs the hurlyburly of a busy, prosperous, hopeful world for its fruition. The full flowering of this renaissance in America was hindered by the Abolition Movement and by the succession of Evangelical Revivals of the first half of the century; it was further retarded by the oncoming and the prosecution of the Civil War. When men become too intensely concerned with social reformation and with the salvation of their individual souls, they make history but they create the minimum of art. When they indulge the passion of war, they leave little room for artistic experience. The American Renaissance of the 30’s and 40’s showed Poe and Emerson as its evangelists and itself became a fact in history. ­[page 301:]

To exhibit the whole of Poe’s background would make it necessary to travel back and forth between Boston and Richmond, overlooking few of the cities between, for the purpose of recording facts and of interpreting tendencies. This would be too great a matter for the compass of an address, but it is possible to choose one of the cities associated in our thoughts with the poet and, through a scrutiny of its life and people, secure a reasonably exact projection of the entire scene. It is not only the force of the present circumstances that leads me to the choice of Baltimore as the typical city of Poe’s background, but a fitness that may not be denied, for with Baltimore Poe was associated by ancestral and family ties, within it he first saw the smile of encouragement, and it was there that he formed the most enduring of his friendships and the most intimate of his personal relations.

In the year 1833, the medial year of Poe’s residence in Baltimore, the place was described by one of its French inhabitants as “conspicuous as well for the rapidity of its growth, as for its present splendour and prosperity.” The town was divided into Fell’s Point, Old Town, and the City proper, and the last named of these sections was said to be ornamented by many splendid private buildings and magnificent public edifices. Canton was beginning development, the Washington monument stood in a northern suburb, and the “promenade ground” given the people by Mr. William Patterson was esteemed of little public benefit because of its remote situation. It is necessary, of course, to discount the exuberant adjectives employed by the citizens in praising the town’s architectural grandeur, but we have certain knowledge none the less that the little city of 80,000 inhabitants, built well and comfortably almost entirely of red brick, even as in times well remembered by most of us, presented a cheerful aspect and a famous hospitality to the traveller who approached it by land or by water. It was proud of its monuments, proud of its commerce, and proud that it had successfully withstood an attack by land and a bombardment ­[page 302:] by water. In physical appearance and in other features, it presented an example of that overlapping of the centuries that gives interest to the period everywhere. One recognizes the new era in regarding its steamboats and its two railroads, its gas factory and the eleven miles of piping already laid, but the eighteenth century rises before us when we find in its list of city officials a Keeper of Public Fountains, a Superintendent of Chimney Sweeps, a Keeper of the Magazine, and three Justices of the Night Watch. Only a dozen or so years earlier two highwaymen, suspected of murder, had been put to the ordeal by blood in the City Jail, and in the year 1832 more than half the prisoners in that jail were insolvent debtors.

The City Hall at this period was the ancient building still with us as the City Hall Annex, first built to house Peale’s Museum. Fort McHenry guarded the city it had saved from the British fleet twenty years before. The Court House was an imposing structure of red brick and marble pilasters standing on part of the site of the present building. The University of Maryland with its faculties of medicine, divinity, law, and arts had just moved into the classical temple at Lombard and Greene Streets that still forms an architectural ornament of the city. St. Mary’s College on Pennsylvania Avenue had been educating youth for a generation, and at this time it was boasting the possession of a new Gothic chapel. The McKim Free School on East Baltimore Street was being erected, and in all parts of the city stood public schools, charitable free schools, lyceums, colleges, and academies in creditable number. The Maryland Academy of Science had newly come into being with Robert Gilmor as its president, and the Maryland Institute of Mechanic Arts had begun the useful work it has carried on for more than a century.

The city did not lack in means of relaxation or of intellectual improvement. The Baltimore Library Company with its ten thousand volumes, and the circulating libraries of Joseph Robinson and others cared for the needs of readers. ­[page 303:] The Athenaeum offered lecture rooms and a stately saloon for concerts and public meetings. The Holliday Street Theatre, not yet become the home of a glorious melodrama (ah! those unregenerate days of thirty years ago), had been newly erected from the plans of Robert Carey Long. The theatre attached to the Museum, the Circus in Old Town, and the Adelphi in the “Meadow,” made up a group of four playhouses in the city where were seen occasionally the great actors of this country and of England, and where nightly the roofs were lifted by the vigorous elocution of Junius Brutus Booth, whose opponents in mimic sword play had often to look to themselves in good earnest. Peale’s Museum, become the Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Paintings, had stood for two years at Baltimore and Calvert Streets, where it attained respect in the mind of one writer, at least, as “a grand repository of the sublime works of nature, and of the feeble imitations thereof by man.” Of the forty-eight churches of the city, the Cathedral, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, St. Paul’s by Robert Carey Long, and the Unitarian Church at Charles and Franklin Streets by Maximilian Godefroy, seem especially to have won admiration for architectural distinction. Under the great dome of the Exchange the merchants of the city gathered daily for business, and in its reading room were to be found ship captains and ship owners and gentlemen of the army and navy. Signal towers on Bodkin Point and Federal Hill communicated to the Exchange the sighting of incoming ships still forty miles from the city. The new Water Company had already laid some sixteen miles of pipe, and it was conceded by the critical citizenry that the Gas Company had kept its promise of providing illumination for houses and streets.

There were in existence other buildings and institutions familiar enough today. The Marsh Market, the Lexington and the Belair Markets were in operation, and the distant Richmond Market had been proposed. Five public fountains, with domed and columned pump rooms, standing ­[page 304:] in park-like squares, formed a gracious and decorative feature of the busy town. The Battle Monument, designed by Max Godefroy, with its sculptured decoration by Capellano, stood in a pretty, tree-lined space, and the Washington Monument, designed by Robert Mills, dominated the city from a grove of oaks on a rural northern hill. By horse and locomotive one might travel as far as Point of Rocks on the five year old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Susquehanna Railroad drew its carriages by a “very efficient imported locomotive steam engine” as far as Owings Mills, where passengers for Westminster and beyond were picked up by a stage. The city was still the center of radiating turnpikes over which stages ran in convenient number. The Indian Queen and the Fountain Inn were the chief hotels, and just as the mode of transportation by coach is to us a reminder of an earlier age, so too are the names of the inns that offered bed and board to travellers — The Three Tuns, The May Pole, The Golden Horse, The Cross Keys, and The Rising Sun — relics of an earlier century and echoes of a more picturesque way of speech. The Phoenix Shot Tower and a lesser one in Gay Street provided monumental landmarks and performed their useful commercial function. Baltimore clippers lay at the docks telling the story of a commerce with China begun some forty years earlier, and the great trade with South America that lasted into our own day was already a commonplace of the city’s commercial life.

To us who have Baltimore in the blood it is always happiness to go back to these days when, its hobbledehoy age forgot, the city had entered upon the serious bustle of youth’s business. This satisfaction has only a secondary place, however, in the lightly drawn sketch of “Baltimore Town” presented here. It is the people moving against this backdrop who form our real interest, and we can do no better than speak for a moment of those already mentioned in connection with the buildings and the institutions that form the picture. Robert Carey Long was an architect of ­[page 305:] local fame who had the happiness of adorning his city with several of its finer buildings. Max Godefroy, the designer of the Battle Monument, was a French emigré of the Revolution who was responsible also for the Gothic chapel of St. Mary’s College and for the Unitarian Church. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, artist and man of action, skilled in letters and in science, designed the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the South wing of the Capitol in Washington, and the Cathedral in Baltimore. Unrestricted by the modern conception of an architect as the designer of buildings, he built canals and water systems and planned great engineering works in these cities and in Richmond, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. Robert Mills, Latrobe’s pupil, left the impression of his fertile and vital genius on several American cities. It is said that the vaulted ceiling and the arches of his Bank of Philadelphia marked the first introduction of the Gothic principle into the United States. He designed the Schuylkill Bridge, the Court House in Richmond, the Washington Monument in Baltimore, and the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston. He studied the problems of acoustics in auditoriums and practised the fire-proofing of public buildings. He too built canals and wrote pamphlets on their economic importance. Excelling in the quality and in the variety of his undertakings, Mills stands with Latrobe and with Bullfinch of Boston in the tradition of the great builders of the European Renaissance. Rembrandt Peale, who established Peale’s Museum, remains a figure of importance in the history of American art. The elder Booth is still sometimes called the greatest of American tragedians.

In and about the institutions mentioned — the Exchange, the Library Company, the Athenaeum, the University, the Academy of Science, the theatres, and the churches — are passing these and others who formed part of the city that Poe knew when he came to Baltimore in 1831. Only three years earlier Edward Coote Pinkney had died, and for Poe certainly the shade of this romantic youth must ­[page 306:] still have frequented the scene of his graceful gesture toward immortality. Francis Scott Key was seen there now and then. John Pendleton Kennedy, known as a leader at the bar and about to publish his Swallow Barn, was very much part of the life of the town. Robert Gilmor, perhaps the first collector in the grand manner to grace American life, was filling his mansion with the paintings of the old and new masters. Wyatt, Henshaw, and Nevins were clergymen of more than local repute, and Potter, Hall, and Nathan R. Smith were acknowledged leaders in American medicine. The voices of the giants were for the moment silent in the courts — Luther Martin, the Federal Bull Dog, was dead, and Randolph of Roanoke’s mournful hyperbole on the death of William Pinkney was still echoing in men’s memories. Reverdy Johnson was practising, however, and Taney, just appointed attorney general of the United States, had taken his learning, his cogency, and his “infernal apostolic manner” to the greater forum of the capital; soon would be heard in the courts the fire and the fierce wit of Severn Teackle Wallis. In the world of business Johns Hopkins was selling groceries at wholesale and buying stock in the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; and Enoch Pratt, just come to the city, had not yet emerged into prominence.

I shall have fallen short of my purpose if I have not already made clear by implication another motive for this reconstruction of the Baltimore of a century ago, if I have not given the feeling of its material prosperity, its vigor and well-founded strength. Its social life, that of a merchant class intermarried with a landholding gentry, was graceful enough, even though the actors in it were described by an unkind Philadelphia contemporary as forming an aristocracy of counter-jumpers, but the impressive thing about the town was the vitality of its life in each of its varied interests. Ships were sailing from Bowly’s wharf for Canton, Buenos Aires, Liverpool, and Marseilles; buildings with definite pretensions to nobility were showing freshly raised façades, monuments and monumental sculptures were being erected, ­[page 307:] and the city was extending its bounds in every direction. All about was growth; men breathed the air of accomplishment, drank the wine of visions, ate the food of rewarded effort, and it is upon this thin, insidious air, this enlivening wine, this substantial food, that Art is best nourished. She is a full-bodied lady who becomes anemic in the midst of poverty, hopelessness, and frustration.

With painters flourishing, sculptors finding public and private employment, architects achieving noble memorials of their skill, and actors establishing a great tradition, it would be strange to find that writing men were lacking in this heyday of the little city’s life. There were, in fact, many of them busy at the cultivation of their respectable muse, but neither in Baltimore nor elsewhere in the country, except in the fields of politics and divinity, had the native writers taken rank with the architects and painters and actors. The poets and prose writers of Baltimore were not in the class of Latrobe and Mills or of the actor Booth, nor were they even to be compared with the painters who were steadily employed at the workaday business of covering the walls of the city’s residences with portraits and miniatures of the worthy merchants and their ladies. The architects, the actors, the painters were professionals: excellence in achievement meant bread in their mouths and broadcloth for their backs. The writers were either journalists giving spare time to polite letters, or amateurs dabbling at an art that requires for notable achievement a rigid discipline of mind and body. But in spite of this condition there was much activity among Baltimore writing men in the thirties and forties. In these decades twelve or more literary journals offered hospitality to the writings of the ambitious intellectuals of the day, and though these periodicals were always dying from lack of subscribers, it was not often that one of them was forced to suspend publication because of a lack of contributions in the form of essays, stories, or poems. Among the editors of these journals — of The American Museum, The Baltimore Athenaeum, The Baltimore Literary Monument, Niles’ Weekly ­[page 308:] Register, The Saturday Morning Visitor, to name only a few — were several men whose editorial accomplishment was of excellent quality. Brooks, Hewitt, McJilton, George Henry Calvert, Rufus Dawes, and Hezekiah Niles were men who have remained in memory as editors and translators, or as thoughtful writers deserving of more than is allowed them here in the way of praise. The work of Joseph Robinson, the publisher, must some day be studied by a bibliographer, for a complete list of the issues of his press for a period of fifty years, telling a story of encouragement to poets, essayists, and editors, will show an enrichment of the life of the community hardly exceeded in importance by that of any other individual of his day.

There is no need to call the complete roll of a group that, whatever its lack of effectiveness, was at least united in its reverence for the art it attempted to practise and is therefore permanently sure of respect from its successors in the same endeavor. It is a satisfaction, however, to recall for a moment two of this group who came close to attaining the first rank in American letters, even though Pinkney the poet gave too largely of his small strength to other things, and Kennedy the novelist gave of his energy to business, politics, law, and society and saved for letters only what could be spared from these exacting activities.

Edward Coote Pinkney was the son of the great William Pinkney, “the boast of Maryland and the pride of the United States.” After a restless and unsatisfying career in the Navy of his country, he returned in 1822 to Baltimore where he engaged successively in the law and in journalism. His strength lay in neither of these employments; it is neither as lawyer nor as editor that one conceives him. It is as the very type of the poet that we think of this romantic, handsome boy, with his ardor, his tenderness, and his easy sureness in the making of verse. It is not wise to say that with longer life, his would have become one of the great voices in poetry. We suggest too often that untowardness of fate in the case of poets dead in youth; to say this or something ­[page 309:] like it has become the conventional, mournful tribute we pay to the singer who dies with his first songs in his throat; it is another of the vain oblations life offers to the hard fact of death. Pinkney wrote enough before his death at the age of twenty-six to reveal the quality of his spirit, and I do not find in his poems that intensity of feeling which cuts like a sword into the customary indifference of men, nor, though the least of his lines breathes distinction, do I find in them that inevitability of thought and finality of diction which some one has pointed to as characteristic of great verse. But there are other qualities in Pinkney’s writing that demand respect and affection for its author. I love him for giving gem-like form to those warm, exultant, voiceless songs that sing themselves silently in the hearts of all lovers. He sang exquisitely of simple love, of every man’s love with its exaltation and its pain.

In considering the fame of Pinkney, it is important to comment first upon certain qualities lacking from his work that pleasantly set it apart from the productions of his contemporaries and predecessors, upon the absence from his poems of stilted language, of strained conceits, of artificial emotion and conventional imagery, but especially upon its freedom from moral preoccupation. His were the songs that come quick from the tongue at the touch of love and beauty upon the heart; they had no purpose, no reason for being, except that they would not be denied existence. Warm, intimate, and lively, unvexed in thought, simple in diction, they were made to be sung and, set to music, they have been sung for a century. Poe’s praise of their sincerity and their distinction was almost the first to come from a critic of insight, but since Poe’s time many have felt the same qualities in Pinkney’s song. The work of his recent editors, Mabbott and Pleadwell, has made it unlikely that he will again be overpassed with a few condescending words by the historian of American letters.

If it is doubtful what Pinkney may have become with longer life, it is not at all doubtful that he stands as the ­[page 310:] earliest of our native writers to strike the high lyric note in poetry. It is a lamentable and dull fashion to speak of this belated Caroline poet, this singing Cavalier, as the best of our southern poets before Poe, for it is Pinkney’s significance that he was not especially a southern poet, nor even an American poet, but simply that he was a poet. I look in vain, South or North, for a writer of verse of equal quality before the appearance of his small book of Poems in 1825. More prolific writers existed on all sides; Bryant, his contemporary, was more prolific and more profound, but Bryant nor Drake nor Halleek, it seems to me, was his equal in pure lyricism. None of his own day nor of the time before gave as greatly to American verse as this lad who proclaimed by example that the stuff of poetry is not sentimental musing, not philosophical refection, but first and always the ecstasy of the spirit.

In this selective mention of the writers who were of Poe’s time in Baltimore, I pass now to remark upon John Pendleton Kennedy, who almost alone of the prose writers of the place and day remains in memory because of literary merit. His patronage of Poe, I use the word in its finest sense, is so well known to those familiar with the poet’s life that I need only comment upon the entire selflessness, the big-brother friendliness, so truly practical in quality and so happy in results, that was its outstanding feature. It was in Baltimore that Poe found himself, and it was Kennedy who showed him the way to discovery. In 1832, appeared Swallow Barn, that charming picture of plantation life in which Kennedy brought the South into consideration as material for literature. If Swallow Barn was the first book to deal thus with the South, it was also one of the two or three earliest books in which an American writer became conscious of his locale as the scene of romantic interest. A graceful, urbane, and not too solemn piece of writing, it furnishes a picture of Virginia plantation life done with the sincerity of observation that characterizes the sketches of George Worth Bagby, and characterizes, by its absence, so many later ­[page 311:] portrayals by writers suffering from the delusion of ancestral grandeur. In his historical novels, Horseshoe Robinson and Rob of the Bowl, Kennedy may not have found himself as completely at home as Stevenson in the “small clothes of his ancestors,” but he was none the less sympathetically aware of the cut and color of their costume and alive to the picturesqueness of their speech and customs. In them he showed himself skillful in characterization and in the construction of strong, well-articulated plots with leisurely dénouements. If he failed to create novels of enduring vitality, it was because he was first, last, and always the great gentleman in literature. His amateurism was not amateurism of the intellect, for he brought to his task every element of sympathy, of knowledge, and of skill in composition. Rather was it a deeper weakness: with all his gifts he never let himself go either in the criticism or in the praise of life. He remained as he had begun, the great gentleman playing at letters. One has the feeling that if he had loosened his stock when he sat down to write his tales and sketches, the story of his efforts had been longer and its clamor more resounding.

It is agreeable to us who have known of Kennedy always as one of the great political and social figures of his time — Secretary of the Navy, friend of Irving, associate of Thackeray — and who have read with appreciation his stories, and respected his essays and his popular biography of Wirt, to discover that a high place among his contemporaries is being allowed him after many years of neglect. The conclusion of a critical chapter on his life and writings in Vernon Parrington’s Romantic Revolution in America assures us that “Few Americans of his day were so generously gifted; none possessed a lighter touch. He has been somewhat carelessly forgotten even by our literary historians who can plead no excuse for so grave a blunder.”

The purpose of these reflections upon the city in which Edgar Poe spent four years important in the directing of his genius has been to suggest that in the things that give comfort to art, the American background of the 20’s and ­[page 312:] 30’s was not quite so drab, not quite so sterile, as is sometimes thought. Architecture, the graphic arts, and the representation of the drama were flourishing, science was feeling its way. The art of poetry was respected even if not generally understood, and many men were at work trying to adapt the classic mode of the eighteenth century to the requirements of a new age. Its indispensable tenet that, springing from the wonder, the joy, and the pain of life, it needs no excuse for being, was beginning to be accepted by thinking people. The workshop was in order for the coming of the man of genius, of the being who seizes upon emotion, thought, and sensation and by the violence of the life within him, by the very vehemency of his spirit forges them into immutable shapes of beauty.



This lecture was delivered by Mr. Lawrence Counselman Wroth (1884-1970) at the Seventh Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society on January 19, 1929. The program was held in the Westminster Church. Mr. Wroth was a librarian and historian, and the author of hundreds of books and articles. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1905. He is perhaps best remembered for his book on The Colonial Printer (New York: The Grolier Club, 1931), which is still considered an important study on the subject and has been reprinted several times.


[S:1 - PBLCW, 1929] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe's Baltimore (L. C. Wroth, 1929)