Text: Gerald W. Johnson, “A Proud Tower in the Town,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore (1937)


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A Proud Tower in the Town


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When people have talked about a man fairly constantly for a hundred years, there is not much left unsaid about his deeds or his ideas. It is extremely unlikely that anyone can say anything that is both new and important about Edgar Allan Poe as critic, as poet, as story-teller or as man.

Yet there is plenty of reason for such a gathering as this, for a man of genuinely great stature is more than an individual. With the passage of time he becomes a landmark. His relation to his own age may be determined with a certain finality, but his relation to us is constantly changing; and by considering that relation we may learn, not much about him, perhaps, but possibly a good deal about ourselves and our own course. I have nothing to say, I know nothing new, about the relation of Poe to the Baltimore of 1849; to be frank, I am not deeply interested in that relation. I suggest that it may be more profitable to consider the relation of Poe to the Baltimore of 1937; for if this consideration reveals nothing new, it may at least remind us of some old things which we tend to forget and which we ought not to forget.

The relation itself is bound to be a new one, because the Baltimore of 1937 is not the city of 1849. It is not necessary to follow the archaeologists to Olynthus, or Antioch, or Persepolis, to find a city built in layers, each representing a different form of civilization. It is necessary only to dig into the records of Baltimore. We have had here at least three towns, distinctly different in spirit, and largely different even in physical appearance. Twice the course of Baltimore’s history has been interrupted and, I think, sharply diverted by disaster. The first was the Civil War; the second, the great fire of 1904. The city prior to the Civil War was markedly different from the city between 1865 and 1904; and I think the modern city differs from both.

The city in which Poe died was, relatively to the rest of the country, incomparably greater and more important, economically, politically, and socially, than the modern town. In 1849 Baltimore occupied the position that Chicago holds today — that of second city in the United States. The Census of 1850 gave Baltimore a population of 169,000, as against 136,000 for Boston and 121,000 for Philadelphia. New York, with 696,000 was far in advance of everything else, but Baltimore came next by a wide margin.

Politically, the city occupied a curious position. Washington, at the time, was hardly more important than Canberra, Australia, is today. Like Canberra, ­[page 2:] it was an artificial creation, an outgrowth of political, not economic, needs. For many years it remained a singularly ugly and uncomfortable small town, and even as late as 1849 civilized men welcomed every opportunity to escape from it to more congenial surroundings. Baltimore was the logical sanctuary from the hardships of the capital. As the nearest large city it entirely overshadowed Washington and so any political conference involving more than a handful of people was naturally transferred to the Maryland city. All nominating conventions of all parties were held in Baltimore as a matter of course from the time of Andrew Jackson almost to the Civil War. Statesmen of all sections, seeking a few days’ rest from their labors, naturally resorted to Baltimore, rather than make the long and difficult journeys to their homes. Clay, Webster and Calhoun knew the city well. John Randolph of Roanoke was a familiar figure in its streets, although he stoutly refused to trust himself to that new-fangled contraption called the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and in 1833 made the last journey of his life to the city in his carriage.

The city’s own political figures, too, were in many cases of much more than local significance. Taney and McLane, of course, were figures of national prominence, and John P. Kennedy had won nation-wide prominence by his successful battle in behalf of Morse and the electric telegraph. Baltimore was known far and wide as an incubator of statesmen.

But the city’s political influence, great as it was in 1849, was not to be compared to its economic influence. In this respect, Baltimore approached the position held by Venice, Genoa and the Hanseatic cities in earlier centuries. It was the mercantile age. Industrialism had not yet won dominance of the business world and the merchant held the center of the stage as the banker and manufacturer hold it now. The merchants of Baltimore were among the greatest of their time. The clipper ships of this port covered the seven seas and the house flags of great Baltimore firms, Patterson, Oliver, Walters and a score of others were familiar to the waterfronts of Canton and Valparaiso, Bombay and Mozambique, Singapore, Rio, Batavia and Callao. Baltimore traded with every important port in the world. Nor was her influence less potent on this continent. What many had deemed a crazily fantastic experiment, the railroad, had succeeded brilliantly, with the result that Baltimore was able to battle for the trade of the vast West on something like even terms with New York and on far better terms than either Boston or Philadelphia. More than that, though, she had converted into her undisputed domain what had hitherto been the richest and most powerful region of the nation, the South. There Baltimore ruled supreme, except in the area immediately contiguous to New Orleans. Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah were rather her subsidiary ports than independent outlets for the enormous commerce that depended upon cotton. Many of their mercantile houses were financed here, and much of their export business consisted of cotton shipped to England to pay for supplies which the clippers brought from Baltimore.

It was a great, rich and magnificent city, whose social life was not less ­[page 3:] brilliant than its economic success. The hospitality of the city was as famous as its commerce. Its great houses were crowded with famous men and beautiful women, not merely from all sections of the country, but from all the world. No distinguished foreigner dreamed of omitting Baltimore from his tour of the United States, and matrimonial alliances with the nobility of all the countries of Europe were almost commonplace. Indeed, only a generation earlier a lovely daughter of the city had enthralled a king, and although her ambition was defeated in the end, it took the greatest empire in the world to beat Betsy Patterson. Sometimes history does repeat.

This splendid city, financial, commercial and social capital of the South, was the Baltimore that Poe knew in 1849.

But evil things, in robes of sorrow,

Assailed the monarch’s high estate;

(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow

Shall dawn upon him desolate!)

Seventy-five years ago the thunderbolt fell. People rarely stop to think of Baltimore as one of the conspicuous victims of the Civil War. Never captured, never burned, never even bombarded, she seems to have escaped lightly, indeed, by comparison with Atlanta, Richmond and Chambersburg. Hers was the curious but none the less appalling fate of Vienna, the capital with her empire swept away. With the South, her rich satrapy, destroyed, the flood of gold that had been pouring into Baltimore was suddenly cut off; with the sympathies of her people sharply divided, it was replaced by a flood of bitter and paralyzing hate. Not for. many years was the town to be united again. Not for many years were the fortunes of her business men to be repaired and their energies renewed. Baltimore met the fate of soldiers who serve through a great war — she grew suddenly old. The abounding vitality, the gay confidence, the superb energy of youth went out of her. Other cities, less heavily scarred, pushed ahead of her. She swiftly fell to third, to fifth, to seventh, instead of second place, in the country. Instead of the queenly city of her first phase, she became a slow, plodding town, dull and gray.

Yet of the ancient glory, not all was lost. A different city was this Baltimore of 1865, yet it remained true that

Here lived the soul enchanted

By melody of song;

Here dwelt the spirit haunted

By a demoniac throng;

Here sang the lips elated;

Here grief and death were sated;

Here loved and here unmated

Was he, so frail, so strong.

On the ancient city sites where archaeologists dig, most of the area is rubble and rubbish, but sometimes there is a structure so great that it has ­[page 4:] withstood the battering of the centuries — some Colosseum, some Parthenon, some Sancta Sophia. So, also, in a city’s social history there may be “a proud tower in the town” that remains as a reminder of ancient glory when all else is lost. The first Baltimore had riches and power and charm; and they were lost in the catastrophe of war. But she had some other things. For instance, she had the humanity to give sanctuary to this great man when he lay dying, and to give him honorable burial when the spirit had fled. This was an addition to her honor, and this she has not lost.

But this is not, after all, astonishing. What else endures, of any city, but the memory of the great men it has sheltered? What masonry is half as enduring as a song? Count up what is left of the splendor of the first Baltimore. The great merchants are dead; the great fortunes are for the most part dissipated; the great houses have been pulled down; the great reputations are forgotten. But the great dream of Robert Mills, which was the embodiment in masonry of the impulse of the city to pay tribute to the greatness of Washington, still stands. The national anthem, Baltimore’s tribute to the greatness of the republic, still stands. The splendid first city had the grace to pay honor to Washington; honor to the Star-Spangled Banner; honor to Poe; and these tributes are garlands that preserve its honorable memory now that its material greatness has long since passed away.

It is the common agreement that Baltimore suffered a period of eclipse immediately after the Civil War — an eclipse from whose shadow she did not emerge definitely for forty years. Financially, politically and physically, this is incontestably true. They were years of lethargy and physical deterioration. In population the city sank from second to seventh and, briefly, to eighth place among American cities. Commercially, her prestige sank even lower. Her great market, the South, was ruined and in the West she was meeting ever sterner and sharper competition from her rivals. Physically, the town, once splendid, grew progressively shabbier. Not until after the turn of the century did she have so much as a decent sewer system and she clung to cobble-stoned streets long after most other cities had laid down smooth asphalt. In all the elements in which the first city had been greatest, the second city was petty and mean.

Yet it was just in this period of prostration that her name began to spread abroad in the world in a new way. There had been at least two merchants in the old town who were not merely great merchants, but also great men, who knew that it is through the things of the mind and spirit that immortality is touched. George Peabody and Johns Hopkins erected monuments more lasting than bronze. By a curious freak of circumstance their work combined to give Baltimore a place of honor in the life of another poet. When Sidney Lanier, broken by war service, ill and despairing, was at the end of his resources, Asger Hamerik gave him a position as flute-player in the orchestra that George Peabody’s money was supporting; and a little later Daniel Coit Gilman gave him a position in the University that Johns Hopkins’ money was supporting. Together these afforded him a new lease on life and enabled him to do some of his best work. Lanier loved Georgia and would ­[page 5:] have preferred to rest there; but when he was asked to let his body be buried in Baltimore, he felt that he owed the city too much to refuse such a request, and here he lies to this day.

What irony it is that the rich and splendid first city could give a poet no more than shelter in which to die and decent burial; while the beaten and poverty-stricken second city contrived to give a poet life and opportunity!

But it was not to Sidney Lanier alone that the drab and shadowy second city, the poor and defeated city, the city in eclipse, was a glorious portal. Most of the other great merchants of the first city converted their energy and their business genius into gold and glory; and most of them won the epitaph of the ancient Persian king: “He died; and time passed over him, and it was as if he had never been.” But these two had the wit to transmute their talents into light and healing; and though they are dead and time has passed over them, yet it is not as if they had never been. Although they are in their graves, their fortunes stand; although they are dead, they remain rich men, rich far beyond their compeers, far beyond their own imaginings.

The wagon trains of the first city rumbled across the mountains and down through the Valley of Virginia and up into the rich farming lands of Pennsylvania. Back into the city they brought all the treasure of the continent — gold and silver, furs, rare woods, fruits and delicacies, yellow grain and snowy cotton, the riches of America. The clipper ships ranged over all the seas and brought back into the city silks and laces, jewels and spices, the products of all artists and craftsmen, wines and raisins, the riches of the wide world. This was good. This was splendid. And yet, when a great man found shelter here, he brought to the city a greater and more lasting glory than came in all the loaded wagons and all the shimmering and aromatic cargoes.

The second city, the one that we sometimes call dull and inglorious, did better. It made a specialty of importing, not costly bales, but great men — Hamerik, Lanier, Randolph, Osler, Halsted, Welch, Kelly, Gilman, Gildersleeve, Rowland, Remsen. And every great spirit thus drawn to Baltimore became “a proud tower in the town” until the spiritual sky-line of Baltimore loomed over the country as the physical sky[[-]]line of New York looms above the Hudson and the shadow of our proud towers stretched from the Chesapeake to San Francisco Bay. There came a time when in every hamlet in America science and art, medicine and music, paid tribute to Baltimore, looked naturally to Baltimore for inspiration and leading, saw the wealth of Peabody and Hopkins, transmuted into light and healing, streaming out of Baltimore, yet never diminishing, eternally renewed.

Was this inglorious? Was this eclipse? History will not deem it so. Grant that it was the work of a few men only, what of that? Is not the glory of every great city the work of a few? There were thousands of worthless and ignoble men in the Athens of Pericles, in the Rome of Augustus, in the Florence of Leonardo; but because a handful of great men gathered in each, those cities shine in history with a brilliance unmatched ­[page 6:] elsewhere. Baltimore, city of merchants, has had four who established their fortunes for ages by converting them into the work of great men — Peabody, Pratt, Hopkins and Walters. These, alone, make up no undistinguished company, and they are supported by many others who have continued, broadened and extended their original concepts.

But the city of the men who founded the university, the conservatory, the library and the art gallery, has passed as definitely as the city that raised the monument to Washington and touched immortality by giving refuge to Poe. Nearly all observers are agreed that Baltimore was shocked out of its commercial lethargy by the great fire of 1904. Since then a third city has been built, differing in many respects from either of its predecessors. For one thing, it has moved up from eighth place to seventh in the list of the cities. It has gone along with the trend of the times in substituting industrialism for its former mercantile interests in great measure; but in finance it has regained a large part of its old prestige and power. The spirit of enterprise has been revived in its business men. Checked temporarily by the great depression, it has burst forth amazingly within the last year. Baltimore is in the mood once more to undertake great public works and to reach out for new industries, new markets, new spheres of financial influence. There is little doubt that a good deal of the spirit of the first city is coming back to the old town, and it is not beyond belief that there lies ahead of it a physical and commercial greatness comparable with that preceding the Civil War.

But this, even if it were achieved, would not reflect upon the third Baltimore the credit that it reflected upon the first. The first city was a pioneering venture. It had no past, and hence no obligation to the past. But the third city is in different case; it has received an inheritance, and, like all great inheritances, its legacy is not only a source of pride and power, but also a charge upon it. To fall below the standards of the first Baltimore and the second, would be not merely sad for the third Baltimore, but shameful, too. To conserve only the spirit of the first city would be to throw away half of our inheritance, and the greater half. The task that confronts the third Baltimore is the preservation of the spirit and the perfecting of the work of both its predecessors.

This is what lends importance to a gathering of this kind. It is not that we can learn anything new about Edgar Allan Poe. It would be fantastic to assume that we can confer any new honor on Poe. But it is not impossible for us to remind ourselves that not all the monuments in our history, not all the proud towers in our town, are constructed of brick and steel and stone. It is particularly important for us to remind ourselves of this in a time of reviving commercial activity, for it is just then that we are most likely to forget. It is when the material towers are rising that those of the mind and spirit are most likely to be ignored.

It is appropriate, then, to consider on this occasion what can be said for the third city as the legatee of the second, as well as of the first. Two fine achievements come to mind at once — two business men who have ­[page 7:] brought down into the third Baltimore something of the spirit of Hopkins, Peabody and Pratt. I refer, of course, to Walters and Leakin. I name them, not because they are the only ones, but merely because they are the most conspicuous. There are dozens of others who have proved that the commercial world of this town is not unmindful of the fact that while fortune lies within its realm, immortality lies in another, and that while business can confer prosperity upon its town through its own efforts, it can confer lasting greatness upon it only through support of the arts and sciences.

The building trades are busy once more in Baltimore, and that is well; but the year 1936 will be remembered longer by posterity on account of the Jacobs gift to the art museum than on account of any new factory that was built in that year. I am sure that one great teacher brought to the Peabody, or the Hopkins, or Goucher would be more of an ornament and honor to the city than any new office building that could be erected, even though it cost millions; and it is my belief that some have been brought.

But it must always be borne in mind that the scale of our city has changed, and we cannot measure things in the modern city by the yardsticks that served for the older ones. When the Battle Monument was erected at Calvert and Lexington streets, it towered above the whole city; but today it is overshadowed by great buildings on every side and a modern monument, to be equally impressive, would have to be many times as tall. The Washington Monument was not built in Baltimore at all, but on a high hill overlooking the town, a hill that was part of General Howard’s country estate, Belvedere; yet today Mount Vernon Place is considered away downtown. When Johns Hopkins founded the institution that bears his name, eight million dollars made it the richest university in the country; but today it is among the poorer ones, although that original endowment has been multiplied several times. Therefore, when the third Baltimore supplies a dollar for the support of the arts and sciences, it is not doing by any means what the first city did when it gave a dollar.

We shall do well, therefore, not to plume ourselves too much on the size of modern gifts as compared to those of old, for the measurement of dollars and cents is unreliable. What the support given our cultural institutions proves is qualitative, not quantitative — that is to say, it proves that the old spirit of the community is not altogether extinguished, not that it burns with the old, fine radiance. The character of the third Baltimore may be great, but that has yet to be proved.

Eighty-eight years after his death an audience of Baltimore people gathers in tribute to Poe, laying aside their business and pleasures for an hour to honor a wanderer who fell in a Baltimore street, poverty-stricken and friendless. This is significant. Would we do it for any of the great merchant princes of 1849? How could we? Who were they? Their pride, their power, their riches, their very names are gone with the wind. It would be fatuous, as well as vicious, to cast aspersions upon them. They were doubtless worthy men and their work was honorable work; but they were not the solid citizens of the town, although they thought they were. They dealt in ­[page 8:] evanescent things — in gold and silver, in brick and stone, in the material, which is, in the end, the shadowy and unsubstantial, necessary though it may be. So they and theirs have vanished away, and no one is much interested in their going.

We are now breeding in Baltimore a new race of such men, and there seem to be indications that they are even busier, more energetic and destined, perhaps, to be more successful than those of 1849. This is not unpleasant, but is it really important? Would it be important if they succeeded so well in building the material city that one might apply to Baltimore those lines from [[“]]Tamerlane[[”]]:

Look ‘round thee now on Samarcand!

Is she not queen of Earth? her pride

Above all cities? in her hand

Their destinies? in all beside

Of glory which the world hath known

Stands she not nobly and alone?

Eighty-eight years hence who would be gathering to do them honor? Who would know their names? No man. Only if they, like some of the merchants of old Baltimore, transmuted their success with the misty material into the enduring spiritual would their fame survive. The first Baltimore was on a small scale a Samarcand, whose symbol is the goddess Fortuna, bearing a cornucopia. But when Samarcand had gone there was a second Baltimore, whose fitting symbol was not Fortuna, but Psyche, bearing, not the horn of plenty, but a lamp. She, too, has been invoked by our poet. She, too, is a part of our inheritance. She, too, should share the worship of the third Baltimore, for she is the greater goddess, after all. Today we seem to be in a fair way to re-establish Fortuna, and of this, in itself, no rational man will complain, for the first Baltimore was a great city. It would be tragic only if we forgot that the second city, that furnished a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, was a great city, too. The third Baltimore will rise to her true greatness only if, having paid due deference to Fortuna, she can put her whole heart into that other invocation of her poet:

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche

How statue-like I see thee stand,

The agate lamp within thy hand!

Ah, Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy Land!



This lecture was delivered by Mr. Gerald White Johnson (1890-1980) at the Fifteenth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society on January 19, 1937. Mr. Johnson was a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun. The program was held in the Westminster Church.

The poem on page 3 is “Poe’s Cottage at Fordham” by John Henry Boner, Century Magazine, 1889. The final poem quoted is Poe’s own “To Helen.”

Johnson’s list of “great men” has a distinct bias towards physicians and people associated with Johns Hopkins University or Johns Hopkins Hospital. Asger Hamerik (1843-1923) was a Danish composer. He moved to Baltimore in 1871, where he became the director of the Peabody Institute. He wrote seven symphonies, several of which premiered in Baltimore. Sidney Lanier (1842-1881) was a musician, poet and educator. He lectured at Johns Hopkins University beginning in 1879. He died as a result of tuberculosis, and is buried in Greenmount Cemetery, in Baltimore. Dr. Robert Lee Randolph (1860-1919) received his medical training at the University of Maryland. After additional study in Europe, he returned to Baltimore in 1887 where he first became a surgeon at the Presbyterian Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, then an instructor at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. Sir William Osler (1849-1919) was a famous doctor and educator who taught at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Among other innovations, he originated the practice of taking students on rounds to see actual patients and evaluate actual cases. Dr. William Stewart Halstead (1852-1922) was a doctor and educator. He came to Baltimore in 1886, where he became the first chief of surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. William Henry Welch (1850-1934) was a famous doctor and educator, and the founding dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. The Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins is named after him. Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly (1858-1943) was a professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins Medical School 1889-1899, after which he served as a surgeon at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924) was a classical scholar and educator, specializing in Greek. (As a young man, Gildersleeve heard Poe lecture in Richmond.) In 1878, he became an instructor at the Johns Hopkins University, where he became a prominent philologist until his retirement in 1915. Daniel Coit Gilman (1831-1908) was the first president of the Johns Hopkins University. Henry Augustus Rowland (1848-1901) was a prominent physicist. In 1876, he assumed the chair of physics department at the Johns Hopkins University, a position he retained until his death. Ira Remsen (1846-1927) was a chemist, and the second president of the Johns Hopkins University.


[S:1 - APRR, 1937] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - A Proud TOwer in the Town (G. W. Johnson, 1937)