2009 marks the bicentennial of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most prominent writers who found inspiration along the Bronx River.
In the spring of 1846 Poe left New York City and moved to what was then the rural village of Fordham, hoping that the fresh country air would help his young wife Virginia, who was dying of tuberculosis. Fordham offered not only fresh air, but a convenient link to the city via the newly built New York and Harlem Railroad, whose station was just downhill from Poe’s cottage.
On the other side of the tracks was St. John’s College (today’s Fordham University) and its convivial faculty of Jesuit priests, with whom Poe would often spend an evening in a gentlemanly game of whist. The college bell, which Poe could hear ringing from his cottage, is said to have inspired his poem “The Bells,” and to this day the Fordham chapel bell is named “Old Edgar” in his honor.
Just a short stroll past the college was the Lorillard estate, today’s New York Botanical Garden, through which ran the scenic Bronx River gorge that previously inspired the poet Joseph Rodman Drake to rhapsodize about “my own romantic Bronx.” Drawn to rivers – he enjoyed both swimming and boating – Poe made the Bronx River a route for some of his long solitary walks.
Although Poe’s writings offer no direct reference to the Bronx River, it may have inspired his description of an upriver canoe trip through the “funereal gloom” of a wooded gorge in his story “The Domain of Arnheim,” that he wrote at Fordham. Perhaps too the “enchantingly lovely” little valley he described in “Landor’s Cottage,” which also depicted an idealized version of his Fordham home.
The country air of Fordham couldn’t save Virginia, who died in January 1847. Poe himself left Fordham and the Bronx River forever in June 1849 when he set out on the journey that ended with his mysterious death in Baltimore. His cottage remains in Fordham, kept as a literary shrine by the Bronx County Historical Society.
Stephen Paul DeVillo