In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe had a lot on his mind.
Though he’d already published some short stories and newspaper pieces, Poe was still a struggling writer working on a poem called The Raven and editing articles for the Evening Mirror.
He also had his young wife to worry about. Virginia Clemm was sick with tuberculosis.
Instead of living downtown or in Greenwich Village, as the couple had in 1837, they moved to a country farmhouse roughly at today’s Broadway and 84th Street.
At the time, this was part of the bucolic village of Bloomingdale. Fresh air, the thinking was, might help ease Virginia’s illness.
When Poe needed to get away from the farmhouse (above, in 1879) and seek inspiration, he went to a rocky knoll of Manhattan schist in the woods overlooking the Hudson River, on the border of the not-yet-created Riverside Park.
He named it Mount Tom, after young Thomas Brennan, the son of the farmhouse’s owner. This outcropping still exists at the end of West 83rd Street (below).
“It was Poe’s custom to wander away from the house in pleasant weather to ‘Mount Tom,’ an immense rock, which may still be seen in Riverside Park, where he would sit alone for hours, gazing at the Hudson,” states this 1903 Poe biography.
“Poe and Virginia enjoyed sitting on [Mount Tom] and gazing across the then-rural riverland north of the city,” according to this collection of Poe’s work.
Poe himself wrote about Manhattan’s rocky topography in an 1844 dispatch to a Pennsylvania newspaper, finding the city’s “certain air of rocky sterility” to be “sublime.”
In the same dispatch, he bemoaned Manhattan’s development and the end of its rural, spacious charm.
“The spirit of Improvement has withered [old picturesque mansions] with its acrid breath,” he wrote.
“Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them. . . . In some 30 years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous facades of brown-stone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.”
Poe didn’t last long on West 84th Street. After The Raven was published in 1845 and turned him into a literary sensation, he and Virginia moved to a cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx.
Tuberculosis took Virginia in 1847; Poe left the Bronx and found himself in Baltimore, where he died, perhaps from alcoholism, in 1849.
I wonder what he would think of contemporary West 84th Street bearing his name?
[Second image: MCNY.org Greatest Grid exhibit]