This edition of the Storytellers Channel’s newsletter features Chris Semtner, Curator, The Poe Museum, writing about Berenice and highlighting an artifact from the museum’s collection.
I just finished directing the Love Locked Down Theatre Project and we were just notified that the Al Jazeera Media Network is sending a crew to do a feature. I’ll keep you abreast of developments.
The Storytellers Channel
Who’s Bothered by “Berenice?”
At twenty-six, Poe had three unsuccessful volumes of poetry to his credit and was trying to get noticed by submitting his short stories to writing contests. He complained, “to be appreciated, one must be read,” but he just couldn’t get his works in front of enough readers. Just when making a living from his pen seemed impossible, he got an offer from a new magazine in Richmond called The Southern Literary Messenger. Sure, the magazine was only a year old and still had only had 500 subscribers, but Poe saw its potential to finally make his name.
The editor, Thomas Willis White, knew little about literature, but he believed the South was in desperate need of a magazine that would publish the latest works by southern authors. At the time, the country’s most popular authors lived in the big northern cities like New York and Boston. White wanted his magazine to be a showcase for the best southern literature, but barely anyone was buying it. His first editor left after a year because White could not afford to pay him. Mr. White, it seemed, had nothing to lose by publishing the work of the unknown Poe.
To introduce himself to the Messenger’s readers, Poe sent a new story named “Berenice.” The response was immediate. The public was disgusted and outraged by this gruesome terror tale. Such tales, they thought, would warp young people’s minds and bring about the downfall of society. White was furious. Poe was delighted.
What’s Going on at Storytellers Channel
Last year Danita Rountree approached me about directing the stage adaptation of R. Satiafa’s novel, Love Locked Down. The play, a collection of stories, explores the impact of the legal/corrections system on American society.
The production was scheduled to be presented at Pine Camp (the City of Richmond’s Cultural Arts Center). Richmond City Public Schools were scheduled to bus students in from select middle and high schools. The City was scheduled to put a new roof on Pine Camp in January and then Mother Nature stepped in and the project was postponed. Murphy had a hand in this as well and as such the crew started ripping the roof off the building the day we were scheduled to open.
Well, the folks at Rec and Parks jumped into action and reached out to the schools and this past Friday we performed at Henderson Middle School. Over the next few weeks the cast will perform in city schools. The cast is also scheduled to perform at Henrico High School, the County’s Center for the Arts; a gift from the City to Henrico County.
The last scheduled performance of this run will be at the Police Academy, for the students Police Athletic League.
Yesterday, we were contacted by the Al Jazeera Media Network. They are coming to Richmond to interview us about the show and the power of story to change the narrative.
We’ll keep you informed of developments.
BTW, last issue I wrote I was going into the studio to record Berenice, Morella and Ligeia. The events above forced me to postpone the recording session until tomorrow morning. Next issue we’ll be premiering the Poe’s Dead Brides’ audio book.
This Issue’s Poe Museum Artifact
“Portrait of Thomas White”
Thomas Willis White was Poe’s boss at his first job in journalism. It was White who took a chance on the young writer by hiring Poe as a contributor and editor, so it is thanks to White that Poe became a magazine writer and achieved his dream of making a living from his writing. The Poe Museum acquired a portrait of Thomas White from his great-granddaughter in 1923. For years, it was the only known portrait of Mr. White, and it appeared in books, magazine articles, and documentaries whenever he was mentioned. Imagine our surprise when we received a call from Anders Rasmussen of Austin, Texas. He had discovered a remarkably similar painting (pictured above) at an estate sale, where he bought it for just two dollars.
Rasmussen sent his Thomas White portrait to the Poe Museum for us to compare it with our own Thomas White portrait, and it turned out his was the original. Additionally, his portrait was much better painted, and his Thomas White was thinner and younger looking than ours. We soon took down our portrait and hung Rasmussen’s in its place as a more accurate representation of how White would have looked when Poe knew him.
As Poe explained in a letter to White, this was exactly the kind of story that would sell magazines. Poe offered to supply a new story every month and that each one would be completely unique, unlike anything anyone had ever read. White took Poe up on his offer, and the Messenger’s subscription rate soared. The magazine established a national reputation, and Poe was famous—or infamous—for his imaginative (and sometimes controversial) stories. Thanks to his first horror story, “Berenice,” Poe was well on his way to becoming the master of the tale of psychological terror. Poe followed “Berenice” with the horror stories “Morella” and “Ligeia.” Years later, Poe wrote that he considered “Ligeia” his best tale.
When you listen to “Berenice,” see if you can guess the twist ending and why it offended so many people back in Poe’s day.
For more information on Poe’s extraordinary life, visit The Poe Museum.