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Decorating with Edgar Allen Poe

June 16, 2013

What? This surprises you?

But in fact, the man who gave us "The Purloined Letter," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and that classic verbatim on the dysfunctional family, "The Fall of the House of Usher,"--to say nothing of the literally teeth-chattering (oh, and I mean that--literallyteeth-chattering) "Berenice"--held quite strong views on interior decorating.

Just to sample a few phrases in the opening paragraph of "The Philosophy of Furniture" might amuse you: "The Scotch are poor decorists. The Dutch have, perhaps, an indeterminate idea that a curtain is not a cabbage. In Spain they are all curtains--a nation of hangman. The Russians do not furnish. The Hottentots and Kickapps are very well in their way. The Yankees alone are preposterous."

Let it be said that Poe would not have shopped at IKEA. Or Anthropologie. Or West Elm. In fact, he was kind of against most things.And he felt that Americans furnished their homes exactly against what he thought was tasteful. And he was painstakingly tasteful. (Not that Poe, himself, had the kind of digs we might associate with Henry James, prig that he was. I'm sorry, James, but must those sentences be so damn long? At least when Poe wrote his long sentences, there was blood and gore and aberrant dental work--cf "Berenice"--to add some spice.)

Poe in "The Philosophy of Furniture," published in an 1840 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine" (what I imagine as the GQ of its day), opined against people who thought they knew something about carpets: "A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of carpet must be a genius. Yet we have heard discoursing of carpets, with the air 'd'un moutaon qui reve,' fellows who should not and could not be entrusted with the management of their own moustaches."

Point is, he had strong feelings about carpets and I suspect those that shield my floors would violate his sense of what was an appropriate floor covering.

He also didn't like what he called "glare:" "Glare is a leading error in the philosophy of American household decoration." By this he means he doesn't like gaslight and he doesn't like glass. Of gas he says, "No one having both brains and eyes will use it." Okay, point made.

For Poe, glass equates to glitter. And glitter is bad. As he notes, "Flickering, unquiet lights are sometimes pleasing--to children and idiots always so--but in the embellishment of a room they should be scrupulously avoided. In truth, even strong steady lights are inadmissable."

And, he adds, "Female loveliness, in especial, is more than one-half disenchanted beneath its evil eye." Poe, I surmise, was not a morning sex kind of guy, perhaps not even with his first-cousin, thirteen-year-old wife. Before she died. 

And he had a particular disregard for mirrors: "Considered as a reflector, it is potent in producing a monstrous and odious uniformity...if we add to this evil the attendant glitter upon glitter, we have a perfect farrago of discordant and displeasing effects. The veriest bumpkin, on entering an apartment so bidizzened, would be instantly aware of something wrong."


But WHY am I telling you all this? I love Edgar Allen Poe. He's kinda my Home-boy. (But not really, because nobody wants Edgar Allen Poe as their Home-boy.) No, I'm telling you this because Poe was brilliant at writing short stories that still scare the pants off the toughest of us, if we are willing to muck through his long (though not James-eon-long) sentences. He's cool, he's scary. Shirley Jackson, Stephen King and a host of other good writers are in his debt. Or perhaps his karmic bequest.

But he lacks chops when it comes to interior to design. Moral of my story: as my daughter always says, eat cheesecake at The Cheesecake Factory. Eat Pasta at The Pasta Factory. Eat seafood at Legal Seafood.

And when you go to Anthropologie to look for ways to spruce up your living room, plop Poe in the Husband's Chair at the entrance (even if he wasn't such a great husband, either).

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.