The ghost chairs of Edgar Allan Poe

The “first physiognomist of the domestic space”, Walter Benjamin calls him because the narrators of the Modern Age gave a detailed account of the face and the complexion of their characters, but barely their living quarters. The first nineteenth-century writer who brought the interiors into his stories was Edgar Allan Poe, he also left two specific testimonies on the subject. One is a brief and sarcastic Philosophy of Furniture, published in May 1840 in Philadelphia’s Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, where he makes fun of the bad taste of the domestic interior design of his countrymen: “It is an evil growing out of our republican institutions, that here a man of large purse has usually a very little soul which he keeps in it.” Poe contrasts ostentation with simple refinement and exalts the qualities of carpets, always dense in texture, with abstract and arabesque motifs, never vegetable or naturalistic; he abhors the gleams and the rough gas lights in favor of the dense, nuanced and shady gas of the Argand lamps, and discusses the inconvenience of the profusion of small paintings. But ... And the chairs? In his text he describes an ideal interview room before midnight, an oval space, with the glass of the windows stained with crimson and the walls papered in silver, of which he describes in detail the frames of the paintings, the Sèvres vases, the light effects of the Argand lamp, the rosewood pianoforte. 




Three times that space has been reconstructed: one, for an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1959; another can be visited in the house in which the writer lived in Philadelphia; the third, only with words, as Poe did, in a 1996 story by Roberto Bolaño entitled La Habitación Ideal, where an Argentinean and turn-of-the-century lady named Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce reproduced it with neurotic precision. The two material reconstructions have a somewhat disappointing Biedermaier air, the fleshy halo of the Bostonian's description is conspicuous by its absence. In both, two or three Chippendale chairs appear, of which Bolaño also gives an account in his detailed inventory: "two equally light rosewood chairs”. The point is that Poe is exhaustive in his own description: “two large rosewood and crimson silk divans are the only seats”. Nine years later, and only four months before his death, Poe published Landor’s Cottage, something like a morose trek at dusk from the outside to the interior of a house in the valley that is usually considered an idealization of the one he himself inhabited in Bronx New York, at that time to be urbanized. There are “a few chairs (including a rocking chair) and a sofa, or better, smooth maple wood canapé painted a cream-white tone, lightly edged in green, with a cattail seat. The chairs and table matched”. 

Sussex or Windsor type chairs painted white. Neither the symbolist Edelmira nor the brainy museum curators knew how to understand that in the fluffy domestic reveries of the poet the chairs are the ghost.