In the 101 years since UVA President Edwin A. Alderman charged the Raven Society with the upkeep of the Edgar Allan Poe Room, a Raven Society member has swept its wooden floors and dusted its antique furniture. This year, the humble task falls to Lawson Anderson (Col ’09).
He wipes the fingerprints from the glass door of Poe’s old dorm room, the ever-unlucky No. 13, on the West Range. “People smudge the glass when they look in,” Anderson says. Indeed, if one looks closely, the door is mottled with the imprints of the cheeks and chins of the curious. If the audio recording that narrates the story of Poe’s time at the University won’t play, it falls to Anderson to make sure it’s fixed. During Family Weekend in the fall and Garden Week in the spring, he is there to open the glass door for visitors.
It’s a job that most people don’t know exists, and it certainly isn’t a post that Anderson ever expected to have. But a few years ago, he was tapped to become a Raven member and received a cryptic letter inviting him to attend a midnight initiation. Fewer than 30 members are invited to join the Ravens each year. Last year, Anderson was elected vice president.
The Raven Society was founded in 1904 to recognize academic excellence—taking its name from Poe’s most famous poem. Under the care of the Raven Society, the Poe room has been renovated twice. In 1924, architecture professor Edmund S. Campbell attempted to restore the room to its original condition during Poe’s tenure at the University in 1826. However, he did not remove the closets and a mantel, so the University eliminated them in the 1950s. Around the same time, A. Churchill Young III (Col ’50) donated Poe’s childhood bed from the Allan family home in Richmond, Va. A small plaque in Latin was affixed to the brick over the door; it reads “A small room for a giant poet.”
A New York Times article about the Poe Room from 1912 claimed that during Poe’s residency the room’s walls were decorated in crayon drawing. Now the walls are white and the leather-bound books on the desk and windowsill aren’t the Latin or French texts that Poe might have studied, but collections of his macabre stories and poems.
The Raven Society uses the room for its annual initiation ceremonies, during which there is a reading from Poe’s work and new members sign with a quill pen in a book of names. They also take an oath of selfless service. Anderson’s service includes battling the dust that eddies around the sharp angles of the wooden washstand and memorizing the book of Poe history and mythology that is kept hidden behind the Poe Room’s door.
“Poe was a mystical, introverted, lonely genius,” says Anderson. He studied at UVA for just one year before leaving due to insufficient support from his benefactor, John Allan. At the time, he was debt-ridden and had resorted to gambling. “It’s my personal opinion that the Raven Society would have catered to a student like Poe,” says Anderson. “Maybe it would have helped someone as brilliant and troubled as him.”
On the windowsill of the Poe Room sits a stuffed raven posed by a taxidermist to look demurely over its shoulder. It serves as a visual reminder of the Raven Society and it namesake, the romantic poem about the mystery of mortality. “There is certainly something mystical about Poe’s work,” says Anderson. “There is also something enchanting about these antique objects and the traditions they stand for.” Beneath the window is a wooden chest fastened with a brass lock. “Only Raven presidents and vice presidents have seen the contents of the chest, and we each take an oath of secrecy,” Anderson says and smiles coyly. “A little mystery is good for you.”
In 2009, UVA’s Special Collections Library will mount an exhibit to mark the bicentennial of Poe’s birth.