More literary-themed pictures from my travels! Not yet nineteen years old, in 1827, Edgar Allan Poe was an enlisted Army soldier, stationed for about a year at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, not far from Charleston. A Revolutionary War stronghold established in 1776, it was originally rustic and made of palmettos, in keeping with the state’s bounty. Even today, you can see the sense of a windblown tropical outpost remains.
Here’s how Poe described it in “The Gold Bug“:
This island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the marsh hen. The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen. Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of this western point and a line of hard, white beach on the seacoast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle…
Just a few hundred yards from the cannonade is the beach. While there’s now civilization visible along the edges of nearby shorelines, it’s still easy to imagine how empty and remote it must’ve seemed.
While at Sullivan’s Island, it’s reported that Poe heard and was inspired by the local stories of pirates. In his mid-30s, Poe immortalized the setting in his short story “The Gold Bug,” which won the $100 grand prize as well as publication in a contest sponsored by Philadelphia’s Dollar Newspaper in 1843.
This mosaic of the insect species Poe invented is on the walkway leading to Poe’s Tavern on Sullivan’s Island.
The tale featured the mad pursuit of a secret treasure by an entomologist named Legrand, a treasure concealed by cryptography. The story became a sensation, one Poe was uniquely qualified to stoke, having issued a challenge in the years before to solve all qualifying substitution ciphers that were sent to him via Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, and apparently, succeeding. From “The Gold Bug;”
Here Legrand, having re-heated the parchment, submitted It my inspection. The following characters were rudely traced, in a red tint, between the death’s-head and the goat:
See the link above about for more information about this cryptogram, how to solve it, and Poe’s challenges.
The ingenious story and its author subsequently became so well-known, that, later in 1883, Robert Louis Stevenson would acknowledge the debt he and Treasure Island owed to Poe. Now, there’s not only the Edgar Allan Poe library on Sullivan’s Island named after him, but the fine Poe’s Tavern, with the largest collection of Poe-phernalia I’ve seen. There are so many paintings, framed posters, colorful chalk drawings, quotes, themed menu items… it’s impossible to capture how epically and festively Poe’d, that place is. My burger and fries were really good, too.
Another unique feature of the tavern is that it has tiny Poe-riffic bathrooms, papered in pages from illustrated versions of his work. An additional accompaniment to your restroom visit is provided by a speaker in the upper corner of the room (see the black lozenge attached to the ceiling?), which played a deep-voiced reading of “The Tell-Tale Heart” while I was powdering my nose.Poe would also use his formative experiences in South Carolina in two more, lesser-known works, “The Oblong Box,” about a mysterious object on board during a sea voyage from Charleston to NYC, and what eventually became called “The Balloon-Hoax.” The latter was originally published as the true journalistic account of a European balloonist, Monck Mason, traversing the Atlantic Ocean in a lighter-than-air gas balloon, landing on Sullivan’s Island after a mere 75 hours. Published by New York’s The Sun newspaper in April of 1844, along with a diagram and specifications of the craft, it was retracted two days later. (Interestingly enough, Poe had earlier accused The Sun’s editor of having “stolen” the idea for an earlier sensational moon-based hoax from him–such flim-flammery being a known method for juicing circulation in those days–and we are left to ponder its influence upon acknowledged-fan Jules Verne’s later 80-day tale.)