In a Kingdom by the Sea: Edgar Allan Poe in Sullivan’s Island

By: Allyson Vaughan

Sullivan’s Island is covered in a haze that hangs on the air like the Spanish moss that falls off the trees in Charleston, South Carolina. It makes the water look a greenish-grey, and today there is black soot caking on the bottom of my feet as I maneuver around the dozens of dead jellyfish impacted into the sand. Out in the water, boats appear as black masses before breaking through the fog, declaring their presence with a brusque horn. A lighthouse blinks its light, guiding the ships back to the harbor. It brings my eye back to the shore behind me where the grandiose beach homes appear empty. There’s a wind that blows a cold hush in my ear as I pick up seashells and cradle their fine, fragile bodies in my hand. Sullivan’s Island on the days when the sun can’t quite bring itself out from under the cover of the clouds are some of my favorite days there. While others might balk and wish to bathe in the sun, I wish to walk on the beach without fear that my pale skin is going to curdle and peel with sunburn the next day. It also suits my current literary inclinations, which are always unfailingly inclined towards the works of Edgar Allan Poe when I visit because for a time Sullivan’s Island was his home.

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Edgar Allan Poe, after enlisting in the military, was stationed at Sullivan’s Island in November 1827 at the age of 19. Every time I visit the quiet beach I seek to find the same Sullivan’s he once did. Because if I imagine the beach homes and the strip of Irish Pubs and local shops two streets over gone, I can see where the fields of long grass and the solitary landscape Poe once found were. There’s still some of this landscape visible at Fort Moultrie. Though I’ve been to Sullivan’s Island many times, I’d never before ventured into the old Fort. Shielded behind its crusted, yellow walls I try to imagine the sound of zipping bullets and cannon fire. And though I don’t know if Poe ever heard the same while he was there, I imagine a 19-year-old Edgar Allan Poe attempting to evade death. Which he would go on to write so intimately about. Of course, Poe didn’t last long in the military. He was something like the Ferris Bueller of the 17th century, and was later dishonorably discharged from West Point. But though his stay was short, Sullivan’s Island left an impression on him:

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. …”

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We writers are really big on miserably framed buildings and the sweet myrtle’s undergrowth (am I right?). But in all truth, I love reading about a writer’s perspective on different places. Poe got three short stories out of his 13 month stay in Sullivan’s Island: “The Gold Bug,” “The Balloon Hoax,” and “The Oblong Box.” For me it proves the value of experience and that as a writer no time is spent wasted. Walking around the Island,  I can see details that remind me of the Sullivan Poe saw. The island is mostly sand. In fact, there’s so much of it that over a week later I’m still scraping it out of my headphones and the pages of the book I read on the beach. But I don’t mind so much. With its humble charm, Sullivan’s Island is a place that stays with me. I like the dark waters, the white, sometimes grimy sand, and the green haze that settles over the air. It’s often quieter than the other beaches in the Charleston area, and I can wander around the island now with the same familiarity I wander around my home with—if my home were the size of a beach side town. When I go, all I find myself wanting to do is write and wash shells in the waves. I get all poetic and want to just write a novel in the sand or something. Because that’s where you should write your best ideas down…in the sand.

IMG_0543The Sullivan’s Island Poe knew was a wasteland of sand and cannon fire, but now it’s a public beach with a restaurant called “Poe’s Tavern.”  He’ll never get to sit in a restaurant with his portrait on the wall face deep in a burger called “The Black Cat.” Which is a shame because I think he would’ve enjoyed it.And yet, two blocks from the restaurant is the same strip of beach Poe wrote about. There’s something eternal about both Sullivan’s and Poe’s work. Sullivan’s Island stayed with Poe as much as Poe stayed with the island. And when I read the stories Poe wrote about the island, sitting on the shore where those stories were only a thought, I think about how important seeing new places is for writers. I can only speak for myself, but I have to always be finding new places to write about. Not moving, not seeing new things makes me feel claustrophobic. I get fussy if I’m not seeking what I believe François Rabelais called, “The Great Perhaps.”It keeps the experience of writing fresh and challenging when I have a new place to write about, whether it be a setting in a fiction piece, a poem, or an article.

Though I came to Sullivan’s Island for the first time seeking Mr. Poe, I have found more of the experience for myself now. As a writer, I think we take the places we find for ourselves. I’d keep Sullivan’s Island in my back pocket if it were possible—hold it in my hand in a dark cave whispering, “My precious” if I could. But it’s a public beach so that borders on unreasonable. As I walk down the beach, wishing it weren’t, I can hear Poe’s poetry in my head: “It was many and many a year ago, /In a kingdom by the sea, /That a maiden there lived whom you may know/ By the name of Annabel Lee….in this kingdom by the sea,/A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling/My beautiful Annabel Lee.” Going to places other writers have been is often part of the relationship I have to their work. It takes living inside of a book to a whole new level, and this is where I leave the literature and the experience becomes mine. So though I’m not going to be chilled to death on the shores of Sullivan’s Island, although the wind there can be unforgiving—I can get a little closer to understanding what that’s like.

 

 

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