The Wandering Sculpture of a Thirsty POEt: A Look into Copyright Archives

The following post, which originally appeared on the Library of Congress Blog, was written by Gina Apone, one of 36 college students who spent the last two months working at the Library as part of the 2015 Junior Fellows Summer Intern Program. Apone currently attends Michigan State University pursuing a dual degree in Pre-Law and Professional Writing with a minor in Public Relations. Her internship in the Copyright Office has helped her gain a better understanding of and appreciation for how the Copyright Office operates and the role its divisions play in serving the public and Congress on both a local and international level. Of particular interest has been examining and learning about the different types of copyright claims for works of art like paintings, drawings, sculptures and designs that the office examines and registers each year.

Edgar Allan Poe. 1904. Prints and Photographs Division.

Edgar Allan Poe. 1904. Prints and Photographs Division.

As a Junior Fellow in the Copyright Office, I spent the summer examining copyright registration applications from the 1900s and uncovering various artifacts that have long been waiting in the archives of the U.S. Copyright Office. I repeatedly found myself surrounded by great people while being offered remarkable resources and unforgettable experiences.

A copyright deposit for a sculpture of Edgar Allan Poe, for example, might not sound very nerve-pinching or thought-provoking to many at a glance, but taking a second look could lead you to think otherwise. The specific photo of a bust that I came across, which is now stationed in the Edgar Allan Poe cottage in the Bronx in New York City, was submitted for Copyright registration on June 22, 1909, by Edmond T. Quinn, an established artist and sculptor from Philadelphia. His prominent work earned him gallery displays in various, well-regarded places like the Art Institute of Chicago and commendations by 1919 issues of the New York Times and the New York Tribune. He is best known for his bronze sculpture of “Edwin Booth as Hamlet” located in New York’s Gramercy Park.

In Quinn’s application are his handwritten notes describing the piece: “This is a bust portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. The poet is shown in his costume of about 1840…his head is inclined forward in a pensive attitude and the hair is somewhat disheveled.”

The Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences gave a plaster cast of Quinn’s sculpture to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, in 1931, where it was on display as a part of the Poe shrine in the museum’s garden – that is, until it mysteriously vanished from its pedestal years later in 1987. Sometime later, the bust turned up at the Raven Inn, where police found it allegedly sitting at the bar with a mug of beer and a transcription of Poe’s poem, “The Spirits of the Dead”:

And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!

Whether a comedic museum thief was exercising a peculiar sense of humor or the post-life Poe just got really thirsty, how and why the bust wandered off in such a puzzling, unexplainable fashion remains to be known. But the dark and haunting demeanor of the poet and his work only adds to the gripping curiousness of this account.

I remember learning about Poe and reading his famous work, like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Raven,” and being both fascinated and unnerved. Needless to say, as morbid as was the reputation he acquired with his tales of horror, Poe left a lasting impression on American literature and paved the way for writers during a time in which international copyright agreements were weak.

Copyright Deposit for "The Bust of Edgar Allan Poe," c. 1908. Library of Congress Copyright Office.

Copyright Deposit for “The Bust of Edgar Allan Poe,” c. 1908.
Library of Congress Copyright Office.

Unlike in Poe’s chilling tales and poems, however, you won’t be uncovering mysteries under the Library’s floorboards, but you will discover the record of works of all kinds by browsing the Copyright Office’s online catalog to your (Tell-Tale) heart’s desire. Available online are countless hidden gems dating from 1978 that are rich with history, culture and even a little mystery. (Prior to 1978, copyright records were created in analog form and housed in the Copyright Office. Once the Digitization and Public Access Project is complete, web-access to all pre-1978 records will be available.)

Working on this project and learning about pieces like this has shown me what a priceless resource the Library is and how the country’s largest, ever-growing online archives can be utilized. Researching and uncovering the backstories behind these artifacts really puts into perspective the immense amounts of history that are right at my fingertips here at the Library of Congress, as well as showcases the many ways that the Copyright Office upholds its mission to administer the copyright law and to serve as a doorway to creativity and ingenuity. Will I ever be at a loss for information with the Copyright Catalog so easily and readily accessible? As Poe would have put it – “nevermore” (“The Raven”).

Sources: “Poe’s Life: Who is Edgar Allan Poe?”, “15 Interesting Facts about Edgar Allan Poe” November 25, 2013, Kill/Adjectives Blog

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