After he left West Point, Edgar Allan Poe spent more years in Philadelphia than in any other city. There was a long, uninterrupted stretch between 1838–1844 that was a period of heightened creative activity and a kind of domestic tranquility for Poe. At home—in each of the five houses they rented during this time—were Virginia, Muddy, and the beloved Caterina of the feline persuasion. Poe celebrated their uncommon stability by springing for some more expensive furnishings, including a piano and a harp for Virginia. Within the Poe family walls, life had settled into a daily round of contented housekeeping and writing in the evenings, after Poe returned from his day job.
In 1830, Louis A. Godey started the first successful magazine directed at a female readership, Godey's Lady's Book. In addition to its fashion plates, dressmaking patterns, and sheet music for popular songs, it sought articles from the top American writers of the day. Poe published articles and reviews in Godey's, and the editors had to run a disclaimer distancing themselves from Mr. Poe's opinions—which had elicited complaints from those who had come to his “notice.”
But the Philadelphia scene outside the various Poe family homes was quite different. Maybe it had something to do with its location, bordering Virginia and Maryland, making it more like a crossroads between North and South, both geographically and ideologically. Offshore there was the slave revolt aboard the Spanish ship Amistad. Onshore there was Philadelphia. If Boston was the young nation's intellectual hub, Philadelphia was its test kitchen: first public parks, public schools, lightning-rod, volunteer fire department, fire insurance company, workhouse, hospital, medical school, law school, medical clinic for the poor, theater company, scientific institution, North American Arctic expedition, Anti-Slavery Society, and U.S. Congress.
In nearly all things, Philadelphia was in the forefront of progress. Just four months after the Poes moved to Philadelphia in early 1838, an angry mob attacked Pennsylvania Hall, which had just opened as a forum for abolition and other important issues. During the opening ceremonies, abolitionist Angelina Grimké kept speaking while the mob hurled rocks through the windows of the hall. “What would the breaking of every window be? What would the leveling of this Hall be? Any evidence that we are wrong, or that slavery is a good and wholesome institution?” she asked.
The anti-abolitionist riot occurred just two days after Angelina Grimké's wedding, which was a racially integrated affair the local press reproved as too “amalgamated” for their liking. Angelina married Theodore Weld, another prominent abolitionist.
Grimké kept the audience's panic at bay that evening, but three days later, the rioters burned Pennsylvania Hall to the ground. It was four blocks away from the Poes. The day after, the mob burned the Shelter for Colored Orphans. It was here that the abolitionists realized the enemies to their cause weren't only in the South. By 1838, there were an impressive 100,000 members in various local branches of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which was founded in Philadelphia. Now they knew they could expect reactionary violence from Northerners who were threatened by what they perceived as disruptions to the comfortable old social order—less in response to abolition, possibly, than to having the “womenfolk” step out of the parlor and into leadership positions in public forums.
“The fact is, in efforts to soar above our nature, we invariably fall below it. Your reformist demigods are merely devils turned inside out.”—Poe on social reform
Philadelphia was a crucible for invention, innovation, and visionary activities and beliefs. All of it provided stimulation for Poe, who was busy establishing a professional identity. It was in this six-year Philadelphia period that Poe emerged as a literary critic, wrote his favorite (“Ligeia”) and best (“Usher”) stories, invented the modern detective story, and published his first story collection. But there was not enough work, in either editing or publishing, for Poe to maintain his little family, so he had to pick up stakes and move to New York City in 1844. In America, he believed, “more than in any other region upon the face of the globe to be poor is to be despised.” Over the next decade, other writers—tired of a lack of support and the increasing homogenization of ideas—relocated to New York City.