In the mood for a seance? If you were a member of the cultural elite in 19th-century Providence, all signs would have pointed to yes. East Side artists and intellectuals attended seances held in private homes, which also played host to literary salons that engaged with the hot topics of the day. These topics included Spiritualism, which had given rise to the mania for seances, and Transcendentalism, the philosophical movement that advocated for the inherent goodness of man and nature. Today we associate Transcendentalism most readily with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in Massachusetts, but Rhode Island had its share of luminaries involved in the movement, including Margaret Fuller and Sarah Helen Whitman. Margaret Fuller, journalist, educator, and advocate for women’s rights, briefly took up residence as a teacher in Providence’s Greene Street School. Whitman, born and bred in the city, associated in Fuller’s circle and was a well-known poet. Fuller, Whitman, and many other artists and writers would often gather in what quickly became a 19th-century cultural hub of Providence: the Athenaeum on Benefit Street.
This Greek Revival-style library generated more than just abstract ideas and elevated conversation: love blossomed here between two writers. Having spotted her first in a rose garden and where he fell madly in love, Edgar Allen Poe courted Sarah Helen Whitman in the Athenaeum in 1845. Their courtship was short-lived, however: Whitman called off their engagement in 1848 when Poe’s sobriety came into question.
In the next century, Providence inspired the work of another creative writer, H.P. Lovecraft, who set his novel “The Shunned House” (1924) in a colonial house down the street from the Athenaeum, at 135 Benefit Street.