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Helen McKenna-Uff – National Park Ranger

By Admin | November 9, 2007

Helen McKenna-Uff is a National Park Ranger stationed in Philadelphia with responsibilites at Independence National Park and the “somewhat off the beaten track” Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site, nearby at 7th and Spring Garden Streets. She gives us her insights into her very cool job.

How long have you been a Park Ranger?

Since February 14, 1994. Valentine’s Day – a special day for me, since my husband’s name is Valentine and he first asked me out on Valentine’s Day

What is the process for becoming a Park Ranger?

In my case, I was a seasonal Park Ranger for five seasons, three at Independence National Historic Park and two at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site until there was a job opening for a career seasonal (which is) permanent, subject to furlough in the winter of 1997.

Since then, I was able to convert to a permanent position at the Poe National Historic site. Applying for work as a Park Ranger is competitive, job openings are usually listed on the USA Jobs website and are open nationwide.

My job is listed as an Interpretive Park Ranger. Generally, “interps” as we call ourselves are charged with helping visitors make meaningful connections with parks.

Prospective interps should have experience doing public speaking, a college degree, the degree is not required but seems necessary in order to compete, and the ability to deal with and communicate effectively with all kinds of people.

Do Park Rangers ever carry weapons?

Yes, Rangers who are designated “Protection Rangers” act as law enforcers in the National Park system. They carry weapons, radios, etc. and are trained as first responders, ready to deal with an enormous variety of situations, from car break-ins to mountain rescues, and many situations that a novelist would have a field day with.

Actually, there is a novelist, Nevada Barr (http://www.nevadabarr.com), who bases her books on her experiences as a Park Ranger.

Is it easy to transfer between national park sites?

Apparently, before I started working for the Park Service, it was expected that Rangers would serve in many different parks. Today, if a Ranger wants to work in a new park they must wait for a job opening announcement and apply.

How many people tour the Poe house every year?

I’ve seen various accountings for the number of visitors to the Poe House. I would say, that it gets approximately 15,000 a year.

Why is Poe more associated with Baltimore than Philadelphia?

Actually, Poe lived in Baltimore for four years and there met his cousin Virginia, who he later married. His father was born and raised in Baltimore and Poe’s grandfather was the Deputy Quartermaster General of Baltimore’s Revolutionary Forces during the War for Independence. We have no problem sharing Poe with Baltimore.

What is distressing is how low a profile Poe seems to have today in the city of Philadelphia. Poe spent six years in Philadelphia, where he knew his greatest success.

Highlights of Poe’s Philadelphia years include inventing the modern detective story, helming two widely circulated magazines, publishing three books, starting a national craze for cryptography, and penning some of his most artful and enduring horror stories, like “Fall of the House of Usher”, “Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Masque of the Red Death”.

So, it’s a little galling when Philadelphians are surprised to learn that Poe lived here.

What years did Poe live in Philadelphia and what was his reason for coming to the city?

Poe first moved to Philadelphia in 1838, after having spent a not very lucrative year and a half in New York. Philadelphia and New York were about equally important as publishing centers for the United States. His move to this city proved providential, his achievements were many and impressive. Poe moved from Philadelphia back to New York in April, 1844.

What is your estimation of where Poe stands in literary history?

One area of writing that Poe can claim as a first is the invention of the detective story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

Poe is considered a pioneer of science fiction, a great poet; as a critic, a champion of United States literature, and a master, if not the master of the horror story. Harold Bloom, policeman of the Western Canon, cites Poe as America’s most popular literary export.

Poe’s writing is uniquely poised at the end of the Romantic and beginning of the Modern eras, and he fits into both categories. Poe’s fascination with human psychology and depravity, using unreliable narrators, is clearly modern, but his celebration of human imagination and creativity is of a romantic sensibility.

His skills as an editor helped him hone his own writing into a focused attempt to make universal themes, such as death, loss, fear and madness, immediately moving and disquieting for his reading public.

His influence was and continues to be very widespread, from the French symbolists, like Mallarme, to filmmakers like Hitchcock, to musicians like Phillip Glass, Debussy and writers like Marquez, Oates and Nabokov. A comprehensive list of artists and writers influenced by Poe would be very long indeed.

So, personally? I love Poe. For me, he is worthy of endless study. At this point, it’s difficult for me to be objective about Poe’s writing, because even when it’s poor, I find it fascinating and I wonder what was happening that particular time of his life that led to him publishing a mediocre product. But when Poe’s writing is good? It’s pure stellar genius and nothing less.

What non-literary aspect of Poe’s life do you find most interesting?

Poe’s personality, his ability to greatly impress most people he met is fascinating. Because of his genius and personality people went to bat for him. He advanced to sergeant-major in the army in only 19 months when most enlistees would have taken 20 years to achieve the same rank.

Later, showing up penniless and poorly dressed, he impressed people of means as a man needing protection and promotion. One woman legally changed her name because Poe called her “Annie” not “Nancy”.

People who knew Poe were passionate about him. They either despised or loved him, not much in between. And it seems that, working at his home, I meet many people, who never knew Poe, who feel passionately about him today, 158 years after his death.

For people visiting Philadelphia, what five sights should they not miss?

I would love for all people alive to think that Edgar Poe’s home was one of the top five reasons to visit Philadelphia, and I have met people for whom that is the truth. But I wouldn’t want to presume that the majority of visitors to Philadelphia value literature over history or aesthetics.

But let me try.

Independence Hall is the number one reason to visit Philadelphia. In that building, America’s English colonies declared independence and conducted the American Revolutionary War.

In 1787, a convention met in the room where independence was declared and wrote the Constitution of the United States.

Men who served the United States in Independence Hall include the first four presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Other notables include Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and John Hancock.

(Also), the Second Bank of the United States, which is in the next block from Independence Hall. The building is a striking example of neoclassic architecture and is a little known National Portrait Gallery, where visitors can see the life portraits of the founding fathers that illustrate our history books.

It’s a beautiful building and a stunning collection of important players from the founding of the republic.

For the rest? If you like to eat, we have great restaurants. Music and art lovers have many reasons to visit.

Literary buffs can see where Franklin, Paine, Whitman, Jefferson and Poe wrote and published some of their most important work. We have beautiful parks and great architecture.

If you’re fascinated by the macabre you can do like many visitors (and) visit Poe’s home, then the Mutter Museum, which features exhibits of medical oddities, and then see the decaying Eastern State Penitentiary, a 19th century prison visited by Charles Dickens which gives you a chance to learn about the underbelly of nineteenth century society.

Which is your favorite National Park rotation and why?

I staff buildings in Independence National HistoricPark.

Working at Independence Park, I interpret Benjamin Franklin, Dolly Madison, Bishop William White, the Liberty Bell, the American Revolution, the Declaration, the Constitution, artist Charles Wilson Peale, Thomas Jefferson, the Supreme Court and, of course, Poe.

I love the variety but if I had to pick only one it would be Poe, because I have a Masters in literature, have had a lifelong appreciation for his work, and, as an actress, have performed his work on stage many times. I’m better prepared to answer a question about Poe than I am anything else.

Currently, I’m coordinating efforts for commemorating the bicentennial of Poe’s birth in 2009, which provides me with opportunities to meet and collaborate with many interesting people, like the members of the International Poe Conference, the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

When I come to work, I never know who I’m going to meet, or what I’m going to learn.

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