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Which metropolis may claim the peripatetic Poe?

Sep 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 02 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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Philadelphia

What would Charles Baudelaire have made of the scene at the Free Library of Philadelphia one frigid evening last winter, the building's lower-level auditorium filled to capacity for a boisterous debate among representatives of three American cities--Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia--over which should lay claim to the legacy, if not the bones, of Edgar Allan Poe?

After all, in an overwrought 1859 essay, the French poet and critic wailed that "Poe and his country were not on the same level." Indeed,
Baudelaire inferred that, for Poe, "the United States was nothing more than a vast prison through which he wandered with the feverish unrest of one who was born to breathe the air of a purer world," a nation filled with "sardonic and superior" ninnies overly obsessed with Poe's "erratic and heteroclite existence" and "the alcohol on his breath that could have been lit with a candle."

Yet here, in Poe's bicentennial year, several hundred Americans passionately joined a tussle over the deceased author as if he were a newly single cheerleader a week before prom--cheering some arguments, serving up catcalls at others, reciting stanzas of "The Raven" en masse with little prompting. There have been tough words of late from living critics: Algis Valiunas, in a recent Commentary essay entitled "No to Poe," wrote that while the "maniacal frivolity" of his work may "take on a cast of deliquescent solemnity," it is "by no means serious." But surely, the Great Poe Debate of 2009, as it was dubbed, would chasten the ghost of Baudelaire, even if the Postal Service's new Poe commemorative stamp failed to do so.

Then again, perhaps not. It was easy enough to imagine Baudelaire painting his face with a--sardonic? superior?--smirk as La Salle professor Ed Pettit, proprietor of the authoritative, quirky blog "Ed & Edgar: My Adventures in the Cult of Poe," bounded into the auditorium in a boxer's robe bearing the slogan "Philly Poe Guy" to the strains of the Rocky theme, waving a shovel and bellowing that he had come "not to bury Poe but to unbury him." Pettit's later addendum that he "would love to exhume his wife and mother-in-law, too" and Boston College professor Paul Lewis marching in with a campy gait behind a giant plush raven on a stick, quite possibly would have set Baudelaire choking on his cheese.

Granted, there were aspects of the debate of which Poe himself would have likely disapproved. For example, the Poe impersonator got big laughs by feigning imperious indignation at jokes about his marriage to his beloved (13-year-old) cousin, Virginia Clemm. He might also have lamented that the final verdict was determined by voice vote: "Democracy is a very admirable form of government," he once famously quipped, "for dogs."

Nevertheless, such an adoring reception might well have warmed the reanimated heart of a man who was traumatized by his mother's early death, and left this world in a lonely, broken stupor in the fall of 1849, unceremoniously carted off to a hospital by members of his own family unwilling to tend to him. When a hospital doctor told Poe a day later that he'd "soon be in the company of friends" again, Peter Ackroyd reveals--in his fine, brief biography Poe: A Life Cut Short--that Poe "broke out into an agony of self-reproach at his degradation" and protested that "the best thing a friend might do for him was to blow out his [Poe's] brains."

None did. Poe died anyway. Only four mourners attended the three-minute funeral service. Poe's grave was unmarked. "Poe was a perpetual orphan in the world," Ackroyd muses. "All the evidence of his career, and of his writing, suggests that he was bound by ropes of fire to the first experiences of abandonment and of loneliness."

How long Poe would have remained enamored of his new-found 21st-century friends is less than certain. Maybe the fanfare would frustrate him. "Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of today or the agonies which are have their origin in the ecstasies that might have been," he wrote in "Berenice."

Not to mention, in his own day, that neither acolytes nor benefactors held Poe's esteem very long. He could be dreadfully cruel to those who believed in him most--especially while imbibing certain spirits, a not-uncommon occurrence. Poe, echoing Hamlet, described the pestilence incarnate of "The Masque of the Red Death" as having "out-Heroded Herod," and he knew of whence he imagined, just as the self-control issues Poe dreamt up for William Wilson ("Men usually grow base by degrees. From me, in an instant, all virtue dropped bodily as a mantle") could have been derived from the write what you know dictum. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow failed to respond to Poe's charges against him of the "most barbarous class of literary robbery," Poe went ahead and composed "an imaginary riposte to his own charges under the name 'Outis,' or 'Nobody,' simply to continue the public debate for a little longer," Ackroyd notes.

Poe was, in other words, ornery enough to quarrel with himself.

Poe's affection toward this contemporary cadre might also be tempered somewhat by his robust literary ego. Well, of course they love me. Evidence? Well, there were his assured takes-one-to-know-one-flavored ruminationson brilliance: "To appreciate thoroughly the work of what we call genius is to possess all the genius by which the work was produced," said Poe, the same critic who once bragged, "I intend to put up with nothing I can put down"--a category defined widely to leave early supporter James Russell Lowell wondering if Poe sometimes mistook "his phial of prussic acid for his inkstand."

Compare this vast inventory of scathing critiques with Poe's pronouncements on his own work: When Poe encountered an acquaintance shortly after finishing "The Raven," he confided, "I have just written the greatest poem that was ever written." (His friend's response? "That is a fine achievement." Well, what would you say?)

He pitched his treatise on the universe, Eureka, to publisher George P. Putnam as a book that "would at once command such universal and intense attention that the publisher might give up all other enterprises, and make this one book the business of his lifetime." (It sold 500 copies the first year--somewhat short of Poe's optimistic estimate of one million.)

More than once during his life, Poe insisted he would either "conquer or die." The "perpetual orphan" managed to do both.

Jeff Jerome, longtime curator of the Poe House in Baltimore, took a frontrunner approach to the debate. He (figuratively) gripped Poe's bones like a politician, clinging to a slim-but-solid lead in the polls. Gentle ridicule of the pretenders to the throne and an appeal to tradition were the hallmarks of his attack.

Poe had Baltimore roots stretching back to a grandmother who "made trousers for Lafayette's troops" while the general was encamped in the city, Jerome said. The author was originally buried in his grandfather's plot. It was in Baltimore that Poe composed his first horror story, "Berenice." ("Premature burial, grave desecration, mutilation--it was a fun story!" Jerome enthused.) The curator allowed that there had been little initial fanfare for Poe's resting carrion in Baltimore. Since the writer was reinterred in 1875, however, the city had "stepped up to the plate" and honored him better than anyone else, from the "Poe Toaster" who has left three roses and a half-bottle of cognac on Poe's grave on the author's birthday every year since 1949 to its NFL team, the Ravens.

Boston's Paul Lewis had a more difficult task and conceded as much straightaway, contemplating aloud his "underdog" status and kinship with Daniel Webster, "an earlier Boston orator" called to "argue his case against the Devil himself in front of an audience of the damned."

Before the debate, Lewis distributed postcards with a Boston-centric Poe timeline (sample entry: "November 1848: Poe attempts suicide in a Boston hotel, thus settling for all time the question of where he wanted to be buried") alongside abridged quotations ("We like Boston. We were born there" but omits "and perhaps it is just as well not to mention that we are heartily ashamed of the fact. .  .  . The Bostonians have no soul") and, noting Boston's relatively recent interest in honoring Poe, faddishly labeled himself the candidate of, yes, "change you can believe in."

Alas, riffs and allusions were not going to carry the day against two Poe scholars. Lewis fell back on a counterintuitive argument--since the other two panel cities had primarily "inspired [Poe's] work by torturing him" and the only city with "a legitimate claim to Poe's legacy" was the one "he didn't live in much of the time he was a professional writer." He said,

For these guys, it's all about 'Well, Poe lived here,' 'Well, Poe worked here.' They don't want to talk about the quality of his life in these cities.
When they recognized his genius, when these cities saw what he could do, they thought, 'Hmm, here's an editor. We could work him 80 hours a week and pay starvation wages.' Oh, we love Poe. We supported Poe. The hell they did! Before they claim his legacy they should get down on their knees and beg his forgiveness.

In short, Lewis said finally, Baltimore and Philadelphia had "chewed him up and spit him out." Here moderator Grover Silcox felt obliged to dive into the fray, ringing the miniature Liberty Bell that served as the timer.

"I have to be honest with you, Paul," Silcox said, "what you just described we look at as a compliment in Philadelphia." Actually, in building the case for Philadelphia's ownership of Poe in a 2007 article, Pettit had cited the city's mid-19th century .  .  . attributes ("race and labor riots, poverty and crime," "a stinking effluvia of corruption and decadence," "brazen grave-robbers") as integral.

"Poe, if we define him by his macabre
works," Pettit wrote, "felt right at home."

He was not so blunt at the debate. Emboldened by the hometown crowd in his quest to prove Philadelphia the "crucible of Poe's creative genius," the professor held forth with a grandiloquent theatricality.

"Baltimore hath told you Poe is theirs," he began. "If it were so, it were a grievous fault and grievous they shall be when I answer them." Pettit scoffed at the idea that Poe and Baltimore "go together like crab and cake," and compared Poe's time in Baltimore to Babe Ruth's Red Sox years.

"Philadelphia is where Poe had his greatest seasons as a writer," Pettit said. "Baltimore? That's just Poe's minor league team." Pettit reeled off some of Poe's Philadelphia-impressive curriculum vitae: "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Gold-Bug," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Pettit also questioned Baltimore's motivations for reinterring Poe in more prestigious digs in 1875 ("Years later Poe becomes famous and Baltimore says, 'Hey isn't that famous guy buried in one of our cemeteries?' ") and only briefly addressed Lewis's case ("Boston? Please. Poe was only born there because that was the city his pregnant actress-mother happened to be performing in when she went into labor").

Pettit acknowledged that his dream of appropriating Poe's body in order to, as he wrote, "reinter it under the floorboards at Seventh and Spring Garden"--i.e., at Philadelphia's lovely Poe National Historic Site--"or brick it into the wall" was, despite the shovel on the table, quixotic. "We all know his body will never really be moved, so let's claim his legacy," Pettit said.

There were moments of testiness. Pettit kept ribbing Jerome with not-so-thinly-veiled suggestions that Poe might have lived and thrived had Baltimore not mysteriously gotten hold of the author on his fateful, truncated 1849 trip to New York, and, when Lewis bragged that Boston's Mayor Thomas Menino had issued a proclamation in honor of the Poe bicentennial, Jerome shot back sarcastically, "How can we top that?"

"You could keep your mayor out of jail," Lewis said.

Oh, snap! Still, the brouhaha ended with the debaters expressing their admiration for one another. Everyone hyped their own Poe events--symposiums, theatrical productions, impersonator visits, lectures, page-a-day calendars, Poe-themed anthologies, etc. Free Library of Philadelphia employees handed out brochures for its own exhibit, which included rare manuscripts, Charles Dickens's "Raven"-inspiring stuffed raven, letters, and even a lock of Poe's hair.

Philadelphia had run away with the debate, but no one seemed particularly surprised or dejected by the outcome. In Eureka Poe posited "diffusion from Unity, under the conditions, involves a tendency to return into Unity--a tendency ineradicable until satisfied." So it was on this night as well.

If it had been a more pedantic, less good-natured debate, would there have been a more conclusive result? Ironically, the lighter atmosphere may have been a better tribute. Southern Literary Messenger editor Thomas Willis White once complained that Poe's work might be a bit "too horrible." Poe responded that it was simply "the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful colored into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical. You may say all this is bad taste."

Poe was, it seems, not entirely opposed to a little histrionic hamming.

Further, in "The Gold-Bug" the narrator ponders the puzzling situation around him, and ruminates that "The mind struggles to establish a connection--and, being unable to do so, suffers a species of temporary paralysis." If arguing legacy helps contemporary readers contextualize the work, or piques their interest enough to fortify them with the patience to delve into Poe's somewhat antiquated syntax, that's all well and good enough.

Unlike the mystery in "The Gold-Bug," though, there is no real possible resolution to the Poe Wars. Pettit's sports team metaphor is apt: No booster of any one city will ever have the perspective to accept the claim of another, and Poe isn't around to express a preference. Hence, another appropriate narrator quote, this time from "The Fall of the House of Usher."

I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

Moreover, not everyone wants to be part of the debate. Although Poe self-identified as a Virginian, and lived in Richmond longer than any other city, Edgar Allan Poe in Richmond author Chris Semtner said that he was content to leave sparring over the author's spiritual residency to others.

"Poe was opposed to provincialism in writing and life," he explained by phone from his curator's office at Richmond's Poe Museum, a cornucopia of inventive exhibits and collections alongside an "Enchanted Garden" shrine to Poe which, incidentally, you may reserve to wed your own Ligeia.

"He wanted to compete on the world stage. He would probably love that people are still arguing over him, and if it gets people to read his work--that's the best way to honor his legacy, really. But I'm not sure he'd like to be pigeonholed into one city as if he was a local sports team or had limited appeal."

Instead of joining the Poe Wars, the Richmond museum held a Victorian séance with a Poe impersonator, stayed open on his birthday for a full 24 hours, toasted the man with champagne, and presented new exhibits of rare Poe daguerreotypes and another on the author's influence on graphic novels.

And yet, despite his official neutrality, Semtner did have a proposition for his fellow Poe fanatics. "In the true spirit of Poe," he said, "the different groups honoring his memory should not fight amongst themselves, but should unite to attack Longfellow."

Shawn Macomber is a writer in Philadelphia.