The Magazine

Home at Last

Which metropolis may claim the peripatetic Poe?

Sep 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 02 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."