Home at Last
Which metropolis may claim the peripatetic Poe?
Sep 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 02 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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.
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
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.