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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."