Who Gets Poe’s Body?

by Jeff Abbott on September 9, 2008

Ian Urbina in The New York Times writes about a literary smackdown (or actually, polite debate) over whether Philadelphia or Baltimore should be the final resting place of the great Edgar Allan Poe. Reading Poe as a kid was one of the reasons I wanted to write crime fiction. So I asked my good friend and Poe scholar, Daniel Stashower (author of the brilliant The Beautiful Cigar Girl, a nonfiction account of America’s first celebrity murder and its effect on Poe’s art) for his take on the debate.
Jeff: Why is the debate happening now?
Dan: Poe never really goes out of fashion, but he’s very much in the wind at the moment. He was born in January of 1809, so we’re coming up on his bicentennial.
Jeff: What is it about Poe that inspires this kind of debate?
Dan: His life was difficult and peripatetic, to say the least. He spent large chunks of time in a number of different places – Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York – so it’s not surprising that each of these cities lays some claim to him. And that list doesn’t even include Boston, his birthplace, because he wasn’t there for very long. But one of the few mementos he had of his mother, who died when he was only two years old, was a sketch of Boston Harbor, on the back of which she had written: “For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best, and most sympathetic friends.”
Jeff: We think of Poe as unwanted and unappreciated in his lifetime. Is it true?
Dan: Today we would call him “high maintenance.” He had a contrary, even self-destructive nature, both in his life and in his fiction. It’s a quality he recognized in himself, and he wrote about it in a story called “The Imp of the Perverse”:
“With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible,” he wrote. “I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements. It is a radical, a primitive impulse — elementary.”
He seems to be saying, in other words, that sometimes he just couldn’t help himself.
Jeff: Where do you think Poe should rest?
Dan: To be honest, I could make a case for each of the cities where Poe spent large blocks of time. Since I live and pay taxes in Maryland, I’ll go with Baltimore — but with a caveat. I don’t happen to think that his death – in the gutter, wearing another man’s clothes – ought to be a source of civic pride. But I doubt if it would have mattered much to him, so long as he was buried beside his wife, who died two years before he did. She was a Baltimore girl, and though it took a while before her remains were brought to the city, in the end she came to rest there beside her husband. So, as he once wrote:
“And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side 

Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride . . . “

Jeff: For someone who hasn’t read Poe, or hasn’t read him since high school, where should they start?
Dan: It’s hard to go wrong. Do you remember all those great lines from the stories that gave you chills as a kid? They still do now. A lot of the stories take on new shadings when you read them again, but they still grab you by the throat:
Villains! Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! – here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!–The Tell-Tale Heart
The box! – the box, I say! Captain Hardy, you cannot, you will not refuse me. By the mother who bore you – for the love of Heaven – by your hope of salvation, I implore you to put back for the box!–The Oblong Box
For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not — and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul.–The Black Cat
Like I said, it’s hard to go wrong.

    { 1 comment… read it below or add one }

    elaine viets September 10, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    Excellent blog, Jeff and Dan. I can’t help thinking that this is the perfect Poe situation — people arguing over possession of his dead body.

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