Thursday, November 01, 2007

Why Edgar Allan Poe Belongs in Baltimore

Baltimore, Maryland/Philadelphia, Pennsylvania--As a disinterested party living in Indiana, this whole affair seems somewhat concocted and at the primary instigation of one Edward Pettit, who wrote a provocative piece on October 2nd in the Philadelphia City Paper (a cover article) calling for the disinterment of the writer from Baltimore to the city of brotherly love.

Pettit is a literary scholar and critic living in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and has a good pedigree as as a member of the National Book Critics Circle. That said, his own piece contains elements that undermine his argument on a number of key-points.

Overall, the reasoning by Mr. Pettit for why Poe belongs buried in Philadelphia is flatly wrong: Edgar Allan Poe always considered himself a Southerner first, and was raised primarily in Richmond, Virginia. This is a frequently overlooked fact, perhaps more than his time in Philadelphia is. Beyond this obvious fact is what we all know--that Poe died in Baltimore, and that he wrote his very first horror short story 'Berenice' while in the city.

The story was published in 1835, in the Southern Literary Messenger. This has been astutely noted by the Poe House and Museum's curator Jeff Jerome, in an October 10th issue of the Baltimore Sun, but is widely known, and certainly known to Mr. Pettit.
But it appears a number of individuals with selfish interests would like to hijack the legacy of our greatest writer for the sake of local prestige and those coveted tourism dollars. Remember back to August when the doddering Sam Porpora claimed to be the Poe toaster, an obvious and bald lie. Yet, the press ate the story up with undue credulity. The call by Pettit is begging-the-question of where Poe's body belongs, and engages in some very peculiar logic. While the writer and critic has uncovered some very interesting details on Poe's time in Philadelphia, he makes the peculiar assertion that the great writer somehow felt in his element there and would have had a large funeral in the city of brotherly love at the time of his death...had he died there. As we all know, he did not.

As historians--and Pettit himself--have pointed-out, dying at an early age in Philadelphia during the time Poe resided there (1838-1844) would have been fairly easy. The city was riven with ghastly official corruption, labor violence and strikes, race riots, rampant and unsolved crime, poor hygiene, runaway disease, and squalid poverty. Appropriately, it all sounds a bit like Poe's own life (because it was), as well as a page from one of his own short stories.

All of these factors were typical of conditions in the city centers at the time, but Philadelphia was one of the worst examples (and still is), along with New York City at the bottom for its inhumanity and modern indifference. Another city had the same conditions: Baltimore, a fact made clear by the very few facts that we know surrounding Poe's mysterious death. Note this passage from Pettit's op-ed from October 2nd:
Poe, if we define him by his macabre works, felt right at home. Could he have experienced all of this in other cities? [Ed.-As a matter of fact, he could have.] He most certainly could have, but it was in Philadelphia that he wrote most about these kinds of experiences. Before living in Philadelphia, his horror tales were more grounded in a European Gothicism. Post-Philadelphia, Poe's personal problems — erratic behavior, sporadic drunkenness, poverty, his wife's illness and death — take over his life, diminishing his creative output until his own early death a mere five years later. (Philadelphia City Paper, 10.02.2007, )
The problem with Pettit's so-called 'logic' should be obvious even on casual inspection--he notes that Poe's writing tails-off after Philadelphia, and he makes a bald move to separate the writer's life from his work while simultaneously saying they are one. This reveals the self-serving component of a Pennsylvania son. To say it has an element of the tedious and the banal would be too fair.

For Poe to return to Philadelphia would have been some kind of nightmare for Poe, and it still is to many living there today. While living in Philly during the late-1960s, director David Lynch witnessed a murder in front of his own flat. This has proven to be the genesis of his own confrontations with the darkness throughout his own original body of work in film. Should the Montanan David Lynch be interred in Philadelphia when he dies? He's lived in Los Angeles since 1970. Abraham Lincoln lived in Indiana for over ten years of his life--should he buried here? There are equally serious questions.

Poe didn't need Philadelphia in any exclusive sense to find horror along the American landscape of his time. Like many fallen Southern aristocrats, he feared 'the mob,' or 'the crowd' of 'rabble.' Crime, rioting and strife were everywhere, punctuated by the occasional slave rebellion. Poe was not enamored with democracy. To his eyes--rightly--chaos was everywhere. Labor conditions were so horrible that they spawned violence, rioting, strikes, and the birth of organized unions. Flight to the frontier offered little respite from misery. Just two years before his untimely death, we would see the ethnic cleansing of the Trail of Tears, while the year before brought us the horrors of the Mexican-American war under that forerunner of George W. Bush, President James K. Polk. Slave rebellions occurred during Poe's life as well, and poverty and rioting were a common part of life.

In 1833--just two years before Poe wrote 'Berenice'--the Nat Turner slave rebellion occurred, nearly touching-off civil war decades before the real thing exploded in 1861. The heads of the rebellious slaves were fitted onto posts as a warning to other rebels. There were other economic woes. Mr. Pettit mentions the economic depression of 1842 (occurring while Poe was in Philly) in his sprawling piece, which is really more a testament to typing than a valid attempt at proving a thesis. This fitting example should prove the point:
Between his reputation for writing imaginative fiction and withering reviews, his writings were sought after by many other periodicals around the nation." Poe's initial successes in the city diminished by 1844. Poe's irascibility and drinking problems, exacerbated by his wife's tuberculosis, began to alienate the editors whom Poe needed to court for work. (ibid)
Had Poe died in Philadelphia, there would have been a huge funeral. The penny press would have trumpeted the announcement for a solid week. Philadelphia has always had a way of celebrating its disasters, its ne'er-do-wells. Poe, found delirious, possibly drunk, in a tavern, taken to a hospital where he dies raving like a lunatic? ...True enough, while newspapers around the country were maligning Poe's name, Philadelphia's Quaker City Weekly was blasting a clarion to defend it: "As an author, his name will live, while three-fourths of the bastard critics and mongrel authors of the present day go down to nothingness and night." Poe still had friends in Philadelphia. (ibid)
Pettit waxes faux-nostalgic on how there would have been parades in the city of Philadelphia had Poe died there...but history isn't about 'what ifs,' as any credible historiographer will tell you. What seems most likely is to be found in his own article--that Poe hated the city and its squalor, its crime, its indifference, and that he feared the people of the city who Pettit claims would have championed him. It's a ludicrous assertion.

The city of Philadelphia was not good for him or his young wife who was dying from tuberculosis the entire time. Poe found the dark city to be a slice of hell. Had the support for him been so ubiquitous as Pettit implies, why did he have to leave to find work elsewhere? All he had were the 'editors,' and his friends were few in the city of brotherly love. Poe earned much of this animus due to a very unstable nature made worse by his alcoholism. Very few people attended his funeral in 1849, as he likely would have had it.

What is well known is that Poe contributed greatly to the indifference and animosity--if not outright hatred--he was frequently greeted with, and like most writers of his time, he was treated very poorly indeed by his publishers and 'editors.' Note also in Pettit's piece that he willfully ignores the fact that Poe wanted to be known as a poet, and that the horror stories were a way of paying the bills to his mind.

'The Raven' was a new step in his writing career that melded both together in way that was probably more pleasing to a very troubled man with a very miserable and unsatisfying life, but a good part of the misery was of his own making. That life, and his works, are inseparable, and Mr. Pettit knows better.
It's unlikely Mr. Poe would have wanted to continue his vagabond life on-the-move in death as he had in life. Lastly, in what is already an unwarranted piece overall, Mr. Pettit enjoins his fellow members of the crowd to break the law and disinter Mr. Poe's remains by traveling down I-95 to Baltimore, echoing the lawless attitudes of 160 years ago that the writer so feared.

You're not taking anything back, Mr. Pettit, he was never yours. What's likely is Poe will never leave Maryland, lawsuits will drag-on well after all of our insignificant lifetimes, and that an armed guard will be indefinitely posted at the Westminster Burying Grounds if it's necessary. You can bank on it.