Happy 200th Birthday Mr. Poe

Next week is Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday.

Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849) was an American poet, short-story writer, editor and literary critic, and is considered part of the American Romantic Movement.

He's best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre. He was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre. Some critics credit him with helping to get the then newly-emerging genre of science fiction going.

He was also the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living purely through writing. (Something that resulted in a financially difficult life and career.)

I think one indication of his fame is how many people know him and some of his stories even though hey have never actually read them. Poe's stories are in every anthology of American literature used in schools. Sure, they have literary merit, but they are also public domain and don't cost publishers. As a teacher, students always liked the ideas behind his stories, but it was very rare to find a student who actually liked the stories. They are tough to read.

The English poet laureate of that age, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, dubbed Poe “the literary glory of America.” Sherlock Holmes' buddy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, called him “the supreme original short story writer of all time.”

I read him like a good high school student is supposed to and then again as a good English major, and I reacted much like my own students did years later.

In one college course I was assigned to read Poe's only completed novel, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym. That was a strange literary voyage over troubled seas.

The U.S. Postal Service commemorates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe this month with a stamp.

The stamp portrait of Edgar Allan Poe is by award-winning artist Michael J. Deas, whose research over the years has made him well acquainted with Poe’s appearance. In 1989, Deas published The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe, a comprehensive collection of images featuring authentic likenesses as well as derivative portraits. The scheduled issue date is January 16 in Richmond, VA.

Though there are many, mostly terrible, movies of Poe's stories, I have always thought that Poe's life would make a far better film.

I read years ago that Sylvester Stallone has always wanted to direct a film bio called Poe.

Supposedly, he once saw himself playing Poe, but has decided over the years that couldn't work. Somewhere I read that Robert Downey Jr. was attached to it. Based on his Chaplin performance, he could do it.

Stallone did write all of the installments in both the Rocky and Rambo film series and directed installments III and IV of the Rocky films, as well as John Travolta's follow-up to Saturday Night Fever, Staying Alive.

Take as just one sample series of scenes his mysterious death. On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore delirious, "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance", according to the man who found him.

He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died on Sunday, October 7. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain what had happened to him.

He was wearing clothes that were not his own. He repeatedly called out the name "Reynolds" on the night before his death. (Zoom in here for "Rosebud" style closeup.)

The story is told that his final words were "Lord help my poor soul." All medical records, including his death certificate, have been lost.

At that time, newspapers reported Poe's death as "congestion of the brain" or "cerebral inflammation", common euphemisms for deaths from disreputable causes such as alcoholism, but we really don't know the cause.

There's another theory that he was a victim of "cooping." This was an election ballot-box-stuffing scam in which victims were shanghaied, drugged, and used as a pawn to vote for a political party at multiple locations.

Some biographers have credible evidence that Poe's death resulted from rabies, or delirium tremens, heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, meningeal inflammation, cholera or rabies. He would make an excellent episode of House.

Like my own literary hero of the period, Herman Melville, Poe's death and funeral did not attract much attention. A simple ceremony was held October 8 with a few people attending. He had a simple mahogany coffin without nameplate, cloth lining, or a cushion for his head, and a cousin supplied the hearse. The funeral was presided over by the Reverend W. T. D. Clemm, cousin of Poe's wife, Virginia. (Ah Virginia... that will be an interesting part of the film.) The entire ceremony lasted only three minutes in the cold, damp weather. It was an unmarked grave.

He was reburied on in 1875, at a new location close to the front of the church. A celebration was held a month later at the dedication of the new tomb and several leading poets were invited to the ceremony. Walt Whitman was the only one to attend. Good for you, Walt.

The remains of Virginia Poe were moved from New York to Baltimore and added to those of Poe and Maria Clemm in 1885.


I have been to the cemetery and paid my respects. I tried to visit the Poe House in Baltimore but it has always been closed. My sons vividly recall a very hot summer day when I forced them to walk there, and the neighborhood folks who thought I was asking about where the Poorhouse (as in "Po house") was located. No fans of his writing in that neighborhood that we could find.

No childhood home of Poe is still standing. The oldest standing home in Richmond, the Old Stone House, is in use as the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, though Poe never lived there. They have things that Edgar probably used during his time with the Allan family and some rare first printings of Poe works.

I have also visited the dorm room Poe is believed to have used while studying at the University of Virginia in 1826. Had I attended UVA, I would no doubt have joined the Raven Society.

I have not visited are one he rented in Philadelphia, The Spring Garden home, where he lived in 1843–1844. It is preserved by the National Park Service as the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site.

And I never made it to Poe's final home, the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx, New York. I don't associate Poe with New York but there's also a building in the Upper West Side, where Poe temporarily lived when he first moved to New York. (A plaque suggests that Poe wrote "The Raven" there.)

In Boston, a plaque hangs near where the building once stood where Poe was born at 62 Carver Street (now Charles Street).

I have always meant to visit the bar in which legend says Poe was last seen drinking before his death. It still stands in Fells Point in Baltimore, Maryland. Now known as The Horse You Came In On, it's a pub on Thames Street, the last street before the docks. Local lore insists that a ghost they call "Edgar" haunts the rooms above it. No evidence of any ghost or Poe aficionados on the bar's MySpace page.

I think before my son graduates from the University of Maryland this May, I need to get to that bar and have a cognac for Edgar.

Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

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