Virginia would 'purloin Poe as state poet

January 30, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance

The nerve.

A state legislator in Virginia has introduced a bill that would make Edgar Allan Poe that state's official poet and short-story writer.

In Baltimore -- where Poe lived for a time as a young man, where he wrote his first horror story, and where he died and was buried in 1849 -- the news came like a slap to the forehead.

"Why didn't someone in Baltimore do that?" Jeff Jerome, curator of Baltimore's Poe House and Museum, said he asked himself when he heard the news. "The funny thing about it is that in Richmond in the 1920s, when they were talking about a Poe museum, there was a lot of opposition. People did not want a museum dedicated to 'that drunk,'" Mr. Jerome said.

Now they're arguing in Virginia that Poe, who spent his childhood in Richmond, was a local hero.

"I've been studying Poe for the last 50 years," said Frank Speh, 76,who started the Virginia effort to claim Poe. "He affected not only literature but music and all of the arts."

In fact, Poe is a slippery individual for any state or city seeking to claim him. He was born in Boston in 1809, but only because that's where his mother, an actress, happened to be working when he arrived, Mr. Jerome said.

Baby Edgar wound up in Richmond because that's where his mother died, leaving three children. Edgar was taken in and reared in Richmond by friends of his mother, the Allans, for whom his mother had named him.

But his foster father, John Allan, was by all accounts an abusive, philandering man who cheated on his wife even as she lay dying of tuberculosis.

"Poe knew this," Mr. Jerome said. As soon as he could, as a teen, Edgar fled Richmond for Baltimore, and he never again used more than the initial of his middle name. "Poe was always fond of Baltimore, because that's where his roots were," said Mr. Jerome. "He always considered Baltimore a friendly city."

In Baltimore Poe penned his first horror story, "Berenice," and won his first national prize -- $50 for "Manuscript Found in a Bottle."

But he was living later in Philadelphia when he wrote his most famous works, and that's where he started to make money. And his last home was in New York.

"There weren't that many major cities in the United States then," Mr. Jerome said. "He would go wherever there was a hint of money."

As a result, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Richmond all now have Poe museums, and all of those but Richmond also boast a Poe House or a Poe Cottage.

Mr. Jerome said he thought about seeking a state poet designation for Poe in Maryland earlier this month when he read that someone in Annapolis had filed a bill that would name a state dinosaur.

After all, Maryland already has a state boat, dog, crustacean, fish, flower, fossil shell, insect, sport and a state tree.

"I thought, wouldn't it be nice if we could make Poe the state poet," he said. But then, he figured, Maryland already has a state poet, or poet laureate -- Linda Pastan -- who is very much alive.

Then, two weeks ago at the three-day Poe birthday bash in Richmond, word spread of Mr. Speh's bid to make Poe Virginia's state poet.

"There has always been -- I hate to use the word -- competition between the different Poe cities," Mr. Jerome said. And "there's always a slight tinge of regret when some other state or city does something of this magnitude on Poe."

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