Beyond the GRAVE Today, 189 years after his birth, as fans flock to Edgar Allan Poe's final resting place, his hold on their imaginations is very much alive.

January 19, 1998|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF

As a boy, George Figgs was fascinated by the tales of terror crafted a century before by Edgar Allan Poe. As a man, he read everything he could get his hands on by and about the author. And at the age of 40, the same age that Poe died, Figgs quit his job as a bartender and spent 18 months ransacking libraries for every scrap of information about the mysterious events surrounding Poe's death.

"I found myself in rare book vaults with white cotton gloves on, with letters Poe had written to his mother-in-law, to his sister," says Figgs, 50, the founder of the Orpheum Cinema in Fells Point. "I got so deep into the research, I found myself doing everything in a 19th century fashion -- writing only in longhand, in copy books, working by candlelight.

"It was hypnotizing me, or something, into being a contemporary of Poe. I felt like, as much as anyone in this century, I knew the man. It became an obsession. It still is. I freely admit that. It's an obsession and I'm a total fanatic."

Today, on Poe's 189th birthday, Figgs plans to spend some solitary moments meditating on his posthumously acquired friend, whom he calls "Eddy."

Other celebrants might pause between sips of amontillado and consider why, after all these years, Poe's life and work retain such a powerful grip on the imagination of his fans.

Some weep when they first see Poe's grave at Baltimore's Westminster Burial Ground. Japanese visitors occasionally burn incense there in his honor. People from around the world leave small coins on the monument, as a sort of tribute, as they have for more than a century. Music, mysteries, plays and ballets are still inspired by his works.

Occasionally, a visitor to Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum on Amity Street gets angry. Why, the Poe aficionado will demand, are tourists allowed to tramp through and defile what should be a sacred space? Why, they ask curator Jeff Jerome, isn't Poe's former home set up as a shrine?

Mark Twain may be the most popular 19th century American author, Herman Melville the most critically acclaimed. Walt Whitman is likely the era's most celebrated poet.

But none, perhaps, inspires the intense emotions that Poe seems to conjure from his fans.

L "With Poe, people just seem to go to extremes," Jerome says.

Martha Womack, a schoolteacher in Farmville, Va., helps run an Internet site dedicated to Poe. Poe isn't even her favorite author, yet she wept when she first confronted his grave. Why?

"The mystery surrounding the man's life, his death, his writing?" she offers. "I don't know what it is."

By writing about Poe and his work on her Web page, she says, she feels she is helping "give this man the attention he did not get in his lifetime."

Some fans are possessive of Poe, furious at those with differing views of his work. One Poe faction is quick to dispute those who suggest he suffered from a mental illness, was alcoholic or even just an oddball. Others celebrate his eccentricities, both real and alleged, along with his talent and imagination.

A few boast of knowing him intimately.

A former member of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore claimed to be the reincarnation of Virginia Poe, Edgar's wife. Jeffrey A. Savoye, the group's secretary-treasurer, recalls that Virginia II decided that Savoye's body was inhabited by the spirit of a relatively obscure friend of Poe's, novelist and poet Frederick William Thomas.

"Poe has an appeal, unfortunately, to a certain fringe member of society," Savoye says. "He's a sort of patron saint of outcasts."

Savoye, who makes his living as a computer programmer, has read more than a dozen Poe biographies and almost all of his major works, including 17 volumes of literary criticism.

He has spent most of his spare time in the past five months assembling the Poe Society's Web site (http: //raven.ubalt.edu/ features/poe). Still, he says, there is nothing unusual about his admiration of the dead poet.

"It's a hobby gone out of control," he admits, "but it's a hobby."

Norman George of Derry, N.H., portrays Poe about 30 times a year in a one-man show he's written about the author. He's met several people who claim to be reincarnations of Poe's lovers. Some, he says, tell him he is the reborn Poe.

All of which, he confesses, makes him feel both "flattered and apprehensive."

While he doesn't believe in the supernatural, George once spent a summer night sleeping in the parlor of the historic Poe Cottage, the author's former home in the Fordham section of the Bronx in New York. If spirits haunt the place, he didn't meet any.

L "It was very hot," he recalls. "There was a lot of traffic."

The Poe House's Jeff Jerome says he avoids people who worship Poe, or who claim to talk to him.

Still, he has spent weeks researching Poe's life and has visited a number of places the author lived or visited. While in Providence, R.I., Jerome toured the home of the 19th century poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who was briefly engaged to Poe in 1848.

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