Pieces Of Poe

Ravenous scholars flock to Richmond to pick apart his life and death

October 11, 1999|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. -- Everyone wants a piece of Poe.

The thought comes, unbidden and unexpected as any midnight visitor, while a quartet of tour buses jounces over the rutted streets near the Shockoe Hill Cemetery. The buses are taking the attendees of the International Edgar Allan Poe Conference on a two-hour tour of "Poe's Richmond." So far, the trip has included a drive-by of a home where Poe gave a private reading of "The Raven" and not much more. Poe's Richmond was, after all, antebellum Richmond. Many buildings did not survive the Civil War.

As for this cemetery visit -- well, it is to see the gravesites of Poe's foster family, the Allans. Later, we will tour yet another grave, the one where Poe's mother is buried. "If this is Poe's Richmond," one conference-goer is heard to mutter, "then he spent a lot of time in cemeteries."

But Richmond -- like Baltimore, like Boston, like Philadelphia and even New York -- works hard to make the case that Poe belongs to Virginia, the place where he was reared, the place where he worked for the Literary Messenger, the place where a museum in his honor now stands. When Poe scholars began organizing this conference, scheduled to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Poe's death, they knew from the start that Richmond -- not Baltimore, the actual site of Poe's passing -- was the place they must gather.

Ultimately, more than 200 scholars converged on Richmond last week for the four-day conference, which ended yesterday. It was, in many aspects, like any other conference or convention -- a tightly knit subculture, with its own language and inside jokes. (There are more knee-slapping guffaws than you might think possible in a well-timed reference to "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.")

But the conference also was open to anyone who had $8 to join the Poe Studies Association and the $130 fee for the conference itself. So it happened that I wandered among some of the best-known Poe scholars in the world over the past four days and observed as Poe was celebrated in all his facets.

For just as many cities lay claim to Poe, so do many academic and not-so-academic disciplines. Here, it was possible to experience Poe the poet, Poe the critic, Poe the secret abolitionist, Poe the not-so-secret anti-abolitionist, Poe the philosopher, Poe the criminal profiler.

There was even Poe the victim of multiple chemical sensitivity, the latest Poe-death theory to be advanced.

But that will come in due time, gentle reader. Be patient.

Laying the groundwork

The preparation for the Poe conference began in March 1998, when Richard Kopley, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University-DuBois, put out the call for papers. Poe scholars from throughout the world signed up, some coming from as far as Japan, Italy and Brazil. And while many were academics, with degrees and publications to their credit, others were simply self-taught Poe enthusiasts.

It is, organizers say, one of the largest conferences ever dedicated to a single writer, and evidence of the emotion that Poe arouses in those who study him.

"I think there's a lot of affection for Poe and a strong community for Poe out there, and it just hasn't had a chance to materialize," Kopley said. "He lived a life that is so thoroughly engaging, he's a figure who it's easy to admire and feel for."

It was a short life -- just 40 years, from Jan. 19, 1809 through Oct. 7, 1849, when he died in a Baltimore hospital under circumstances that are debated, discussed and analyzed to this day. But Poe produced a large body of work in his time, ranging from poetry to the detective and horror tales that remain the entry point for most Poe readers.

There was a time, says Jeffrey Savoye of Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe Society, when Poe's biography was debated as fiercely as his work. But now much of the disagreement about his life story has subsided, and the controversies among Poe scholars center on his work. (The cause of his death is an exception to this trend.)

In fact, say Savoye and Carol Peirce, a University of Baltimore English professor also in attendance at the conference, the Poe scholars gathered in Richmond are showing few signs of the contentiousness for which they are famous. "Everyone's been very polite so far," Peirce observes. Perhaps, she says, it's because Poe scholars are coming to grips with their own mortality and realize the oldest among them may not be around for the bicentennial of Poe's birth in 2009.

"We've mellowed," Kopley says. "This event is a major step toward a greater collegiality."

Jammed sessions

Indeed, a random sampling of the conference sessions -- there are 40 themed presentations in all, usually with three presenters at each -- indicates that everyone is on his or her best behavior. There was talk of testiness at one session on Poe and other writers, but then Willa Cather and Charlotte Perkins Gilman do have the tendency to inflame.

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