Poe scholars never say `Nevermore'

Taking more mysteries out of the writer's life

October 03, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Even though he's been dead 153 years, Edgar Allan Poe still prompts passionate postmortems in the Land of Academia.

Poe scholars will assemble in force today at the Baltimore Sheraton North Hotel in Towson for the second International Edgar Allan Poe Conference.

The gathering begins on the 153rd anniversary of the day in 1849 when a printer found Poe "utterly stupified" and barely conscious at Cornelius Ryan's tavern on East Lombard Street. Poe died four days later, Oct. 7, 1849. The conference will close Sunday with the laying of a wreath at Poe's grave in Westminster Cemetery at Fayette and Greene streets.

In between, Poe people and professors will present dozens of papers, a mass weighty enough to threaten the lay reader with premature burial, a subject, of course, that haunts Poe's work.

Scott Peeples, an English professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, says more than 150 Poe scholars will present some 70 papers.

The conference is truly international. Yuri V. Luchinsky, of Russia's Kuban State University, will discuss "The Plot Line Codes in the Unpublished Drama of E.A. Poe." Elvira Osipova, of St. Petersburg University, will talk about "The Reception of Eureka in Russia." Charlie Channing, of Japan's Naruto University, will present "Roderick Usher's Japanese Garden." Klaus Benesch, of Germany's University of Bayreuth, will examine "Authorship and Technology in Poe's `Anastatic Printing.'"

Peeples, who helped organize this event for the Poe Studies Association, says the program has no particular theme.

"We didn't want to limit it too much," he says. "We really wanted anybody who was interested in Poe to feel like their work could be represented if it was good."

Thus we have the perhaps arcane "Post-Human Mimesis and the Debunked Sublime: Reading Poe's `Maelzel's Chess Player' and `The Man That Was Used Up,'" to be presented by UCLA's James Berkley. And the pop culture investigation, "`Look at this Pain, Look at this Torment': the WWF's Raven Emerges from the Ruins of Poe's Life and Fiction," by Judy A. White of the University of Akron in Ohio.

"It's interesting [that] several people presenting at the conference are looking at Poe and popular culture," Peeples says. "I think there's more of a confluence between the pop culture Poe and the academic now than there used to be ...

"My sense in reading some of the older criticism is that Poe scholars of the '50s and '60s didn't have much truck with the Roger Corman films."

Corman, as horror fans know, directed Vincent Price in a half-dozen films more or less loosely based on Poe's life and works.

"Nowadays, I think Poe scholars are much more likely to be fascinated by the latest rock group to appropriate Poe or the latest rumors about Michael Jackson doing Poe in a movie and things like that," Peeples says.

For example, John T. Irwin, a professor in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, will take on "Poe and Hardboiled Fiction: The Absence and Presence of Poe's Influence in Hardboiled Fiction of the 1930s and 1940s."

Poe's invention of the detective story with the three Auguste Dupin stories - The Murder in the Rue Morgue, et al. - provided the model, Irwin says, that lasted until Dashiell Hammett, also a sometime Baltimorean, took "murder out of the Venetian vase and put it back in the alley," in Raymond Chandler's words.

"He said what Hammett had done," Irwin recalls, "was to give it back to the kinds of people who actually do it rather than those people who do it just to produce a corpse and therefore a mystery."

But he notes that Poe's Imp of the Perverse, a first-person narrative of a murderer, provided another influence that survives in writers of hard-boiled fiction - "a psychological principle that makes people perform an action simply because they realize it's in their own worst interest."

Irwin cites Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, another occasional Baltimorean, and Cornell Woolrich, whose work is infused with "a sense of fatality, suspense and impending doom."

Notably missing from this conference is any speculation on the cause of Poe's death, which has engendered reams of papers over the years.

Philip D. Beidler, a University of Alabama professor, in his presentation finds a poetic justice of Poe's collapse on Election Day in Baltimore and death four days later. Poe was contemptuous of democracy and the mob, Beidler says. And he may have been caught up by Mob Town ward-heelers lubricating the wheels of democracy with free liquor for multiple votes.

"Democracy was the death of him," Beidler says.

The exact spot where Poe was found in a stupor is of intense interest to people who tour Poe's Baltimore, says David Keltz, an actor who has portrayed Poe frequently since 1992. On Sunday, he'll perform at the Poe statue on the University of Baltimore campus at Mount Royal and Maryland avenues for conferees who take a Poe bus tour, and again at Poe's grave.

The tour will visit Poe's Amity Street home and pass the Latrobe House on Mulberry Street where he won the prize for MS. Found in a Bottle, and other sites on the Poe trail, including where he was found incoherent.

"It was 75 feet from the corner of Albemarle, on the north side of Lombard Street," Keltz says, "He was found on the sidewalk by a printer named Joseph Walker."

It's a vacant lot now.

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