Writer haunted by Poe's final days

Q and A

Q&A: Mattherw Pearl

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July 02, 2006|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

One of the literary world's most persistent debates concerns what happened to Edgar Allan Poe in the "lost" days between the time he left his home in Richmond, Va., for a routine trip and the night he was taken to the Baltimore hospital where he died.

It was the fall of 1849, a time when life was finally looking up for the underappreciated writer. Making plans and seeking backers for a new literary magazine, Poe had recently become engaged to his childhood sweetheart. When he left on his ill-fated journey, he was expecting to pick up Maria Clemm, the mother of his late wife Virginia, in New York and bring her to Richmond to share in his new life. He also planned to stop in Philadelphia for a lucrative editing job.

Instead, the writer vanished. He was next seen in a tavern in Baltimore, seemingly disoriented and wearing soiled clothes that did not fit him. He was sent to a nearby hospital, where he died, leaving behind a brilliant body of work and a slew of troubling questions.

Matthew Pearl suggests answers to some of them in his new novel, The Poe Shadow (Random House, $24.95). The protagonist, a young attorney, is a Poe fan - a rarity during the poet's life - who sets out to discover what happened in the days no one can account for.

This is Pearl's second fictional foray into the complexities of America's 19th century literary world. His first novel, the best-selling The Dante Club, employs meticulous scholarship about an eminent group of writers, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to tell a tale about their efforts to try to solve an imagined series of grisly murders that refer to Dante's Inferno while working on a translation of the medieval poet's masterpiece, The Divine Comedy.

This new work is also research-rich - so much so that Pearl unearthed fresh material, some from archived letters, that may shed light on Poe's last days. A graduate of Harvard University and of Yale University's School of Law, the 30-year-old novelist spent about a month visiting Baltimore sites and archives at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Historical Society.

Each day, Pearl would begin and end a day of research with a trip to Westminster Burying Ground, where Poe is buried. He would quietly review what he was learning and feeling about the poet.

Of all the places associated with Poe, why do you find his gravesite so compelling? Why did you begin your book with his funeral?

It was natural to start at Poe's death and work backward - that's what we've done culturally, too. It was only after Poe died that he became an important figure.

This spot is a center of gravity for the narrative. And for me, understanding Poe's death is a way of understanding his life. The one thing we can say with certainty about Poe's death is that it reveals him as a human being, not as an icon or a character or the legend we tend to view him as.

At his burial, there are only four mourners, the minister, the sexton and the gravedigger. That's it. The minister, a distant cousin of Poe's, had prepared a long oration, but he didn't read it because no one else was there.

At the actual funeral, there were no flowers. Now, 150 years later, there are usually flowers at his grave. People are still leaving them. This place illustrates a combination of what was not done at the time, as well as how much is done, and sometimes overdone, today.

When did you discover Poe?

My first introduction was probably the cover of my parents' Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. When I was really young, one of my favorite things was asking my parents who everyone was on that cover. I first knew Poe as an image on that cover.

Poe was also the first writer I wanted to keep reading after I was assigned to read him. In 1992, my junior year of high school, we read "The Purloined Letter." I still have my high school copy with the notes I wrote in the margins.

Your book creates a wonderful sense of Poe's Baltimore, a town where pigs rooted the streets for garbage and a "genuine" Baltimore dowager "suffered no man without proper commercial interests any more than she would tolerate a girl who was not beautiful." How did you research the details that bring the city to life?

I was able to walk around with an 1849 map of Baltimore I got from the map library at Harvard; the city's layout hasn't changed that much. I also used one guide book of the time I found called The Stranger's Guide to Baltimore. It was helpful but not that enlightening. I was in a rut for a while doing my Baltimore research. The Maryland Historical Society has wonderful art, but I still wasn't finding that treasure chest of descriptions.

I finally broke the stalemate I had with 19th century Baltimore by just flipping my perspective. I began looking for memoirs of British people who had traveled to Baltimore during trips to America. I was able to find dozens of descriptions in the library at Harvard.

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