Poe kin to have say on city with best claim to legacy

Descendants will announce preference at Poe Museum in Va.

January 10, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach | chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

The debate over which American city has the greatest claim to the legacy of Edgar Allan Poe may go on forevermore. But Saturday in Richmond, Va., Poe's actual descendants - perhaps the only group whose claim to Poe's legacy is indisputable - will announce which city they side with. Surely, the great poet and author's surviving relatives should be able to decide, once and for all, whether Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Richmond has the greatest claim to their illustrious ancestor.

Then again, given that the Poe descendant who will be making the announcement is president of Richmond's Poe Museum - well, maybe next weekend's decision won't be as unbiased as it might seem.

"Most of all, I'm concerned with the legacy," says Harry Lee Poe, a professor of faith and culture at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and president of the Poe Foundation, which owns and operates the Richmond museum.

Of course, during last year's bicentennial celebration of Poe's birth, that legacy question was at the center of a spirited, if good-natured, war of words between Poe partisans from Boston (where Poe was born), Philadelphia (where he did much of his writing) and Baltimore (where he died and is buried). Debates were held in Boston and Philadelphia, and while nothing was resolved, all the buzz surrounding Poe made him part of the national pop culture consciousness to a degree no other 19th-century writer can match.

Harry Lee Poe, whose great-grandfather, William, was Edgar Allan Poe's cousin, applauds all the work that's been done on behalf of his distant relation. But now, he says, it's time for the family to weigh in. And while tacitly acknowledging that Richmond may have something of an advantage over the competition - "We have to think about Richmond, where he spent half his life. He always said that he was a Virginian, he identified himself that way" - Harry Lee Poe stresses that there are some dark horse candidates as well.

"Poe lived in Charleston almost as long as he lived in Baltimore," he says, "and certainly much longer than he lived in Boston." He also set three stories in the South Carolina capital, including "The Gold Bug."

There are even, he notes, other cities in Virginia. "We have to consider Charlottesville," he says, "where Poe attended the University of Virginia, had a happy time, had an excellent record. The university has been a staunch defender of Poe since the earliest days." Poe left the university, Harry Lee Poe says, not because he was thrown out, as popular legend holds, but because his stepfather refused to pay the tuition anymore.

Perhaps cities with a claim to the great man's legacy aren't even restricted to these shores. "We have to add London," Harry Lee Poe says. "Poe lived in London for five years, there he gained the classical education, and there his imagination was expanded by the cultural experiences of the greatest empire on Earth at that time."

As for Baltimore's perennial trump card - that it, alone, is the city where Poe was laid to rest? Harry Lee Poe, while respectful of Baltimore's adulation for his famous ancestor, sounds unswayed. "Do we need to reconsider where Poe is residing, and which place should be his final resting place? That seems to be the question that was raised by the debates. ... It's a family matter, where you bury your family members."

And yet, maybe nothing will be settled by next weekend's pronouncement. Edward Pettit, the Philadelphia author and Poe scholar who got the debate ball rolling in 2007 when he suggested that Poe's body ought to be wrested from its burial site outside Baltimore's Westminster Hall and reinterred in the City of Brotherly Love, views Richmond as an Edgar-come-lately to the discussion. And he doesn't exactly welcome them with open arms.

"Yeah, I'm annoyed," he says. "I'm a little surprised that Richmond didn't ask for my involvement, or even Baltimore's or Boston's. I'm surprised they went ahead with it as a solo thing. ... Richmond likes to talk to themselves, I guess."

Jeff Jerome, curator of Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, voices similar sentiments. "Here it is," he says, "a year after the bicentennial, and they're jumping on the bandwagon with one of their board members? How objective can they be?"

One group trying to stay above the fray, curiously, is the Richmond museum. Curator Chris Semtner says it is hosting next weekend's pronouncement only after being approached by the Poe family. All along, officials from the museum have displayed little interest in taking part in the debates - in December 2008, as Philadelphia was gearing up to host the first debate, Katarina M. Spears, the museum's executive director, told the Associated Press, "We kind of arrogantly feel like it's only if you're really insecure about your connection to him that you need to be actively competing."

Says Semtner, striking a populist chord, "The Poe Museum's opinion has always been that Poe belongs to the world, not to one museum or another. Poe is really a worldwide author. I hate to think of him as being one city's author, as someone who doesn't have relevance beyond one city."

If you go
The Poe family's position on "The Great Poe Debate" will be announced at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, 1914-16 E. Main St., Richmond - part of "Poe's 24-Hour Birthday Bash," set to begin with a champagne toast at midnight Friday (doors open at 11:45 p.m.) and run until midnight Saturday. Call 804-648-5523 or 888-213-2763 or go to poemuseum.org.

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