Happy Halloween, Mr. Poe

Many cities call the master of the macabre one of their own, but Baltimore's claim is the most persuasive

October 31, 2010|By Matt Patterson

A lot of cities claim Edgar Allan Poe. And no wonder: He was born in Boston, adopted and raised in Richmond, Va. He went mad in Philadelphia, had his heart broken in Providence, R.I., composed his most famous poem, "The Raven," in New York.

But Baltimore has what is surely the greatest honor, for it is here where Poe met his end — and where his mortal remains still lie, entombed in an oft-visited grave at Westminster Hall.

The manner and circumstances of Poe's Baltimore death are suitably macabre: On the cusp of wedding his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Shelton — by then a widow of some means living in Richmond — Poe had taken a boat to Baltimore in late September of 1849. On Oct. 3, he was found on the streets, dressed in someone else's clothes, incoherent and in precarious mental and physical condition. He was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he lingered in a disturbed delirium for four days before crying "God help my poor soul!" and dying.

What happened to Poe in those missing days? We don't know. He was found near a polling place, sparking the rumor (which has persisted to this day) that he had been drugged and redressed for use as a repeat voter in an election fraud scheme. Then again, perhaps it is not necessary to posit such a plot: Exactly one year previous, in November 1848, Poe had attempted suicide in Boston, and had been fighting an increasingly desperate battle with alcohol and insanity ever since. Perhaps his imminent delivery from poverty and loneliness by Ms. Shelton's hand had simply come too late to save him.

That Poe died in Baltimore is well known (not least, as a friend reminds me, due to the name of the city's NFL franchise). But the Poe-Baltimore connection extends beyond his mysterious death. As a young man, he stayed for a time at the Baltimore home of his aunt Maria Clemm, where he met his cousin and future wife Virginia (who herself was destined for an early death). Poe's second volume of verse, "Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems," was printed by Baltimore publishers Hatch & Dunning in 1829. Poe removed for a short time to New York, before coming again to Baltimore, where he watched his brother die of tuberculosis. It seems to have been during this second residence at Baltimore that Poe began writing the short tales that have earned him immortality. In 1833, The Baltimore Saturday Visiter awarded Poe first prize in a writing contest for his tale "MS Found in a Bottle."

And it was in Baltimore that Poe, on Sept. 22, 1835, applied for a license to wed his cousin Virginia. He was 27 years old, she just 13.

It is perhaps for all these reasons that Baltimore has taken upon itself the preservation of Poe's legacy, hosting countless appreciation societies and celebrations of his birth, death and great works. This is no small matter, for Poe's post mortem reputation, as man and author, has not always fared well. Excepting only "The Raven," Poe's work in his lifetime yielded him little acclaim or money. Immediately following his death, Poe was savaged by American and English critics, a trend that continues to this day: Yale superstar Harold Bloom, perhaps the foremost literary critic of the last 50 years, exhibits an antipathy to Poe that borders on monomania, writing dismissively that Poe, unlike his great contemporary Emerson, "fathered precisely nothing."

This is rubbish. Poe was among the earliest practitioners of the short story, a form he helped bring into high art. He anticipated much of what we call genre fiction, especially horror. And with his recurring character C. Auguste Dupin, Poe gave birth to the fictional detective, providing a template copied by countless authors. Without Poe, it is impossible to imagine the careers of Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and Anne Rice, to name but a few.

So this Halloween, forgo the cinema and pay respects to Baltimore's favorite ghost. Curl up with some Poe; read aloud with a loved one by candlelight. I recommend "Ligeia," one the world's great short stories. You'll be surprised by how effective it still is. But then, that was Poe's true genius — fear, he understood, touches every human heart. It knows no country and no time. Fear is forever.

And so is Edgar Allan Poe.

Matt Patterson, a Rockville resident, is senior editor at the Capital Research Center and a contributor to "Proud to be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation." His e-mail is mpatterson.column@gmail.com.

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