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The Local Lens: Poe’s NoLibs Legacy

  The legacy of Edgar Allan Poe has become big business in Philly. Proof of this was evident during the Inaugural Poe Arts Festival at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site and the German Society this past October. For a mere $10, participants got to sample beer, food, watch performances and listen to talks about Poe.

   Most readers will recognize Poe, along with Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Bram Stoker (Dracula), as one of the progenitors of horror fiction. Poe lived in Philly for about six years and spent the last 18 months of his time here with his wife Virginia, his mother-in-law Muddy and his cat, Catterina, in the now historic home at 7th and Spring Garden Streets. While in the city, Poe worked for a number of magazines, although his journalistic run was sometimes rough because he liked to drink in the afternoon. This habit caused him to be fired from one publication, although he was given a second chance when a man named George Graham made him editor of Graham’s Magazine.

   When Poe aficionado, Herb Moskovitz, asked me to read adapted sections from Poe’s story, “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, to Poe house visitors during the inaugural festival, I was more than willing to oblige.

   On the night of the readings, Herb and I were stationed in Poe’s old kitchen, a fairly small room that barely held the groups that were ushered in by a guide to hear us read. In the dark room we took turns reading the adapted story, the only lights were small flashlights clipped on the corner of our scripts.  The interest (and appreciation) expressed by the various groups that crammed into that small space was impressive and contagious, and made me wonder just what it was about Poe that attracted such a diverse array of people. While it’s possible that some in the groups that came to hear us read were well read literary types, I felt that most were actually general readers with an interest in Halloween horror as it related to a scary story by Poe they may have remembered from childhood, even though there’s nothing especially scary about Poe’s fiction.

     The gore in Poe’s horror fiction, the rolling heads, the stab wounds, the walled up victims unable to breathe, all of this is too outlandishly gothic to arouse genuine fright among most readers. Standing in the dark kitchen, it became obvious to me that none of the visitors were really frightened, but were more interested in hearing how Poe’s gothic sentences rolled off a reader’s lips on Halloween. The idea, after all, was to create an atmosphere where Poe seemed to be in every particle of dust floating in the house, even if the really frightening experiences would have to wait until everyone at the festival went home and caught up on the latest world and local news, where the real horror resides.

      The numbers of people who crowded the Poe house that night got me wondering if Poe’s writing somehow speaks to our age more than it did to previous generations. Is the increased violence in the world, from ISIS to the killings in streets of Chicago, the catalyst that helps drive some to bask, with minimal discomfort, in the lamplight of B-movie gothic horror?  Or is something else going on? Only a one-act play written by Poe’s friend, George Lippard, captured the sense of true horror when it ended on the festival stage with one man slitting another man’s throat. Here, I thought, is an authentic contemporary link.

  There’s no doubt that Poe, and the manufacturing of his legacy, has become big business. But would Poe appreciate this fact were he able to come back to life?    

   Several years ago, there was a Poe “war of the corpses” when Philly Poe scholar Ed Pettit challenged the curator of Baltimore’s Poe House, Jeff Jerome, when Pettit suggested in a City Paper article that Poe’s body should be moved from Baltimore, where it is buried, to Philadelphia, where Poe wrote many of his noteworthy stories. The implication here, of course, is that Poe’s Philadelphia experience was richer and more substantial than the experiences he gathered in Baltimore. Poe actually considered himself to be a Virginian, so in theory Richmond, Virginia might also have requested Poe’s corpse to be transferred there for reburial. One could chime for months about the relative merits of various resting places as they relate to Poe, but in the end arguments like this end up sounding like theologian Thomas Aquinas quibbling about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. As a former Baltimorean, I can tell you that Baltimore does have a foreboding feel to it — I even want to call it a creepy element — that Philly does not have. For this reason it is a more fitting city than Philly for Poe’s earthly remains.

  Poe’s skyrocketing popularity has a kind of boardwalk quality to it, reminiscent of mass produced knick knacks and mugs sold in novelty shops. When a writer becomes so popular that his/her image winds up on jars of Nescafe and breakfast jam, the tendency for some is to not bother with the writer at all. Picture 10,000 people reading Harry Potter in a football stadium and you might understand why some readers would opt never to go to that stadium. You might describe over -saturation like this as the ‘drink the Kool Aid’ literary equivalent of the celebrity-loving sheep that follow every bit of news about the Kardashians.   

  Heavily gothic literature with lots of blood spilling is often equated with teenage angst. Writing only about dark things is a little like dressing up 24/7 in dark Goth clothing, which used to be the fashion among teenagers. As in fashion, so in literature, it helps to accessorize and diversify.    

  Yet the mystique of Poe is powerful enough to seduce even the most resistant reader. This is why while in Poe’s kitchen I found myself running my fingers along the walls, as if forcing a spiritual communion between myself and the writer. Standing in the dark, knowing that this was once the room where Poe lounged, chatted or argued with his wife or mother-in-law, scolded the cat, suffered multiple hangovers or dreamed up a new story idea while running his fingers along the wall was for me, a Halloween bonus. After all, the kitchen in any house is where the most dramatic family events occur, and this was almost certainly true for the family Poe.

  At some point during my time in Poe’s kitchen, I thought of the Walt Whitman house in Camden, New Jersey, another national literary shrine. Although far simpler in structure and allure than the Poe House, it is in many ways far more authentic. The Whitman house has not been remodeled, but in fact contains the same humble furniture that Whitman used. While Poe’s sojourn in Philly was relatively short, Whitman’s stay in Camden was so long that it’s probable that a DNA expert could comb the place and discover, even at this late date, “pieces” of old Walt in the walls and floors. In fact, the unglamorous Whitman house comes close to replicating the standard small Fishtown row home.   

   It’s an understatement to say that Poe’s work is not universally appreciated. There are some critics, for instance, who say that it is vastly overrated.

     A poetry site, Poetry Snark, lists the ten most overrated poets of all time. Included in the list are Charles Bukowski, Ted Hughes, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Edgar Allan Poe.

   The famed English poet T.S. Eliot once wrote:  “Poe as a man who dabbled in verse and in kinds of prose, without settling down to make a thoroughly good job of any one genre”   

  But all of this is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. To appreciate Poe doesn’t mean having to get stuck forever in Poe at the risk of ignoring other writers of greater or lesser importance, even if his mystique, however self indulgent in its dark gothic imagery, is far more seductive than the lives of most scribes.

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