Friday, January 22, 2010

Nevermo' fo' Poe?

Poe Street #3

I read with interest earlier this week that the shadowy figure known as the "Poe toaster" did not show up for his annual appearance at Edgar Allan Poe's gravesite. Each year, for roughly sixty years, this unknown man had visited a Baltimore churchyard on Poe's birthday (Jan. 19th) and deposited three roses and a half-full bottle of cognac on Poe's grave there. But this year, the mystery man failed to show up.

Some people are speculating that the "Poe toaster" perhaps had car trouble, or a nasty case of the flu which caused him to miss this year's salute. Others, though, suspect that the tradition has finally come to an end, and the annual toast will be (to quoth The Raven) "nevermore."

I had previously read a few of Poe's works, but only under duress of middle school teachers, as macabre really isn't my cup of tea. (You know what is my cup of tea? Vienna Cinnamon. Yummers.) Though we share an alma mater, and though I currently live in Poe's old stomping grounds, my knowledge of Poe was pretty limited. I knew more about the strange homage paid to him after his death than I did about the life that preceded it.

And now that the "Poe toaster" annual tradition had (possibly) come to an end, I wondered what was it that had inspired such devotion in the first place? I turned to my trusty friend, The Internet, to find out.

What I learned had all the makings of a sad tale: abandoned by his father, orphaned by his mother’s early death, Poe had a strained relationship with his foster family and bounced around the eastern seaboard for a time, trying to establish himself.

He and I both attended the University of Virginia, a mere 170 years apart, though our academic careers took slightly different trajectories: one of us graduated, while the other was expelled for failure to pay gambling debts. (Guess who?) If you visit the University today, you can sneak a peak into the Range room where Poe lived, which is maintained as a museum of sorts with furniture in the style of his era.1

After leaving UVA, Poe did a stint in the Army (did not end well), and then later enrolled at West Point (also did not end well), before deciding to focus on his writing. He took an editorial position in Richmond (did not end well), then married his thirteen year old cousin, Virginia. Needless to say, that did not end well either, and his young wife later died of consumption.

However, that tragedy seems to have supplied Poe with some good writing material. The theme of “death of a beautiful woman” shows up throughout his work, such as in “The Raven,” where the narrator grapples with love lost. Poe wrote that most-famous poem during Virginia’s long illness, when the two of them were living in NYC, on W. 84th Street.

If you ever come to visit me, I just might take you to Edgar’s CafĂ©, which now stands on the site of Poe’s (reputed) former residence. Their Apple Brown Betty is pretty darn good.

And speaking of good, how about “The Raven,” huh? It was an instant hit when published, and brought Poe some notoriety, though not much income. He was able to achieve some measure of success as a literary critic, as well.

Through my research I also learned that my relegation of Poe's works solely to the genre of "creepy" (and thus of little interest to me) was not entirely accurate. As it turns out, Poe also wrote detective fiction - nay, he invented detective fiction. Decades before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Dashiell Hammett picked up the pen, Poe was laying the foundations for this genre.

Doyle himself once remarked that "Each [of Poe's detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed....Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?"

In fact, the Mystery Writers of America named their annual award for best mystery writing after Edgar Allan Poe, in deference to his role in creating the genre. My beloved Rex Stout and Graham Greene were both recipients of an Edgar Award, in 1959 and 1976 respectively.

Given his role as the patron saint of detective stories, it seems quite fitting that Poe's death would be shrouded in mystery...annual roses & cognac left graveside by an unknown character...who has now seemingly vanished as inexplicably as he first arrived... sounds like the start of a detective story to me.

Still, as with any good mystery novel, it'd be nice to know whodunnit.

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door
-Only this, and nothing more.' " (from The Raven)

Edgar's Cafe #2

1 The room on the Range is a bit dingy, and not particularly exciting, however. So if you find yourself in Charlottesville, I recommend you skip Poe's room and instead head over to LittleJohn's and order yourself a FairMaiden sandwich (hold the onions). Now that's something to write home about.

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