Sunday, January 24, 2010

Edgar Allan Poe: Enduring strange

I should have known that an adventure to do with Edgar Allan Poe would have unexpected twists. The author’s birthday was earlier this week, January 19, and the first surprise was that the Poe Toaster did not make his annual visit to the writer’s grave.

The reason for the no-show is a mystery. The anonymous visitor, who leaves roses and a bottle of cognac at the Baltimore gravesite, has made the pilgrimage since 1949. Last year was the centennial of Poe’s birth, so that could be a logical end date if the visitor wanted to stop making the trip. But is that the reason? It’s a mystery. Every year since 1949—that’s fifty-one toasts. The visitor is no longer a young man. Perhaps he can no longer make the journey. And perhaps his identity will disappear—and die—with him, forever to remain an unanswered question. Like something out of an Edgar Allan Poe story.

The next unexpected event occurred when I visited an exhibit about Poe’s Boston connections at the Boston Public Library. (You can see it too, through the end of March.) But first let me tell you a bit about the exhibit—that features books, photographs, letters and other ephemera—what I learned, and what I wondered.

One hundred and one years ago this week Eliza Arnold Poe was recovering from the birth of her second son, Edgar, in a Boston boarding house. The well-known actress-singer had performed up until ten days before the birth, and three short weeks after she was back treading the boards at the Federal Street Theatre.

Eleven years earlier young Eliza had made her Boston stage debut at the age of nine alongside her mother, Elizabeth Arnold. After extensive touring, Eliza Poe returned to the Boston theatre scene with her second husband, David Poe, at her side professionally as well as personally.

Learning about the theatrical couple at made me wonder what influences his parents had on the author. Both were gone from his life by the time he was three—his father abandoned the family and his mother died. The style of his work might have been very different had his mother lived—it’s hard to imagine a son raised by an actress-singer-comedienne would pen the dark (but wonderful) works for which Poe is best known. She played Cinderella, for Pete’s sake.

His father, on the other hand, perhaps passed some of his difficult personality on to his young son. David Poe was not one to take criticism lightly—he would confront newspaper reporters who gave him bad reviews just as he would confront less-than-appreciative audiences in the theatre in “an obnoxious and insulting way,” according to one newspaper account. Perhaps the Boston assessor who made the list in the Street Book—recording names, addresses and occupations of taxable residents—had been in one of those poorly treated audiences. David Poe’s name is recorded as “David Poo.” Talk about a bad review.

The Poe family left Boston for New York City five months after Edgar was born. He returned eighteen years later. Perhaps the note his mother left him on the back of a watercolor painting of Boston Harbor had something to do with his choosing to return to the city of his birth—she wrote that she hoped he would always cherish his birthplace and said that she had known her “best, and most sympathetic friends” there.

At eighteen, the young man could have used some sympathy—and some friends. He was in debt and trying to avoid his creditors back in Virginia. He wrote to his foster father to ask that his trunk and clothes be sent to him and said, “I have not a cent in the world to provide any food.” Not an auspicious start by any means.

But he found work in Boston as a reporter and clerk, working under the name “Henri Le Rennet” and then enlisting in the army as “Edgar A. Perry.” Apparently he thought his creditors might come looking for him. Or he was enjoying bringing a bit of mystery to his identity.

During this time, Poe published his first poems under circumstances that also tickled my curiosity. The booklet, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was signed “by a Bostonian” (again, he was shrouding his true identity). It was published by a printer named Calvin F. S. Thomas. And it was the only book ever to appear with Thomas’s imprint. Why, I wondered.

Poe had a busy few months in Boston. The year was 1827. He had arrived in late March, worked several jobs, published a book, enlisted in the army and was deployed to South Caroline in November. He was young, and life was moving fast.

Perhaps the epigraph, by William Cowper, on his volume of poetry was intended as a reminder to himself:

“Young heads are giddy, and young hearts are warm,
  And make mistakes for manhood to reform.”

Plot twist. It was at about this point in my study of the exhibit materials that I heard a small commotion at the door and turned to see that a woman had fallen on the stairs as she left the gallery. Her companion knelt over her, and I ran to see if I could help. She was stunned, and her nose was bleeding.

No more Poe for me. Instead I hurried through a maze of rooms and hallways to find a librarian (she called security), then I ran down to the first floor to get some tissue from the restroom and ran it back up to the third floor.

An unexpected incident that disturbs the peace, drops of blood on the stone floor, hurrying steps echoing in the grand staircase. The elements seemed like something out of a Poe story, although the circumstances were actually less dramatic.

Still, I felt I had been tweaked by the master.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Measuring success

I’m a day late in getting this post up because part of what I wanted to write about took place last night. I went to an event put on by the Friends of the Library (has to be a good group; “library” and “friends” are both good words). It was a presentation about a woman, a writer, named Kitty Crockett Robertson, who was a lifelong resident of Ipswich.

She wrote a wonderful book called The Orchard about her experiences trying to keep her family’s farm running during the Depression. It’s a celebration of place and the people in it. Years later she wrote a column for the local paper, sharing other stories from her life and observations of the world around her. They have been collected in another book, called Measuring Time by an Hourglass.

Two of her friends read excerpts from these essays and shared memories of her. Audience members, many of them also longtime townies, shared their own stories of a woman’s kindnesses that they remember even thirty years after her death. Listening, I couldn’t help but think that she had created quite a legacy through both her writing and her acts.

It made me think of another writer I read about a few days ago. Patrick Rothfuss is the author of the fantasy novel, The Name of the Wind (2007). It’s the first of a trilogy, so we’ll hear much more from the writer, and that makes me smile (even though I haven’t read the first book yet—it’s on my Goodreads list). He let success go to his head in a most delightful way and started a fundraiser for Heifer International on his blog. Last year, according to the blog, he raised $114,000 through a variety of auctions, lotteries and items for purchase, and the goal for this year’s effort—which ends tomorrow (January 15)—is to outstrip that amount.

If you hurry, you can still get in on the action.

Rothfuss has put a lot of effort into this venture, gathering books, manuscripts and other donations from writers and publishers as well as offering his own services critiquing work or naming a character after someone in his upcoming novel, not to mention matching gifts and putting his money where his heart is.

Once again, I have to think that he is creating a legacy—even as he is creating his fantasy worlds and building his career.

Of course, reaching out and helping is much on my mind this week after the earthquake in Haiti, so I am happy to be inspired by these writers, one from the past, one looking toward the future, both with the Good in mind.


“I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.”
– Margaret Mead

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sign me up for the paving crew

Once upon a time—January 1, 1863, to be exact—Samuel Clemens published the following newspaper column (in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise) under the headline, “New Year’s Day.” I consider these words of true inspiration.

“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. To-day, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”

It is traditional to make resolutions as we begin the new year. Somehow we imagine that we get to start it with a clean slate, although I’m not sure how that happens. Does tooting on a noisemaker cause all the leftover marks of the previous year to disappear? Do they get washed away with a splash of a champagne toast? Do they just get thrown out with the old, suddenly out-of-date calendar?

What about unfinished business? Where does that fit into the shiny and new? I’m afraid it sits right where it was and reappears after we’ve tossed aside all our resolutions. And once we’ve washed all the dishes and vacuumed up all the crumbs and confetti and put all the lampshades back where they belong, the party’s over and it’s just life once more. Life with its usual struggles and smiles. Another year with old dreams and, with any luck, a few new ideas.

Here in the northern hemisphere where the new year starts mid-winter, it comes at a time when we’ve reconciled ourselves to the cold weather and various forms of precipitation and when we may even have begun to notice that the days aren’t quite as short as they were in December, so maybe spring will come again. The new year comes when we’re in the mood for something to look forward to, so we can “enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”

In a week or two or ten most of us will have misplaced the books or DVDs we bought to help us get rich and lose weight or play golf and meet Mr. Right. That’s okay. We’re bound to get in slightly better shape and meet all kinds of people who will also be joining the paving crew. I wonder if that Road to Hell got funding from the government stimulus package.

I wonder what kind of resolutions young Sam Clemens made for 1863 out there in Virginia City. He might have promised himself to make the most of opportunities that presented themselves. For example, later in January he wrote this short piece for the newspaper, headlined “Territorial Sweets.”

The following, which will do to sweeten some bachelor's coffee with, was picked up in front of the International:
"’DARLING: I have not had time to write you to-day - I have worked hard entertaining company. Do come and see your little pet. I yearn for the silvery cadence of your voice - I thirst for the bubbling stream of your affection. 
“We feel for that girl. The water privilege which she pines for so lovingly has probably dried up and departed, else her sweet note would not have been floating around the streets without a claimant. We feel for her deeply - and if it will afford her any relief, if it will conduce to her comfort, if it will satisfy her yearning even in the smallest degree, we will cheerfully call around and ‘bubble’ awhile for her ourself, if she will send us her address.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any follow-up account about the youthful journalist fording that particular stream.

But, he did embark upon a relationship later that month that would last him the rest of his life, for on January 31, 1863, came the first appearance in that very same newspaper of the name “Mark Twain.” The newly dubbed correspondent wrote a “Letter from Carson City,” an account of his trip by stagecoach and attendance at the territorial governor’s ball. He described his “cheerful” journey, the details of the governor’s fine house (“I have a great regard for a good house, and a girlish passion for mirrors.”), the vast offerings of the gala feast and his enjoyment of it all.

I think I may take a little inspiration from both Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain as I look forward to this new year. I’ll aim to keep my eyes open for those unusual opportunities and interesting journeys and try to write about them all.