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.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really fascinating post and fills in a number of items about Poe's life which I had forgotten. For some odd reason, when I read the phrase "the Poe toaster" I didn't think of proposing a toast, but of toast made from putting bread in a toaster.