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Friday
May012009

Congratulations, Baltimore

Last night, the Mystery Writers of America gave out their prestigious Edgar Awards in NYC. As announced last November, the Poe Society and Poe House of Baltimore each received the MWA's Raven Award for their service to Poe's legacy.

Now, I've said before that I do recognize that Baltimore has dutifully served Edgar's legacy. And for that I thank them. But of course, we all now know that Baltimore has also been exaggerating their importance in the Poe story ever since they realized Poe was buried in their city. And for the "Baltimore Poe" thing that they've created, I am still heartily annoyed. Poe's connection to Baltimore was tenuous, at best, and Baltimore played no part in developing Poe's imaginative genius. For that story, you need to know about Poe's Philadelphia years.

So, I had every intention of attending the Edgar Awards ceremony this year, if only to heckle the recipients with "Poe was a Philly writer," "Even Boston beat Baltimore at the Great Poe Debate," etc. Alas, I could not attend last night. However, I did manage to have my say in the matter. In the awards program booklet given out at the ceremony last night, there's a little piece by me offering my sincere gratitude to Baltimore for their services to Poe's legacy (thanks to Daniel Stashower for asking me to contribute). And for all of you who could not attend the ceremony, as well, here's what I wrote:

First, let me congratulate The Edgar Allan Poe Society and the Poe House of Baltimore for the outstanding work they’ve done in honoring perhaps the greatest, certainly the most influential, American writer ever to put pen to paper. They deserve their Raven Award because they have done more than anyone else to perpetuate the legacy of Poe’s works. 

However, I have always been astounded that Baltimoreans would so reverently proclaim the talents of a Philadelphia writer. They could have chosen H.L. Mencken, a Baltimorean to his core, to lavish with such praise. But they have wisely chosen a Philadelphia scribe, Edgar Allan Poe. 

Now, before anyone starts crying, “Sacrilege!” and starts beating a path to my door, torches and pitchforks at the ready, let me lay out the actual literary history of Poe. I come not to denigrate Poe the Baltimorean, but rather to praise Poe the Philadelphian. 

Poe did, indeed, have family connections in Baltimore. Poe met his wife there (and let me state for the record that marrying his thirteen year old cousin will in no way be a part of my argument for Poe as a Philly writer). Poe spent a couple years at the beginning of his writing career in Baltimore. And of course, we all know Poe died there (although he was on his way to Philly when he mysteriously expired). 

Such is the record of the Baltimorean Poe, a significant place in Poe’s biography, but a distinctly minor league stop in his writing career.

 In Philadelphia, Poe’s writing career flourished. While living there for six years, he wrote most of the stories we still read: “Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Black Cat,” “William Wilson,” “The Masque of Red Death,” “The Gold Bug,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Poe began writing “The Raven” in Philadelphia. And, mystery-writers of the MWA, Poe invented the mystery/detective story with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” while living in Philadelphia. 

I could go on about the influences of Philadelphia literary and social culture of the time. Philly, in all its tumbling mess of democracy, strife, toil and glory, was the kind of place where the greatest American writer needed to be, to hone his vision, to perfect his craft.

Poe’s writing career was set afire in a flaming channel of literature known as “Philadelphia Gothic,” a sub-genre begun by Charles Brockden Brown, continued in Poe’s day by his contemporaries, George Lippard and Robert Montgomery Bird (whom we should still be reading), and seen even today in writers’ like Pete Dexter.

 Poe walked the streets of many places in his nomadic life. Richmond, Boston, New York, Baltimore, even London as a small child. But it was on the Streets of Philadelphia (Thanks, Bruce.) that the characters of his fevered imagination boiled from out the kettle of his brain and fired his manuscript pages. Philadelphia was the crucible for Poe’s imaginative genius.

 So again, a hearty congratulations to the Poe Society and House of Baltimore for doing such good work in keeping the memory of Philly’s greatest writer. We’ve been a little too busy caring for things like the Legacy of American Independence, the Birthplace of Democracy, Benjamin Franklin, the Liberty Bell and all that stuff. We’re ready for Poe now. Thanks for all your hard work.

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Reader Comments (8)

Ed, I swear after reading your piece on Poe the Philadelphian , I am ready to recommend that all Philly Poe "Phanatics" and aspiring Mystery Writers all march to The Poe House and declare Poe ,his house, his body of works and ourselves his friends as the "new"Philadelphia Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. I just looked it up and there is no MWA chapter in Philadelphia. Poe needs one here. What do you say?
May 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRic Ben-Safed
By your own argument, Poe is really a Richmond writer. I don't understand this obsessive bickering between cities, as if anyone OWNS Poe. He is an author of the world, and there is more than enough of his legacy to go around.
May 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOutis
Outis, You're right in that no one city can *own* Poe. But for me, this whole question is about literary history which is enormously important to how an author is read and remembered.

Richmond is important to Poe's biography and how it helped shape his character, but it is not very important to his development as a great writer. I'm not sure Poe would have turned out differently had he grown up anywhere (and remember, almost half of Poe's childhood is spent in England, not Richmond). Read alongside other Southern writers of his era, Poe doesn't have much in common with them (I'm also not sure there is such a thing as a "Southern" writer until after the Civil War).

And Baltimore has just been *creating* a myth about Poe's connections to their city for the last century. It doesn't take much research to figure out that Poe doesn't really have much to do with Baltimore. Baltimore has a great deal to do with Poe's posthumous reception, but it played almost no role in his writing career.

New York played a not insignificant part in Poe's career. He achieved his greatest celebrity there with the publication of The Raven and he also wrote some great works while living there. But the NY literary culture, except for the brief Raven honeymoon, shunned Poe. He may have written some great works there, but his creative genius had already peaked in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is the place where Poe blossomed into the genius we all read and admire. And it was the literary culture of Philly itself that furthered this development. I'm not sure Poe would have become the great writer had it not been for those six years immersed in Philadelphia Gothic. It wasn't just the urban environment itself. It was the literary culture of antebellum Philadelphia that helped Poe develop his craft. That's why Poe belongs to Philly.
May 22, 2009 | Registered CommenterEd Pettit
No, Poe does not belong to Philly -- and no, Philadelphia is no more (and no less) important to Poe's development as a writer than all of the other elements you ignore (and which we may or may not even be able to identify). Poe was certainly connected to the "Phildelphia Gothic" movement, but he was writing Gothic even in Baltimore, and his ideas were probably just as influenced by what would be more broadly termed "Southern Gothic," and by his years in England, where he was exposed to Penny Bloods, Penny Dreadfuls and Gothic Bluebooks.

Poe is too complicated to be dissected and identified as exclusively the extension of any one part. You are playing the game of the blind men and the elephant. Philadelphia takes the trunk, while Baltimore takes the tusks, Richmond the legs, New York the ears, and Boston, I suppose, is left with the tail.

In a greater sense, Poe does belong to Philly, but not to Philly alone or even predominantly, and no amount of arguing will make it so. Poe belongs also to Baltimore, and to Richmond, and to New York, and to England, and to France, and to Germany, and to many other places. Poe read too widely, and thought too broadly, to be limited merely to the place where he was living. Poe was concerned about a misplaced sense of nationalism in literature, and I think would be absolutely horrified by an even more limited sense of regionalism.

This is not some silly sporting event, where people cheer for teams based mostly on where they live or go to school, falling into a kind of mindless tribalism which, in the end, achieves absolutely nothing. I, for one, would prefer than the various cities stop trying to score points against each other, which produces nothing but a little publicity of questionable merit, and just focus on the work yet to be done.
May 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOutis
Poe was writing Gothic works before Philadelphia, but in Philly his work transforms into an urban, very American Gothic. And "Southern Gothic" doesn't really exist as a genre until the 20th century. Also, Poe wasn't reading penny dreadfuls and gothic bluebooks, etc in England. He was a little boy in boarding school.

Poe is complicated. But no one is TOO complicated to be dissected and identified. Your metaphor itself shows that: People are dissected and their parts identified. In a post mortem, a coroner CAN demonstrate the greater or lesser influence of diseases or abnormalities in the body.

Your second metaphor about the blind man and the elephant is misapplied, as well. In that story, the blind men make assumptions about just one part of the animal. I am not blind to the influence and importance of the other environments of Poe's life (except maybe Baltimore, which really doesn't have much to do with Poe while he's alive). But if you look at Poe's literary history, you'll find the antebellum Philadelphian literary culture stamped all over his works. Just as you'll find a more European tinged gothic in his works before Philly. Just as you'll find all sorts of New York cultural influence in his later works.

You are also right that Poe would have been "horrified" at his being associated with any one region (unless of course, it could make him some money). Poe INTENTIONALLY broadens the landscapes of his works, rarely identifying them with particular places. But I don't think writers can truly escape their environments. They can disguise their prejudices, but if you read carefully you can still see the traces. Poe's "Man of the Crowd" is set in London, but the streets he's describing are the streets of Philadelphia in 1840. More importantly, the themes and tropes of his works are on vibrant display all around him in Philly while he's writing. Do you really think a writer can live and work in a particualr literary culture and not be influenced by it? And when the work that author produces has such lasting appeal, how can you choose to not recognize the environment which helped shape it? This is about Poe's literary history, his cultural reception. Just as Baltimore has played such a massively influential role in Poe's posthumous reception, Philadelphia's literary and social culture played an emormously influential role while he was writing. I don't understand what's so controversial about that. It's just literary history.

And lastly, what's so silly about sporting events. Clearly, you are not a sports fan. Otherwise you wouldn't be so condescending. I wish people treated their artists like sports figures. To cheer them when they wrote well, literally cheer them. I wish there were entire radio stations and TV channels devoted to writers, where readers dissected and argued about books and literary history. The contemporary lit world has so little passion and almost no fun. Writers used to matter, used to be in the daily cut and thrust of culture. Now they're marginalized to academic study. If my Poe Debates and public lectures are compared to sporting events, then I take that as a compliment.

And "silly"? Well, don't mistake "fun" for silliness. One can be very impassioned and complex and still have fun. Check your Poe biograpy on "publicity" and public feuding. You'll find that Poe heartily believed in it.
May 29, 2009 | Registered CommenterEd Pettit
Poe was reading Penny Bloods and Gothic bluebooks in England, just as Shelley was. Indeed, it is exactly what young schoolboys were reading when on their own time, just as boys of another generation read comic books. It's just literary history, even if it does not fit your limited view of things. Later, he was reading Blackwood's Magazine, both the tales and the criticism, as he himself admits. (And you are very selective in recognizing environments which helped to shape Poe. It is this basic dishonesty which undermines your argument.)
May 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOutis
I just looked through a few biographies and I don't see any mention of Poe reading penny dreadfuls or gothic blubooks at such a young age. Is this something you propose that he did or is it documented somewhere? (I know that Poe read Blackwoods as an adult, but so did most literary men.) Poe is in Scotland and England between 1815 and 1820, from the ages of 6-11. There would have been gothic bluebooks, but penny dreadfuls aren't published until (I think) the 1830s and they don't really become prolific until mid-century. So Poe didn;t read penny dreadfuls, nor did Shelley because they were not invented yet.

However, I'd like to know where you got your info that it was COMMON for schoolboys to read gothic bluebooks. Reading habits and materials would have varied greatly among classes and parts of England. It's always hard to make generalizations about reading habits before the 20th century. It's easier NOW because we have much more meticulous records and much greater literacy rates, so we can put together reliable demographics of reading habits. But htis is always a tough game for preceding centuries. I also think it would be a significant claim to be able to trace Poe's literary influences to his childhood reading in England. I haven't read a book or essay about that.

So Mr "Afraid to give his name but not afraid to call me a liar even when his own scholarship is shoddy," I wonder how on earth you could call my Philly Poe claims "dishonest"? Really, in all candor, what part of my argument is dishonest. I certainly try not to ignore any parts of Poe's life or influence. But when you put all of Poe's influences side by side, the one that runs deepest through the bulk of his great tales is the Philly Poe story. I recognize that's not the case when it comes to Poe's criticism or journalism. And my argument doesn't hold up when I apply it to his poetry. If we call Poe a great writer because of his poetry or criticism or journalism, then Philly doesn't matter much. Then it would be just another stop on the road for him. But I suspect that Poe is considered a great writer because of the macabre and mystery tales that he wrote and those works owe a great deal to the literary environment in which he wrote them, so much so that I don't think Poe would have been as great a writer had he not moved to Philly for those six years. That's selective, but I'm being completely open about how I;m making the selection: e.g. "these are Poe's great works and this is how Philly influenced them." I'm just trying to tell a story that hasn't been told yet, an ignored part of Poe's literary legacy.

How is that a dishonest argument?
May 29, 2009 | Registered CommenterEd Pettit
First, let me note that I said your argument was dishonest. I did not call you a liar, a word you introduced and which I would repudiate. Indeed, the important distinction is that a liar says things he knows are not true, and thus intent and knowledge are necessarily part of the equation. I have specifically NOT accused you of this. Instead, I say your argument is dishonest because you have one set of rules for your own evidence, and quite another for opposing material. You assume, for example, that Poe absorbed Philadelphia Gothic because he lived and worked there, with no particular evidence cited. I accept this as possible, but also note that he had access to other material, including his own acknowledgment of reading Blackwood's Magazine, yet that apparently doesn't count because it doesn't serve your position. I am happy to agree that Philadelphia is an important influence on Poe, even a very important influence, but your argument stumbles towards dishonesty when you suggest that it is of "primary" importance, something you can only claim by dismissing the evasive nature of influence and ignoring what might be considered his formative years as unimportant. By implication, you are presuming his mature years as somehow a thing sprung, like Pegasus, fully formed from the head of Zeus, and not, to a very great extent, a product of what had come before.

Penny Bloods, Penny Dreadfuls, Shilling Shockers, and similar monikers are not necessarily absolute tags, and I may be justly criticized for using them a bit loosely, even in a casual setting such as this blog. Still, the broader point remains valid, regardless of what you wish to call them. The story of Shelley is well-documented by Thomas Medwin (his contemporary and personal friend): "He was very fond of reading, and greedily devoured all the books which were brought to school after the holidays; these were mostly blue books. Who does not know what blue books mean? But if there should be any one ignorant enough not to know what those dear darling volumes, so designated from their covers, contain, be it known, that they are or were to be bought for sixpence, and embodied stories of haunted castles, bandits, murderers, and other grim personages -- a most exciting and interesting sort of food for boys’ minds."

In The Gothic Quest (1938), Montague Summers, a well-known bibliographer of early Gothic works, states: "It must be remembered that these little 'bluebooks' were sold in their hundreds for a tester apiece, and the reason why now exemplars are of the very last rarity, and good clean copies will sometimes fetch as many pounds as they were sold for pence, lies in the fact that they were read and read on every side by schoolboys, by prentices, by servant-girls, by the whole of that vast population which longed to be in the fashion, to steep themselves in the Gothic romance . . ."

But even without such information, there were earlier collections of such works. M. G. Lewis's Tales of Terror appeared in London in 1799, and I have seen similar editions from 1802 and later. Gothic did not originate in Philadelphia, and I should perhaps note that in the preface to his own Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Poe defends himself against charges of Germanism, not Philadelphianism.

As for Blackwood's Magazine, Poe specifically mentions Samuel Warren's "Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician," which was published in Blackwood's 1832-1837. By this time, it may be admitted that Poe is an adult, but it is certainly before he moves to Philadelphia. "The Man in the Bell" also mentioned by Poe in "How to Write a Blackwood Article," and long noted as a Poe source, appeared in Blackwood's in November 1821. Other possible sources may be found in these earlier issues, including "The Buried Alive" (October 1821), and "A Night in the Catacombs" (October 1818).

And again, the source of Poe's inspiration need not be limited to where he is living. The Tell-Tale Heart, written in 1842, is based on a famous trial that was held in Massachusetts, and argued by Daniel Webster himself. Why should we limit the important influences on Poe to Philadelphia, even during the period when he was living there?

And my name hardly matters, as I am not out to promote myself.
May 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOutis

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