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.