Ed & Edgar

my adventures in the cult of Poe

and other literary endeavours

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Monday
Mar032008

Poe blogs

Been quiet lately.  Blogs get that way when life gets busy.  But I've been hoarding lots of cool Poe links and news.  Here are a few:

Matthew Pearl's Poe Discussion Forum has been reinvigorated with posts the last couple months.  Join in.  I have.

There are two other new(ish) blogs dedicated to Poe: 

John Wright's The Edgar Allan Poe Bicentennial provides lots of Poe news and has a handy countdown to Poe's 200th birthday, but unfortunately trashes one of the best books about Poe, Daniel Hoffman's Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe.  "Juvenile and unenlightening" are two words that don't belong anywhere near Hoffman's book?  I have to wonder if Wright has even read it.  I'll comment on his post.   However, Wright's blog does has lots of good links and I'll be tuning in all year.

George Bartley's Celebrate Poe is an ongoing podcast that I've been meaning to link to for some time, featuring Bartley's interesting take on Poe's life and works.  It's idiosyncratic and all the better for it.  I've fallen behind in listening, but enjoyed the first few. 

Friday
Feb082008

The Poe Toaster

In hindsight, watching the Toaster enter the cemetery was a very thrilling moment.  I was standing on the corner and noticed a man walking up the street, right next to the cemetery wall, head bowed, maybe carrying something.  The time was around 11:25.  I was fifty or so yards away.  He was walking towards the gate that Jeff Jerome had tried to make appear as if it were locked.  When I saw him, none of the other revelers were at the gate.  I looked around and two or three others had noticed him, as well.  We all had that look in our eyes that said, "There he is.  This is the moment."  I walked towards the Toaster, not to intercept him, but just to have the privilege of observing him enter to lay his memorial.  A few of us walked towards the gate, but he was no where to be seen inside the cemetery, as the old Poe gravesite is behind the building.  None of us who had observed him made any announcement to the larger crowd in front of the church.  We all felt a kind of protective urge.  We were helping the Toaster with his duty.  We were, in a sense, on his team, not just observing, but participating by our silence.

And that was it.  I never saw him leave, although I have it on good authority that he did leave, and walked up the street right past the gathering out front.  I don't know how he exited.  He never came out the gate that he entered.  So it all seemed so anti-climactic at the time.  The surge of excitement at first seeing him, dissolved into confusion.  Was that really him?  It couldn't have been.  It's too early.  The Toaster always arrives between midnight and 6AM.  Why would he change the schedule this year?  If it was him, that would mean he actually arrived on Jan 18, not Poe's birthday.  The "expert" onlooker, Sam, hadn't even seen him enter.  He was on his corner, binoculars to his eyes, watching the front when it happened.  For hours, the few who actually saw him talked about it and we were never satisfied that we had actually seen him, that we were wrong.  He was still coming, probably very early in the morning. when the crowds died away.  I stayed all night, until 6:25 AM, partly because I has already committed to doing just that, but partly because that doubt stayed with me all night long.  What if that wasn't him and he arrives at 5AM.  I couldn't take the chance of missing him. 

The next day, when I arrived at the Poe House, I ran into one of revelers, Dave, who was one of the few who had seen what I had.  Actually, when we walked towards the gate the Toaster had entered, Dave pulled the gate closed.  Turns out "Dave" was actually Chris, a volunteer for many Poe Society events, and a "mole" to help insure the Toaster made it in and also that the crowd behaved themselves.  He confirmed that the man we saw enter at 11:30 was the Toaster and that he too was surprised he had come before midnight.  As it turned out, from that moment on during the night, the gate was always covered with observers, so he couldn't have made it in at any time between midnight and 6.  Which leads me to believe that he must have had someone watching for him.  When the gate is clear, his accomplice calls him and he comes up the street.  If someone approaches the gate before he can get to it, he can either walk on and try again later, or he can just nonchalantly walk in and proceed to the back.   

You see how I've fallen under the spell.  Creating scenarios of how the Toaster makes his yearly visit.  That is the chief activity of the crowd all night long.  On this particular night the few of us who witnessed it spent the rest of the night going over what we saw, why it could have been the Toaster, why it wasn't, when he would actually come, how he would do it, and on and on.  Maybe it's the cold keeping our bodies and minds rejuvenated throughout the long vigil.  But we all got the bug.  The need to talk about the mystery.  The need to somehow participate in the ritual.  We all want to dedicate our lives to celebrating the memory of Poe, year after year, on a cold city street, in the middle of the night.  We all want to be the Toaster.

Next time: meet the cast of characters who braved the cold streets of Baltimore.

Thursday
Jan312008

Poe and Dickens

This Sunday I'll be at the Manayunk Arts Center in beautiful Philadelphia (the Athens of America) talking about Poe's Philadelphian legacy.  It's all part of a new art exhibit, "Dickens & Poe: Characters and Themes," featuring artwork inspired by the writers.  In addition to the artwork:

At the literary forum by MAC's Humanities Division, Herb Moskowitz will discuss the meeting of Dickens and Poe in Philadelphia, followed by a short puppet show. Edward Pettit, who recently wrote a leading article in the City Paper reclaiming Poe as a Philadelphian, will argue that Poe's finest work was inspired by the squalor,  political corruption, and violence he observed in Philadelphia. Pat Klimcho will read Poe's "The Raven" and "The Bells," and then his take off of the latter, "The Bills."  A representative of Philadelphia's Poe House will also speak. It is rumored that impersonators of characters from Dickens' novels, and of Poe himself, will be attending the event.

Should be a lot of fun.  The art opening is from Noon until 3 and the Literary Forum, of which I'll be part, runs from 3 until 5.  Hope to meet you there. 

Thursday
Jan312008

Westminster Burial Ground, the vigil begins

I arrived at Westminster Hall's cemetery around 10:30 or so.  The gate to Poe's monument was locked, but I had visited earlier in the day to view both gravesites.  Poe's original grave is in the back of the cemetery, but years later he was moved to the front at the corner of Fayette and Green Sts and a large monument marks the current spot.  Poe's wife, Virginia, and her mother Maria Clemm are buried alongside Edgar.  The original gravesite still has a marker.  I had been informed that the Poe Toaster used to visit the monument at the second site in the front of the cemetery, but changed to the original site in the back when public scrutiny made it more difficult for him to leave his memorial without notice. 

The cemetery is appropriately gothic, with aged, thin tombstones, most of the lettering eroded by the centuries, some mere nubs poking through the hard winter ground.  Very little grass grows in the dirt.  The grounds were muddy from a recently thawed snowfall.  Vast tombs with vaulted roofs dominate the cemetery with brick walkways between them.  The church was built after the cemetery had already been established, so it rests, slightly elevated on arches, directly on top of many graves, creating a catacomb beneath.  This underground cemetery is 878004-1307909-thumbnail.jpg
catacombs
much like the one surrounding the church, but creepier for being enclosed with a low roof (so low I had to duck in places) and even includes an open pit-like tomb with an empty coffin, perhaps the vestige of a grave-robbing in the 19th century. 

When I arrived at night there was already a small group of six revelers awaiting.  Three had come from down south and three had come from California to meet their friends and make the pilgrimage on Edgar's birthday.  The crowd soon began to grow and over the course of the evening, I counted more visitors from out of state, from Virginia, California, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas than there were natives of Baltimore. 

After talking to a few of the fans, I made my way to the side gate of the cemetery and noticed it was unlocked.  Unlocked to me means, "Come on in!"  So I figured I would take another peak around the back of the church and at the original gravesite.  I slowly opened the gate and took a step or two, when suddenly, a man jumped from behind the wall and shouted at me to get out.  Scared the living hell out of me.  If you think about it, probably the easiest place to scare someone is in a cemetery.  At night.  Near the grave of the America's greatest horror writer.  After recovering my senses, I turned and recognized the frightener as none other than my nemesis, Jeff Jerome.  I hustled back out to the sidewalk and through the bars of the iron gate thrust my hand. 

"Jeff Jerome?  Ed Pettit.  We finally meet."

Would Jerome's last nerve finally snap?  Would he attempt to split my skull with a graveyard mattock?  Or just throttle me through the bars?  Would he hurl defiance in my face, slap me with a glove and call for his second?  No.  We just shook hands and chatted for a few minutes.  He was sorry he couldn't invite me inside to wait with the "chosen" aficionados.  But we would talk tomorrow at the birthday celebration. 

All the while he spoke with me, he fiddled with a chain around the gate, as if he were locking it up.  As if.  This was the only gate into the cemetery.  If he locked it the Toaster would have to scale the wall (a not unlikely scenario, as it is believed he used a ladder to climb the wall a couple years ago).  But if he was going to slip in through a gate, this would be the one.  I knew where to wait. 

Wednesday
Jan302008

Poe news

More on Baltimore later today.  For now, some Poe news items. 

Peter Ackroyd's new bio, Poe: a Life Cut Short, comes out in the UK next week and in the States in March.  I haven't received a review copy yet, but I'm working on it.  Here's a review in the Guardian by Hilary Spurling:

Child of a couple of strolling players - very young, semi-destitute, both already incubating TB - the infant Edgar was farmed out first to grandparents and later to a nurse who dosed him and an infant sister with laudanum and gin. His 878004-1304023-thumbnail.jpg
Redfield as Poe
biographer traces Poe's fictional preoccupations - the black holes, windowless cells and narrow coffins, the shrouded or chained bodies interred alive in graves and jails - back even before birth to malnutrition in his mother's womb, where he must have known in fact 'the perils of a confined space, in which a victim lays panting'.

And Mark Redfield, whom I met at in Baltimore (and with whom I hope to have a follow-up interview
) has made a film of Poe's last days, The Death of Poe, and is soon to begin filming an adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart."  You can read about (and see photos of) this year's birthday festivities at his film's website (just scroll down).

Monday
Jan282008

Happy Birthday, Edgar

(See the bottom of the post for today's contest)

Baltimore is the home of Edgar Allan Poe.  Does it hurt to say that?  Oh yes.  But they do have the body (despite my noble protest last year).  Did I really expect to have Poe's remains dug up and brought to Philly?  Not by a long shot.  I was pleasantly surprised to find so many people (well, so many Baltimoreans) would get so upset at the suggestion (I mean, two columns in the Baltimore Sun?), but I never entertained the notion as a serious one.  Poe died in Baltimore, was buried there and although it took the city some time to finally embrace his legacy, they did so and continue to honor his memory to this day. 

Still, I was a little worried of the reaction I might receive when I visited "Charm City."  Would Jeff Jerome, the curator of their Poe House, follow through on his threat to "punch me in the eye?"  I had been corresponding with Jerome by email and I was pretty certain that he held my Poe work in high esteem, that I was not just some crackpot out to get attention, that I had something to offer to the study of Poe's legacy.  But you never know.  A little part of me was leery of meeting him.  After all, Jerome was devoted to the writer of a story (written in Baltimore, I admit) in which a crazed lover prematurely buries his fiancé, then visits her grave and pulls out all her teeth.  Would anyone be surprised if I paid a visit to the catacombs beneath Westminster Church,where Poe was buried, and was never heard from again?  Would Jerome take the police on a tour of the Poe House basement, knocking on the walls to demonstrate how solidly they were put together?  Well, I would soon discover how devoted a follower he was. 

I made plans to go to Baltimore for their celebration of Poe's birthday on January 19 (next year is the Bicentennial of his birth).  Every year, Jerome organizes an event with performances, this year featuring a dramatization of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (written in Philly), an actor portraying Sarah Helen Whitman (one of Poe's many fiancés) and Poe impersonator, David Keltz.  But the real reason to travel to Baltimore on a cold winter weekend was to get a glimpse of the Poe Toaster.

Since at least 1949, a mysterious visitor has been leaving a half-filled bottle of cognac and three red878004-1298785-thumbnail.jpg
the only known image of the Toaster
roses at the gravesite of Poe on his birthday.  And this visitor has never been unmasked.  Poe fanatics flock to the cemetery and hold all-night vigils to catch a glimpse of the dedicated mourner.   Jerome has always done everything in his power to help the Toaster complete his mission, short of personal contact.  Jerome's steadfast devotion in keeping the Toaster's identity a secret begins with Jerome himself.  He has never even corresponded with him.  However, he does allow a few faithful aficionados into the Church where they can see the Toaster arrive and depart, partly to witness the event, but also to keep an eye on the cemetery to assure no revelers interfere with the tribute. 

The Poe Toaster always arrives between midnight and 6AM on the 19th.  And it is always cold.  Baltimore is bitter cold in January.  Undeterred, Poe fans show up before midnight and the real fanatics, the true-blue ones, with toes frozen and teeth chattering stay until dawn.  This year I would make my pilgrimage, join the frozen few and hopefully catch a fleeting glimpse of the Poe Toaster. 

And I was successful.  Approximately 100-150 fans showed up this year, although at its peak the crowd was never more than 75, many people arriving and leaving as the night progressed.  Of these 100 or so, only about a half-dozen of the outside revellers saw the Toaster arrive and enter the cemetery.  I was one of the half-dozen. 

878004-1298823-thumbnail.jpgTomorrow (and all week): my midnight vigil at the grave of Poe.  Meet the people who braved the cold and travelled from all over the US (from Pittsburgh to Richmond to San Diego) to celebrate Poe's birthday.  Meet a girl christened "Raven" at birth by her Poe-fanatic parents, now a lit-major college student who two years ago scaled the wall of the cemetery to try to see the Toaster.  Meet Sam, the expert watcher, who for the last five years has stood on a corner, binoculars glued to his eyes to scan the cemetery entrances, all the while filling notebooks with copious notes about the Toaster's visits.  And, of course, come back to see if Jeff Jerome did punch me in the eye when I finally met him. 

Oh, yes, and the contest.  The first ten readers who leave a comment on this post will receive a  souvenir from the Poe House in Philadelphia.  Make sure you add your email address to your profile while commenting, so I can contact you about where to send your prize (or if you don't fancy revealing your email on the internet, just send it to me at ed@omnigatherum.com)  Thanks for reading and I hope you'll come back tomorrow and all year. 

Friday
Jan252008

Ed and Edgar blog contest

Come on by Monday, January 28, for the kick-off of the Ed and Edgar blog.  I'll be travelling throughout the year to all sites related to Poe and interviewing all sorts of Poe fanatics.  I'll also be spreading the Philly Poe gospel everywhere I go.  The fun started in Baltimore on Poe's birthday and will take me to Richmond, New York, Boston, West Point, back to Baltimore and finishing in October in Philadelphia for Poe's death anniversary and his honorary holiday, Halloween. 

I'll also be speaking at various venues, which I'll let you know about as they happen (First up is the Manayunk Arts Center in Philly on Sun Feb 3).

So come on by Monday and read all about my trip to Baltimore last weekend.  Yes, I saw the Poe Toaster.  But did I convert him to my cause?  You'll have to come back to find out. 

And the first 10 readers to leave a comment on Monday's first Ed and Edgar post will receive a Philly Poe souvenir (which I will mail to the winners free of charge). 

So come back and read (and win a prize).

Ed

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