Philly in Custody Battle Over Poe

On Edgar Allen Poe's 200th birthday...

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Edgar Allan Poe, master of the horror tale, inventor of the modern detective story and a pioneer in the field of science fiction, was also during his life an example of another literary category: the starving artist.

But on Monday, January 19th, the 200th anniversary of his birth, cities up and down the East Coast where the writer struggled to make a living throughout his four decades are vying for pre-eminence in having shaped his literary legacy.

Philadelphia is taking steps to burnish its claim, this weekend opening a renovated museum house where Poe lived. An exhibit of Poe letters, early editions and images is on offer at the Free Library. And earlier in the week, a standing-room crowd gathered at the library to hear Poe mavens from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston argue the merits of their respective cities in what was billed as "The Great Poe Debate."

"Philadelphia was the crucible for Poe's imaginative genius," Philadelphia-area critic Ed Pettit said. "The six years he spent living here were the most productive and successful of his writing career. Poe became a great writer while living in Philadelphia."

During his time in Philadelphia, Poe produced such classic horror tales as "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Pit and the Pendulum" as well as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which has been credited with creating the modern detective story.

Just north of the city center stands a three-story brick house in which Poe lived for part of his six-year residence in Philadelphia from 1838 to 1844. Declared a National Historic Site, it reopens this weekend in time for the bicentennial of Poe's birth on Monday.

"This was a brand-new suburban development with all the amenities — piped-in water and gas and a farmer's market out on Spring Garden Street," said Mary Jenkins, interpretive program specialist for the National Park Service, which administers the house.

Historic timelines and interactive exhibits have been added to the three-building complex, where visitors can hear Poe's works read and view a film on the author. A large image of Poe has compartments that open to show, for example, a "tell-tale heart."

Upstairs, the bare rooms have been left unfurnished, since there is little evidence of what they looked like, but drawings on the cracked plaster walls give a sense of what might have filled them. One renders the view from the window overlooking the small garden and cobbled street beyond.

In the basement, even the cobwebs on the windows just above street level have been left undisturbed. Jenkins points out the resemblance of the original wooden stairs and a crevice in the wall to such features in his story "The Black Cat," in which a man murders his wife and walls her body up before the cries of the animal give him away.

More opulent is a recreation of an ideal room Poe described in an article, with red carpet and red-tinted windows, silk draperies, landscape paintings and an octagonal faux-marble central table. Jenkins admits that Poe's description might have been satirical, "but we went with it."

While in Philadelphia, Poe worked for literary magazines and tried unsuccessfully to found his own, gave lectures on poetry and wrote literary criticism.

"People loved to read him because he was very vitriolic," Jenkins said. "That didn't make him a lot of friends."

To mark the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth, events are planned not only in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston, but also in New York and Richmond, Va., where Poe also lived.

The competing claims have given rise to the "Poe wars," a lighthearted debate on the subject. Pettit opened the topic with a tongue-in-cheek suggestion in 2007 that Poe's remains in Baltimore be dug up and spirited off to more deserving Philadelphia — an idea he emphasized by bringing a shovel to Tuesday night's mock debate.

At the event, Jeff Jerome, longtime curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore — which has Poe's grave as well as an NFL team called the Ravens — cited Baltimore's long tradition of honoring the writer. He points out that hundreds, including Walt Whitman, attended the 1875 dedication of a new grave for Poe in that city.

Boston College professor Paul Lewis ribbed the other cities for mistreating Poe while he was alive and argued that the author was shaped by his opposition to New England writers. "We become a national literary culture by way of these fights," he said.

Pettit, however, was awarded the debate victory after thunderous applause from the clearly partisan Philadelphia crowd.

"I know we have Ben Franklin and we have Rocky too, and I love them both, but Poe is the greatest, most influential writer America has even produced," he said. "Far more than any other place Poe lived, Philly helped shape the works of Edgar Allan Poe."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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