Poe's heart belong elsewhere? Nevermore!

Three cities who claim the writer will scrap tonight at the Free Library. But the Philadelphian who started this fight has no doubts.

The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 13, 2009

One of Poe's homes during his six years in Philadelphia is now a national historic site, at Seventh and Spring Garden Streets. Poet Daniel Hoffman will lecture there Saturday.

There is an eloquence in true enthusiasm.
—Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston - exactly 200 years ago, come Monday. His bones languish in a Baltimore grave.

But his (telltale) heart - inflamed as it was with love and hatred for the Quaker City - belongs to us.

So says Philly writer and Poe enthusiast Edward Pettit, who sparked the "Poe War" two years ago with an essay in the City Paper that challenged "the perceived wisdom that Poe is a Baltimore writer." Poe aficionados in Baltimore and Boston struck back with newspaper editorials and blog posts.

After more than two years of sniping, Poe experts from the three cities will face off in "The Great Poe Debate" at 7:30 tonight at the Free Library, 19th and Vine Streets. It will coincide with the library's exhibition of Poe artifacts, "Quoth the Raven: A 200-Year Remembrance of the Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe," on view through Feb. 13.

Pettit will argue his case to Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore since 1979, and Poe scholar Paul Lewis from Boston College. WMGK (102.9-FM) radio personality and actor Grover Silcox, known locally for his one-man show, Edgar Allan Poe and the Flip Side of Comedy, will moderate.

The debate is one of dozens of events, lectures and readings commemorating Poe's bicentennial not only in Philly, Boston and Baltimore, but also in New York and Richmond, Va., two other cities where Poe spent time during his peripatetic existence.

Pettit, 41, born and bred in the city's Olney/East Oak Lane section, argues that Poe's real spiritual home is Philly, where he lived from 1838 to 1844, because that is where the poet, critic and short story writer composed his best stories, including "The Fall of the House of Usher," "William Wilson," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Masque of the Red Death."

It was in Philly, Pettit writes in an essay, that "Poe invented the mystery/detective story, which has burgeoned into the largest of literary genres. Poe is also the forefather of both the horror and science fiction genres."

Pettit, who teaches writing at La Salle University and regularly writes about Poe in his "Ed & Edgar" blog, said that "not only did [Poe] write almost all of his greatest stories here, but the city itself had a great influence on his writing."

Ironically, Philly may have had that influence because it was one of the most violent and chaotic cities in the country. "It was a Philadelphia of race and labor riots, poverty and crime. A stinking effluvia of corruption and decadence rolled down its streets, dimming the lights," Pettit writes. Philly "was the crucible for Poe's imagination," which was usually fixated on the dark side of human existence.

Pettit insists that the two years Poe spent in Baltimore in the mid-1830s produced nothing of any literary worth.

Baltimore's claims on Poe, Pettit said, are based principally on his death there in 1849. Yet Poe, who died of an unknown cause shortly after he was found delirious, wandering the streets, wasn't even living in Baltimore at the time. He was passing through on his way from Richmond to New York.

"Baltimore's real claim is that [it] murdered Poe," said Pettit. "Poe died of Baltimore - it was one visit too many."

Baltimore's Jerome admits he's a little tickled by Pettit's pointed diss.

"Ed is a terrific guy," he said, "misguided perhaps, but very articulate and a formidable opponent." That said, he dismissed Pettit as a fantasist. "Suddenly it's the Poe bicentennial and everyone is coming out of the woodwork, saying 'Poe belongs to us.' "

He said Poe, whose father's family hailed from Baltimore, would never have gone on to write his most famous tales were it not for a literary prize he won in Baltimore for the early story "MS. Found in a Bottle." It was in Baltimore, he added, where Poe fell in love with his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia, whom he married in 1836.

Jerome explained that Baltimore won out in all things Poe because the city aggressively marketed its Poe connection shortly after the writer's death.

"Philly didn't do anything" to honor Poe's death, he said.

Jerome and Pettit do agree on one thing: Bostonian Paul Lewis' claims that Poe belongs to Boston are silly.

Speaking on the phone from his office at Boston College, Lewis, 59, said that although Poe spent only six months in Boston as an adult, his entire worldview as an artist was forged in opposition to Boston's literary establishment, especially Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the transcendentalist poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who taught that a poem's moral message is far more important than its form. Poe made art for art's sake, not for the sake of moral education.

When told about Lewis' argument on behalf of Beantown, Jerome simply said, "Well, excuse me while I nod off. So what?"

The University of Pennsylvania's Thomas Devaney, whose essay "Edgar Allan Poe at 200: The Absolute Literary Case" accompanies the library's Poe exhibition, said the debate is significant because it has brought so much attention to Poe's works.

"The debate over the poet's bones are about his legacy - that's what Pettit is talking about . . . his body of work," Devaney said.

He said it's hard to overestimate Poe's influence on American - and European - culture. Poems such as "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven," he said, are "in the DNA of our culture."

Devaney will host an evening of readings devoted to "The Raven" at the Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus on Thursday. He said Poe is everywhere in today's culture: Tim Burton's film Vincent; the series of Poe films made by Vincent Price; the songs of Lou Reed and Patti Smith; even Matt Groening's The Simpsons. (The animated show's riff on "The Raven" will be screened during the Writers House event.)

Poet and retired Penn English professor Daniel Hoffman, 85, whose 1971 book Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, is considered one of the most significant modern studies of Poe's writing, traces Poe's enduring popularity to his ability as a psychologist.

"He shows with great honesty the impulses and desires that most people have but hide. Poe explores our unconscious and brings it to light," said Hoffman, who will participate in Thursday's reading at the Writers House and also will talk about Poe's influence on three contemporary women writers at Philly's own Poe house, at Seventh and Spring Garden Streets, on Saturday at 2 p.m. The house, which is perhaps not as well known as Baltimore's Poe house, was one of Poe's domiciles in Philly. In 1978, Congress declared it a national historic site.

Poe Bicentennial Events

The Great Poe Debate Poe experts from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston spar over Poe's legacy. Free Library, 1901 Vine St.; 215-686-5322. Free. 7:30 tonight. Exhibition "Quoth the Raven: A 200-Year Remembrance of the Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe." Free Library. Through Feb. 13.

A Murder of Ravens Thomas Devaney hosts multiple readings of "The Raven." Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk; 215-573-9748. 5 p.m. Thursday.

Friends of Poe Bicentennial Birthday Party Theater piece about Poe, wine tasting, exhibits. German Society, Seventh and Spring Garden Sts.; 215-597-7919. $15; $10 members. 6 to 8 p.m. Friday.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site 532 N. Seventh St.; 215-597-7130. Edgar Allan Poe: the Many Sides of Genius. Lecture by Daniel Hoffman. Free. 2 p.m. Saturday.