- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Edgar Allan Poe was 3 years old the first time he met John Mackenzie, a local kid who would become a lifelong friend.

Mackenzie was 6. He’d broken his arm in December of 1811 and doctors, fearing it wouldn’t properly heal, had told his parents to keep him away from boys his own size.

So Poe, whose sister Rosalie was living with the Mackenzie family after their mother died, became his playmate.

One day, Mackenzie, to pass the time, told the younger boy a fairy tale. Poe repeated it back, but built on it by adding some of his own embellishments.

Thus began a game of literary one-upmanship and was the first sign that the little boy - described in letters as “a lovely little fellow” who was “charming everyone by his childish grace, vivacity and cleverness” - might have a gift for spinning a tale.

“Here we have the earliest evidence of Edgar’s extraordinary imagination,” said Richard Kopley, an Edgar Allan Poe scholar and professor at Penn State University, DuBois.

“The spirit of verbal competition apparent here anticipates his later successfully capping Latin verses in school and, as a professional writer, winning short story contests.”

Kopley was at the Poe Museum in Richmond in May to discuss two recently discovered stories about the writer’s childhood here. The collection of letters was linked, through distant relatives, to Mackenzie.

The first was about meeting Mackenzie. The second was about how Poe, at 16, wrote the poem “Oh, Tempora! Oh, Mores!” to drive Robert Pitts, a clerk, out of town.

Kopley has spent decades studying Poe and his work. The two stories shedding light on Poe’s early life is the result of finding some previously undiscovered letters.

The recent talk is one of the ways the museum is looking to educate on Poe’s life and helping explain that the writer’s legend is different from the reality.

Poe has been seen as a dark, brooding, haunted man who died drunk in a gutter but has transcended time with his terrifying stories.

But in his day, Poe was known as a prankster and was such a star in later years that crowds followed him down the street.

He is credited with creating the detective and science fiction story, inspired Jules Verne, and held a one-sided feud, in print, with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

And in his death, which remains shrouded in mystery and legend, he was praised around the world as an American master.

“There is the caricature of Poe and then there is the historical figure of Poe and then there is the interpretation in between which makes our job wicked fun,” said Jaime Fawcett, executive director of the Poe Museum.

The museum blames the negative image on his literary rival, Rufus Griswold, who “wrote a libelous obituary of the author in a misguided attempt at revenge for some of the offensive things Poe had said and written about him.”

“Griswold followed the obituary with a memoir in which he portrayed Poe as a drunken, womanizing madman with no morals and no friends,” according to the museum.

“Griswold’s attacks were meant to cause the public to dismiss Poe and his works, but the biography had exactly the opposite effect and instead drove the sales of Poe’s books higher than they had ever been during the author’s lifetime.”

That is a twist of fate Poe would have loved, Fawcett said.

Kopley said that Poe’s lifelong friendship with McKenzie illustrates one of the mistaken ideas about the writer.

“Although Edgar, as an adult, may have sometimes been a difficult friend to have in light of his drinking,” he said, “Rufus Griswold’s infamous claim that Poe had few or no friends, testifies to Griswold’s personal malice and professional envy and, perhaps, to his ignorance rather than the facts.”

Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum, said one of the other misconceptions about the writer is the work itself.

He said many people see Poe as a “dark, gloomy, morbid fellow” but out of 70 short stories, only 15 were horror stories. His mysteries, in fact, were what made him popular in his lifetime.

Semtner said he wishes people realized that Poe was “America’s Shakespeare. He’s the one who put American literature on the map.”

“It’s kind of sad that now, in America especially, people think of Poe as a guy who wrote a few scary stories that you read around Halloween time,” he said.

“They don’t realize the concept of art for art’s sake which made possible modernism and abstraction and most visual art that we know today, goes back to this turning point in world literature that Poe helped initiate. The idea.that a poem could be beautiful and that’s all it took.”

Writer Tom Wolfe said what made Poe special as a poet was his mastery of language and an ability to use words to create a sound that was sublime.

But Poe’s art is mostly a lost one, Wolfe said.

“The literary world turned against rhyme, and today Poe would probably be writing jingles for some television show.”

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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