Wednesday, December 24, 2008

BALTIMORE — The 200th birthday celebration next month for Edgar Allan Poe has resulted in a friendly tussle among major East Coast cities about which has the strongest ties to the American author.

Poe - author of “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” and other poems and tales of the macabre - was born in Boston on Jan. 19, 1809. He was raised largely in Richmond. As an adult, he migrated between Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

Befitting his difficulty establishing roots, Poe will be feted at birthday parties in those five cities in January. Events will continue throughout the year - including new museum exhibits, performances and readings of Poe’s work, academic conferences and, in Baltimore, a reenactment of his funeral that is sure to draw more mourners than the hasty burial itself.

The push to honor Poe dovetails with an escalating debate about the places that were most important to the author’s life and work.

“Every city has its claim to fame with Poe,” said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum, in Baltimore.

Baltimore, where Poe died in 1849 under mysterious circumstances, is home to his grave and a tiny row house he lived in during his mid-20s. There are also houses in Philadelphia in which Poe wrote some of his best-known stories, and New York, where he enjoyed his greatest literary success. Richmond has the definitive Poe museum. Boston doesn’t have much besides a plaque near his place of birth, but an enthusiastic English professor thinks the city should and will do more.

For promoting Poe, no city can compete with Baltimore, which named its football team the Ravens in his honor. It also has the Poe birthday tradition that fascinates the public - each year a mysterious visitor leaves a half-full bottle of cognac and three red roses at his original grave site.

In 1875, Poe’s remains were moved to a more prominent spot in the same cemetery, Westminster Burying Ground, alongside his aunt, Maria Clemm. The remains of his wife, Virginia - who was also Maria’s daughter - were reburied there 10 years later.

There Poe’s bones will stay, despite a tongue-in-cheek plea by Philadelphia-based Poe scholar Edward Pettit to dig up the author’s remains and rebury them in the City of Brotherly Love, where he wrote many of his best stories, including “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

“I’m not crazy,” he said. “I’ve never thought that the actual body of Poe was going to be moved. But that’s the metaphor. Philadelphia deserves the bones of Poe in the sense that it deserves to be the standard-bearer of the Poe legacy.”

Whether Poe’s bones should be moved is open for debate. And on Jan. 13 at the Philadelphia Free Library, Mr. Pettit, Mr. Jerome and Paul Lewis, an English professor at Boston College, will do just that. Their scholarly showdown is billed as “the Great Poe Debate.”

“I don’t really have to prepare,” Mr. Jerome boasted, noting that Baltimore has been the guardian of Poe’s legacy since the 1875 dedication of his new grave, which drew hundreds of people, including Walt Whitman.

Boston’s claim on Poe is much shakier. Poe left there when he was a few months old and, as an adult, he despised the city and its literary tradition.

Still, Mr. Lewis tries to compensate with rhetorical enthusiasm.

“He is arguably - I’m not saying everyone would accept this - the most influential writer who was ever born in Boston, and we should celebrate it,” he said.

New York and Richmond have tried to stay above the fray, but their claims are arguably just as strong.

“The work that he did here in New York kind of stands on its own,” said Anthony Green, education director of the Bronx Historical Society, who cited “The Raven,” “The Bells” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” “We can let the other cities squabble about it. To us, it’s not really a competition.”

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