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On Sunday an old drunken master of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, is getting a funeral party in Baltimore. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever come across.
Some of the details of Poe’s death are a mystery, since people were in general indifferent to him during his lifetime. It’s generally accepted that he was found unconscious in a Baltimore street one day, and died shortly afterwards in hospital. He liked his drink, did bad Ed Poe, and it’s speculated that it was either the alcohol that killed him or some consequence of being blind drunk. Nobody came to his funeral and his grave went unmarked for a long while. This year, however, would have been his two hundredth birthday, so the folks in Baltimore are throwing him an enormous funeral bash.
I don’t really know what I think about this, but it’s so bizarre I just wanted to bring it to your attention. You can get a flavour of what’s going on for yourself by watching this news snippet or going to the Poe Bicentennial website. Some of the strange happenings you can read about there include the lying in state of his body – which has been going on all week – and the list of funeral speakers that includes Alfred Hitchcock and Baudelaire. I confess I panicked when I saw the news about his body. The whole event seemed just surreal enough that somebody might have actually sanctioned the exhumation of his corpse. That, after all, would be just like something from a Poe short story. Thankfully, the body is a waxwork and the funeral guests are presumably actors or people giving readings. Yet it all feels a bit macabre, a bit sickly and gothic, a bit tourist board. I don’t care very much for the romanticising of death at the best of times, but as a writer I find the idea that people might take literary satisfaction from the premature gutter-death of an author somewhat troubling. On top of that, a couple of Poe’s short stories have really stuck with me since I read them. “The Man of the Crowd“, in particular, was a story that had a small but meaningful effect on me as I tried to work out what I was trying to achieve in my own work. So, even though I’m not a hardboiled fan of Poe’s, I think I’d feel like I was doing him a disservice by attending something that gives his death a faint theme-park feel. That said, it’s a celebration of a kind, in keeping in many ways with the tone of his work, and it at least proves that he was onto a good thing with his writing, even if he never got to enjoy the recognition he deserved in his lifetime.
In 1875, however, twenty-six years after his death, Poe did receive a memorial service that helped recognise his literary worth. A letter from Lord Tennyson was read, and Walt Whitman was in attendance. So it’s not as if his memory has gone uncelebrated and a memorial is long overdue. In fact, Tennyson’s opinion of Poe was so high that he said (in this amazing interview with the New York Times in 1886): “He is the literary glory of America, and yet his grave was left unhonored for more than 26 years.”
One last thing – while looking through all this I came across another fascinating little oddity: the Poe Toaster. Every year, on Poe’s birthday, this mysterious stranger leaves a half-drunk bottle of brandy and three red roses on the original site of Poe’s grave.
Bottoms up, Edgar.
By Charlie Geoghegan-Clements