Thursday, January 19, 2012

What Will You Do Now, Edgar?

The "Poe Toaster" is no more. 

Every January 19 since 1950, and possibly as early as 1930, a black-coated man has left a remembrance by the gravestone of Edgar Allen Poe: three white roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac. This is the third year, though, that he hasn't appeared. Apparently, he is gone.

Poe is, of course, the spooky guy whose horror stories and poetry about lunatics, bloodthirsty orangutangs, and the Telltale Heart have creeped out readers for generations, not only in book but movie form. (I never could get away from the Pit and the Pendulum, where the narrator saves himself from a slice-and-dice death only by rubbing his bonds with spicy meat bits...then lets the rats nibble him free.) Ironically, Poe is the only author ever to have named a professional ballteam. Didn't you ever wonder how the Baltimore Ravens got their name? ("Once upon a midnight dreary...")
    Although he did some unusual things in his life, including marrying his 13-year-old cousin, Poe's death tops the Weird-O-Meter: on Oct. 3, 1849, he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, MD in delirium, wearing clothes that were not his own. He died four days later, never able to explain where he had been or done, though he called out "Reynolds" several times during his sickness. Poe was a heavy drinker, but experts still argue over what he actually died from. He was 40 years old.
    His reputation at the time was largely based on his work as a literary critic. Soon, however, people began to recognize the brilliance (ok, and creepiness) of his writing. Today is different -- Poe's first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, sold in 2009 for more than $660,000. (The most recent copy found was piled with agricultural pamphlets in a New Hampshire antique shop in 1988. The collector bought it for $15.) And Poe's literary output has been printed all over the world. Good work for a guy whose father abandoned him, and mother died soon after of tuberculosis. (A disease, sadly, which also claimed Poe's young wife.)

So who is the stranger who celebrated Poe's January 19 birthday for so long? No one is sure, though people have seen him by the grave over the years. Sometimes he left a note with his offerings -- in the 1990s, the notes left suggested that a second person was now doing the honors.
    That person, 'Poe Toaster II,' has not been seen, though, since 2009, although some imposters, including one guy arriving in a limousine, have arrived.
     A literary tradition is gone. But then, in Poe's writing, nothing -- and no one -- ever lasts long.

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