INFINITE IMPROBABILITY: The Fall of the House of Poe

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First Posted: 6/18/2013

“In our endeavors to recall to memory something long forgotten, we often find ourselves upon the very verge of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember.” –Edgar Allan Poe in “Ligeia”

I was in Baltimore, Md., this past weekend for a wedding, and while I was browsing through one of the many crab-themed merchandise shops, I noticed a section of Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia. Being a fan (And really, who isn’t?), I was tempted to buy something until I realized that there was probably a museum nearby with much better stuff, sold from a dreary spot where the mustachioed man himself likely once pondered, weak and weary.

I didn’t realize quite how dreary until I looked it up.

As it turns out, Baltimore is home to the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum – a quaint little place where Poe used to reside with his grandmother, aunt, and cousin, Virginia, who later became his wife – though it’s no longer in operation. It closed on September 28, 2012 after losing funding from the city, a city which has no problem naming everything from beers to bars to cab companies to apartment buildings to football teams after him or his work (all things I spotted just walking around downtown) but doesn’t feel the need to support. Every city has money problems these days, but this is just hypocritical.

Many cities have laid claim to Poe’s legacy over the years. He was born in Boston, attended college in Virginia, wrote some of his best work in Philadelphia, and may have penned “The Raven” in New York – all offer something to celebrate the author’s life, though Philly’s Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site is probably the best of them all. Baltimore may be where he died and was buried, but even the famous “Poe Toaster,” who mysteriously visited the grave annually on his birthday to raise a glass of cognac and leave three roses behind, gave up on the tradition after 75 years in 2010 (maybe because no one could think up a cooler name for him in all that time). Why the sudden lack of respect?

Maybe because, while his monument is nice, this house certainly is not. With its windows shut tight and its rear littered with garbage and dead leaves, it doesn’t offer much with its small space and awful location – the surrounding homes have since become public housing, and the neighbors aren’t too friendly to visitors. Ignoring the scowls, I snapped a few quick pictures and read the small signs that indicate the historical significance of 203 Amity Street. As we were driving away, an old man walked into the street and started shouting at us, presumably asking us to return “nevermore.”

The city natives I was with noted that many parts of Baltimore, particularly the Inner Harbor, had been improved upon since their childhoods, yet years of $85,000 budgets from the city couldn’t keep this home operational while cheap stands hock Poe shirts to tourists just a few miles away – it’s maddening in a tell-tale kind of way. Though according to The Baltimore Sun, the B&O Railroad Museum was given $180,000 from the city to help Poe Baltimore, the organization put in charge of the house’s revitalization, get it back on its feet, and the group told the Sun recently that its camera-guarded door will reopen in October. It will be interesting to see what they will do differently to keep it that way this time.

On June 28, Poe Forevermore Radio Theater will perform three tales from the master mystery author live at Westminster Hall to raise additional funds, but should it always be up to the fans to raise money to preserve history? Shouldn’t National Historic Landmarks receive more funding from somewhere? Hell, where are the people of Baltimore? Why does Babe Ruth and his museum get all the love? Is it because Poe is the “Father of the Short Story” rather than the “Sultan of Swat?” Do we not appreciate our literary heroes as much as other celebrities?

Poe’s brilliant but easy-to-read prose and poetry has long made him a favorite of schools, teachers, and parents, and his dark themes and morbid fascinations have made him “cool” to kids and fascinating to adult readers. Everyone knew how bad that John Cusack film “The Raven” was going to be, but people saw it anyway last year just because it was remotely related to Poe. I don’t think he’s underappreciated so much as he’s a cult icon – an instantly recognizable face on black apparel everywhere. So when fans like me visit an area that boasts his former residence and resting place, there’s a certain expectation that comes with it that the city should recognize – not everyone likes seafood, after all.

Inevitably, I will be back someday to visit his memorial and the bar where he was last seen alive before his inscrutable death, and I hope to actually be able to step inside his old stomping grounds and receive a proper tour, as I anticipated doing in the first place. But you can’t take history for granted, nor its preservation – it’s something, in spite of dirty looks and lack of funds, that you must recall, retell, and even pay for yourself if necessary.

-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at [email protected]