For Poe, This Has Been the Year to Die For





RICHMOND, Va. — Edgar Allan Poe took good care of his corpses. They are neatly cut up and craftily stowed beneath floorboards (“The Tell-Tale Heart”); they are walled into ancient catacombs where nothing is likely to disturb their well-earned eternal slumber (“The Cask of Amontillado”); they are encased in coffins that somehow permit them to emerge to take care of unfinished business (“The Fall of the House of Usher”). But the living — some of whom become those corpses — have a much harder time of it. They obsess, brood and hate; they are possessed by bizarre impulses; they wrestle with inchoate forces and often succumb, scarcely knowing the scope of their perversities.

That has pretty much been the fate of Poe as well. This year is the bicentennial of his birth, and while he never earned a secure living, was often sucked into alcoholic maelstroms, was unable to hold a job without incinerating his prospects and regularly lashed out at his literary contemporaries — while in life, in other words, he was a miserable conglomeration of self-justification, remorse, genius, fury and failure — as a corpse he has flourished mightily. And not just because of his inventive creations of the modern detective novel, horror tale and science-fiction story. Contemporary Goth subcultures feed on the themes that ooze from Poe’s work. And celebrations have been widespread and plentiful.

In October in Philadelphia, Poe was feted with the third international conference devoted to his work, where for three days the subjects of discussion included the association of the author with themes like Baroque aesthetics, the sublimity of disease and signs of homosexuality. Biographical documents and images have also been scanned and cataloged this year in association with an exhibition at the University of Texas at Austin. In October in Baltimore, where the 40-year-old Poe was buried in an unmarked grave in 1849 with 10 people in attendance, a plastic Poe in a pine box was given an elaborate funeral in recompense. An active Poe society in Baltimore maintains a rich Web site (eapoe.org). There are at least two scholarly journals devoted to him and, judging from the recent conference, a flourishing academic industry.

In Richmond, where Poe spent nearly a third of his life, a playful, robust exhibition at the Library of Virginia can be seen through Saturday. The objects on display include magazines for which he wrote, an 1850 daguerreotype of the first (and last) woman he said he loved, sheet music based on his poems, Poe dolls and figurines and a rare 1928 expressionist silent-film version of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber.

“Poe: Man, Myth, or Monster” is the show’s provocative title, and the library seems to suggest he is all of the above, while shaping a new myth that sees Poe as an ancestor of today’s disenchanted dissenters and popular entertainers, praising him as both “rock star” and “social misfit.” The case is overstated, but this revivification has some bite...


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