166 years after his mysterious death, Edgar Allan Poe still fascinates us
Edgar Allan Poe died 166 years ago today, but nobody can agree how.
On Oct. 3, 1849, a newspaper typesetter named Joseph W. Walker came across Poe in a Baltimore gutter. The legendary author was wearing someone else’s clothes, half-unconscious, and unable to explain how he ended up in the street. Poe, who had left Richmond, Va., five days before en route to Philadelphia, never explained how he wound up in Baltimore. He died Oct. 7 in a hospital. He was 40.
There are several theories about the cause of his death. Some think the poet was killed; others blame alcohol, rabies or the flu. It’s not likely there will ever be a definitive answer to the mystery, which is somewhat fitting for the man widely credited with inventing the detective story.
Poe’s long-lasting appeal is no mystery, however. His work endures to this day. Most Americans have read his short stories “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and his poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” And even 166 years later, his work still fascinates readers across the country.
Last year, Poe’s hometown of Boston — which he famously hated — erected a statue of the author in a downtown park. The brass likeness depicts Poe walking away from Frog Pond; it’s meant to symbolize his disdain for the city.
“Disdain” might actually be too weak to describe Poe’s antipathy for Beantown. “Bostonians have no soul,” he once wrote. “The Bostonians are well-bred — as very dull persons very generally are.”
Boston and Baltimore aren’t the only cities that lay claim to Poe. After his parents died, Poe was raised by a couple in Richmond, Va.; that city commemorates him with a museum that was established in 1922. He also lived for several years in Philadelphia, where there’s a national historic site in his honor.
Poe fans in New York can visit the cottage he inhabited in the Bronx. His time there wasn’t the happiest; his beloved wife (and cousin) Virginia died there. The bed where she succumbed to tuberculosis is on display at the cottage.
Perhaps because of his mysterious death, however, Poe is most closely associated with Baltimore. The city paid an unusual tribute to him in 1996 when they named their NFL team the Ravens, a reference to his most famous poem. (Sadly for Poe, the Ravens are 3-9 against the New England Patriots.)
On the other hand, Poe wasn’t really known for his love of sports. Or at least the Edgar Allan Poe you’ve heard of. Last month, a different Edgar Allan Poe — a football player for Army — caught a touchdown pass in the academy’s game against Eastern Michigan. The young Poe’s nickname is, of course, “the Raven.”
That’s not the only honor Charm City residents have bestowed upon Poe. For decades, the “Poe Toaster” left three roses and an open bottle of cognac by the author’s grave in honor of his birthday. The tributes stopped in 2009, but a historical society is trying to bring the tradition back.
Poe has fascinated Hollywood over the years, and an upcoming film aims to introduce a new generation to his stories. “Extraordinary Tales,” due for release on Oct. 23, features animated adaptations of five of Poe’s stories, including “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The film is narrated by five actors, including Guillermo Del Toro and the late Bela Lugosi.
Movie lovers will have to wait a little longer for actor Idris Elba’s take on Poe. Elba is developing a movie trilogy based on the novel “Poe Must Die.” The films will feature Poe as an alcoholic who must save the world from a Satanic psychic.
It’s not a bad legacy for an author who died young. And again, it’s no mystery why his work still appeals to readers today. As Times book critic David L. Ulin wrote last year, “In his work, he embodies that peculiarly American tension between the popular and the literary, between what happens on the surface and what goes on underneath.”
Poe might be gone, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever be forgotten.
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