Throughout January, the world is Edgar Allan Poe’s stage, 200 years after his birth on Jan. 19, 1809, and more than a century and a half after his mysterious demise in a Baltimore gutter. He’s credited as the founding father of detective fiction, a master of the macabre, the namesake inspiration for the mystery world’s premier annual award, and perhaps the first proper full-time freelance writer. This second son of an acting couple might well feel a mix of puffed-up pride and mystification at the celebratory atmosphere if he were alive to witness it. He spent most of his life cobbling together a living out of the scraps of poetic and prose publication, sporadically climbing the mountain of literary acclaim (as with “The Raven” in 1845) only to plunge anew into penury, a state he remained in until his death.
Poe’s perilous financial state made him a man on the move, and two centuries later his itinerant status has a number of cities fighting for the honor to claim him as theirs and only theirs. Baltimore, by virtue of being his burial ground, has long had the inside track; after all, on every anniversary since 1949, a mysterious individual known as “The Poe Toaster” has left cognac and three red roses at Poe’s graveside. But then a 2007 cover story in the Philadelphia City Paper depicted, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, the kidnapping of Poe’s corpse to be spirited away to Philly, where Poe produced a great deal of his literary output. “We’re Taking Poe Back,” the article proclaimed, launching a long-running debate between its author, Edward Pettit, and Poe House curator Jeff Jerome that culminated in a debate this past Tuesday at the Philadelphia Free Library.
The battle to be Poe’s primary residence is hardly a two-horse race: There are also justifiable claims from the Bronx, where Poe lived out the last years of his life; Boston, where he was born; and Richmond, Va., where he spent his early childhood under the foster care of the Allan family. In other words, it’ll be at least another 200 years before the Poe Wars reach a cease-fire.
But let’s talk of love, for there’s plenty of it in the air from a publishing industry eager to give Poe presents in the form of literary tributes, original stories and miniature biography. The last item in that list refers to the work of Peter Ackroyd, the British novelist and nonfiction writer who’s made a career out of documenting the history of London and the complicated lives of notable figures like Chaucer, Shakespeare and Newton with assured brevity. Now he’s done it again with “Poe: A Life Cut Short” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 224 pp., $21.95), which recounts Poe’s tumultuous and peripatetic personal and professional life in a tone equal parts crisp and Gothic. Ackroyd’s prose assumes the reader has some familiarity with signature works like “William Wilson” or “The Raven,” so don’t look for new revelations or fresh insights. The book works best as a refresher course for the curious rather than as a definitive study of Poe’s importance in cross-Atlantic culture.
Also celebrating Poe’s bicentennial are the authors who make up the Mystery Writers of America, an organization formed after World War II as a means of recognizing the best of what was then -- and still is -- an oft-maligned genre. It seems strangely fitting that the MWA’s set of Poe-centric anthologies comes out just weeks after the death of Julius Fast, the very first Edgar Award winner (for “Watchful at Night” in 1946) because these two volumes not only commemorate Poe but the writers who owe significant debt to him.
The original stories in “On a Raven’s Wing” (Harper: 394 pp., $14.99 paper) purport to be influenced by or in the spirit of Poe, and, as is all too common with anthologies, the end result is mixed. Notable entrants include Dorothy Salisbury Davis, who in her 94th year reminds readers of her storytelling prowess with the quiet menace of “Emily’s Time”; the late Ed Hoch with a dastardly recounting of the activities of “The Poe Collector”; and Thomas H. Cook, who refashions “Nevermore” as a young rabbi’s quest to uncover a potential murder at the hands of his dying father. But too often the stories read as half-baked imitations of Poe’s vastly superior works or as pointless exercises. There’s no need to settle for ersatz when the real thing is right there for appreciation.
Which is exactly the objective of “In the Shadow of the Master” (William Morrow: 390 pp., $25.99), a handsome red volume edited by Michael Connelly collecting Poe’s classic tales with accompanying essays of appreciation by 20 of mystery fiction’s leading lights. So we have Lawrence Block explaining how “The Cask of Amontillado” put a curse on him, P.J. Parrish making the case for “The Black Cat” as the first cat mystery, Sue Grafton shedding her antipathy to become a true Poe convert and Joseph Wambaugh turning his assignment into a poem reminiscent of “The Raven.” These short pieces set the table for the main course of Poe’s stories and poems, and it was a true delight to re-acquaint myself with the mounting dread of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the clanging rhyming sounds of “The Bells” and so many other indelible works by the man who, in Connelly’s introductory words, “walked across a field of pristine grass, not a single blade broken. Today that path has been worn down to a deep trench that crosses the imagination of the whole world.”
And as for me, I plan to celebrate Edgar Allan Poe’s 200th birthday at one of my favorite haunts, Edgar’s Café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, sipping coffee and reading a favorite book while a bust replica looks on from across the room. Many happy returns, Mr. Poe; you’ve earned them countless times over.