My Tombeau for Edgar Poe
by Harris Feinsod
In October, 2007, a blog-happy literato named Edward Pettit loosely affiliated with Lehigh University and the Philadelphia Poe House made an astute grab at media attention with an announcement in the alternative weekly on behalf of his fellow Philadelphians: “This is a literary grave-robbing.” It was the necropolitical equivalent of a liquor store heist. His mark? The body of Edgar Allan Poe. “He was buried in Baltimore when he died,” wrote Pettit, “But I want to exhume his body and translate his remains to the City of Brotherly Love. That’s because Poe is ours. He belongs to Philadelphia.”
poe house in b-more
Pettit’s ploy worked. His sucker punch to the Baltimore Poe custodians clouded up into a cartoon cat fight between writers for the major dailies of Baltimore, Philly, and soon even New York and Boston were joining the fracas (the Times generously referring to Pettit, a self-professed “freelance book reviewer,” as a “Poe Scholar.”) The next chapter in this whole strange hagiographical boondoggle will be today, January 13th in a “debate” at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia.
Pettit now has home field advantage in an inter-city spectacle that feels like a sidebar to the great football drama by which the Baltimore Colts left for Indianapolis in the middle of the night, Baltimore years later stole the Cleveland Browns, and re-named them (after Poe) as the Ravens.
Ravens mascots “Edgar,” “Allan,” and “Poe.”
If the Ravens’ magisterial performance last Saturday against Tennessee has anything to say about it, my money is on Baltimore hanging on to Poe if only so its NFL team has an appropriate reliquary.
Now, I myself am a Baltimorean, and one of the formative, surreptitious experiences of my adolescence took place literally sitting upon the 8-ft white Italian marble grave of Poe while I was absconding from the Mexican buffet at a bar mitzvah at the adjacent Westminster Church, which is an event hall. Like Jeff Jerome, curator of the Baltimore Poe House, who said of Pettit, “I will argue the other guy down with grace and facts, then I will walk over to him like a gentleman and punch him square in the nose,” my allegiance to Poe’s Baltimore burial plot could not be more fierce.
Nevertheless, if Philly were to succeed in Pettit’s plan, it would not be the first time a city stole a patron from a neighboring polity in an act of apostolic smuggling. Tradition has it that as the young city-state of Venice grew into a maritime power in the 9th century, it absconded the remains of San Marco out of Alexandria by hiding them in barrels of pork meat that were noxious to the Muslim customs agents. A mosaic in the Basilica arch on Piazza San Marco mythologizes the event, as does a 16th century Tintoretto painting.
St. Mark in a pork barrel: central portal of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice
By coincidence, there are also at least three small Tintoretto paintings at the remarkable Barnes Foundation museum in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. But suddenly it hardly seems incidental that Philadelphia has successfully lobbied to move the Barnes collection to a new building downtown, on the site of a demolished juvenile detention center.
Tintoretto’s Trafugamento del corpo di San Marco, 1563-1564
The great sympathy I feel for Philadelphia as one of the truly hardscrabble, realist cities of the Atlantic coast has been withering as it proves itself a petty thug trying to ransack its way into a Chicago-style “museum walk” like a soft-core Napoleon. Besides, as a reader named Wolfgang Schafer noted in the comments to Pettit’s original manifesto, Philadelphia levelled the grave of one of its other literary patrons–Charles Brockden Brown–to make room for a parking lot.
But lost in this winsome tale of literary infighting along the I-95 corridor (one wonders if New Jersey will join the debate and propose interring Poe at one of its many honorific rest stops, just down the turnpike from Joyce Kilmer or Walt Whitman or Howard Stern), is the fascinating story behind Poe’s real grave.
There was no headstone on the tomb of Edgar Allen Poe from the time of his death in 1849 until 1875, when an eight foot marble monument was finally erected in Baltimore and a memorial volume commemorating Poe was prepared.
A young school mistress named Sara Sigourney Rice had led her students in the fundraising initiative, and tributes by a cohort of luminaries on both sides of the atlantic–Tennyson, Swinburne, Longfellow, Mallarmé — were sent and read. Neither Philly nor Boston nor any other regional interest had saved Poe’s “neglected grave” from anonymity so much as an international gathering of testimonials from the most modern of modern poets. “And now, with fame that cannot die / he has the world’s affection too” concluded William Winters’ poem as an orchestra broke into a soaring Mendelssohn chorus.
Swinburne wrote that the Poe tomb would be the physical manifestation of the already considerable monuments to Poe in France that were represented by Baudelaire’s translations. Mallarmé’s “Le Tombeau D’Edgar Poe,” one of the tributes written for the event is a gorgeous threnody following the conventions of the tombeau or “tomb” poem, an old form of funerary writing. It ends with the command that the stone block over Poe’s grave “evermore” mark the boundary “to the dark flights of Blasphemy hurled to the future.” The hurling blasphemers at Constitution Hall tomorrow could pay it mind. Or if their thirst for exhumation can’t be quenched, maybe they should join the movement to dig up Lorca instead.
Harris Feinsod lives in San Francisco, where he is working on a Ph.D. in comparative literature.
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