Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review: The Great Poe Debate

In October 2007, Philadelphia writer Ed Pettit issued a gallant challenge: grab a shovel, head down to Baltimore, and remove the bones of Edgar A. Poe so that they may be buried in Philadelphia.

As you can imagine, Baltimoreans were inflamed – none more so than Jeff Jerome, curator of Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum. Threats of fisticuffs ensued, and over a year later, arguments over who was most deserving of the rotting corpse of Poe culminated in “The Great Poe Debate.” The third combatant was an upstart from Boston, Poe’s neglected birthplace, named Paul Lewis, a professor at Boston College.

The January 13 debate, hosted by the Philadelphia Free Library, conclusively established Poe’s legacy as distinctly Philadelphian. The competing outsiders cried foul, blaming the bias of the home crowd advantage. The re-match was scheduled and set in Boston just under a year later.

Since the first debate, Jerome has overseen several Baltimore events for Poe’s bicentennial, culminating with a funeral held in October. Pettit has continued to provoke national attention for Philadelphia’s claim to Poe with speaking engagements and his “Ed and Edgar” blog. Lewis successfully petitioned for the dedication of “Edgar Allan Poe Square” in Boston and was elected vice-president of the Poe Studies Association. Clearly, all three are qualified to discuss Poe.

The second round of the Great Poe Debate was held at the Boston Public Library with the same three representatives. Lewis argued that Poe was not only born in Boston, but owed the city for inspiring his distinctive writing theory by directly opposing Bostonian literary ideals. Jerome noted Baltimore’s impressive loyalty to Poe since the memorial placed at his downtown grave in 1875, as well the family connection to Charm City. Pettit said that Poe’s time in Philadelphia marked his most productive writing period, inspired by a subgenre termed “Philadelphia Gothic.”

Boston-area writers fueled Poe’s creative thinking, said Lewis, who also noted that Poe’s mother Eliza performed on a stage in Boston only blocks from where the debate took place. Jerome noted that, though Poe struggled in Baltimore, it is where he published his first true horror story, “Berenice,” which established the tradition he would follow for the remainder of his prose career. Pettit emphasized that Poe’s time in the City of Brotherly Love included the birth of the modern detective story and most of the classic Poe tales still read today, including “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat.”

The debate was moderated by Charles Pierce, a writer for the Boston Globe and contributor to NPR and other outlets – who showed a clear partiality towards Boston. The city’s poet laureate Sam Cornish served as a celebrity judge, but declined making a final decision – further proving that Poe belongs not to one city, but to everyone.

The debate was all in good fun, of course – no one was literally looking to remove Poe from his grave. Instead, the debate focused on which city had earned the right to identify with Poe. Even so, debaters came out ready for a battle – Pettit himself walked to the stage to the Rocky theme song and wearing a boxing-style robe with Poe’s face on the back. Jerome attempted to bribe the audience with T-shirts.

A crowd of over 350 Poe supporters filled the Rabb Lecture Hall, some coming from as far away as Charleston, South Carolina.

Representatives from Richmond, New York, and other Poe-affiliated cities were not available.

The event was the kick-off to the exhibit “The Raven in the Frog-Pond,” which explores and redefines Poe’s connection with the city of his birth. Lewis served as curator, with the assistance of students from Boston College and independent scholars. The exhibit continues at the Boston Public Library through March 2010.

Special thanks to Rob Velella for reporting!


  1. Thanks for the write-up. Has there ever been an explanation for why Richmond and NY have been no-shows for this round of debates? Surely, there has to be someone from those cities with enough of regional pride and/or a weird sense of humor to want to get their two cents in.

  2. They haven't shown an interest, despite invitations.

  3. Hold on there!! I attempted to "bribe" the audience with Poe t shirts?!?!?

    Come now, I was merely sharing the wealth of the Poe House gift shop with select members of the audience.

    I think the Boston audience was much more civilized than the Philadelphia audience who seemed more intent on yelling than listening to the debate.