Tag Archives: Edgar Allan Poe


There was a minor stir in the back alleys of American literature yesterday:  for the first time since 1949, the enigmatic Poe Toaster failed to appear at Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore gravesite to mark Poe’s January 19 birthday.

The Poe Toaster is the mysterious figure — usually in a black coat and hat — who strolls into Baltimore’s Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in the early hours of January 19, silently walks to at Poe’s gravesite, toasts Poe with a glass of cognac, then departs, leaving behind three red roses and a half bottle of cognac on the grave.  It’s a neat tradition that’s been going on since 1949 — perhaps intentionally begun on the 100th anniversary of Poe’s death — and has gone on uninterrupted for the last fifty years, despite efforts of gawkers to block or unmask the mysterious Toaster.

It’s generally accepted that there have been at least two Poe Toasters — whether it’s a father and son is uncertain — because at one point, the Toaster left a note at the grave saying, “The torch will be passed.”  The newer Toaster, however, has annoyed Poe purists by leaving behind notes commenting on current events, starting with the 2001 Super Bowl between the Giants and Ravens (oddly, the Toaster chose the Giants) and taking an apparent jab at the French in 2004.

News trickled out early yesterday morning that the toaster — who normally makes his appearance between midnight and 5 a.m. on the morning of the 19th — had failed to appear.  I was hoping that perhaps he might be waiting until late last night to make his appearance, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the small crowds that have been gathering to watch his ceremony, but as of this morning . . . no such luck.

Jeff Jerome, curator for the Edgar Allan Poe house in Baltimore, offered several explanations for the Toaster’s absence, from sickness to car troubles to just plain deciding to hang it up for good.  After all, 2009 was the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth, making a neat bookend for a tradition that began on the 100th anniversary of his death. 

Perhaps appropriately, it’s a mystery worthy of the writer and poet that inspired it.  Happy (belated) 201st, Edgar Poe.

The Poe Museum

As I hoped — and as I alluded to in Monday’s piece on Poe’s 200th birthday — I managed to make it to the Poe Museum during my visit to Richmond.

It’s a cozy, though curious, place.  Given Richmond’s somewhat unstable history, there are few buildings standing that Poe lived in, worked in, or visited in his lifetime, so the museum makes due by setting up shop in an old stone house that dates from Poe’s era.  Still, it’s a fine place to kick off your tour, which takes you through several old buildings and a garden with a Poe shrine.

The museum boasts “one of the largest collections of Poe memorabilia in the world, much of it now currently on display” — but it’s a somewhat odd, and sparse, collection.  You’ll see, for example, Poe’s walking stick — left  behind in a friend’s home his last night in Richmond — his childhood bed, his boot hooks, and a lock of hair clipped from his head shortly after his death in 1849.  There are also several first editions on display, as well as facsimilies of handwritten manuscript pages.

There’s also a really interesting room-sized diorama of the City of Richmond during Poe’s time, giving you a good grip on where Poe lived and worked.  Sadly, most of the buildings represented on the model have been demolished, including Moldavia, where Poe lived with his foster father John Allan, and Swan Tavern, where Poe boarded during his adult years.

Fortunately, you’ve still got a chance to touch a bit of Poe’s Richmond.  Out on the garden sits a Poe Shrine, built from bricks and granite taken from the offices of the Southern Literary Messenger.  Here it is, squatting on the north end of the “Enchanted Garden,” which was, for the most part, dead with winter when I visited it:

The Poe Shrine.

The Poe Shrine.

Nestled inside the shrine is a bust of Poe, with droopy eyes and an almost wry smile on his face:


I wrapped up my visit gazing at a small room full of various daguerreotypes of Poe, some of which were based on actual photographs, others based on idealized drawings of the man by artists who had never seen him.  The new Poe postage stamp — which had been issued only days before my visit — was also proudly on display, and stuck on First Day of Issue envelopes with Richmond cancellations.

On my way out, on the recommendation of a Poe scholar, I purchased Kenneth Silverman’s Poe biography and browsed through shelves of Poe keychains, mouse pads, and T-shirts.  And it took everything I had to not buy the way-cool Edgar Allan Poe action figure.  Pull his string and he says “Reynolds!” and collapses!*

* Not really.

Celebrating a Dark Genius

poeJanuary 19, 2009, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s most celebrated authors, poets, essayists, and editors.  I’m lucky enough to be in Richmond, Virginia, today — which, along with Baltimore, serves as Poe Central — and while I’m here for my daughter’s volleyball tournament, I’m hoping our schedule will allow a bit of time for us to catch some of the Poe celebration and a trip to the Poe Museum.  (And if you happen to be in the area and are looking for things to do, the State of Virginia has a special website commemorating all things Poe.  Or, at least, All Things Poe in Virginia.)

While I’m not what you’d call a Poe Scholar, I’m a huge Poe Fan.   His short story “The Black Cat” was the first Poe story I ever read — I think I was 12 — and it scared the daylights out of me.  With its unstable narrator — who gouges out the cat’s eye with a pen-knife, then later hangs it from a tree — images of a hanged cat etched into the plaster in the remains of the narrator’s burnt house, and the narrator suddenly burying an axe in his wife’s skull,  there’s enough going on to keep you huddled under the covers for weeks.  But then add to that Poe’s  punchline, the last line of the story — “I had walled the monster up within the tomb!” — and . . . well, it’s a moment in American literature that leaves you feeling deliciously cold, as if you’ve just swallowed an entire Slurpee in one gulp.  The brain freeze is totally worth it.

One of the great thrills of Washington Irving was writing those moments when the ambitious and somewhat crafty Edgar Allan Poe entered Irving’s story.  Sure it’s non-fiction — but just as fiction writers love to play with great characters, so, too, do we Nonfictionalists.  And really, you’d be hard pressed to find a more compelling real-life character to write than Poe.

Irving had actually met Poe in London in 1819, when the ten-year-old Poe was travelling in Europe with his foster father, John Allan, and Irving — basking in the early glow of the success of The Sketch Book but hungry for the company of fellow Americans — dined with Allan and his ward at the York Chop House. 

Poe remained an admirer of Irving’s writings — at least for a while — and as a writer for the Southern Literary Messenger, inked one of the many glowing reviews of Irving’s 1835 work, The Crayon Miscellany.  As an up-and-coming new writer, Poe was also shrewd enough to recognize that Irving’s endorsement of his work would give him credibility with editors and reviewers, many of whom were baffled by Poe’s markedly dark voice and tone.

In October 1839, Poe — behind flattering cover letters — sent Irving copies of two of his latest stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson,” hoping for a kind word — a usable “cover blurb,” to put it in today’s terms.  Though the tone and content of both stories wasn’t really Irving’s cup of tea, he nonetheless read both tales, and wrote Poe with his comments.

Of the two stories, Irving preferred “William Wilson.” “It is managed in a highly picturesque Style and the Singular and Mysterious interest is well sustained throughout,” he told Poe. “Usher,” however, he thought was a bit of a mess.  It might be improved, he told Poe, “by relieving the style from some of the epithets.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it was enough for the shrewd Poe. “I am sure you will be pleased to hear that Washington Irving has addressed me 2 letters, abounding in high passages of compliment in regard to my Tales—passages which he desires me to make public—if I think benefit may be derived,” Poe wrote to one colleague. “Irving’s name,” he continued, in tones suitable for a Marvel Comics Super Villain, “will afford me a complete triumph over those little critics who would endeavor to put me down by raising hue and cry of exaggeration in style, of Germanism & such twaddle.”

Clearly Poe was not above publicly exploiting Irving’s reputation to further his own career.  Privately, though, Poe considered Irving “overrated” and argued that much of his reputation was based solely on the fact that Irving was the first American writer to earn international fame and praise.  “A nice distinction might be drawn,” Poe wrote, “between [Irving’s] just and surreptitious and adventitious reputation—between what is due to the pioneer solely, and what to the writer.”

Take a moment today to celebrate the life of America’s first, and still favorite, dark and crafty genius.  Despite everything, Washington Irving wouldn’t mind a bit.