In Baltimore and Boston, competing claims to E.A. Poe

Ravens-Patriots playoff game will end decisively. But arguments over Edgar Allan Poe will keep going on.

The Ravens and the Patriots have been duking it out in the AFC since 1996, but when it comes to Baltimore-vs.-Boston rivalries, that's chump change. Charm City and Beantown have been scuffling over bragging rights to Edgar Allan Poe and his legacy for more than 150 years.

"Basically, I think that within each man is a very special affection for the place of his birth," says Dan Currie, founding president of the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston, making the case for his city's claim.

Counters Kristen Harbeson, president of Poe Baltimore, which operates the Edgar Allan Poe House: "All I can say is, Poe loved Baltimore better. Baltimore was Poe's favorite city. He loved us best."

Both cities can claim valid connections to Poe, a giant of 19th-century fiction, one of the world's first great mystery and horror writers and, to some, the man who invented the detective story. Though only one victor will emerge from Saturday's playoff game, the argument over who can make the most powerful claim to Poe's affections will likely rage on.

The facts are simple: Poe was born in Boston in 1809. Forty years later, he died in Baltimore, under circumstances still never fully explained. (Between those years — admittedly, the vast majority of his life — he spent only a few years in either city, living much of his life in Richmond, Va., New York and Philadelphia. But let's not get sidetracked.)

Both cities have magnificent statues of Poe on prominent display. Baltimore's, featuring a pensive, seated Poe, arrived in 1921; since 1983, it has sat guard over the University of Baltimore campus, just off Mount Royal Avenue. Boston's was just unveiled in October. Standing near Boston Common, it depicts a striding Poe heading toward the site of his birthplace, on nearby Carver Street.

Currie's group was responsible for the statue. Its dedication was cause for a grand celebration. Even Jeff Jerome, curator emeritus of Baltimore's Poe House, went north for the occasion and had kind words to say about the sculpture and the city that welcomed it so wholeheartedly.

"It's interesting to note, when you compare the two statues, that in Baltimore, Poe is sitting down and it looks like he's giving a lecture," says Jerome. "If you look at the one in Boston, it looks like he's going somewhere in a hurry."

Or, as Jerome notes, it's great that Poe's Boston fans finally rallied enough support to get a statue erected, but "the end result was a statue of Poe running out of Boston."

While he lived in Baltimore for a few years in the 1830s, Poe earned his first money from writing (winning a newspaper contest) and met his young cousin, Virginia Clemm, whom he would later marry. In Boston, Poe was orphaned (his father abandoned the family, his mother died in 1811). And later, after he'd arrived on the literary scene, he got involved in a nasty spat with the Boston literati after accusing the revered Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. Poe dismissed Boston writers as "Frogpondians," and once wrote of the city's literary elite as a "knot of rogues and madmen."

We know of no similar terms he used to describe Baltimore's writers.

(One must grant, however, that Boston was the city where Poe's first published work, "Tamerlane and Other Poems," appeared — written, according to the title page, by "a Bostonian.")

And then there's the matter of Poe's homes. In Baltimore, Poe lived on Amity Street with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and cousin (the previously mentioned Virginia). In the 1930s and 1940s, when most of the structures on the street were torn down for public housing, Poe's house was spared and turned into a museum. You can still visit it today (although closed for the season, it will be open Jan. 17-18 in recognition of Poe's birthday Jan. 19).

The house where Poe was born in Boston was torn down in 1959. Ouch.

Currie, however, is happy to rise to Boston's defense in the battle for Poe's legacy. "It's not just that he was born here," Currie says. "There are so many more reasons why Boston has the better claim on Poe."

Among those he cites: Boston is the city where Poe's mother and father spent most of their married lives. His elder brother, Henry, was also born there. His mother, an actress, made her stage debut there. One of his most famous works, "The Tell-Tale Heart," was published in Boston — just across the street from where his first book was published. The last of his works published while he was alive, a sonnet titled "To My Mother," was published in Boston.

And — time to tug at the heartstrings — Boston "was the city his mother loved more than any other place." In fact, one of the few things his mother left her young son was a portrait, Currie notes, with the inscription, "For my little son, Edgar, who should ever love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best, and most sympathetic friends."

OK, that's a good one. A mother's dying wish scores one for Boston.

Truth is, both Baltimore and Boston have well-established ties to Poe. In the spirit of impartiality, let's ask Scott Peeples, chair of the English department at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and author of "The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe": Who has the better claim to E.A. Poe and his legacy?

"I have to decide which group of friends I want to tick off with my answer," Peeples says, stalling for time.

"Because Poe always has this sort of chip on his shoulder about Boston, it was important to him," Peeples says. "It was a place that was heavy to Poe. It loomed large in his imagination."

Still, the verdict?

"In terms of where he spent more time and more things happened to him, I'd have to go with Baltimore," Peeples says. "Baltimore has had the main claim on Poe for a long time. Baltimore did a good job of memorializing him before other cities got around to it. You ask just about anybody what Poe's hometown is, and if they takes a guess, it's probably Baltimore."

To that, we can only add: Baltimore named its football team after one of Poe's poems. He never wrote anything called "The Patriot."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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