PIECES OF POE; Ravenous scholars flock to Richmond to pick apart his life and death


RICHMOND, Va. -- Everyone wants a piece of Poe.

The thought comes, unbidden and unexpected as any midnight visitor, while a quartet of tour buses jounces over the rutted streets near the Shockoe Hill Cemetery. The buses are taking the attendees of the International Edgar Allan Poe Conference on a two-hour tour of "Poe's Richmond." So far, the trip has included a drive-by of a home where Poe gave a private reading of "The Raven" and not much more. Poe's Richmond was, after all, antebellum Richmond. Many buildings did not survive the Civil War.

As for this cemetery visit -- well, it is to see the gravesites of Poe's foster family, the Allans. Later, we will tour yet another grave, the one where Poe's mother is buried. "If this is Poe's Richmond," one conference-goer is heard to mutter, "then he spent a lot of time in cemeteries."

But Richmond -- like Baltimore, like Boston, like Philadelphia and even New York -- works hard to make the case that Poe belongs to Virginia, the place where he was reared, the place where he worked for the Literary Messenger, the place where a museum in his honor now stands. When Poe scholars began organizing this conference, scheduled to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Poe's death, they knew from the start that Richmond -- not Baltimore, the actual site of Poe's passing -- was the place they must gather.

Ultimately, more than 200 scholars converged on Richmond last week for the four-day conference, which ended yesterday. It was, in many aspects, like any other conference or convention -- a tightly knit subculture, with its own language and inside jokes. (There are more knee-slapping guffaws than you might think possible in a well-timed reference to "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.")

But the conference also was open to anyone who had $8 to join the Poe Studies Association and the $130 fee for the conference itself. So it happened that I wandered among some of the best-known Poe scholars in the world over the past four days and observed as Poe was celebrated in all his facets.

For just as many cities lay claim to Poe, so do many academic and not-so-academic disciplines. Here, it was possible to experience Poe the poet, Poe the critic, Poe the secret abolitionist, Poe the not-so-secret anti-abolitionist, Poe the philosopher, Poe the criminal profiler.

There was even Poe the victim of multiple chemical sensitivity, the latest Poe-death theory to be advanced.

But that will come in due time, gentle reader. Be patient.

Laying the groundwork

The preparation for the Poe conference began in March 1998, when Richard Kopley, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University-DuBois, put out the call for papers. Poe scholars from throughout the world signed up, some coming from as far as Japan, Italy and Brazil. And while many were academics, with degrees and publications to their credit, others were simply self-taught Poe enthusiasts.

It is, organizers say, one of the largest conferences ever dedicated to a single writer, and evidence of the emotion that Poe arouses in those who study him.

"I think there's a lot of affection for Poe and a strong community for Poe out there, and it just hasn't had a chance to materialize," Kopley said. "He lived a life that is so thoroughly engaging, he's a figure who it's easy to admire and feel for."

It was a short life -- just 40 years, from Jan. 19, 1809 through Oct. 7, 1849, when he died in a Baltimore hospital under circumstances that are debated, discussed and analyzed to this day. But Poe produced a large body of work in his time, ranging from poetry to the detective and horror tales that remain the entry point for most Poe readers.

There was a time, says Jeffrey Savoye of Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe Society, when Poe's biography was debated as fiercely as his work. But now much of the disagreement about his life story has subsided, and the controversies among Poe scholars center on his work. (The cause of his death is an exception to this trend.)

In fact, say Savoye and Carol Peirce, a University of Baltimore English professor also in attendance at the conference, the Poe scholars gathered in Richmond are showing few signs of the contentiousness for which they are famous. "Everyone's been very polite so far," Peirce observes. Perhaps, she says, it's because Poe scholars are coming to grips with their own mortality and realize the oldest among them may not be around for the bicentennial of Poe's birth in 2009.

"We've mellowed," Kopley says. "This event is a major step toward a greater collegiality."

Jammed sessions

Indeed, a random sampling of the conference sessions -- there are 40 themed presentations in all, usually with three presenters at each -- indicates that everyone is on his or her best behavior. There was talk of testiness at one session on Poe and other writers, but then Willa Cather and Charlotte Perkins Gilman do have the tendency to inflame.

The real problem is that each presenter has only 25 minutes to speak. It's a dilemma that some have solved by judicious editing of their papers. Others, though, just talk very, very, very fast, so that their ideas fly by at impossible-to-comprehend speeds. (My notes from one session read, in their entirety: "Wittgenstein, what?")

"Some are excellent and some are -- I don't know, maybe they're just over my head," says W. Barry Gibrall, a soft-spoken and exceedingly polite high school English teacher from Richmond. "But this is really well-done. Even if you knew nothing about Poe, even if you walked in off the street, you could get something out of it."

Interestingly, some of the conference's most obscure, specialized topics prove to be the most fascinating. Silvia Campanini, an Italian translator, addresses the problems inherent in trying to translate "The Raven" into her native language. The biggest challenge is the refrain, she says, "Nevermore," which most Italian translations have rendered "Mai piu."

"But this sounds like a small bird chirping," says Campanini, who argues for a different synonym, "Mai ancora." "Ancora" not only sounds closer to Poe's original, it also allows the translator to preserve the nevermore-Lenore rhymes within the poem.

Other presenters find a common language in popular culture. Shawn Rosenheim, an assistant professor at Williams College, cites "The X-Files" and "Mind Hunter" author John E. Douglas to make his case that Poe's work anticipates much of FBI criminal-profiling methods. Poe's detective fiction, Rosenheim argues, also is the model on which recent nonfiction narratives, such as "The Perfect Storm" and "The Hot Zone," are based.

The titles of the papers range from the punning ("Po' Boy: Poe, Writing and Race") to the provocative ("'William Wilson' and 'The Cask of Amontillado': An Intertextual Freudian Reading.") Some sessions make the head swim, as one presenter puts forth a seemingly indestructible argument for one reading of Poe, only to have the next scholar argue the other side just as persuasively.

But of all the papers presented here, perhaps the most controversial is from a Baltimore scientist who started reading Poe seriously only a few years ago.

Albert Donnay may not be a Poe scholar, but he is certain he has solved a puzzle that still plagues Poe's followers: the cause of his death.

The major mystery

Three years ago, Donnay was researching neurasthenia -- the 19th century diagnosis for those who appeared to have inexplicable weakness or fatigue -- when a German physician recommended he study "The Fall of the House of Usher." Donnay, who had not read Poe since his school days, was excited to discover that Roderick Usher exhibits, by his count, 30 symptoms that are similar to those exhibited by sufferers of multiple chemical sensitivity.

But he found the single best description in "The Telltale Heart," another Poe tale: "And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but overacuteness of the senses?" This is not merely metaphor, Donnay argues, but Poe's personal experience.

Now multiple chemical sensitivity -- also known as MCS -- is controversial in itself, and some sufferers don't want Poe associated with it for that very reason. But Donnay says there is no debate that carbon monoxide exposure can, in some people, produce similar symptoms to those associated with MCS.

And Poe, living in cities with early gas-lighting systems, would have been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide for much of his life. Poe even wrote, in "The Philosophy of Furniture": "[Illuminating gas] is totally inadmissible within doors. Its harsh and unsteady light is positively offensive. No man having both brains and eyes will use it."

The resistance to Donnay's theory, however, is almost palpable. Poe biographer Kenneth Silverman insists that Poe's dislike of illuminating gas is an aesthetic objection, nothing more. John Walsh, who has written the only book-length study of Poe's death, says bluntly: "I'm not giving in yet." (Walsh believes Poe was killed by the brothers of Elmira Shelton, the Richmond widow to whom Poe was engaged. In "Midnight Dreary," he says they poured alcohol down his throat to disgrace him, and the death was accidental.)

But Donnay holds firm. There have been 20 theories about Poe's death to date, he says, and his is consistent with 15 of those. He has found references to gas poisoning in six of Poe's works, and incidental references in 14 more -- all works written outside of Richmond, which was gas-free during Poe's lifetime.

Savoye says afterward: "It's like the Kennedy assassination. It's never going to be proven. [But] it's very interesting as a possible influence on Poe's writing."

The problem with Poe, Savoye says, is that almost everything is debatable. "I know someone right now who swears there's no way he came to Baltimore by boat [just before his death], he had to come by train."

There is no trivia for Poe enthusiasts, only arguments that have yet to be made.

It's the problem with Poe -- and, apparently, the pleasure.

Pub Date: 10/11/99

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