NEW YORK - I arrived on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx too early last Sunday to visit the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, which doesn’t open until the afternoon. But I came mainly to see the spanking new Poe Park Visitor Center, designed by architect Toshiko Mori, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. For that, I could have shown up more or less anytime, because the elegant, canted, slate-clad $4 million visitor center has never really opened, and quite possibly never will.
Everyone wants to love Poe, but no one wants to pay for him. New York City’s Parks Department has more pressing, nonliterary priorities. Baltimore, a city with an equally powerful claim on the neurotic, haunted writer - perhaps you have heard of their football team, the Ravens? - may finally make good on its threat to cut its paltry funding of the Poe House and Museum.
Boston is taking furtive steps toward its own tribute to Poe. Three years ago the mayor dedicated Edgar Allan Poe Square on a patch of land near the intersection of Boylston and Charles streets. A $10,000 grant from the Browne Trust has funded a public sculpture competition, from which a winner will be chosen on March 19. After that, Boston College professor and dedicated Poe booster Paul Lewis will probably have to raise $150,000 or more to make Boston’s Poe shrine a reality.
Yes, he has already printed up buttons that say “Edgar Allan Poe - Bostonian.’’
Which is hilarious, because Poe may or may not have spent one year of his life - he died at age 40 - here. He was born here and published a book here. Lewis makes much of Poe dating a woman from Lowell at the end of his life . . . and so on.
Poe spent more time in Richmond, Va., New York, London, Baltimore, Philadelphia - heck, he probably spent more time waiting for train tickets than he did in Boston. Did I mention that he hated Boston?
Me, over an amicable cup of coffee with Lewis: “You know Boston has no claim on Poe whatsoever.’’
Lewis: “Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!’’ He launches into a not-terribly-convincing speech about Poe’s psychological attachments to the city, and invokes the poet’s disastrous 1854 Boston Lyceum appearance, branded a “fiasco,’’ a “hoax,’’ and “sad evidence of his inability to cope adequately with the affairs of this world.’’
Me: “You know he hated Boston.’’
Lewis: “Well, it’s true that he said he was ashamed to have been born here.’’
Me: “What should we expect from ‘The Raven,’ the mix-mastered, juiced-up ‘Sherlock Holmes’ remake with John Cusack playing Poe, opening in April?’’
Lewis: (Wincing uncomfortably) “Who knows.’’
Me: “While we’re at it, can you defend your assertion that ‘Poe is the most influential writer ever born here’? Have you ever heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson?’’
Lewis: (Joking, I think) “Wasn’t he born in Concord?’’
To be fair, Lewis and others have labored mightily to prove that Poe hated Bostonians, not Boston, the equivalent of hating the sinners, not the sin. What’s not to hate? Puffed-up Boston literary grandees ruled mid-19th-century letters the way arriviste twerps from Brooklyn call the shots today. Poe, by the way, hated Brooklyn: “I know few towns which inspire me with so great disgust and contempt.’’
Poe, for whom little came easily in life, aimed at fat targets, and he tended to hit them between the eyes. Not only did he resent, despise, and envy Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom he accused of exploiting “the adventitious influence of his social position as Professor of Modern Languages and Belles Lettres at HARVARD,’’ and his “marriage with an heiress.’’ He also accused Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and James Russell Lowell of logrolling, self-dealing, and plagiarism.
What’s worse, some of Poe’s fevered assertions were right. It seems that Longfellow was indeed “the GREAT MOGUL of the Imitators,’’ a writer guilty of “the most barbarous class of literary robbery,’’ just as Poe said. “Longfellow’s works,’’ his biographer Christoph Irmscher has written, “published and unpublished, were pervaded by borrowings, sometimes explicit, more often unacknowledged, from other authors.’’
Dr. Harry Poe, a Poe descendant and professor of faith and culture at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., has helped organize “Poe showdowns’’ among the several cities that claim Poe as a native son. “Boston never really claimed Poe,’’ he told me, and it’s easy to see why. But we’re claiming him now, just enough to erect a modest statue next to the Boloco burrito joint on Charles Street. “We could rename it ‘Poe-loco’’’ Lewis suggests.
Yes, I’m raven at the prospect. . .