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A taste for the macabre

Created date

February 27th, 2009
Celebrating Edgar Allan Poe s 200th birthday

By Michael G. Williams

In an annex hallway of Baltimore s Enoch Pratt Free Library sit several glass cases containing a strange assortment of items, including a fragment of a coffin lid and two locks of brown hair. These morbid relics, while seemingly random in most respects, have one thing in common their direct connection to one of the most influential American authors of all time, Edgar Allan Poe.

They are just a few of the many objects that make up the library s "Edgar Allan Poe: More Than a Poet" exhibition, which opened in January as part of Baltimore s celebration of the author s 200th birthday. "Nevermore 2009," as the city is calling it, involves an entire year of art exhibitions, wine tastings, and tours of Poe-related sites that, together, offer visitors a glimpse of the man, his work, and the city in which he lived and died.

Diverse literary figure

"Considering Poe s stature and the fact that 200 is a big birthday, we thought the celebration should run throughout the year," says Sam Rogers, executive vice president of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "A host of different sites throughout the city have a chance to be a part of the event because Poe was such an important and diverse literary figure."

Among these places is a small brick building at 203 N. Amity Street. The house, with its plain white door and three storm-shuttered windows, is unassuming in every way. Save for two historic markers bolted to the left and right of the entrance, the modest dwelling offers no glaring indication that Edgar Allan Poe once called it home.

Writing in poverty

From 1832 to 1835, the author shared its cramped quarters with his grandmother, aunt, and two cousins. According to the home s curator, Jeff Jerome, the years that Poe spent there were hard times for the still struggling writer.

"Poe and his family were starving when they lived here," says Jerome, who, as part of Nevermore 2009, has arranged "The Cask of Amontillado" wine tasting in the catacombs of Westminster graveyard, the location of the author s tomb. "It wasn t a very happy time for them, but despite this poverty, Poe went from writing poetry to short stories."

Today, the museum attracts some 5,000 people each year eager to walk the same floor boards that Poe paced as he dreamed up the chilling tale of "Berenice." It was in this story that he exploited the early 19th-century fears of premature burial and mutilation.

"Berenice" disgusted readers, but it also upped the circulation of the Southern Literary Messenger where it first appeared in 1835. Poe had exposed the public s taste for the macabre and, in doing so, ultimately earned an international reputation as a master of the genre.

An upcoming exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) demonstrates this prominence through works from its 3,000-piece modern art collection, one of the most important in the nation. "The Art of Darkness," scheduled to run from October 2009 through January 2010, will use the paintings and illustrations of artists such as Edouard Manet, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse to showcase the author and his literary appeal.

"Poe s work gained international notoriety largely because French literary figures like Charles Baudelaire and St phane Mallarm translated them," explains Doreen Bolger, director of the BMA. "This inspired the work of artists like Manet, who did four prints telling the story of The Raven. "

The exhibit will explore the common themes of loss, madness, and terror central to Poe s most famous tales, something that the Enoch Pratt Free Library has sought to accomplish in its display of the author s personal effects.

The featured items in its exhibition include locks of hair belonging to Poe and his wife, Virginia Clemm. There s also a fragment of Poe s original coffin, which likely held his remains from 1849 to the 1870s, when admirers raised money to move his grave to a more prominent location in Baltimore s Westminster graveyard.

"Normally, these items are locked away in a special vault where they re available for viewing by appointment only, but we have them on display now, and the exhibit will run indefinitely," says Roswell Encina, the library s communications director. "People are awestruck when they come in to view the collection, particularly when they see the lock of his hair."

Encina says that many had expressed their excited curiosity over the strange items long before the exhibit s January opening. And while he admits that the artifacts are morbid, he also points out that they re "very Poe."

Clearly, this taste for the macabre is as timeless as the man s writing, harkening back to the public s reception of "Berenice" 170 years ago. It s an irony that Poe would relish if he were alive to witness the celebration in 2009.

For more information on the Poe bicentennial, please visit

Edgar Allan Poe short story contest!

Are you ready to bring out your inner-Poe? The Tribune challenges you to tell a tale that would make the master of the macabre proud.

Write an original piece (500 words maximum) and you could win one of these great prizes:

  • Grand Prize: $100 American Express Gift Cheque
  • Second Place: $50 Barnes & Noble Gift Card
  • Third Place: $25 Amazon Gift Card

The deadline for submissions is April 30. The grand prize winning short story will be published in the July 2009 issue of the Tribune, and the three winning entries will be posted online at

Send your short story to:

The Erickson Tribune

Poe Short Story Contest

817 Maiden Choice Lane, Ste. 100

Baltimore, MD 21228

(Or you can e-mail it to

NOTE: Please submit your story typed and double-spaced. No handwritten entries will be accepted. One essay per person, please. Remember to include your address and phone number/e-mail with your entry. Submissions will not be returned.