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from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Edgar Poe
On Poe's birthday (19 January) I pause to remember.  Below is an excerpt from an as-yet-unpublished YA biography of Poe, a text I wrote a few years ago but just have not worked hard enough to publish.  When I wrote it, the "Poe Toaster" was still showing up each year--I even had plans to zoom down to Baltimore one year and witness the visit; as I write these words, he has just failed to appear for the third straight year--and will probably not appear again.  So a weird tradition evanesces ...
I think I first learned of Poe from a deck of cards.  When I was a kid, we owned a simple card game called Authors.  (You can still find them--old sets on eBay, new ones on Amazon.)  Our set had cards for Stevenson, Twain, Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, Cooper, Irving, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Scott, Alcott (Louisa May), and Poe. You dealt the cards; players took turns asking other players if they had a certain card (each author had four cards; each card featured one title; when you got all titles for that writer, you had a "book"; when all cards are gone, player having most books wins.

Later, of course, I read Poe in school, taught him.  One year, at Harmon Middle School in Aurora, I directed a production of Snoopy, the sequel to You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown; in Snoopy is a great song--"Edgar Allan Poe."  Here's a YouTube link to that song: "Edgar Allan Poe"  I liked that song so much, I used it as well in the last Eighth Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show that I directed in the spring of 1996, just before I retired.

Oh, and Poe was the subject of the first PowerPoint I ever did--with massive help of WRA students Rishi Dhingra and Matt Francis (class of 2003).

And now, this (unpublished) book ...

Prologue: The Mysterious Midnight Visitor
Once upon a midnight dreary […].
                        — Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven,” 1845

            The temperature was right around freezing early in the morning of 19 January 2008.   A little warmer than average.  Certainly not as bad as 1994 when it was five below zero.  But even the worst weather—cold, rain, sleet, snow—does not keep away the mysterious midnight visitor to the Old Westminster Burying Ground in downtown Baltimore.  Since 1949 he’s arrived every 19 January, always in the small hours after midnight.

            In the daytime, the cemetery corner is fairly busy.  Cars and trucks and pedestrians hurry to their destinations.  In the summer, tourist buses pass by, the guides telling about this very old church (1852) and the even older cemetery (1786).  Surrounding the burial ground is a high brick wall with iron gates—locked all night.  Inside lie the remains of some famous people.  And one of them is among the most famous in all of American history.  His very name sounds like a line of poetry.

            No, bad weather does not discourage the graveyard’s midnight visitor.  Nor does it discourage any in the small crowd who gather there each year.  In 2008, about 150 people quietly waited well past midnight to see if the mysterious visitor would continue his annual tradition.  Some in the crowd were worried about what had happened just a couple of years earlier.

            In 2006 there had been a disturbance.  Some in the crowd hadn’t wanted to just watch and wonder.  They’d wanted the identity of the visitor.  So they’d tried to scramble over the brick wall, tried to nab the mysterious man.  But that year—like all other years—he’d somehow slipped away.  Only one photograph of him has been published—a shadowy image in the July 1990 issue of LIFE magazine.  Hardly any of his face is visible.  Not enough to identify him.

            But in 2007 and 2008 the crowd was more respectful.  No wild attempts at a capture.  People just watched silently and hoped they’d catch a glimpse of him as he placed three red roses on the grave, opened a bottle of cognac, and toasted the grave’s inhabitant.  They knew he would leave the bottle behind, then disappear into the night.

            The name carved into that marble tomb in that Baltimore cemetery—that so very famous and poetic name—is Edgar Allan Poe.  Also there are the names and remains of two other people: his beloved wife and aunt.  But it is Edgar Allan Poe’s name that draws thousands of visitors each year.  It is Edgar Allan Poe whom the guides on the buses talk about.  And it is Edgar Allan Poe, born on 19 January, who attracts the mysterious midnight visitor every year.  It is Edgar Allan Poe to whom the visitor raises a glass of cognac.  And because of that toast, the mystery man is known now as the “Poe Toaster.”  Newspapers all over the country report his annual visit.  

            But hasn’t America always toasted Edgar Allan Poe?  Always honored him?  After all, hasn’t everyone today heard of him?  Three places where he lived—in three different states—are now museums.  We can buy his books in just about every bookstore in the country.  Surely we have always saluted the author of “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Mask of the Red Death.”  One of his poems, “The Raven,” is so well known that Baltimore’s NFL team chose “Ravens” for a name in 1996.

            But during Poe’s very short and very sad life (1809–1849) he achieved only modest celebrity and no wealth.  Yes, people in the literary world—publishers and other writers—knew who he was.  Yes, he had devoted fans.  And, yes, “The Raven” and some of his other writings were very popular with readers for a while.  But when he died in a Baltimore hospital—of mysterious causes in mysterious circumstances—the news stories were small, and his name soon disappeared from the papers.

            Poe never had much money.  From his late teens to the end of his days, he was almost always desperately poor.  Always in debt.  He never owned a house.  Never owned a carriage or a horse.  Almost always lived in small, barely furnished rooms in dreary buildings with no running water.  Always had to borrow from friends and admirers.  In his days of deepest poverty he could carry in his hands everything that he owned.  When he died, there was no money to pay for his burial.  Only a handful of people attended his brief funeral.  The impressive marble tomb and the worldwide fame and the museums and tour buses and the Poe Toaster—all of these would come years later.

            This is the story of Edgar Allan Poe.  The facts of his life.  Where he came from.  What his family was like.  Where he went to school.  Where he lived and worked and wrote.    Who his friends, his enemies, his colleagues, his lovers were.  What he wrote about.  How he lived, how he died.

            This is also the story of a man whose reputation does not fit the facts.  When many think of Poe, they think of a madman, a drunk, a drug-user.  But, this image is a grotesque exaggeration.  Through most of his professional life he was a hard-working,  highly productive writer and editor.  He simply could not have accomplished all that he did if he had been a staggering addict.  Yes, there were troubled times in his life—periods of madness, periods of substance abuse—but there were far fewer than those times when he sat alone at a table and labored long and hard to produce some of this country’s finest poetry, fiction, and essays.

            Finally, this is also the story of how a child named only Edgar Poe—and always called Eddie (or Eddy) by his family—became Edgar Allan Poe, the dark genius whose tales of horror and mystery and deep sorrow continue to frighten and entertain and sadden readers more than 150 years after his lonely death in that Baltimore hospital in 1849.

© Daniel Dyer



  1. Like so much of literature, I am a little embarrassed to admit that most of what I seem to know about great writers, I learned when I was a child. (I was a child and she was a child . . . ). Some of it my parents made up.
    We lived on a farm in Charlottesville, and my father used to tell us that Poe composed his work in the hills that circled the farm--so we called a specific part of the woods "Usher Woods" and my pony, Annabel . . . Never mind that he wasn't in Charlottesville for very long.

  2. Very nice. I remember playing drums for one of the "Farewell to the Eighth Grade" performances. Mr. Kmetz was co-director. Jenny Renshaw played trumpet. I don't remember much about the play, but I remember the trumpeter. I should read more Poe.