Museum News

The Disposition of the Body

Remarks by Dr. Harry Lee Poe
Convener of the Poe Family Reunion
President, Poe Museum

During his lifetime, one of the great concerns of Edgar Poe was what to do with the body. He stuffed them up chimneys. He bricked them up in the basement and in the catacombs. He hid them under the floor boards. He threw them in the river. He burned them in flaming houses and castles. He fed them to cannibals. He carted them about in oblong boxes. He sunk them in whirlpools. He hid them in secret crypts. He hypnotized them until they oozed. Unfortunately, he died intestate without giving clear instructions as to what we should do with his own body

During this bicentennial year of Poe’s birth, the issue has been raised that perhaps Poe should be moved to Philadelphia, a city where he enjoyed great success, or to Boston, the city of his birth where he published his first book and entered military service. We have a great tradition in the South of ignoring problems until they go away. Psychologists call this practice “denial,” but we call it good breeding. Unfortunately, once the problem is out in the open, we must deal with it, and the great Poe debate has opened this grave issue. Opening a grave, of course, can be a rather grisly business. In Poe’s stories, the opened coffin usually revealed someone still alive. I fear, however, that we are too late for Poe. I feel confident that he is dead.

Instead of proposing to remove Poe’s body to Richmond, the Poe Museum has petitioned the Queen to grant him a small plaque in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. The Dean of Westminster, who investigates such matters, reminded us that Westminster Abbey is a place of Christian worship and wanted to be sure Poe would feel comfortable there. The question of where Poe’s body should lie involves the question of where he would feel most comfortable.

During the bicentennial year, three gentlemen have made the case that Poe would feel most comfortable in their respective cities. Jeff Jerome made the case for Baltimore where Poe published his first short stories, where he died, and where his body has remained these 160 years. Edward Pettit made the case for Philadelphia where Poe had great success as an editor and where he created the mystery story. Paul Lewis argued for Boston where Poe was born, where he published his first book, and where he joined the army. Each man made a splendid case and demonstrated Poe’s strong relationship to their cities. Yet, the “great Poe debate” of 2009 did not include other places that might have a claim.

Charlottesville, Virginia is home to Mr. Jefferson’s university where Poe delighted in his studies and enjoyed an exemplary academic record. Poe loved the mountains around Charlottesville, as did Mr. Jefferson, and he set his short story, “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” around Charlottesville. The university has always defended Poe and has dedicated his room as a continuing memorial to their greatest student.

Charleston, South Carolina was home to Poe for a year while he served in the army. Here he walked the beaches of Sullivan’s Island and became acquainted with the rich variety of shells that made his introductory text on shells possible. Here he heard the local lore of pirates and buried treasure that would form the basis for “The Gold Bug” which he set on Sullivan’s Island. He set two other stories in Charleston and came to know the wild, romantic landscape of tarns and avenues that would ornament other tales. He formed a lifelong friendship in Charleston with Colonel William Drayton to whom he dedicated Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. He certainly felt comfortable in lovely Charleston.

Fortress Monroe at Point Comfort, Virginia also served as home for Poe during his military career. It was at Fortress Monroe that Poe learned of the death of his foster mother Frances Allen.

The United States Military Academy at West Point provided Poe with a home after Mrs. Allan died. He had an exemplary record at the Academy and learned a great deal about science and mathematics that made his proposal of the Big Bang theory in Eureka possible. After arranging a Court Marshall for Poe over minor infractions so that he could leave army life and devote himself to poetry, the Superintendent allowed Poe to continue living in the barracks until he settled on where to go. Finally, the cadets of West Point subscribed the necessary funds to allow Poe to publish his second book of poetry which he dedicated to them. Surely he would feel comfortable at West Point.

On three occasions Poe lived in New York. He continued to return there simply because it had the greatest opportunities for a writer to make his fortune. In New York he published “The Raven” and gained international fame. In New York he had his bitterest controversies and his deepest sorrow as his beloved Virginia died. In New York he conceived and published Eureka, the book he considered his most important work, for in it he concluded that the universe had a beginning from a primordial speck, and that the universe has a cause which we must call God.

For five years in his childhood, Poe lived in London, the capital of the world’s greatest empire, glorious in its recent defeat of Napoleon. While there he travelled the romantic island into Scotland and saw the ancient castles and fabled country houses of the great. In London he would have learned of the ravens of the Tower of London that never depart. Poe’s mother was born in London and his grandmother had appeared on the stage of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Perhaps most important, the British have done Poe the compliment of embracing his creation – the mystery story – which has provided so many writers and actors a livelihood.

Even far off St. Petersburg, Russia may file a claim on Poe’s affections, for in 1845 in a biographical note for James Russell Lowell, Poe stated that he had spent time in St. Petersburg during the period when he was actually stationed in Charleston.

Finally we must not forget Richmond were Poe’s mother lies buried, where he spent almost half his life, where he began his professional career as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, where he was married, and where he returned in the last year of his life to become engaged to his childhood sweetheart. From here he departed to bring Maria Clemm back to Richmond for his wedding and his new home.

Many places have a claim to Edgar Poe, and he felt comfortable in many places. We have discovered in his bicentennial year that the whole world lays claim to Edgar Poe as major conferences, special events and exhibitions have been staged in over a dozen cities in the United States and in countries as far flung as Russia, Japan, France, Spain, Portugal, England, and Brazil. He has been honored by commemorative stamps in the United States, Monaco, San Marino, Hungary, and St. Thomas. I have felt so sorry for Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, because 2009 was their bicentennial year as well. They barely got passing notice while Poe has continued to occupy the pages of the newspapers and magazines of the world and the TV, radio, and internet for week after week throughout the year. It’s almost embarrassing. The only thing more embarrassing is that the academic establishment of the United States continues the tradition of Poe’s literary enemies by dismissing him as unimportant.

While each city can make a strong case for claiming Poe’s corpse, other factors must be taken into consideration before we can think of moving Poe’s body again. After all, he was buried once in 1849. Then he was re-buried in 1875. Then he had two more funerals in October 2009. Four funerals and a wedding is a lot for any man. You have to see it from the family’s perspective. Do we love one child more than another simply because they made good grades in school? Do we love Edgar more than any other member of the family simply because he is America’s greatest poet, the creator of the mystery story, and the innovator of science fiction who almost single-handedly established literary criticism as a legitimate endeavor in the United States? No. We must be fair.

As it stands, no one on the family advisory committee has been buried even once. Poor Cousin Willie lies beneath the soil of Chickamauga Battlefield when he ought to be home in Pendleton. My great-great-grandfather, Edgar’s cousin William, has been misplaced by the cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama where he was sent for safe keeping during the yellow fever epidemic of 1856. No. Talk of another burial for Edgar would be premature until we have sorted out the other bodies and everyone else has had a chance to be moved at least once. Besides, it is an expensive business to move a corpse from one city to another, and no end of red tape with municipal authorities. We’re not sure that it is worth dealing with the Interstate Commerce Commission over transporting a dead body across a state line. And if we moved Edgar, we would have to move Virginia and Maria as well. The more the bodies pile up, the greater the cost.

In creating the mystery story and so many of his other stories, Poe was interested to explore the great mystery of the justice that lies behind the universe animating us to cry out for justice. No one would understand more than Edgar Poe that in the spirit of fairness, the family simply cannot agree to move the body just yet. Not until the rest of us have had our turn. Besides, burials have much more to do with death than with birth, and this year has been the bicentennial of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. The conclusion of the family is that the whole issue deserves more consideration, and that the family should take it up again in 2049 during the bicentennial of the death of Poe. I therefore deputize my daughters Rebecca Poe Hays and Mary Ellen Poe to begin hearing evidence and to keep track of the family bodies so that they will be in a position to convene the family for our next scheduled reunion in 2049. Edgar and I shall observe with interest from our vantage point.

In the meantime, many people connected with the Poe Museum will be disappointed in the family’s noble objectivity that has left the Enchanted Garden without what would have been a unique relic to add to our collection. After all, several collections have locks of Poe’s hair, but no museum has any of his bones. As a consolation prize, therefore, my cousin George Poe, my sister Katie Poe Thomason, and I want to present the museum with something a bit more attractive than Poe’s skull. In 1899 the University of Virginia commissioned a magnificent bronze bust from the great sculptor Zolnay to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Poe’s death. That grand monument sits in the reading room of the university library in Charlottesville just across the street from Poe’s room. But Zolnay cast more than the one bust, and today we present to the Poe Museum the sibling of the University of Virginia bust in honor of our fathers, Frank Swift Poe and William Nelson Poe.

Behold the Zolnay bust of Poe!

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