October 04, 2003


Anyone wondering why Edgar Allan Poe had such a fascination with claustrophobia and being buried alive should visit the Baltimore house on North Amity Street where he lived from 1833 to 1835, as we did today. The garret room, where he most likely composed tales like Berenice, MS. Found in a Bottle, and Morella, is singularly oppressive; climbing the winding staircase to it one feels as if one is actually descending. I'm about a half-inch taller than Poe (he was 5' 8" -- actually a little on the tall side for the time), and the dimensions of the tiny room were oppressive.

Later we went to visit Poe's grave. In 1849, his final resting place was unmarked; now there are two monuments in the cemetery -- one marking the place where he was originally buried, the other, in a more prominent spot, showing where he now lies, along with his wife and mother-in-law. Following a local custom, we left a few pennies on the monument, which was paid for by the donations of pennies by Baltimore school children.

In an essay on Herman Melville, Borges wrote,

Vast populations, towering cities, erroneous and clamorous publicity have conspired to make unknown great men one of America's traditions. Edgar Allan Poe was one of these men; so was Melville.

I do not disagree with Borges' observation, but I do not think it applies only to America. Shakespeare was nearly forgotten, and Kafka virtually unknown during his lifetime.

Oddly enough, for someone who loves literature to the extent that I do, Poe is only the second writer for whom I have made a pilgrimage of sorts (and this was, actually, at the insistence of my wife, who is an immigrant). The other is Kafka -- while in Prague I made a point of visiting the building that housed the insurance company where he worked, which struck me at the time as a somehow more appropriate homage.

Posted by Ideofact at October 4, 2003 11:46 PM

Borges doesn't say that other countries have no unknown great men; he says that America has a tradition of such men.

Posted by: gruff at January 9, 2004 10:10 AM