Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Poe Funeral

This past Sunday I dressed all in black and drove up to Baltimore, to be an onlooker at this year's big Poe event, the Poe Funeral.

When Edgar Allan Poe died back in 1849, there were only seven mourners and a scant mention in the local press. The first major obit to hit the media was Rufus Griswold's hatchet job that sadly endured, and many people thought it was the truth about Edgar A.

So since this is the Poe Bicentennial, it was decided to give Edgar A. the send-off he deserved. It was a lovely cool October afternoon, a good day for a funeral, and I was sure to bring my camera (especially since they made it known that non-flash photography was allowed during the ceremony).

So, here's a bunch of images, and memories...

I was lucky to get there when I the time I had parked the car, I heard the bagpipes coming down the street.

The hearse. The guy in modern dress is Jeff Jerome, director of Baltimore's Poe Museum.

Assorted mourners, following the hearse. The guy in the short hat and overcoat is my friend John Spitzer, who was playing the part of Rufus Griswold.

Two of the mourners who were actually there as themselves...editor/anthologist Ellen Datlow, and illustrator/author Gris Grimly.

"H. P. Lovecraft" and "Charles Baudelaire."

The crowd at the entrance to Westminster Hall, which used to be a church, and is where Poe is buried. It was quite a madhouse, and probably about half the folks there did not have tickets for the funeral, but were there to just get some photos. There were also assorted news crews; CNN, NPR, and the BBC, among other groups, covered the funeral.

The pallbearers carrying the coffin into Westminster Hall.

The photo-mania when the coffin was brought into the venue.

The assemblage of mourners at the funeral. From left to right: Actors portraying H. B. Latrobe, Rufus Griswold, Sarah Helen Whitman, Nathaniel P. Willis, George Lippard, Marie Louise Shew, Dr. John Moran, Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. P. Lovecraft, and Alfred Hitchcock. Then there's Ellen Datlow and Gris Grimly.

Soprano Paula McCabe opened by singing "O God Our Help in Ages Past." Violinist Ivan Stefanovic performed some lovely pieces, but unfortunately I didn't recognize them and they weren't listed in the program.

Master of ceremonies John Astin.

First speaker was H. B. Labrobe, who was the editor who first brought Poe's poetry to public notice. Next up was Rufus Griswold...and seldom have I seen an actor do such a complete character assassination on the person he was playing. Spitzer read portions of Griswold's obituary, and played up Griswold's pretentiousness and disdain for anything southern. John and I hung out after the show for a while, and he told me that when Griswold died (not too long after Poe) there were only three decorations in his room: a portrait of himself, a portrait of Frances Osgood (a poet that Poe may have had an affair with, according to John Evangelist Walsh), and a portrait of Poe. Spitzer calls it an "asexual love/hate relationship" which is something I've always speculated about. I've always had my suspicions about Poe, despite his love life, and Griswold's venom just makes me wonder. Or am I reading too much into it?

Next up was Sarah Helen Whitman (if memory serves, this was a park ranger from Philadelphia's Poe House, who does Whitman as part of her interpretation). Whitman had been briefly engaged to Poe, not long before he died, and she definitely had balls; she was the only writer of the period to stand up to Griswold's libelous treatment of Poe (everyone else was afraid of what Griswold could do to their careers). I've seen this lady several times and I've always enjoyed her performances. Whitman was a gutsy gal who still loved Poe and defended him to the end, no matter what it did to her reputation. To make a stand like that, for someone you cared for, takes nerve, and she had it, in spades. Following her was Nathaniel Willis, editor of "The Evening Mirror," which first published "The Raven."

Author George Lippard, a friend of Poe, but a rather controversial character himself (I hope to review his THE QUAKER CITY in the not-too-distant-future; I actually held a first edition in my hands over the summer). I believe this was actor Tony Tsendeas, and he was fiery in his defense of Poe and his condemnation of Griswold (ending by throwing a cup of water in Griswold's face, which was ad-libbed). After him was Marie Louise Shew, a nurse who saw Poe's wife through her final illness, and reportedly helped inspire Poe's poem "The Bells." Then there was Dr. John Moran, who treated Poe after he was found in the gutter and was the last person to see Poe alive.

Then we moved on to people inspired by Poe...which included Walt Whitman, who actually met Poe, briefly. (Again, I wonder about Poe. Nobody wonders about Whitman.) He was followed by Charles Baudelaire, who first translated Poe into French, and helped generate a European cult of Poe. Then there was Arthur Conan Doyle, who gave homage to Poe as a progenitor of the detective short story.

H. P. Lovecraft gave a reading from "The Necronomicon" and talked about Poe's contribution to horror fiction. Then Alfred Hitchcock talked about the debt he owed to Poe.

Then the "real" guests showed up. Ellen Datlow discussed editing her recent anthology, POE. (Which I will review soon, I promise.)

And Gris Grimly talked about his illustrated adaptation of Poe for children.

Another friend, actor John Redfield (director of THE DEATH OF POE) gave his personal tribute.

I had brought along a copy of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, with a cover illustration by Edward Gorey, and got shots of it on Poe's original grave, then the new grave.

I had a great time, honoring one of my literary idols. There were two funerals, and I found out the next day that a total of 700 people showed up to pay their respects. And it was fun seeing the wide variety of people who were there, from goth teens to senior citizens. A big thanks to Mark Redfield, John Spitzer, and Jeff Jerome (especially Jeff, who got me a good seat); it was a lovely afternoon. This is a special year, and the funeral was a great way to honor one of THE most influential American writers. I don't care if you're a horror fan or not...this was a celebration of American letters, and of someone who was a major influence worldwide and whose influence is still felt today. Poe deserves honor and respect.


B said...

Nice write up! I was there Sunday as well and was able to get tickets to the 2nd funeral. It was quite a sight to see!

Rob Velella said...

I wish I'd been able to go; I'm somewhat glad I didn't because I'd have been too critical of the "Griswold" and "Lippard" interpretations.

As far as Griswold's only three decorations, don't read into it at all. He had the images of Poe and Osgood because he was overseeing their collected works; everything else was destroyed in a fire. Griswold's obituary wasn't even the first, nor was Sarah Helen Whitman his only defender (another was N. P. Willis, as was George Lippard, plus George Graham and Thomas Holley Chivers - though those last two weren't represented at the funeral, apparently). I also like to point out that Griswold put very, very little effort into his character assassination of Poe - it was Poe's defenders and critics who turned it into something bigger. And he didn't die shortly after Poe; he died 8 years later.

Really, though, thanks for these images. I've been trying to find out how the ceremony went for a week now!