Tuesday night’s Great Poe Debate at the Free Library of Philadelphia certainly lived up to its name. The event was front-page news in that day’s edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer (“Poe’s Heart Belong Elsewhere? Nevermore!”), and it drew a standing-room-only crowd to the library’s Montgomery Auditorium. That 400 people would turn out on a frigid Tuesday night for a literary debate qualifies as nothing short of miraculous.
Anyone expecting scholarly presentations of dry facts and measured persuasion would have been sorely disappointed—not that I heard any complaints. This was more of a literary spectacle, a memorable and raucous affair that will be talked about for years.
I knew we were in for an unusual evening when the moderator, Grover Silcox, did five minutes of Poe-related stand-up—which set the tone for the good-humored, free-wheeling discussion to come—and introduced a Poe impersonator to witness the proceedings.
Silcox then called the participants to the stage, and each man strode up the aisle from the back of the room. Boston’s Paul Lewis, Professor of English at Boston College, entered first, flanked by a raven-haired beauty (appropriately dressed in black) dangling a stuffed raven from a wooden cane. Then came Baltimore’s Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum, tossing rolled posters to the crowd. Finally, Philadelphia Poe Scholar Ed Pettit appeared with a boisterous entourage as the theme from Rocky blared over the p.a. Pettit clutched a shovel, wore a hooded boxer’s robe with “Philly Poe Guy” stitched across the back, and thrust both fists in the air after taking the stage. The crowd went nuts.
It was Pettit who sparked events leading up to the debate. In October 2007, Pettit claimed in a Philadelphia City Paper article that Poe belonged more to Philly than Baltimore. With that in mind, he suggested that Poe’s remains be exhumed and moved up I-95 (hence the shovel in his hand). Those were fighting words for Jerome, who’s been curator at the Poe House for more than 30 years, and the ensuing spat hit the blogosphere and resulted in stories in The New York Times and on NPR. I blogged about it a few months ago, and we ran a piece in January’sBaltimore.
To settle the feud, the Great Poe Debate was scheduled to roughly coincide with the 200th anniversary of the great author’s birth (January 19th).
For nearly 90 minutes, the debaters laid claim to Poe’s legacy for their respective cities. Lewis acknowledged Boston as a long shot—Poe was born there and his family left town when he was just six months old—but nonetheless made a spirited argument. Lewis’s claim pretty much rested on the rationale that we were celebrating Poe’s birth. And where was Poe born? Boston, of course.
Jerome seemed perturbed that anyone would consider challenging the supremacy of Baltimore’s claim. He wondered aloud why these other cities were suddenly claiming Poe—bicentennial hoopla, perhaps?—whereas Baltimore has been celebrating him since 1875. We even named our football team after one of his poems.
Pettit maintained that Poe’s creative genius came to fruition in Philadelphia and named the classic pieces Poe wrote while living in the City of Brotherly Love. It’s an impressive list, to be sure, and Pettit gets extra credit for being an effective and persuasive speaker. And considering his home field advantage, the outcome of the debate was never really in doubt.
Still, Jerome had a little something up his sleeve for his closing argument. After restating Baltimore’s case, he concluded with a snippet of Poe’s correspondence that he’d unearthed: “And now you’re my last hope. Get me out of Philadelphia! For God’s sake, do it!”
That elicited laughter from the crowd and applause from the Baltimore contingent—even Pettit smiled and nodded his head.
But alas, it wasn’t enough to win the day, and Pettit was ultimately declared the winner. But that shouldn’t stand. We should demand a rematch in our house, the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Library. There, I’m certain the result will be different.