In the two years I have been president of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore—a largely ceremonial position inherited from fellow scribe Madison Smartt Bell—I haven’t done much.
Each fall, a week or so before the October 7th anniversary of the great writer’s death, I get a call from Jeffrey Savoye, secretary/treasurer of the Poe Society for the past 24 years.
We have dinner with the scholar presenting that year’s Poe paper at the Pratt Library and, the following day, I lay a wreath at the poet’s grave in Westminster Churchyard in downtown Baltimore.
That same week, I field phone calls from radio stations asking about the fabled Poe Toaster: Who is the mystery man? Why did he stop showing up at the grave? Will he ever come back?
Such is the extent of my labors on behalf of the legacy of an ancestor of the pen who surely needs no help from me.
But now the Poe House in West Baltimore, where Edgar lived for a brief time midway through his short and troubled life, is under threat of closure. The tiny corner house at 203 Amity Street is where Poe is believed to have written the surreal seafaring tale MS. Found in a Bottle, along with a handful of other stories.
Visitors, including Argentinean fabulist Jorge Luis Borges during a 1983 pilgrimage, come from around the world.
Keeping the doors open costs the city of Baltimore an estimated $85,000 a year, a subsidy that is about to end. This would leave Poe in the same fix as Mr. Mencken over on Hollins Street: shuttered.
To avoid this shanda, your president is reprising a post-Civil War campaign that purchased the tombstone at which I lay the lonely wreath: Pennies for Poe!
Back then, the city was embarrassed (imagine a time when a municipality felt shame over a literary affair) because Poe’s grave remained unmarked more than a dozen years after his death.
“Resolved,” declared John Basil Jr., principal of the No. 8 Grammar School upon the 16th anniversary of Poe’s death in 1865, “that a committee…devise some means best adapted in their judgment to perpetuate the memory of one who has contributed so largely to American literature.”
Though the contribution of Baltimore schoolchildren raised a fraction of the roughly $1,200 spent on the memorial, their door-to-door solicitation of pennies became part of local lore, remembered long after the names of the heavy hitters were forgotten.
And so it is resolved, on this first day of June in the year 2011, that pennies to prevent the closing of the Edgar Allan Poe house on Amity Street should be tossed into a large fishbowl at G&A Coney Island Hot Dogs on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown.
There, the humble coinage will be tended and protected by the Honorable Andrew Farantos—grandson of the founders of G&A—and his lovely wife, Alex.
Just before the 162nd anniversary of Poe’s death later this year, the Farantos family will relinquish the collected bounty to be rolled and turned over to authorities charged with the preservation of the Poe House.
News of other collections—including the conscription of local students to pass the hat—will be made public as more folks join the project.
As that hat goes by, drop in a buck—along with the pennies in your pocket.
For more information on the “Pennies for Poe” project, contact Rafael Alvarez via firstname.lastname@example.org.