Today is the birthday (1809) of Edgar Allan Poe, best known now for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. But Poe is sometimes considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and is also credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. In his day he was perhaps best known as a literary critic with a sharp tongue and bitter wit. He was the first well-known U.S. writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career. Nowadays commentators are often quick to point out that Poe’s hard times were “his own fault” (in those words). I find such a judgment hard to take. Yes, he was an alcoholic, and, yes, he made some poor decisions. But he was a man of integrity and honesty. I certainly don’t see his desire to live by writing as a flaw, but, rather, as an enviable stance to take, requiring a dedication that few are capable of.
So . . . I’ll leave you to read about his life if you are interested – his childhood abandonment by his father and death of his mother; his troubled relationship with his stepfather; his lifelong addiction; the death of his brother; the full scope of his literary career; his marriage to his cousin when he was 26 and she was 13; etc. etc. Instead I want to dwell on three things: his death, the Poe toaster, and “The Cask of Amontillado.” The last, first.
I’m not a fan of Poe’s writing in general. I find it all a bit bleak and troubling. But I return to “The Cask of Amontillado” once in a while. I am not sure of the precise nature of my fascination. Some of it lies in the inherent vagueness of the plot. Under it all is the tale of a man whose fortunes have suffered, he believes, at the hand of another, and seeks revenge. His revenge via murder is cunning and brutal. The details in the story are at one and the same time crystal clear and obscure, yet the broad strokes are straightforward enough – “you have wronged me, so I am going to kill you in a way that is cruel and undetectable.” Poe, master of the detective story, presents us with a perfect crime. I don’t doubt there was an element of fantasy in the tale, as many have suggested, of Poe seeking revenge on a real opponent. With whom do you empathize – murderer or victim? I’ve tended to vilify the victim, but I can’t bring myself to praise or identify with the murderer. The story is complex and keeps me pondering from time to time. Does revenge solve anything?
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore delirious, “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance”, according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington Medical College, where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849, at 5:00 in the morning (at the age of 40). Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own. Poe is said to have repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds” on the night before his death, though it is unclear to whom he was referring. Some sources say Poe’s final words were “Lord help my poor soul.” All medical records, including his death certificate, have been lost. Newspapers at the time reported Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation”, common euphemisms for deaths from disreputable causes such as alcoholism. The actual cause of death remains a mystery. A fitting end for the master of the macabre. Yet . . .
“Poe Toaster” is a media name popularly used to refer to an unidentified person (or more probably two persons in succession, possibly father and son) who, for over seven decades, paid an annual tribute to Poe by visiting the cenotaph marking his original grave in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early hours of January 19, Poe’s birthday. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would pour himself a glass of cognac and raise a toast to Poe’s memory, then vanish into the night, leaving three roses in a distinctive arrangement and the unfinished bottle of cognac. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity and was rarely seen or photographed.
According to eyewitness reports and notes accompanying offerings in later years, the original Toaster made the annual visitation from some time in the 1930s (though no report appeared in print until 1950) until his death in 1998, after which the tradition was passed to “a son.” Controversial statements were made in some notes left by the post-1998 Toaster, and in 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made by several onlookers to detain and identify him. In 2010 there was no visit by the Toaster, nor has he appeared any year since, triggering speculation that the 75-year tradition has ended (2009 being the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth).
Reports have it that Poe survived on bread and molasses during his more impoverished times. Washed down with a glass of brandy (or amontillado) that would certainly be a fitting, if sparse, tribute. Otherwise I can find precious little indication of his food tastes. However, the rather small, regional pizza chain, Dewey’s (Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri) offers the “Edgar Allan Poe.” I cannot find the reasoning behind the name. If you can’t travel to a Dewey’s location you can make a reasonable simulacrum. You’ll need to make a thin crust (I buy the dough), brush it with good olive oil, then top with mushrooms, kalamata olives, whole roasted garlic cloves and three cheeses: mozzarella, fontina, and crumbles of fresh goat cheese.