Poe and the Philadelphia Gothic: An Interview with Ed “Philly Poe Guy” Pettit

January 19, 2010 marks Edgar Allan Poe’s 201st birthday and the end of what has been a stellar bicentennial in ’09. Among many of the highlights of the Bicentennial is an ongoing debate among Poeists, known as the “Poe Wars,” or “The Great Poe Debate” that questions Baltimore’s claim to Poe, who is buried in Charm City. Independent scholar Ed Pettit, the author of the Ed & Edgar blog, instigated the conversation in 2007 with a piece in the Philadelphia City Paper where he wrote:  “…I want to exhume his body and translate his remains to the City of Brotherly Love,… That’s because Poe is ours. He belongs to Philadelphia.”  Pettit has been defending his stance ever since (earning him the moniker of “The Philly Poe Guy,”) and has no intention of waning as the Bicentennial winds down. He was able to take a break from the fight to talk with me about Philly Goth, the origins of urban horror, and why we still care about Poe.

S.J. Chambers:   Many people think of Edgar Poe as a Southern Gothic pioneer, but really most of his macabre writings neither depict nor were written in the South. You argue he’s part of the Philly Goth tradition. How did you get into Philly Goth and what was Poe’s role within it?

Ed Pettit:  The “Southern Gothic” tag for Poe has always bothered me because it’s anachronistic. There’s no such thing as Southern Gothic while Poe is alive. Southern Gothic is a 20th century sub-genre that reflects the fallen, once great South. You can’t really have Southern Gothic before the Civil War.

Philadelphia, however, was a kind of hotbed for Gothic writing in early America. In the antebellum period, more gothic works were published in Philly than any other city. Philly writers were creating gothic works and Philly readers (along with the rest of the country) were reading gothic works. But that’s not too surprising, considering Philadelphia’s place as the leading publishing, political, and cultural center of the young country. Not for nothing was it called the “Athens of America.” The first writer of American Gothic—you could say the creator of the (sub)genre—is Charles Brockden Brown, a Philadelphia (Quaker) native who set his dark, disturbing gothic works in and around the city of Philadelphia. If Brown’s works are the first true American Gothic works, then aren’t those first works Philadelphia Gothic works?

When Edgar Allan Poe moves to Philadelphia, he finds an already established tradition of gothic writing in the city. And he has already begun writing horror works in a more European gothic style. While in Philly, his horror tales undergo a transformation that reflects the Brockden Brown (or American or Philadelphia) style of Gothic (specifically, this is with Poe’s tale “William Wilson”).

Now, I assert this Philly Gothic tradition as if it’s already an established part of literary history. But it’s not. Only a couple [of] scholars have recognized it. One of the reasons I talk and write about it so much is to spread the word so other writers, readers, or scholars might be inspired to do more research on it. I’d love to write a book about it. There’s plenty of material there.

Of course, there’s a whole other discussion about what makes these works “American,” as opposed to “European” Gothic.

S.J.C.:  Well, let’s have that discussion.  Could you elaborate on what you see as purely “American” Gothic versus “European” Gothic, and, like with “William Wilson,” how these two types are expressed and utilized by Poe.

European Gothic, to generalize (always dangerous when you are talking about genre or style), usually focuses on ancestral curses and the supernatural preying upon the living. European Gothic often occurs in castles and mansions with dungeons and dark passageways. European Gothic is often about the powerful in society preying upon the weak. But something curious happens when Charles Brockden Brown sets his gothic novels in the newly formed United States. The ancestral curse in Brown’s “America” or, more specifically, “Philadelphia” Gothic is the connection between the Old European World and the New American one. The settings are not castles and aristocratic estates, but rather the modern city. And the predators are not powerful by birthright, but by skill and cunning. Most importantly, the scholar Frederick Frank once described the threat in American Gothic as “the individual potential for evil in a new society.” That is very different from European Gothic, which is usually plagued by the threat of the supernatural.

Poe, at the start of his career, writes macabre tales very much in the European Gothic tradition:  “Metzengerstein” and  “Berenice.” And he continues in this vein when he first arrives in Philadelphia:  “Ligeia” (1838) and “Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). But then his stories change. He still occasionally writes horror tales closer to the European Gothic model, but most of his stories take on the Brownian/American/Philadelphian view of “the individual potential for evil.” “William Wilson,” written in 1839, is all about the character’s fight with his own evil self. Stories that follow include “Man of the Crowd,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Poe is now writing about urban horror where the threats are not supernatural. We have no fear of ghosts in these stories, but rather the killer who stalks us on the city streets, or worse, in our own home.

S.J.C.:   How did you first get into Poe, Philly or not? What was the “gateway” work that drew you into Poe? What do you think his lasting appeal is?

E.P.:  Most Poeists have a kind of “Discovery Story” about how they were sick at their grandmother’s when they were ten years old and found a tattered copy of Poe’s tales on a bookshelf that they consumed in one weekend. Something like that. Honestly, I don’t remember the first time I read Poe. I seem to have always been aware of him/his works. I probably did NOT read him first in grade school. I went to a Catholic Elementary school and we used these god-awful readers that never had any interesting stories in them. I was very much into horror movies as a kid and would spend my entire $2.50 allowance on an issue of Famous Monsters Magazine (little did I know that the man behind Famous Monsters, Jim Warren, created that mag in a house a mere few blocks from my last childhood home). So I must have become aware of Poe through my interest in horror. The first books I loved were fantasy/science fiction. My ur-reading moment is as a child reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core and Pellucidar (I still have the copies) and realizing that while I was reading them I was transported into the book’s world, like I was literally (pun intended) walking around in that world. I could envision it with my mind’s eye. And I’ve never looked back from that moment. I still get that rush sometimes when I read.

And just as I’ve always seemed to know about Poe, I’ve also always known about his Philadelphia connection and it bothered me that he wasn’t known as a Philly writer. So that’s a story I had been wanting to tell for many years. And look where that has led.

S.J.C.: You just wrapped up what was a two year debate with Baltimore and Boston over where Poe should be buried, which you think is Philly. For readers out there unfamiliar with the Great Poe Debate, would you mind telling us what you really mean, why you have chosen this battle?

E.P.:  It’s not likely to be “wrapped up” any time soon, as Richmond just pissed me off by proclaiming the Great Poe Debate will be “officially settled” at their Poe birthday celebration on Jan 16. How can you settle a debate that you haven’t bothered to participate in for the last two years? Just talking to yourselves in a room doesn’t settle anything. You need to engage in the public discussion to do that. Or maybe I’m just a little annoyed that they have the gall to use the “Great Poe Debate” moniker, which I coined for the first debate in Philly in Jan 2009. Paul Lewis organized the 2nd Great Poe Debate in Boston in Dec ’09 and we’d still be game for one in Baltimore or any other place that wants to host one.

But your question was about the debate itself (the one that Richmond and New York have ignored over the past two years). In Oct 2007, I wrote a long piece for the Philadelphia City Paper claiming Poe’s Literary Legacy for the City of Philadelphia. For too long I had heard the stories of the “Baltimore Poe.” I know my literary history (and I know my Poe) and Poe’s works have very little to do with Baltimore. There are some biographical connections with B-more (and Boston and Richmond), but Poe’s writing career in those cities is like his minor league career. Poe becomes a great writer living and working in Philadelphia. And it’s not just accidental. It’s not like Poe was about to write those great works and no matter where he happened to be they would have been written. No, the literary and cultural milieu of antebellum Philly had an enormous effect on his work. In short, I don’t think Poe would have become the writer we admire and love without his time in Philly. It was that important to his career and imaginative genius.

So, I wrote this piece and people took umbrage with it. Specifically, people in Baltimore were bothered by it. If The Baltimore Sun hadn’t run TWO editorials in the week following the printing of my piece, then there would have been no Poe War. So I’m grateful for Baltimore’s bellicosity. This debate over Poe’s literary legacy has since been written about in newspapers all over the world [including the New York Times]. I kid you not. The world. To be able to have a discussion/argument over a dead 19th century American writer that makes the news? That’s a great thing.

S.J.C.:  Out of curiosity,  do you see within Poe any southern influence, besides the fact that he did identify himself as a Virginian, and out of all the cities he roamed, always thought of Richmond as his home?

E.P.: Yes, Poe did see himself as a Virginian. No matter how rejected he was from his foster home, he did say he felt most at home there. But that’s a question for biographers in recounting his life story. Just because a writer feels a personal affection for a certain place doesn’t necessarily mean it will affect his/her work. Poe seems to have felt no affection for Philadelphia, but its literary culture had an enormous impact on his work. And we also need to remember that Poe never expressed any interest in returning to the South on a full-time basis. He wanted to visit, then get back North where he could write. The Allan family certainly wanted nothing to do with him (and neither did the Poes in Baltimore, for that matter). His only family connection at the end of his life was with Maria Clemm, his aunt and mother-in-law. Southerners had a hard time accepting Poe even after his death. In the 20th Century it took a great deal of convincing the Richmonders to honor Poe with a museum. When they first opened it, there were still many supporters of the Allan family who still thought Poe a drunk wastrel. But, of course, everyone loves Poe now.

I also find it very hard to define what “Southern” or “Virginian” is because it couldn’t possibly mean the same thing to writers today that it meant in 1840 or 1860 or 1900 and on and on. To answer the effect antebellum South had on Poe’s work, I’d have to immerse myself in antebellum literature and culture first, then read Poe’s works alongside it to find the connections or overlap. But I’m wholly unqualified to do so because I haven’t read that lit. Remember, I’m a Yankee. I’d have a hard time keeping my northern bias in check.

S.J.C.:  You are a Philly native, and all around you are Poe artifacts:  the cobblestone streets he walked, the house in which he wrote some of his most horrifying works, the plot where Graham’s magazine once went to print…. Do you think that environmental immersion helped fuel your love for Poe?  What nuances does that immersion bring to your understanding of Poe and his work?

Ed Pettit inside one of the bedrooms at the Philadelphia Poe House, photo by Kyle CassidyE.P.:  I get a rush of being in the city where Poe was so creative. And Poe’s presence in Philly is easily overshadowed. This is the city where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. This is the city of Ben Franklin. We have the Liberty Bell. And now we have Rocky (fictional, but still important to American culture). So it’s no surprise Poe has always been lost in the cultural shuffle here. Hopefully, my time out there proselytizing the Philly Poe Gospel will help close that gap. Because the Poe story is just as important as the others. Poe is the most influential American writer. Ever. And he’s a Philly writer.

Of course, the best Poe site in Philly is the National Historic Site at 7th and Spring Garden Sts. That house is a treasure. And the National Park Service has done a tremendous job in preserving it. To be in that creepy, cobweb-filled cellar with the partially-bricked false chimney. That’s cool.

S.J.C.:  Enough Poe; I want to know about Pettit. You are a book reviewer and a writer in your own right, what projects do you have coming up, Poe and beyond?

E.P.:  I review books, but only occasionally these days. Right now, I’m working on several book proposals, some to do with Poe. One book I’m working on is about George Lippard, friend of Poe, who wrote the greatest Philly Gothic work, The Quaker City or the Monks of Monk Hall. But I can’t talk too much about these projects because it takes too much energy from actually writing them.

I used to blog regularly on my Ed & Edgar blog, but have fallen off the last few months. I’m hoping to put up a bunch of posts this month, catching people up on the last Great Poe Debate and other events I was too busy to post about last year. The good thing about Poe is that even though the Bicentennial is over, Poe is ever popular.

If you would like to know more about Ed Pettit and The Great Poe Debate, please check out the following links:

Ed & Edgar blog

The Podcast of The First Great Poe Debate in Philly

Philadelphia Gothic exhibit at the Library Co of Philadelphia as well as a podcast of his talk on Philly Gothic at The Library Company.

Information on the Baltimore Poe can be found at The Baltimore Poe Society and The Baltimore Sun’s Read Street Blog and information regarding the Boston Poe can be found here.  Richmond Poe can be found at The Poe Museum.

S.J. Chambers’s enthusiasm for the work of Edgar Poe led her to coin the term“Poepathy” in 2007.  She has been treating the literary illness ever since on her blog and through work that has appeared in Tor.com, Fantasy, Strange Horizons, The Baltimore Sun Read Street Blog, and Up Against the Wall. She is a senior editor at Strange Horizons magazine and is currently working as the archivist for Jeff VanderMeer’s The Steampunk Bible (Abrams, 2011).


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