Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mourning toast

I was absolutely crushed this morning to get this news. There has been a tradition for around 60 years in Baltimore on January 19th, which is Edgar Allan Poe's birthday, of a mysterious man in black coming to the grave in the early morning, toasting Poe with cognac and leaving the bottle, also leaving three red roses on the grave. No one knows who he is or if they do know, they aren't telling (although more than one person has claimed to be the Poe toaster. It's usually fairly transparent that these people are braying asses and their facts tend to be wrong and easily discredited.) It's a kind of magical tribute, much like the mysterious woman in black who appears at Rudolph Valentino's grave to leave roses on the anniversary of his death. It's also a tradition every January 19th for me to report to Laurie what happened with the Poe toaster and for her to call me a "nerd."

Edgar Allan Poe was an amazing author beyond measure. American literature owes Poe everything. Everyone stems from his influence. Not everyone is aware of it, but Poe's influence is incalculable. The fact that such a magical, spooky, and solemn ritual rose up around him is fitting.

The Poe toaster has had a strange history in my lifetime. Up until the late 1990s it pretty much went like clockwork, like a tribute should go. Toaster shows up, toasts Poe, leaves the flowers and bottle, and vanishes. In the late '90s, a note was left with the roses and cognac which read "the torch must be passed." The next year, the Poe toaster was noticeably more spry. In 1999, another note was left which stated that the original toaster had passed away. And that's really when things started to get dodgy.

In 2001, the new toaster left a note with a cryptic prophesy about the Baltimore Ravens losing the Super Bowl. Yes, you read that correctly. First, the Poe toaster is surprisingly not a Ravens fan. Second, this was hardly the venue to talk sports. Third, he was wrong.

A year or two later the Poe toaster left a note explaining that he was reluctant to use French wine (and apparently unable to control himself from saying so) but would defer for the sake of family tradition. This was a reference to a controversy perpetuated at that time by a large portion of America's thriving idiot community suggesting the boycotting of French products because France did not ally themselves with America in the Iraq war. I'm sure almost anyone else can readily identify that this was hardly the venue for politics as well. First and foremost, the event is supposed to be about Edgar Allan Poe. Also, I think everyone collectively groaned at the specific political viewpoint of the Poe toaster. I know I did. However, I think I would be just as upset if the toaster had left notes which agreed with my political point of view. It is not the time and place for that.

And Poe fans certainly did immediately identify the sullying nature of the sacred event with these knuckledragger's notes! In 2006, some people tried to accost the Poe toaster because they were outraged over the disregard for the solemnity of the event by the current toaster. Bear in mind, people travel from all over the country to see this event and one doesn't like to make a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to find it being trivialized by the people who are supposed to be continuing the tradition. I, for one, have had attending a Poe toasting on my list of "things I would earnestly wish to do someday if ever I am able" for most of my life. High on the list, in fact, as well as something attainable on that list. All I have to do is be on the East Coast on January 18th and I will find a way to his grave for the morning of the 19th. Although I would add that I am hard pressed to think which upset me more, the notes or the people who tried to accost the toaster. Both struck me as the behavior of people ruining a very cool thing.

Since that unruly year, the toaster has behaved himself and left no notes. And then, this morning, for the first time in around 60 years, there was no Poe toaster.

I feel upset, sure, but very sad. Surprisingly sad. I didn't know something like this would effect me so much, but it's really kind of terrible. In a time where there is so much vanishing magic in this world, the loss of more is something to be mourned. We go about our lives, day to day, mechanically eating, drinking, working, watching TV. The cities grow larger and the rural areas want to become more like the cities, want to pump loud celebrities into their homes at every waking moment. We have lost our sense of ritual and are quickly losing awareness of life, of the world around us.
Little events and rituals like the Poe toaster are precious, crucial in this anemic culture. Like holidays or interesting events in our personal lives, they break us out of our routines and help us to look at the world again.

I suggest everyone out there read some Poe today. Read it out loud to one another. Maybe, this evening, propose a toast to Poe.

As for the Edgar Allan Poe Society in Baltimore, I would recommend finding someone to pass the torch as the up-until-this-morning Poe toaster isn't making himself known. Next year, have your new Poe toaster come a little early and then bar the gate from any other Poe toaster who might show up. This is too important to leave in the hand of incompetents or the uncaring. Admittedly, the toaster could very well have died himself (possibly immured in a wine cellar wall by a leftist literature fan?), in which case I probably shouldn't be so harsh, but since we'll never know, shouldn't the tradition continue?

I would also mention in passing that I am still looking for a job, if you catch my drift.


  1. On the Facebook cross-posting of this entry, my friend Doctor Oblivious sent me this message:

    "So about 6 years ago, a friend of mine was preparing to move out of state. She had some credit at a local bookstore she wanted to burn up so we went shopping. I got the "Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe". It's been sitting on my bookshelf ever since.

    After reading your essay, I popped off the shrink wrap (yes, a shrink wrapped book), opened it ... See Morerandomly then flipped to the 1st non-play piece. It was "Shadow: A Fable"

    "Ye who read are still among the living, but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the regions of shadows. For indeed, strange things shall happen, and many secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve, and some to doubt, and yet, a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron."

  2. Interesting post.

    As a comment on the side...last night I dreamt I met you and Laurie at the wedding of a mutual friend. I wonder who that would be? Mostly I spoke to Laurie; sorry if I appeared rude. lol

  3. Thanks.
    Neat! That's okay. I'm just glad to hear that our mutual dream friend is finally getting married.

  4. I'm afraid I must disagree with you regarding Poe's greatness as a writer. I will concede that his influence upon American literature is palpable, but only insofar as his mood. And I will also concede that he is the father of detective fiction, though I groan at the silliness of "The Murders of the Rue Morgue." As a writer, however -- especially as a poet -- Poe is repetitive and elicits cheap thrills; he was -- and I'm sure I'll be burned in effigy for this -- the Stephen King of his day, though less friendly to the popular media. I suppose this is why he is so popular among middle- and high school English courses. But I must point out that each year I spend much more time teaching the metrical patterns of works like "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee" than I do the content itself, which is so repetitive that my students quickly become weary of it. I can, at least, get through a single Poe story -- either "The Tell-Tale Heart" or "The Cask of Amontillado" -- before the kids catch onto the repetitiveness of his fiction, too.

    I'm sure I'm going to English Teacher Hell for spouting such blasphemy, but my convictions dictate that I speak my mind. :)

  5. No, it's an absolutely valid opinion. I was surprised recently to find in Ron Padgett's Handbook of Poetic Forms a description of alliteration in which he employs Poe's poem 'The Bells' as an example, but spends almost a full paragraph talking about how he thinks it's not a very good poem.

    I must admit your opinion gets my "but what about" impulse working. But I guess in the end it comes down to personal preference. We are all entitled to that. I can't stand Norman Mailer and I have a really difficult time with Tom Wolfe's condescending tone. I've received flack for both of those opinions before. It's okay to not like Poe.

    However, even to one who doesn't like Poe I would still submit I feel it is a terrible loss to lose the Poe Toaster. We, in these modern times, do not have many other occasions for the evening news to talk about something related to American literature unless James Frey forges another false autobiography or Stephen King gets hit by another minivan.

    And while I still have great love for Poe's work in general, I will concede 'The Murders of the Rue Morgue.'