Happy belated birthday Edgar Allan Poe

By Amy Allen

Though you wouldn’t know it because of all the University of Illinois students slaving away in class, last Thursday marked the much celebrated birthdays of two influential historical figures. The rest of the country marked this occasion with considerably more revelry.

President Obama came to Springfield to address a group of Lincoln enthusiasts on the bicentennial of the 16th president’s birth. Feb. 12, 1809, was also the birthday of Charles Darwin, and evolution supporters across the country designed billboards with messages like, “Evolve Beyond Belief” and “Praise Darwin.”

Disappointingly, however, no billboards reading “Nevermore” appeared in Baltimore because 2009 also marked the bicentennial of the birth of another great historical figure, and one whose birthday passed with considerably less recognition on Jan. 29: Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe was born in Boston, the middle child of two actors. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died, he was taken in at the age of two by John and Francis Allan, a successful merchant and his wife. After dropping out of the newly created University of Virginia, Poe was unable to support himself and lied about his age to join the Army. While serving at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor, he released his first collection of poetry, “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” which was attributed only to “a Bostonian.”

Every parent who has been successful would be thrilled to have offspring who pursue poetry, but an anonymous collection? That sold only 50 copies? The inevitable parental disapproval that Poe must have endured is in itself a reason his birth should be recognized, if only to give moral support to every artistic minded youngster who has dropped out of school to pen unread volumes of poetry.

Being president or coming up with a scientific theory explaining the origins of mankind get you recognition, but writing poems and stories that revolutionized the American literary cannon?

Apparently there is no appreciation for that in the hearts of billboard buyers or President Obama. Where are the Annabel Lees of the world to defend Poe’s memory? Edgar Allan Poe almost lost his mind with love for the real life basis for Annabel Lee, who was thought to be his wife, Virginia Clemm, who died at an early age. Neither Darwin nor Lincoln approached their work with such total dedication and zeal. Did Darwin ever let the Galapagos finches drive him to distraction? Did Lincoln go home at night haunted by the Emancipation Proclamation. Doubtful.

If you haven’t let your work rob you of your sanity, you don’t deserve recognition. You certainly don’t deserve a billboard or a presidential tribute.

Unlike Lincoln and Darwin, Poe labored in obscurity for much of his life. He was paid only $9 for the publication of “The Raven.” Lincoln, on the other hand, had only to cope with the secession of 11 states from the country he was elected to lead.

Darwin and his supporters were called heathens and heretics and ostracized from the academic mainstream, but that pales in comparison to the suffering endured by Poe. The slighting of Edgar Allan Poe is nothing new.

His obituary in the New York Times was written by a literary rival, who pronounced, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead … This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” Isn’t it time that someone grieved for the man who sacrificed his life and sanity for literature?

For the sake of the late, great, poet, I’m going to hope that this story has an ending like “Sixteen Candles.” Poe – wherever he is – and his devoted readers will mope all year long, but finally, someone will whip out the cake and gifts, and a ravens will replace the stovepipe hat and fish-with-legs on post cards and bumper stickers everywhere.

Amy is a freshman in math, and when it comes to discovering new Facebook applications on the night before exams, quotes “The Raven”: nevermore.