The Edgar Allan Poe Society, Baltimore's oldest literary club, is looking for new blood.
Member Freida Thiess is 101. Vice President Richard Hart has been serving since the end of World War II. Even Alexander Rose, who as the society's secretary, treasurer, historian and past-president mans its headquarters in a room at the University of Baltimore, is pushing 70.
"About 30 percent of our members are in wheel chairs or nursing homes," Rose says with cheerful resignation.
As its mainstay for nearly 20 years, Rose, a retired professor who never liked Poe that much before he was "conned" into joining the society, has kept the organization on a low-key course, drumming up new recruits when the opportunity presented itself and walking the line between Poe scholarship and popular appreciation of the master of horror. The dues were last raised in 1962, soaring to $2 a year. The society has a board as large as Poe's reputation--38. The only way to get off, says Rose, is "to die or ask to be removed."
In an effort to bring the vigor and perspective of youth to the commemoration of Poe on the occasion of the society's 60th anniversary, Rose invited students from seven area colleges to deliver papers on Poe at a symposium Friday at the University of Baltimore.
Poe buffs came from as far as Houston, whetting their appetite by listening to Basil Rathbone's recording of Poe's poetic masterpiece, "The Raven." The outcome left no doubt that the feeling for Poe burns brightly with younger generations.
Dorothy Vance, a 40ish student at Prince George's Community College who grew up in Pennsylvania coal country, as a child hid her volume of "Mr. Edgar Allan Poe's Stories" from her grandmother, who thought them "licentious." Said she:
"I only think of two people when I look for strength: Jesus Christ and Edgar Allan Poe." She seemed close to swooning as she declaimed in a booming drawl, "I am just as proud of Eddy Poe's six-mile swim up the James River as you people are of the Redskins!"
For young, if any, and old alike, the Poe society has been providing a forum for the writer's fans in Baltimore since 1923. Poe devotees congress in Richmond, and Poe societies have rallied in other cities, including Paris, but of all places Baltimore's Gothic milieu seems most apropos to Poe. The city abounds in brooding atmospheres and haunted locales. Its claim on the writer rests solidly with the fact that Poe lived in a house on Amity Street (said to be haunted), and died in the city, not far from the graveyard at Westminister Church, where his bones now molder.
Poe's macabre genius has drawn a few of life's strays to the Poe Society over the years. As secretary, Al Rose got a call one night from a young man from New Jersey who said he'd left home after a fight with his parents. The fellow was broke, had just climbed off the bus, and was wondering if the Poe Society couldn't put him up for the night, in the spirit of Edgar. Rose demurred. Ordinarily he sends callers and correspondents membership forms.
Membership has waxed and waned with literary fashions and ecomomic wellbeing. It stands today at about 300, including a member named Sheng Ning at the University of Peking. The society owns a keepsake of the poet's hair, a perfume bottle that belonged to his wife, and a splinter from his coffin. Its archives are housed on the 4th floor of the Langsdale Library in Baltimore. Most of its $700-to-$1,000-a-year budget goes to publishing the October lecture the society has sponsored in recent years to commemorate Poe's death.
In past times, the society ran the Poe House, now operated by the city of Baltimore. The members marched with shears and clippers and battled back the shrubs that had irreverently beseiged Poe's statue. In the 1950s, the society drew on Baltimore's many women's clubs and in the name of Poe there were weekly meetings, bridge parties, bake sales, musical programs and luncheons. How many times the Raven was rendered is something that remains with the many mysteries attending Poe's legend.
In the mid-70s, some of the members were unsettled when a showman and society member began to draw large crowds with his tours of the catacombs in the Westminister Church by illustrating Poe tales with mannequins wrapped in red paint-spattered sheets. The tours, in the society's name, were halted when the guide began to claim incorrectly that Poe sometimes slept in catacombs that were not built until after his death.
On the other hand, some of the rigorously scholastic lectures of recent years have had a soporific effect on many society members. Prestigious as the fall lecture is, with speakers lined up through 1991 (Poe scholarship is a veritable industry that produces more than 100 papers a year) some of the lectures are painfully detailed, focusing on Poe's use of landscape or the neologisms he minted. More than 150 people once packed the auditorium at the Enoch Pratt Library for a lecture on the Image of Poe in American Poetry. It went on . . . and on . . . and on. By the end, the crowd had been whittled to a hardy 25.
"Some people told me, 'This is the dullest thing I ever heard,' " says Rose.