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Poe's Big Read

by Erin Z. Bass

I recently finished reading “The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, And The Invention Of Murder” by Daniel Stashower. While I’ve enjoyed reading Poe’s short stories and poetry since I first discovered them in high school, I have to admit I didn’t know much about the author himself. That is until I read the above-mentioned book. “The Beautiful Cigar Girl” tells the real-life story of the grisly 1841 murder of New York cigar salesgirl Mary Rogers, which Poe used as the basis for his detective story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” That angle is compelling enough, but author Stashower, known for his biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, weaves in Poe’s life story among the events of the murder case. The result is a portrait of an orphaned, alcoholic, self-destructive and under-appreciated writer who tried desperately to achieve fame until the day he died.

It’s hard to believe that Poe (pictured circa 1904 at right, courtesy of Library of Congress) wasn’t famous in his day. He had his moments – upon publication of “The Raven” and “The Gold-Bug” – but they were short-lived. Today, there’s no doubt that Poe is the father of the detective story (creating the genre before even Sherlock Holmes entered the picture) and gothic horror tale. His stories are hard to forget and chilling to read even 150 years later. The fact that Poe spent much of his life in Richmond, Virginia, doesn’t seem to have directly affected his work as much as his tormented personality did, but the fact that we can claim him as a Southern writer is an honor.

The city of Atlanta has chosen Edgar Allan Poe as their “Big Read” this fall, and the Atlanta History Center’s Literary Center at the Margaret Mitchell House is celebrating the author through exhibits, poetry slams, chats, lectures and an upcoming film festival. Atlanta’s Big Read kicked off with a masquerade ball earlier this month, and events run through November 8. (Pictured below are museum educators representing spooky spirits and Poe at a lantern tour at Tullie Smith Farm.) A program of the National Endowment of the Arts, the Big Read is designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture by bringing communities together to read, discuss and celebrate books and writers.

“We chose Poe because of course he’s literary reading at its finest,” says the center’s Leigh Massey. She adds that the timing of the Big Read is no accident. “October plays to the macabre and writings of Poe,” she says. “People have been very excited, and we’ve been having a lot of active chats.”

I have to agree there’s no better author to celebrate during the month of October. After reading “The Beautiful Cigar Girl,” I got out my copy of “The Viking Portable Library Edgar Allan Poe,” a pocket volume of his letters, tales, articles, criticism, poems and opinions I picked up at a library book sale. With the idea to re-read “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” I was first drawn to the tales of revenge and murder and his short story, “The Black Cat.” Shocking and gory even by today’s standards, reading the tale reminded me why Poe will forever live on as the master of horror.

Rediscover Poe on your own this month by reading one of his short stories or poems. If you’re in the Atlanta area, check the Big Read calendar of events and make plans to attend tomorrow’s film festival, one of next week’s book chats, a Halloween Day of the Dead celebration or November 8 lecture with retired professor of Southern literature Dr. Thomas McHaney. You can also follow Atlanta History Center on Twitter @ATLHistCenter or like them on Facebook.

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