For Pettit, it’s a bittersweet detail that Poe – who also lived and wrote in Philadelphia for a time - was en route to Philly when he died and might just have easily given up the ghost there. Other cities also have legitimate claims to the corpse. Poe once tried to commit suicide by swallowing laudanum in Boston, says Paul Lewis, a Boston College Poe specialist who, along with Jerome and Pettit, participated earlier this year in a formal debate about where Poe’s body belongs. Boston is Poe’s birthplace - to mark his bicentennial, the city named a square in his honor. But Boston has enough famous writers, critics say, and besides, Poe frequently locked horns with the resident Transcendentalists.
New York’s claim is that Poe wrote some of his best work there; his relatives apparently considered moving his body to the city after he died. And finally, there’s Richmond, where Poe spent much of his youth.
But maybe the controversy is less about Poe’s actual body than his body of work. Unlike his more provincial New England contemporaries, who frequently grounded their fictions in particular geographies, and even actual towns, Poe tended to base his stories in vague, medieval-like settings. The true backdrop for his work was the terrain of the mind. This is why it’s easy for everyone to see their city, and themselves, reflected in his writing, and also why there are Poe bicentennial celebrations planned in places he likely never visited, like Romania. (Though a Poe party on vampire turf is something of a no-brainer, come to think.)
Likewise, Poe’s influence extends far beyond the horror genre. Stephen King and R. L. Stine are indebted to Poe, but so are Vladimir Nabokov and Michael Chabon. Alfred Hitchcock was a fan, but so is Sylvester Stallone, who has for years floated the idea of directing a Poe film (rumored leading men have included Robert Downey Jr. and Viggo Mortensen).
After the last Great Poe Debate, the crowd voted Philadelphia the rightful heir to Poe’s remains; there will likely be a rematch in Boston this December. Yet wherever we decide Poe’s body belongs, we probably won’t let him rest. He’s been buried for more than a century and a half, but, like the victim in the “Tell-Tale Heart,” doesn’t seem quite dead.