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Grimy Margins and Losing Sides

On Baltimore.

I did not grow up in cities, but in suburban neighborhoods of greater or lesser density scattered among the forests and small farms of Maryland. As a result, it is not woods and fields that for me are the zones of magic, but narrow streets hemmed in with high walls of dirty brick. Cities are where you see the unusual and the striking, and, increasingly, where you can see the truly old, at least by American standards; in these latter days, when highwaymen and hermits are few, and the frontiersman is a memory of a memory, forests hold only so many surprises.

The magic of cities—and I mean magic in a purely neutral sense, since magic is often very frightening stuff indeed—grows in proportion to their decay. In Washington, the old Franciscan seminary—an enchanted Art Nouveau building whose buttresses are decorated with monumental sculptures of great Franciscan theologians and scientists—has been left to molder by its most recent owner, Howard University’s School of Divinity. The abandoned storefront across from my parish church in Baltimore had, for some time, a large princess tree growing from its second story, its bole coming straight out from a hole in the brick and then making a right angle which rested, elbow-like, on the cornice of the first story. This is the stuff of dreams.

Of course, Baltimore has always been a bit decayed. Most of its residential neighborhoods were on septic systems into the first decade of the twentieth century, by which time even New York’s tenements were connected to the sewers. It was a city whose politics were dominated by Confederate veterans and whose nightlife was dominated by houses of ill fame, until the time’s passage cleared the one and the rise of reform-minded uplift cleared the other—just in time for the Depression and an influx of Appalachians seeking W.P.A. employment. (H.L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, reports a Theognidean tag from the time: “There are now only forty-five states in the Union. West Virginia and South Carolina have moved to Maryland, and Maryland has gone to Hell.”)

It’s a slippery and somewhat seedy place, a city whose limelight tends to rest on history’s grimy margins and losing sides. Election days were regularly punctuated by homicides until the turn of the twentieth century, including, so far as anyone can tell, that of our first national literary genius, Edgar Allen Poe. Lincoln was compelled to travel through it in disguise for fear of assassination; Robert E. Lee lived there for a time as an Army engineer, and had been popular.

Lee had attended Mount Calvary Episcopal Church on Eutaw Street; he sponsored a new roof for the church building. Mount Calvary was a romantic shrine for lost causes—the rectors engaged in long-running disputes with the Episcopal hierarchy and their fellow clergy in Baltimore about the use of incense, the installation of confessionals, and other papistical trappings. (In 1879, several concerned vicars penned a pamphlet titled “A Protest by Some of the Clergy of Baltimore and Vicinity, against Certain Romish Doctrines and Practices, as Taught and Enjoined in Mission Services Recently Held in Mt. Calvary Church, Baltimore.”) During the Civil War, the rector made gloomy predictions about civilization’s trajectory after the Confederacy’s defeat.

That rector, Alfred Allen Paul Curtis, eventually decided he preferred his Romish Doctrines and Practices neat; he became the second Catholic Bishop of Wilmington. Mount Calvary—which, in a touching instance of the spirit of reconciliation after the War, was the first church in Baltimore to integrate—followed him at a remove of more than a century, joining the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in 2012. (It is in this church that I was married.)

Mount Calvary now sits in a very grim neighborhood; a methadone clinic resides across the street, and the street corner of Eutaw and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard is invariably occupied by a gaggle of insistent young men armed with squeegees. This makes the walk from the church to Poe’s grave, due southwest, even brisker than it might otherwise be.

Poe was born in Boston and lived in Richmond, but in death has become a part of Baltimore. It suits him, or he suits it. He wrote like a man who lived on the teeming edge of the known world—as he in fact did. He was also a pretty nasty character, a gambler, a drinker, a man who married his thirteen-year-old cousin. In this, too, he was very American, and a good fit for Charm City, better perhaps than his contemporary, the genteel Lee. The yard where he is buried is everything you would hope; ancient trees, moss pullulating silently in the gloom. The neighborhood is known for car burglaries. 

For some eight decades, on the author’s birthday, a man in black would leave three roses and a bottle of cognac on the tomb—the Poe Toaster. Weird stuff. Baltimore, like Rome and a handful of other cities, is a place where the primeval and untamed burst through the pavements into the half-light of narrow streets. Its heroes are as equivocal as you’d expect. Robert E. Lee, born this day in 1807, and Edgar Allen Poe, born this day in 1809: Dis manibus sacrum.