Edgar Allan Poe would have been amazed to see so many people at his 180th birthday party. During his short and miserable life, America’s great master of the macabre would have had trouble gathering enough admirers in his native Boston for a card game. A New England author couldn’t make many friends in the 1840s by scoffing at the Transcendentalists or accusing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. But a city can’t hold a grudge forever, and on Jan. 19 Boston finally acknowledged one of its least favorite sons. The street where the poet once lived was renamed in his honor, and a bronze tablet was installed near where his house once stood. If only Poe had been there to see it!
But wait. That certainly looked like Poe capping off the day’s ceremonies with a spine-chilling recitation of The Raven. No, it couldn’t have been: Poe died in 1849, and despite his spooky visions has not been known to make a reappearance. The man in the long black frock coat was Norman George—a Boston actor and Poe fanatic who has spent years re-creating his idol onstage. His obsession began at age 11 in Alexandria Bay, N.Y., where his father worked for the government and his mother was a housewife. After seeing Vincent Price in The Fall of the House of Usher, George began to read Poe and felt an immediate connection. “It was like Poe was talking to me,” he says. “There was a sense of apartness I identified with, having been an only child.” By the time he entered Boston College, George was amassing his 500-book library on the tragic genius who was orphaned at 2 and sent to an early grave by alcohol. “I became more and more impressed by the sweep of Poe’s genius,” George says. “He invented science fiction, the detective story, was our first important literary critic, and he defined the short story.”
An actor since high school, George landed several stage roles over the years as he made his way through college, marriage and divorce, various book-editing jobs and a move from Boston to Texas and back. Then in 1983 a historian mentioned to George he’d like to stage a Poe Day, if only he could find an actor. Destiny was calling. “I ran to the mirror and began looking at my face to figure out how I could play Poe,” he remembers. “All my acting skills came into focus. It was sort of a secular conversion.”
George studied 19th-century pronunciation dictionaries to perfect his accent and daguerreotypes to alter his appearance. He dyed his hair dark brown, and shaved his temples to mimic Poe’s high forehead. Since 1983, George, also a free-lance writer, has taken his one-man show, Poe Alone, to 15 states, performing at least 30 times a year. “This is the perfect part for me,” says George, 38. “My Hamlet”