After the Gold Rush, After Lenore

Illustration by Emily Thompson

1849. The year hordes of greedy prospectors brought prostitution and smallpox to California was the same year a poor poet named Edgar Allan Poe stumbled incoherent through the streets of Baltimore and died. And so meet our two most curiously named football teams, the 49ers and the Ravens.

I’ve always marveled at the Baltimore franchise, smuggled out of Cleveland as if in the middle of the night, and re-christened in honor of a horror poem. I love, of course, that the people of Baltimore, through a Baltimore Sun poll, endorsed such a literary name for their footballers, but it is an odd choice. Poe is not exactly a heroic figure. He never stayed in a job for long, he had drinking problems, and he was a racist. He even sold a slave once, acting as an agent for his aunt. And, while Baltimore claims him, he didn’t write The Raven there. He seemed like he was always trying to leave Baltimore. Poe was always leaving, wherever he was.

Then there is the poem itself, a bouncy little ditty about a depressive shut-in talking to a bird, not exactly the stuff of gridiron glory. In the very first line the guy is “weak and weary.” He’s reading “forgotten lore” and “nearly napping.” He’s not even fully napping.

Then he gets spooked:
“And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;”

The purple curtains are rusting. Someone call Ray Lewis.

The 49ers might have ostensibly more macho credibility in their name. The 49ers were tough guys striking it out on the frontier to make their fortunes, tough guys in tough saloons winning the West (the kind of guys who might coach Stanford?). They built San Francisco. But, of course, most 49ers led poor undernourished existences filled with disease and rancor. One in 12 American minors died. Women became “entertainers.” The Chinese were persecuted. But the Indians may have had it worst of all. The Gold Rush polluted their fields and hunting grounds; miners seized their land and forced Indians into legal slavery; Thousands were murdered, and many more succumbed to disease.

Such is the legacy of 1849. But who will win this 21st century battle between Poe’s birds and the Prospectors? I wanted to know so last night I tried to ask the raven.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Balt’more!’
Or maybe San Francisco.


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