Updated: December 3, 2009 17:31 IST

Poe’s first book comes under hammer at Christie’s

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File photo of Edgar Allan Poe. A rare edition of Edgar Allan Poe's first book is expected to set a record sale price for American literature when it hits the auction block this week.
AP File photo of Edgar Allan Poe. A rare edition of Edgar Allan Poe's first book is expected to set a record sale price for American literature when it hits the auction block this week.

When a teenage Edgar Allan Poe moved to Boston to find work in 1827, he was eager to launch his literary career, re-establish his roots in the city of his birth and distance himself from his foster father in Richmond, Va.

The result was his first book, “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” virtually unnoticed when published but now one of the world’s rarest and most sought-after texts.

Experts at Christie’s auction house say it could sell for a record price for American literature.

“This is known as the black tulip of U.S. literature,” said Francis Wahlgren, head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s in New York, which expects to get from $500,000 to $700,000 for the book on Friday.

No more than 40 or 50 copies of “Tamerlane” were printed, and only 12 remain. Poe’s name doesn’t even grace the cover of the 40-page book, which is credited to “a Bostonian.”

The book being auctioned is stained and frayed and has V-shaped notches on the outer and lower margins.

“It’s kind of a beat-up copy,” said William Self, the former television executive who’s selling it.

Still, “This is a rare opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Mr. Wahlgren said.

Poe, now canonized as an early master of horror and mystery, was 18 and a complete unknown when the book was printed. He wanted to do anything he could to repudiate his foster father, John Allan, a wealthy Richmond merchant, Poe scholar James Hutchisson said.

The pair had a mercurial relationship, said Mr. Hutchisson, an English professor at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina.

“He never felt he was loved by Allan,” Mr. Hutchisson said. “He never got any affection from him.”

It has been suggested that by not putting his name on the book, Poe was trying to hide from Allan, but Mr. Hutchisson says it’s more likely that the teen just wanted to connect to his heritage.

Although Poe is most associated with Baltimore, where he died at age 40 under mysterious circumstances, he spent more time in Richmond, with stints in Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

“By saying the book was written by a Bostonian, he was identifying with his biological mother, Eliza Poe, who was from Boston,” Mr. Hutchisson said. “He had no reason to hide from Allan.”

The book is a collection of poems, but the 403-line “Tamerlane” is the highlight.

The poem, about an Eastern ruler on his death bed who, despite a lifetime of military conquests, expresses regret for losing the love of his life, embodies many themes that run throughout Poe’s literary career, including death and the loss of love.

“Tamerlane and Other Poems” is included in the 300-book collection being sold by Self, the former president of Twentieth Century Fox Television, who lives in Los Angeles. Christie’s also is selling Self’s rarities from Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and others. But “Tamerlane” is the centerpiece of the collection.

“It’s a wonderful book,” Self said, admitting that he’s never read the original, just a facsimile. “If you’re going to collect Poe, the ultimate goal is ‘Tamerlane.”’

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