Friday, December 27, 2013

Poe in Boston

by Sheila Connolly

It was only this year that I learned that there is a public art project to honor Edgar Allan Poe in Boston.  What makes that funny is that he didn’t have very nice things to say about Boston.

As you’ve no doubt learned or seen over the years, Poe is commemorated in multiple cities. But he was born in Boston, to travelling actors.  No, the house isn’t there anymore—it was torn down in the 1960s and replaced by the state Transportation Building.  He lived in Richmond, VA, with foster parents after his own parents died.  There are Poe museums in Baltimore, the Bronx, and Philadelphia as well as Richmond; the room where Poe lived as a student at the University of Virginia are preserved in his honor.

All Poe has gotten from Boston until now is a small plaque on the wall of a luggage store. (Hmm, maybe there’s some irony there, because he certainly traveled around a lot.)

Why do we care?  What is it about dead writers that draws the average tourist accompanied by two point five whining children? Do they think some spirit of the author lingers in the stone and concrete?

It is interesting to note that the (much more successful) author Stephen King made a nice contribution earlier this year to the proposed monument.  It arrived at the Poe Foundation of Boston, which is managing the project, on April Fool’s Day, and was briefly thought to be a joke. You have to believe that King planned it that way, right?

Poe’s relationship with the city of his birth was a rocky one.  He sometimes denied having been born in Boston at all. He was contemptuous of the literary elite of Boston and the area, especially Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, saying they were “incapable of recognizing a decent poem if it fell onto their precious Common,” and frequently referring to Boston as “Frogpondium,” in reference to the frog pond at the Boston Common. In 1845 Poe gave a reading at the Boston Lyceum which bombed (he recycled an existing poem, one of his youthful efforts, rather than presenting something new) and the local papers slammed him.  In 1848 he tried to commit suicide in Boston but failed.

And still the city chooses to honor him, if belatedly.  They’ve commissioned a statue, to be erected in Edgar Allan Poe Square, a brick-paved plaza at the corner of Boylston and Charles streets.  The statue, to be executed by New York sculptor Stefanie Rocknak, features Poe with a humongous and rather terrifying raven swooping out of an open trunk, with a human heart (really? Yes, I know it’s a reference to The Telltale Heart, but still…) and loose papers fluttering behind him. Running after an elusive idea, or trying to flee a city he didn’t like?

How ambivalent we are about our writers! But maybe Longfellow had the last word when he said, “Fame comes only when deserved, and then is as inevitable as destiny, for it is destiny.”
Manor houses! Lost art works! A doomed romance!  All you could ask for in a mystery novel, coming February 2014



Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Fame comes only when deserved? Clearly, Longfellow never met Paris Hilton or the Kardashians. BTW I'm having lunch with a mystery writer friend today at Edgar's a café named in Poe's honor on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.

Sandra Parshall said...

Poe would probably be astonished to know that he is still remembered, still honored, and held in much higher regard than he ever was during his lifetime. So much money is made off his writing today -- even a little of that in his lifetime would have made such a difference.