In Stefanie Rocknak’s statue, “Poe Returning to Boston,” which was installed in 2014 at the intersection of Boylston and Charles streets, the famous author is seen striding away from the Common toward his likely birthplace two blocks south.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “return” is triumphant. The half-open suitcase in his right hand is filled with manuscript pages that are falling out from behind, while an oversized raven flies out the front. His left arm is swinging back, allowing his left hand to gesture dismissively toward the Frog Pond and Bostonian writers Poe derided as “Frogpondians.”
“The Bostonians are very well in their way,” Poe wrote after his 1845 public lecture here was negatively reviewed. “Their hotels are bad. Their pumpkin pies are delicious. Their poetry is not so good. Their common is no common thing — and the duck-pond might answer—if its answer could be heard for the frogs.”
As the chairman of the nonprofit foundation that made the case for honoring Poe in Boston, I worked with many others on the statue project. And yet, despite a serious research effort, we were unaware of a delightful irony: that a long-forgotten and intriguingly mysterious image of Poe himself can be found on the Common between the statue and the Frog Pond. In effect and inadvertently, the Poe statue seems to be dismissing Poe himself!
That Poe, who invented the modern detective story, was hiding in plain sight for over a century is both hilariously appropriate and utterly incongruous. At only 12-and-a-half-inches tall, Poe occupies a place of honor in “The Departure,” one of four bas-reliefs on the lowest level of Martin Milmore’s towering 1877 Soldiers and Sailors Monument. In it, two rows of dignitaries (on the right side) are seen reviewing a regiment (on the left side) going off to fight in the Civil War.
Last August historian Kathryn Grover was studying “The Departure” as a possible precursor to the Shaw Memorial on the Common across from the State House. At the Boston Athenaeum, she found a one-page guide to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument that Milmore wrote. Surprised to find that Milmore included “Edgar A. Poe” among the distinguished Massachusetts military officers, politicians, and abolitionists who are reviewing the troops, Grover sought my help in explaining why Poe belonged among the dignitaries.
Since Poe died in 1849 and the relief is set in the 1860s, and since Poe decried what he saw as Northern hypocrisy, his appearance among the reviewers is even more anomalous than Grover guessed. Absent a definite statement by Milmore, one can only speculate about why he sculpted Poe into the scene.
Was it that, growing up in Boston in the 1850s, Milmore enjoyed reading Poe stories, was aware of Poe’s birth in the city, and sought to elevate a beloved author’s standing? By the early 1870s when Milmore was working on the monument, might he have known that Poe began his military career in Boston when, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the army and reported for duty at Fort Independence on Castle Island? If so, is this why Milmore placed Poe in the most prominent position, closest to the soldiers and gazing solemnly at them, his hand over his heart?
While these theories are plausible, it is worth noting that Milmore included another author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on the relief. Where Poe is close to the soldiers and looking toward them approvingly, Longfellow is far away and gazing grumpily straight out, away from both Poe and the troops. Since Poe’s harsh criticism of Longfellow was well known in Boston from the mid-1840s, Milmore may have been taking Poe’s side in the feud, registering his complaint against the Brahmin establishment’s canonization of the Bard of Cambridge.
As a product of the 1870s, the bas-relief suggests that the city’s response to Poe shifted in the decades following his 1849 death as his national and international standing rose. The first complete edition of Poe’s work was printed and reprinted during the 1850s, the decade in which Charles Baudelaire started to publish his French translations of Poe’s fiction. A British edition of Poe’s work, published in Edinburgh in 1874 and ’75, included a sympathetic biographical sketch by editor John Henry Ingram.
When Poe died in Baltimore, he was buried in an unmarked grave, which was gradually covered by weeds. As a sign of his rising reputation, Poe’s remains were moved in 1874 to the front of the cemetery and a memorial monument was installed above the grave. Walt Whitman, who had met Poe in New York decades before, attended the dedication at which letters from Longfellow and Alfred, Lord Tennyson were read. Milmore, who received his commission for the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in 1870, was working on it during years in which Poe was both literally and figuratively being exhumed.
In 1909, 32 years after the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated, a group of authors led by Julia Ward Howe celebrated the centennial of Poe’s birth with readings at Boston University. A hundred years later, then-mayor Thomas M. Menino dedicated the intersection of Boylston and Charles streets to Poe and called for the installation of a statue honoring him in the city where he was born. Five years later, Rocknak’s statue was unveiled, announcing Poe’s return.
At the dedication of Poe Square, Mayor Menino said, “after two centuries of indifference and occasional irritation, Boston has embraced America’s literary master.” Milmore’s reverent and respectable Poe was an early sign that Boston was moving in this direction.
Paul Lewis is an English professor at Boston College. He was the chairman of the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston.