When the news came last summer that the ongoing renovation of the historic Longfellow Bridge, which runs between Boston and Cambridge, would be extended until 2018, it raised the possibility of not only fixing the structure but also tweaking the bridge’s name to more accurately reflect Boston’s literary heritage. For reasons I’m about to provide, when it reopens, the Cambridge-bound lanes should still be named for the Bard of Brattle Street, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but the Boston-bound lanes should henceforth and forever be named after that raven among the Brahmin swans, Edgar Allan Poe.
Before you shout “Nevermore,” consider these points:
Poe and Longfellow represent opposite approaches to literature, each valid and worth memorializing in the opposing lanes of the repaired Poe-Longfellow (OK, Longfellow-Poe) Bridge.
Notably, Longfellow thought that literature should be persuasive, while Poe thought it should be entertaining. Where Longfellow provides a little humor, history, morality, and romance, Poe conjures a cauldron of danger, mystery, fear, and desire. “He who pleases,” Poe wrote in an early essay, “is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs.”
Longfellow is associated with Cambridge, Poe with Boston.
Born in Portland, Maine, Longfellow spent 18 years teaching at Harvard and four decades living in a mansion a few blocks from the campus. Born in Boston, Poe had deep roots in the city where three generations of his family (his grandmother, father, mother, and Poe himself) all performed on the same stage, and where Poe published several of his most important works — including his first book, “Tamerlane and Other Poems’’ (1827), his most famous short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), and most of his last works, including “A Dream Within a Dream” and “Hop-Frog” (both 1849).
Little-known facts about the Poe-Boston connection include his claim to have attempted suicide here in 1848 and his interest in moving back to the area in the weeks before his untimely death in Baltimore in 1849.
Since Longfellow was wealthy for most of his adult life and Poe was poor, uniting the two names would be a way to bridge the gaps created by income inequality in Boston. (Bazinga!)
It’s true that the dedication of Poe Square near the Common in 2009 and the installation in the square of Stefanie Rocknak’s statue “Poe Returning to Boston” in 2014 celebrated the Poe-Boston tie. But note that Longfellow, in addition to hogging both sides of the bridge, is memorialized in this area by a national historic site, a park, a statue, and an inn. All this for a writer who was far better known in the 19th than in the 20th or 21st centuries — just as Poe is far better known now than he was during his lifetime!
What better way to represent the opposing rise and fall of these writers’ reputations than by naming one direction of the bridge after each of them?
And then there’s this: Imagine that it’s a hot summer day in 2018 and that, having been stuck in traffic for 15 minutes on Memorial Drive, you’re finally merging onto the reopened bridge, heading toward Boston. For the third time in as many minutes, someone cuts you off, forcing you to brake abruptly in front of the driver who has been keeping so close to your rear bumper that you can see his sweat-stained T-shirt and bulging, vulture eyeballs.
How, pray tell, would you feel in this situation? Like the serene and pious characters in Longfellow’s poems: the laughing children, the innocent lovers? Or would you feel your inner Edgar rising?
Perhaps you’ve trained in Buddhist meditation or yogic breathing and can keep calm when others default to irritation. If so, that’s a perfect reason to leave one direction named after America’s safest, sweetest, and gentlest poet. But if you’ve ever found yourself in traffic grasping the steering wheel with murderous intent, listening to the beating of your own heart over the honking of nearby horns, descending into an emotional maelstrom as your gas tank drains, then that’s all the reason we need to commemorate the writer who most forcefully brought the dark side of human experience (and of driving around Boston) to life!
Paul Lewis is the president of the Poe Studies Association and the editor of “The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789–1820.’’ His walking tour of Poe’s Boston will run on May 8 during ArtWeek.