The 18-year-old author of “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” published in 1827, was such an unknown that he didn’t bother to affix his own name to the collection. Instead, he credited it simply to “a Bostonian.”
That the writer, Edgar Allan Poe, later came to have some famously sour words for the city of his birth does not diminish the fact that his short, troubled life was inextricably linked to the so-called Athens of America. This weekend Boston will honor one of its most reluctant native sons with a series of events leading up to the dedication of a dynamic new statue, to be unveiled on Edgar Allan Poe Square across from Boston Common on Sunday afternoon at 2.
More than two centuries after his birth, the author of “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and other Romantic classics very much retains his relevance, says Paul Lewis, chairman and founder of the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston. The group, which is overseeing the celebration (www.bostonpoe.org/events), spearheaded the push for the project, meeting a fund-raising goal of $225,000 for the creation, installation, and maintenance of the statue in a process begun in 2009, around the bicentennial of Poe’s birth.
“We live in apocalyptic, Gothic times,” says Lewis, an English professor at Boston College. “Poe and other Gothic writers anticipated that.” In itself, that’s nothing to celebrate, he notes: “One would like it if the 19th-century utopianists were making a stronger showing now.”
But Boston’s various influences on Poe are undoubtedly worthy of celebration, Lewis says. On Saturday, he will lead a walking tour of Poe’s Boston, pointing out the writer’s likely birthplace, the theater district that employed Poe’s actor parents, and Frog Pond on the Boston Common, which inspired Poe’s withering nickname for the city’s insular literary community: “Frogpondium.”
Given Poe’s attitude toward the city, the celebration may seem odd. Lewis’s decision to pursue it likewise qualifies as somewhat quixotic.
The year before Poe’s bicentennial, Lewis was struck by a comment made by one of his doctoral students: Why wasn’t Boston planning anything to mark the milestone?
The answer was that the city claimed little connection to the writer, save for a modest plaque on the fringe of the Theater District marking the spot where Poe’s probable birthplace once stood.
This stood in stark contrast to Baltimore, where Poe is buried, and New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, which host museums in the itinerant writer's former homes.
The city’s apparent lack of interest in Poe struck Lewis and a dedicated group of supporters at Boston College as wrongheaded. For the bicentennial year, the group persuaded the city to rename the corner of Boylston and Charles streets for Poe as a first step. Lewis also curated “The Raven in the Frog Pond,” a well-received Boston Public Library exhibit that cast new light on the writer’s prickly relationship with the city.
Abandoned as an infant by his father and orphaned when his mother died a year later, Poe associated Boston with bad memories. A few years before his mysterious death at 40, his ongoing feud with members of Boston’s literary establishment came to a head at an infamous appearance on behalf of the Boston Lyceum. Invited to speak, Poe promised a new poem but instead delivered one from his youth, inviting confusion and some hostility. He later claimed it was a hoax intended to expose the ignorance of the Boston audience.
“The deeper I got into it,” Lewis says, “the more I realized that although he probably didn’t live here more than a year, much of that as a baby, still his relationship to the Boston literary world was crucial to his own development as a critic and a creative writer.”
Another writer’s reassessment of Poe is directly responsible for the Sunday participation of Robert Pinsky, the former US poet laureate and a Boston University professor, who will speak at the statue’s dedication.
“There’s a tendency for American poets in my generation and younger to think of Poe as a fiction writer first,” Pinsky says. “His best-known poems like ‘The Raven’ don’t have much to do with the Modernist poets who were such a big influence on my generation.”
With that mindset, Pinsky once made a mildly disparaging remark about Poe’s poetry, and was quickly set straight.
“[Poet laureate and short story writer] Elizabeth Bishop said, ‘You better read ‘Fairy-Land,’ ” he recalls, “and she was quite right.” Despite his momentary blind spot, he says, “I’ve over the years learned.”
Sculptor Stefanie Rocknak, a Maine native who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Boston University, says she wanted people to feel a real connection with Poe when they stand in the presence of her statue. Unlike so many fusty historical monuments, her statue appears alive, with the writer’s cloak blowing in the wind, a huge raven flying in his path and a trail of pages (and a telltale heart) spilling from his briefcase.
“They gave me certain parameters,” she explains from her studio in upstate New York. “The Poe Foundation really wanted the sculpture to be specific to Boston, not one that could be picked up and placed anywhere.”
Also atypical is the statue’s size: Rocknak’s likeness of Poe stands 5 feet 8 inches, not 7 or 8 feet tall, as historical figures are often depicted.
“This isn’t heroic size,” says the sculptor, who beat out more than 260 proposals for the commission. “I wanted people to relate to him as a human being. However, his reputation has certainly gotten bigger than most of us enjoy. That’s why the raven is oversize.”
The tableau on Edgar Allan Poe Square should be an important feature of Boston’s proposed Literary Cultural District, said to be the first of its kind in the nation, which was unanimously approved by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in August.
Poe had one of the most iconic faces in US cultural history, says Lewis, comparable to Washington’s and Lincoln’s. Rocknak’s statue “does something to make that whole map stand up and shine in a way that it should,” he says.
The Poe dedication and the Literary Cultural District are long-overdue appreciations of the city’s worldwide renown in the world of letters, he says: “For goodness’ sake, the Old Corner Bookstore is now a fast-food place.”
Like generations of children, Lewis was first enchanted by Poe when he read “The Tell-Tale Heart” in middle school.
“It feels transgressive, in that this is a mind you probably shouldn’t be going into,” he says. “That’s thrilling to middle school students.”
It is also “a perfect story for teaching about narrative point-of-view. It’s so clear that you can’t rely on what the narrator tells us.”
In much the same way, the time seems right to reconsider Poe’s recriminations about Boston.