Articles

 

EDGAR ALLAN POE: A BOSTON HOMECOMING

By Katherine Jihyun Kim, Ph.D.

How a graduate student turned an indifferent, cold-shouldered town around to embrace one of its most famous sons, and snowballed a small 2009 bicentennial tribute into 2014's spectacular Poe public art statue, "Poe Returning to Boston". It's been a ride, Eddy, but welcome home!

Poe St. Patrick's Day
Poe leaving a trail of his work permanently embedded in the streets as part of Boston.

On October 5th, 2014, I stood with a group of Edgar Allan Poe enthusiasts on the sidewalk of Edgar Allan Poe Square in downtown Boston.  The buzzing crowd continuously morphed and shifted like a school of fish, nimbly swelling and changing its shape.  People swayed and fidgeted to get a better view of a figure draped in a heavy black cloth.

So, I of course had nothing to do with Poe’s birth in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19th, 1809.  I also had no hand in Poe’s literary genius or his longstanding popularity.  However, I am immensely honored to say that I played a small role in his homecoming in 2014.  It was an event over five years (or, you could say 205 years) in the making.

Back in early 2008, I sat listening to one of Professor Paul Lewis’ lectures during his “Poe and the Gothic” class.  As a new Boston College graduate student the previous semester, I had asked Paul if I could sit in on his undergraduate course.  Taking this course reminded me of something that I had known for years, but never thought about too much.  While pursuing my undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, I had become enthralled with Poe’s works.  I delighted in reading of his sometimes difficult life and diverse writings and felt like I gleaned bits and pieces of a more complex (and funny) personality than was usually discussed in books and articles. 

It had been years since I learned that Boston was where Poe was born, where he served in the military, where he allegedly attempted suicide, and where he gave a controversial lecture that helped solidify his nickname as “Tomahawk Man” due to his sharp, piercing use of language.  His mother Eliza, who died two years after Poe’s birth, even inscribed a watercolor she painted of Boston Harbor with the message, “For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends.” 

As I sat in Lewis’ classroom, it suddenly dawned on me that I was now living just a few miles from Poe’s birthplace, and that his 200th birthday was less than a year away!  Unfortunately, any excitement I felt was soon tempered by Paul’s offhand comment that Poe would go uncelebrated in his birthplace.  I must admit that I was a bit troubled when Paul explained that Boston wouldn’t do anything in 2009 to celebrate the bicentennial of Poe’s birth in part due to feuds Poe had with some prominent contemporary Massachusetts writers.  What kind of place was this not to proudly recognize its connections to one of the most well-known American authors in the world?  Even my parents, two immigrants from South Korea who came to America in the 1970s, distinctly remember reading some of Poe’s works.  In fact, my father fondly recalls that “Annabel Lee” was the first work he ever read completely through in English, and that the poem struck him with its haunting beauty and timelessness.  So, how was it possible that this author, whose work was being taught in secondary schools and universities throughout the world, was going virtually unrecognized in a city filled with monuments and historical sites? 

In 2008, one of the only acknowledgements of Poe’s birth in Boston still in existence was a small plaque near his birthplace, which had been razed in 1959 and replaced for an electric power plant’s parking lot (sigh!).  When I took a trip to see this plaque with my own eyes, I was simultaneously happy and disappointed.  Despite the wonderful sentiment that went into the plaque, I felt as if there was something wrong. 

Poe St. Patrick's Day
The plaque a few blocks from Poe’s birthplace.

When I went to Lewis’ office shortly after my visit to the plaque and approached him about possibly putting together a bicentennial birthday celebration for Poe, he was quite reserved.  He offered to speak if I was to put together an event, but he didn’t think a large project would be worthwhile given Boston’s coldness to the author.  Since Lewis seemed less than enthusiastic about being a part of any Poe celebration in Boston, I set about finding other ways to initiate further recognition of Boston as a city integral to Poe throughout his life.  One thing I did was pen a letter to the mayor of Boston’s office suggesting that January 19th, 2009 be named Edgar Allan Poe Day in Boston.  For weeks, I anxiously waited for a letter or email from Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s office expressing shock that such a history-loving area of the country would have for the most part overlooked its close connections to one of the world’s most renowned writers from the nineteenth century.  Why would Boston not want to do something to proudly commemorate Poe’s 200th birthday?  Poe and all of the critics and writers he feuded with had long since passed away, accusations against Poe (such as him being an opium addict) had been exposed as false, and many of Poe’s presentiments regarding America’s literary tastes proved true over time.  As the months passed by without any response, I started thinking that perhaps I was wrong to believe that others might want to celebrate Poe’s birth in Boston.

That summer, however, Lewis had a change of heart, and I am so grateful that he did!  My personal efforts as an unconnected graduate student relatively new to and unfamiliar with the area had not been very successful.  But suddenly in the fall of 2008, things rapidly began coming together.  Lewis and I started collecting funding to produce an event in January, and even some of the “Poe and the Gothic” students from the previous spring volunteered their services.  That December, Lewis and I, along with some great staff members of Boston College’s libraries, installed an exhibit called “The Raven Returns” in BC’s O’Neill Library.  In the exhibit, we presented the facts about Poe’s connections to Boston along with a preview of what was to come during our Poe bicentennial birthday event.


"The Raven Returns" (2008-2009), O'Neill Library

"The Raven Returns" (2008-2009), O'Neill Library – Poes are taking over Boston along with their sidekick ravens!
 
“The Raven Returns” (2008-2009), O’Neill Library – I just couldn’t help myself from making this cute centerpiece to the display!
 

The evening of Thursday, January 15th, 2009 was a bitterly cold one.  Still, the freezing temperatures didn’t deter approximately 200 Poe fans from across the country from listening to insightful lectures by The Poe Shadow author Matthew Pearl and the College of Charleston’s Professor Scott Peeples, reciting of some of Poe’s works by teachers and students, a hilarious skit imagining Poe as a Boston College Resident Assistant, the Boston premiere of an independent film on Poe, a declaration from Boston’s Mayor Menino’s office naming January 2009 Edgar Allan Poe Appreciation Month in Boston, a cheerful sing-along to “Happy Birthday,” and an amazingly delicious coffin-shaped cake.


Not only was this cake beautiful, but it was also incredibly delicious!

Who knew Poe was a BC fan?

I have to say that it was bittersweet (and a little horrifying) to watch as a member of the wait staff lopped off the head of the edible raven perched proudly on Poe’s coffin cake.  However, what more could I ask than that decapitated head, as well as the rest of the innocent bird and the coffin, go to devoted Poe enthusiasts wearing their Poe Bicentennial Celebration t-shirts?

Well…

Much to my surprise and joy, the celebration of Poe in Boston was far from over!  That April, Boston’s Mayor Thomas M. Menino designated the intersection of Boylston Street and Charles Street South (near the Boston Common) as Edgar Allan Poe Square.  During his speech, he even mentioned having a statue of Poe in Boston!


The new sign at the intersection of Boylston Street and Charles Street South

The late Mayor Thomas M. Menino dedicating Edgar Allan Poe Square (April 2009)
   

The next winter, Paul curated a special Boston Public Library exhibit titled “The Raven in the Frog Pond: Edgar Allan Poe and the City of Boston.” Paul, associate curator Dan Currie, independent literary scholar Rob Velella, BC graduate student Sarah Poulette, undergraduate research assistant Megan Grandmont, and I worked together for months creating and putting together an incredibly successful and detailed exhibit that included treasures unearthed from the BPL’s forgotten stores and collector Susan Jaffe Tane’s copy of the extremely rare Tamerlane and other Poems, Poe’s first publication. This text, published in Boston in 1827 while Poe was stationed at Boston Harbor’s Fort Independence, was credited as written by “A Bostonian.”


"The Raven in the Frog Pond" contributors (from left to right) Dan Currie, Susan Jaffe Tane, me, Rob Velella, Megan Grandmont, and Paul Lewis (December 2009). A virtual version of the exhibition can be seen here: http://www.bc.edu/schools/cas/english/poebostonexhibit/

"Philly Poe Guy" Edward Pettit, Rob Velella, and Dan Currie at the BPL exhibit opening (December 2009)

The Raven in the Frog Pond" – Me next to the display case I put together. Unfortunately, I didn't get to keep the awesome items I acquired for it!
 
   

For the next several years, Paul and I, along with others members of the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston, created annual events that celebrated Poe’s birthday and updated people on the progress of getting a statue installed in Boston.  One year, we hosted the Great Poe Debate, which featured Paul, “Philly Poe Guy” Ed Pettit, and curator of the Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum Jeff Jerome engaging in a good-natured deliberation on which city could lay more claim to Poe: Boston, Philadelphia, or Baltimore.  Another year, we had a trivia game complete with gag gifts inspired by Poe’s tales.  Paul provided walking tours of places in Boston linked to Poe, and his work of bringing further recognition to Poe’s connections to the city even helped him become vice president of the Poe Studies Association.

As many people who have read about the Boston statue are aware, artist and philosophy professor Stefanie Rocknak beat 265 contestants to create the dynamic bronze statue in Poe Square.  This statue, titled “Poe Returning to Boston,” depicts Poe mid-stride with a suitcase exploding with papers and ideas bursting forth from those pages.  On October 5th, 2014, a huge crowd of supporters gathered for the unveiling of the Poe statue as well as the celebratory event preceding the unveiling.


The crowd begins to gather at the dedication event prior to the official unveiling of the statue.

Former United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky addresses the crowd (October 2014)

Several times, I overheard people mentioning that it was a bit odd that the weather was so mild and pleasant for the unveiling, as it did not seem to suit an occasion regarding Poe.  To me, however, the sunny sky was like a warm welcoming of Poe into the forefront (even if momentarily) of Boston’s literary consciousness.  There were no dreary skies, heavy rain, or ominous thunder sent from the heavens to thwart the unveiling.  The ground did not break in anger and open a gaping chasm to swallow the statue whole.  No – the Boston unveiling was a wonderfully happy occasion, and justly so.  It was a homecoming celebration.


Creator Stefanie Rocknak with Poe just before the official unveiling (October 2014)

As the black draping cloth tumbled to the bricks below, a familiar face was revealed, a face that I had seen countless times before in pictures, through my mind’s eye, and even on the faces of plush dolls and action figures.  It is not just the grim, asymmetrical face of a gloomy man.  The life-sized statue of a 5’8” man, made heroic neither by a pedestal or an expanded size of seven or eight feet tall, wearily but also energetically bounds through the streets, disseminating his literary and historic presence deep into the heart of Boston and throughout the world.

Although the statue displays Poe in motion, striding towards the place of his birth, it also shows something else in my mind.  “Poe Returning to Boston” depicts the author as a fixture of Boston that simultaneously exists in every place he lived and endures in each mind he has impacted.  His ideas not only drop behind him and become part of the Boston landscape, but also bound forward, propelling the author through history, place, and time.  While Edgar Allan Poe may not have always received the public recognition he deserved in Boston, things have certainly changed.  To any cold or indifferent feelings between the city and Poe, Boston can now proudly proclaim, “Nevermore”!


Poe finally unveiled!

Boston's Mayor Marty Walsh stops by to take part in the celebration and say hello to Poe.

My buddy Poe and me!

Poe leaving a trail of his work permanently embedded in the streets as part of Boston.

ABOUT KATHERINE J. KIM
Is currently an instructor at Boston College.  She was the creator and co-organizer of the Boston Bicentennial Celebration of Edgar Allan Poe in 2009 that sparked the wave of Poe appreciation in Boston.  She is a founding and current member of the Poe Foundation of Boston and a contributing writer to Kevin Hayes' "Edgar Allan Poe in Context" (2012). 

READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH SCULPTOR STEFANIE ROCKNAK HERE. 

 

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