Edgar Alan Poe Returns to Boston – A Halloween Reflection
by Helen Breen
Poe’s stories of horror and suspense, along with his melancholy poetry, are part of Halloween traditions in America. The writer, who was born in Boston in 1809, maintained a love/hate relationship with the city during his lifetime. But in 2014, Bostonians reclaimed their native son with the erection of a dramatic statue of the bard striding along Boylston Street in the direction of his birthplace that no longer exists.
CRITIC, SHORT STORY WRITER, POET
It’s a sad story – after Poe’s mother’s death and father’s desertion, he was raised in a life of privilege by the Alan family of Baltimore. Unfortunately, his stepmother’s death, his stepfather’s remarriage, and Edgar’s inability to conform to a conventional lifestyle led to his being rejected by the Alan clan and sent adrift into the publishing world. As an editor and critic, he showed insight in recognizing the literary talent of others, as he did with Nathaniel Hawthorne declaring that the Salem novelist “evinces extraordinary genius, having no rival either in America or elsewhere.”
Conversely, Poe was scathing in his judgement of popular contemporary authors whom he considered “too preachy” like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wordsworth Longfellow. He referred to Hub worthies as “Frogponians” for their “moralistic croaking” and their proximity to the Frog Pond on Boston Common.
Poe emphasized “totality of effect” in his own short stories, a genre then gaining popularity in inexpensive magazines. Fear and horror were the emotions he elicited in his classic narratives like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Mask of Red Death.” These works should be short enough, he insisted, to be read “in one sitting” so as not to lose the attention of the reader. The setting of these masterpieces was often an enclosed space – a dark room, a cell, a crypt or such.
The emotions to be sustained in poetry, however, were melancholy and longing. And what is sadder than the death of a beautiful woman? Poe had firsthand knowledge of that tragedy having lost his young wife to consumption. (Edgar had married his impoverished cousin Virginia Clem when the latter was 13 – a detail that continues to fascinate students.) “The Raven,” his most famous poem, “tells of a raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing his slow fall into madness” after the death of his “lost Lenore.”The poem contains a haunting refrain of “Nevermore.”
Four short years after the success of “The Raven,” Poe died in a Baltimore gutter at the age of forty in 1849. The circumstances of his passing remain unclear, as are many details of his life. Yet, his works continue to gain in stature with time, especially at Halloween.
THE POE STATUE IN BOSTON
The city had done little to commemorate the bicentennial of Poe’s birth in 2009. Then Katherine Kim, a Boston College graduate student, asked her English professor Paul Lewis “Why?” Wheels were set in motion resulting in the ad hoc Edgar Allan Poe Foundation commissioning the life size statue by Stephanie Rocknak that was unveiled across from the Public Garden on October 5, 2014.
The New York Times praised the work that “captures the writer in purposeful stride, his cape billowing …On his right side an outsize raven, uncoiled for flight…toting a suitcase over-packed with manuscripts spilling out. Also popping out is the heart.” Critics and the public agree that the statue is a success.
And so Edgar Alan Poe, tortured American genius, has returned home to Boston, albeit in artistic form after two centuries. May we celebrate his legacy here – “Evermore.”