Edgar Allan Poe: Reluctant Bostonian -The Toast

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Edgar_Allan_Poe_Birthplace_BostonEdgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, but he perpetually and publicly air-wanked over the city, denouncing it and its literati. As thanks, Boston has so far only commemorated his birth by placing a small plaque on the side of a Boloco, the regional burrito chain whose downtown franchise sits two blocks north of Poe’s now-demolished childhood home. Boloco’s guacamole is very good; there are—I’m pretty sure—no dismembered bodies buried under the floorboards. The staff is currently not required to speak in trochaic octameter, but I may soon start a Twitter campaign to convince them otherwise. #TrochaicTaco

I moved to Boston from New York, after a brief post-collegiate stint in the house where I grew up. There are plenty of differences between Boston and New York City—obvious ones, like seeing little red socks everywhere instead of a million interlocking NYs, and less obvious ones, like Judaism’s presence in a town whose culinary tradition is so heavily centered on shellfish versus one so bagel-centric. But the most surprising difference I found was the contrast between New York and Boston’s love for its past and present inhabitants.

Boston loves its residents. Bostonians brag about other Bostonians in a way I’ve never heard New Yorkers brag about other New Yorkers. And maybe the pride is a size thing, being smaller than New York; the chances of prominent cultural figures coming from here are slimmer, sure (though the city did educate eight American presidents and 20 Supreme Court Justices), and Boston, as a result, has this contagious feeling of can you believe the kid made it out there? People don’t go to Boston to make it big: they leave it. Or maybe Boston, whose arts scene is generally overlooked on the national scale, is desperate to make sure other Americans know we’re just as capable of contributing (you’re welcome for New Kids on the Block.) Whatever it is, I can’t recall anyone ever sidling up to me in Manhattan and saying “You know Laura Linney’s from here, right?”

In Boston, though, we make sure people know who’s one of us (I consider myself a Bostonian now, in love with the city in ways I didn’t think I ever would be, although I did wear a Yankees hat while canoeing down the river Charles last week): who grew up riding our Green Line trains (Conan O’Brien) and who drunkenly wandered around Allston (Aerosmith). We’re proud of our brothers Wahlberg and Affleck, proud of Matt Damon, proud of the Carrell-Krasinski-Novak-Kaling Office quartet, and proud of writers like Louisa May Alcott (who wasn’t even born here!) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (whose hometown is now technically in Maine). We’re not, however, proud of Edgar Allan Poe, and lay as little claim to him as we can.

Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_cropPoe, of course, is nearly synonymous with Baltimore in the American literary schema, and frequently criticized his New England brethren, once declaring “Their hotels are bad. Their pumpkin pies are delicious. Their poetry is not so good.” He wrote anonymous (yet poorly-veiled) plagiarism accusations aimed at the beloved Longfellow, and saw Bostonians and Cantabrigians as pretentious and empty. After an 1845 poem recitation in Boston, Poe took to The Broadway Journal to air his grievances with his audience, writing:

Still, with their vile ingratitude staring us in the eyes, it could scarcely be supposed that we would put ourselves to the trouble of composing for the Bostonians anything in the shape of an original poem. We did not. We had a poem (of about 500 lines) lying by us…that we considered would answer sufficiently well for an audience of Transcendentalists. That we gave them — it was the best that we had — for the price — and it did answer remarkably well…We do not, ourselves, think the poem a remarkably good one: — it is not sufficiently transcendental. Still it did well enough for the Boston audience — who evinced characteristic discrimination in understanding, and especially applauding, all those knotty passages which we ourselves have not yet been able to understand.

Poe left Massachusetts in the early 1800s and died in 1849, but his contempt for Boston was not forgotten. Historians map his birthplace at what was then known as 62 Carver Street, an address located in the modern Theater District. In the late 1950s, the home—a three story brick house—was knocked down, and at some point Carver Street became Charles Street South and number 62 became a vacant lot which now stores  what appears to be large-scale industrial machinery, for what I think is a nearby power plant. Across the street and down an alley is Jacque’s Cabaret, a bar where my friend regularly performs as a drag queen named Katya.

The Boloco that is now Poe’s Boston home is at the intersection of Charles Street South and Boylston Street, two and a half blocks away from the house where he was born. Boloco isn’t spooky in the Poe sense of the word, but spooky in the ways that most fast-food places are, in how it presents food without acknowledging where it comes from, and in the fact that its customers pay as much for it as the person who prepared it probably makes in an hour. Boloco sits half a block uphill from Hermes and the Four Seasons Hotel, faces the large homeless community in the Boston Common, and shares sidewalk space with Emerson College. The Blue Man Group performs two blocks south.

I’ve never seen any Poe-ian murderers or ravens in Boloco, but once when I was there I saw a be-UGGed drunk girl puke into a cup.

Edgar Allan Poe isn’t, perhaps, so different from that drunk girl, more likely than not a college student whose time here is only temporary. Each year, come August, Boston and Cambridge play host to a combined 250,000 higher-ed students; there are hordes of bright minds and casual fuck-ups who flock to the city on the hill for its renowned public and private universities and spend their college years taking a proverbial dump on it, posting links to The Onion’s “Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’” on Facebook and complaining to their friends back home about it’s early-closing Ts and the state’s somewhat puritanical drinking laws. Many of them take off after graduation, back home to New York or LA or Teaching for America in other parts of the country, and never return.

But these students, however fleeting their time here, are shaped by Boston—even if opposingly—because how could you not be shaped by a place where you spent four of your youngest years? Poe was shaped by Boston, too, regardless of his brief life here (he returned to the area as a young man in the Army, stationed at Fort Independence); New England breeds a certain kind of writer, writers like Poe and Stephen King and HP Lovecraft, the kind who grow up next door to cemeteries with 300 year old corpses, who go on field trips to a town best known for the hangings of accused witches, and whose imaginations flourish in dark, sad winters and dense forests. (There’s a reason Jason Brown titled his short story collection Why The Devil Chose New England for His Work.)

Poe is more of a Bostonian than he liked to think, not in spite of but because of his criticism of the place, because of his keen awareness of the oft-commented upon socio-economic differences that still plague Boston today. His primary complaint was that the city was home to transcendentalist writers and academics (Frogpondians, he named them, in reference to Boston’s famous landmark) who preached morals that he felt contrasted with their exclusive social status. Paul Lewis, an English professor and Poe expert, wrote about this criticism in a 2011 Boston Globe, explaining that “he called our writers ‘Frogpondians,’ perhaps because he regarded them as so many croakers who used literature not to delight and move readers, but to argue and preach — as well as to enrich one another. In his 1845 essay ‘American Poetry,’ Poe railed against ‘the machinations of coteries in Boston’ that had been conspiring with ‘leading booksellers’ and publishers to provide newspaper editors with positive reviews of local writers.”

Modern Boston isn’t terribly dissimilar to the one Poe so loathed. This year, it has the fourth largest income gap of U.S. cities between the rich and poor, a gap made even wider when you consider the stake that Boston has in education and research. Consider the looming shadow and far reach of financial giants like Harvard, MIT and BU, and you’ll realize that to be in in Boston is not just to have money but to also be in some way affiliated with one of its schools. Economic disparity—in particular, his own lifelong poverty—infuriated Poe two centuries ago, and he frequently lobbed literary and personal criticism at Frogpondians like Longfellow, James Lowell and Ralph Waldo Emerson, all far more financially successful and in possession of enviable academic credits. 

Though he despised the Boston writing scene, Poe—with his locally published works, ongoing feuds and frequently printed criticisms and rebuttals—was, for better or worse, a member of Boston’s literary circle. His first poetry collection, the unsuccessful Tamarlane and Other Poems, was published there in 1827 and credited only to “A Bostonian.” “The Tell-Tale Heart” made its debut in a Boston magazine almost twenty years later.

Did he self-identify as a Bostonian for Tamarlane’s publication as an act of pride? Did the book’s failure prompt his life-long public shaming of Boston? Or did he anticipate the book’s failure, and credit it to a Bostonian so as not to be embarrassed back home in Baltimore? We might not ever know for sure, but his many return trips up north and his willingness to engage with town’s literati point to the possibility that Poe hated the idea of Boston—its reputation, its elitism—more so than the actual city itself.

Boston, on the contrary, likes the idea of Poe more than the actual guy; his work is, of course, still taught and respected here, but his home has been destroyed and even fawning retrospectives, like “The Raven in the Frog Pond” (an exhibit held five years ago at the Public Library), present his disdain as in good fun but still uncalled for, unprovoked, and sour.

Our grudge (I say our, because this is my home now, this wonderfully walkable city!) is beginning to fade, though—Boloco’s strip of sidewalk was dubbed (without much ceremony) Edgar Allan Poe Square on his 200th birthday, and in October of this year, a life size sculpture of the author will be placed there by the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston. Drunk college students—those young burrito-eaters— will soon be able to enjoy their Mexican food in the presence of a literary giant; perhaps, like Poe himself, they will eventually come back to Boston, will come back home.

Molly Labell is a Boston based writer who likes to stay hydrated and sunblocked.

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