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Transcendental Vagabonds: Boston Recovers from a Raven’s Sting

October 29, 2009 in Classic Writers

One hundred and sixty years ago this month, Edgar Allan Poe met a penniless end after being found on the streets of Baltimore. The city of Baltimore has been host to many celebrations of the poet’s life and works, and the focus on this city is fitting, as Poe felt much adoration for Baltimore, having lived there for several years. But 2009 also marks the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth, and this year the city of Boston put aside pride to commemorate a decidedly prodigal son.

Edgar Allan Poe was born on Carver Street in Boston, Massachusetts, to actors Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins and David Poe. Though he moved to Virginia when he was only three years old, after his parents died, Poe returned to Boston after dropping out of the University of Virginia. Only 18, Poe faked his age and name to enlist in the Army, and was subsequently stationed briefly at Castle Island in the Boston harbor. Poe later moved back to the south, but he returned to Boston a year before he died.

Unlike Longfellow, Lowell, and the other Boston literati of his time, Poe scorned the city, insulting Boston with barbs that sting as only the gleefully clever can. In fact, a very public debate played out in contemporary newspapers following his appearance at the Boston Lyceum in 1845. After audience members took offense to Poe’s demeanor, a Boston editor published a critical review insulting his work. In response, Poe wrote:
We like Boston. We were born there–and perhaps it is just as well not to mention that we are heartily ashamed of the fact. The Bostonians are very well in their way. Their hotels are bad. Their pumpkin pies are delicious. Their poetry is not so good. Their common is no common thing–and the duck-pond might answer–if its answer could be heard for the frogs. But with all these good qualities the Bostonians have no soul. …The Bostonians are well-bred–as very dull persons very generally are. (Poe, The Broadway Journal, Nov 1, 1845.)

Surprisingly, Poe’s first published work, an 1827 collection of poems entitled “Tamerlane,” was signed simply, “By a Bostonian.” Eighteen years later, Poe would vilify Bostonians, who he often referred to as Frogpondians: “The fact is, we despise them and defy them (the transcendental vagabonds!) and they may all go to the devil together.” (Poe, The Broadway Journal, Nov 22, 1845.)

And now, all these years later, the transcendental vagabonds have finally honored the great poet: although his birthplace is now occupied by a State Transportation Building, the corner of Boylston and Charles streets shall evermore be known as Poe Square.

Check out the newest article on LiteraryTraveler.com to learn about the “Poe Toaster,” a mysterious masked man who pays a tribute to Poe annually at the poet’s grave.

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