MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. He gave us "The Raven" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," and many other macabre and spooky works. The cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia both stake a claim to Poe, but the city where he was born, Boston, has mostly overlooked him. Reporter Matt Largey has the story from Boston.
MATT LARGEY: The only evidence of Poe being born here is this weathered plaque outside a burrito shop near Boston Common. A four-inch bust of Poe stares out blankly from what's supposedly the building where he was born in 1809, but the actual building was torn down long ago. So it kind of looks like he was born in an alley.
Mr. MATTHEW PEARL (Author, "The Poe Shadow"): On top of the fact that almost nobody notices that plaque, it's also probably the wrong location.
LARGEY: That's Matthew Pearl. He wrote a novel called "The Poe Shadow." He says Poe's relationship with Boston was a difficult one. Poe was orphaned soon after his birth, and taken to Virginia by a foster family. As an adult, he struggled to make a living as a writer and an editor. He wrote terrible reviews of Boston writers like Emerson and Longfellow, accusing them of being too preachy or moralistic. But to some degree, he was probably jealous of their success, says Paul Lewis. He's an English professor at Boston College.
Dr. PAUL LEWIS (Professor of English, Boston College): He called Bostonians "frog-pondians." He said that our hotels were poor, and our poetry not so good. And he said - I have to admit it - that he was ashamed to have been born here.
LARGEY: In October of 1845, Poe was invited to read his work and lecture at the Boston Lyceum.
Dr. KENT LJUNGQUIST (Professor, Worcester Polytechnic Institute): And for Poe, this was kind of a big deal.
LARGEY: Kent Ljungquist teaches literature at Worcester Polytechnic Institute just outside Boston.
Dr. LJUNGQUIST: At that point, Boston was the literary establishment of the United States, at least in his eyes. It was the Boston of Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes and other, more celebrated literary figures than he.
LARGEY: But things didn't go well. Poe decided to read "Al Aaraaf," a really long poem that Kent Ljungquist says most of the audience probably didn't understand. He completely bombed. The critics savaged him.
Dr. LJUNGQUIST: This was the so-called Boston Lyceum Fiasco, which, after the fact, he claimed that his reading was a hoax. He also acknowledged that he may have been drunk when he read the poem, but it led to a kind of to-and-fro between him and Bostonian editors.
LARGEY: Matthew Pearl says Poe tried to play it cool, but...
Mr. PEARL: More likely, Poe actually was, in his heart, hoping for a warm response in Boston. When he didn't get it, he was very hurt by it.
LARGEY: But now, Paul Lewis and some of his students at Boston College think it's time to make amends. They've gotten Boston's mayor to declare January Edgar Allan Poe Appreciation Month. The city plans to dedicate an intersection in his honor. Last week, Lewis and other Poe admirers commemorated Poe's birthday with readings and a cake. Lewis says it's about time Boston paid its respects, despite the bad blood.
Dr. LEWIS: I think of Poe as being like an adolescent who says, I don't like my parents, and they had no influence on me. I'm nothing like them. But if you hear someone make that kind of claim, you would think, well, probably they were formed in very important ways against the values which they reject in their parents. So, I would say Boston is the most important city in terms of the formation of Poe's own practice as a writer and a critic.
LARGEY: Who knows what Poe would think about burying the hatchet with the city he claimed to hate so much. But maybe the greatest revenge he could have hoped for was to finally be celebrated in Boston after all these years. For NPR News, I'm Matt Largey in Boston.
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