Nevermore: Professor Lewis Monumentalizes Poe’s Boston Legacy

The Edgar Allan Poe Foundation’s new bronze sculpture of the native Boston author is site-specific, illustrating Poe’s creative energy and celebrating the raven’s return to the Frog Pond.

The contents of his tattered briefcase—papers, books, and a single, beating heart—trail behind him while his coat billows in the New England wind. His face is somber, his hand dismissive, his leg mid-stride. He’s leaving everything and moving on, with an oversized raven leading the way.

Earlier this month, The Edgar Allan Poe Foundation officially welcomed Edgar Allan Poe back home, unveiling a life-sized statue of the Gothic writer on the corner of Boylston St. and Charles St. South to commemorate his Boston heritage.

Unlike other Poe memorials in cities where the author is affiliated, Boston’s statue is location-specific, said Boston College English professor and Poe Foundation chair Paul Lewis. “We didn’t just want a general memorial to Poe. There’s one of those in Richmond, and another in Baltimore,” Lewis said. “Poe sitting as an author—that could be anywhere.”

Each detail of Poe’s Boston sculpture deliberately alludes to Poe’s ties to his birthplace and situates him within Boston’s cultural history. The 5-foot-8 bronze statue is dynamic, illustrating Poe heading across the square toward the site where his parents used to live. “He’s come back as a ghostly figure, bursting with his creative energy, which is literally pouring out of his suitcase in both directions,” said Lewis, who fell in love with the darkly humorous nature of Poe’s work as a middle school student.

There’s more to Poe’s story and to his statue than his birth, however. Poe had a tumultuous relationship with Boston, Lewis said, and even though he published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, his most famous short story, “The Tell Tale Heart,” as well as some of his last works here, Poe is not usually remembered as a Bostonian.

On the whole, Poe lived in Boston for less than a year—mostly when he was just a baby. When Poe did associate with the city later in his life, he criticized its transcendentalist and abolitionist writers, pejoratively calling them “Frogpondians” because he thought they sounded like the croaking frogs of the Boston Common with their didactic writing style.

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Poe was a new, different, and exciting kind of author, Lewis said. While other writers of the period, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charles Sprague, favored literature that taught its readers a lesson, Poe valued art for art’s sake. Poe separated himself from his native city’s literary legacy through this feud, but Lewis said he hopes that Boston’s new memorial will help remedy the severed bond.

“The statue brings Poe back into the pantheon of Boston’s authors and inserts his story into our literary past,” Lewis said. “The past focused a little too much on the Frogpondians, who were very much connected to different causes and ideas, but now both of those positions are out there within a few feet of the Boston Common.”

The Poe Foundation came out of the Poe bicentennial and was started in 2009 in order to install a permanent work of art honoring the American author in Boston. Over the last five years, the foundation has worked to select a design, raise funds, and move through the city’s seven-stage public art approval procedure. “It’s actually more stagey than it sounds,” Lewis said, “because every stage has 10 subsections, which require you to do four things—so by the time you’re done moving through this process, you’ve done a lot of work.”

During this process, artist Stefanie Rocknak was selected from 265 applicants to go ahead and create her statue proposal, titled, “Poe Returning to Boston.” A five-person committee—on which Lewis sat—a professional art consultant, and online and in-person comments from the public helped set Rocknak’s design apart from all the rest.

It took Rocknak and the foundry that was helping her with the project a total of eight months to complete the Poe sculpture, which started as an 18-inch model. From there, the mock-up was digitally scanned in Texas, turned into a full-sized Styrofoam version of the statue, covered in clay, slurry, and sand, and transformed into a kind of ceramic shell with wax inside. In the last stages, the mold was filled with liquid bronze and eventually cracked open, revealing the final sculpture that now stands in Poe Square.

As chair and daily manager of the Poe Foundation, Lewis was involved in each step of the project, from negotiating contracts with transportation, installation, and construction companies, to navigating through the city’s Public Improvements Commission and Boston Arts Commission, to seeing Rocknak bring her vision to life, to public event-planning for the dedication ceremony, and of course, to raising the money needed to back it all. “I learned a lot,” Lewis said. “It was a real growth experience, but day to day, it could also be a grind as well.”

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Financial support for the statue—which ended up costing about $225,000—came from the Browne Fund, the Highland Street Foundation, and Poe fans world wide, including Steven and Tabitha King and Susan Jaffe Tane, a private donor who owns a $685,000 edition of Poe’s first book that was found at a New Hampshire yard sale. Lewis, who’s taught a course specifically on Poe and the Gothic at BC for the past 20 years, also gives sporadic tours about Poe’s Boston literary legacy to fund the statue’s long-term maintenance costs.

Seeing hundreds of people flock toward the statue during the unveiling, which featured readings and musical interpretations of Poe’s Boston-published works, made the whole process worthwhile for Lewis. “To see the sculpture take shape, and then actually be installed and to see how much people love it was remarkable,” he said.

Lewis said he hopes that Poe’s statue will become a central spot in the city’s new Literary Cultural District, expanding what Boston’s cultural scene is all about and giving the Common’s ducklings sculpture a waddle for its money. More than that, though, he said he hopes it will allow Poe’s past to find its home in Boston’s present—nevermore to be a subject of the city’s forgotten lore.

Featured Images Courtesy of Russ Rocknak

About Ariana Igneri 67 Articles
Ariana Igneri was the Associate Arts & Review editor at The Heights in 2014, where she enjoyed writing about boy bands, ballet, and other finer things. Follow her on Twitter at @arianaigneri.