There's a new book out on Edgar Allan Poe, and it contains an interesting essay on a revealing Boston-based episode from Poe's life. The chapter is written by Philip Phillips, English professor at Middle Tennessee State University, and the book is "Deciphering Poe." Phillips discusses an appearance Poe made before the Boston Lyceum in 1845 that laid bare Poe's deep class anxieties, self-destructive personality, and his uneasy relationship with his native city.
Poe is more closely identified with other cities- Richmond, where he grew up, and Baltimore where he died- but he was born in Boston and was preoccupied with his place in the city's rarefied literary culture all his life. In 1845 Poe, already famous for writing "The Raven," was asked to deliver a poem to the Boston Lyceum, a civic association located at the corner of Federal and Franklin Streets that organized highbrow public lectures. Phillips explains that for Poe, the invitation was fraught: He'd be speaking from the same stage where his late mother had performed as an actress, and he'd be addressing a Boston Brahmin crowd whose approval he both craved and disdained.
Whether our of spite or insecurity, Poe sabotaged himself from the start. He began by obliquely insulting local heroes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom he considered "didactic." Then, perhaps because he was trying too hard to impress, he read Al Aaraaf, an epic, mythological poem that one critic later described as "Poe's most ambitious failure."
After the reading Poe began to fear that the Lyceum audience had not liked the poem. He fell back on the excuse that it was a "hoax" to mock the crowd's sensibilities, claiming (falsely) he'd written Al Aaraaf when he was 10 years old. Later, he took to the pages of The Broadway Journal, which he edited, and issued a petty broadside against the city and its people:
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.
There is a general understanding that many artists, even the best ones, harbor all sorts of anxieties about how they're received. It is rare, though, to see them on such naked display as they were for Poe when he came home to Boston.
For more on Poe's grievances with the Boston literati, take a look at this Ideas story from 2011, "Quoth the detective."
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.