April 16, 2014
Boston’s new Edgar Allan Poe statue looks familiar
by Sal Robinson
When images of the new statue of Edgar Allan Poe to be installed in central Boston later this year were circulated online last week, there was something awfully familiar about them. Minus the swooping raven and the trail of symbolically significant flotsam and jetsam, the clay model of the statue, designed by Stefanie Rocknak, looked surprisingly like another larger-than-life author figure destined to be seen by millions at the crossroads of a cultural capital: I’m talking about that Times Square billboard for The Marriage Plot that FSG ran a few years ago, depicting Jeffrey Eugenides, vest aflutter.
Both authors appear to be affected by an unusual wind that delicately pleats shirts and trousers, and yet lifts only one side of one’s outer garments. An asymmetrical wind that exposes just a little bit of flank, just enough to indicate that this author is not taking an aimless stroll around town, desperately trying to avoid paragraph 10 of their newest project (paragraph 10! it’s the worst paragraph), but actually as well as narratively going somewhere.
Eugenides was striding, we know, towards “swoon-worthy” book sales, driven by the anticipation for his third novel, after the bestselling Middlesex. But Poe? Where in his frantic, confused, frustrated brief existence is he heading off to so confidently? In fact, he’s making a journey that he made only reluctantly in life. In her artist’s statement, Rocknak described the ideas behind her statue:
Just off the train, the figure would be walking south towards his place of birth, where his mother, father and maternal grandmother once lived. Poe, with a trunk full of ideas—and worldwide success—is finally coming home.
Born in Boston in 1809, Poe was always ambivalent about the city, calling it “Frogpondium” and saying of the critics who lived there that they were “incapable of recognizing a decent poem if it fell onto their precious Common.” And the last time he returned to it in his life, to give a reading at the Lyceum in 1845, he boondoggled the audience by announcing that he was reading a new poem, “The Messenger Star,” and then actually read another, older poem, “Al Aaaraf.” He later claimed that it had been a test to see whether Bostonians could appreciate good poetry, but it seems primarily like an angry joke from an author convinced he could never find respect in his hometown.
So Rocknak’s statue depicts a posthumous victory march: “As he walks towards Carver Street, he openly dismisses what is behind him with his left hand; the Frogpondians to the north. Boston is not claiming Poe, Poe is claiming Boston.” This is pretty great, and I for one would like to see more statues of authors trampling, metaphorically or not, heaps of their first failures and early critics.
Perhaps, in fact, the Eugenides billboard and the Poe statue represent a sea change in author statuary? No longer must they appear looking uncomfortable in chairs, like the Poe statue in Baltimore, or standing, mild and pensive, like most other author statues everywhere — except for the occasional louche lounging Oscar Wilde statue. Perhaps, in the future, author statues will be dynamic, exciting: Gary Shytengart spiking a volleyball over the net in the final minute! Lydia Davis racing a cheetah! Junot Diaz doing an airflare! If this is what we have to look forward to in our public parks and squares, I can’t wait.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.