The Parlor Poet vs. The Raven in a Battle of Literary Statues
Detail of the new Edgar Allan Poe statue being unveiled in Boston this weekend (courtesy Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston)
One of the greatest literary rivalries in history is revived this weekend in Cambridge and Boston, some 165 years later: Statues of both Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe are being honored on Saturday and Sunday. The question is: which will draw the larger crowd?
Think of it is as the Fireside Poet versus the Raven. The “Goody Two-Shoes” versus the “Tomahawk Man.” The Parlor Poet versus the Master of the Macabre. Longfellow, who lived most of his life in Cambridge, was honored with a monument in that town’s “Longfellow Park” in 1914. The monument — made by no less an artist than Daniel Chester French — turns 100 years old in October, and the city and others are marking the occasion.
Memorial by Daniel Chester French in Longfellow Park, Cambridge (via National Park Service)
Poe, on the other hand, was born in Boston — and once said he was heartily ashamed of it. Generally unsuccessful for most of his life, he made a career of creating critical enemies, particularly Boston writers whom he summarily dismissed. Poe’s birthplace is no longer standing, and it took 165 years after his death for Bostonians to forgive his slights. This Sunday, a dynamic statue of Poe by Stefanie Rocknak will be unveiled in the city of his birth at the corner of Boylston and Charles Street South.
Boston Poe statue by Stefanie Rocknak in progress (courtesy Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston)
In fact, Poe’s statue will be placed in such a way that he is turning his back to the Beacon Street home where Longfellow was married in 1843, perpetually giving his fellow poet the cold shoulder — a conscious decision by the artist.
Poe and Longfellow had their first run-in (in print) in 1839, shortly after Longfellow published his first book of poems, Voices of the Night. Poe, who was then more recognized as a critic, reviewed the book and flatly accused Longfellow of plagiarism. He called it a “most barbarous class of literary robbery; that class in which, while the words of the wronged author are avoided, his most intangible, and therefore least defensible and least reclaimable property is purloined.”
In other words: Longfellow did not steal word for word, just the ideas and forms from other poets, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Still, Poe was not entirely against Longfellow; not long after, he determined he was “unquestionably the best poet in America” and invited him to contribute to a journal he was editing. Longfellow responded kindly and acknowledged Poe’s talent by predicting “you are destined to stand among the first romance writers of the country, if such be your aim.”
But Poe continued his assaults on Longfellow, calling him a “bold” plagiarist, as well as “a determined imitator and a dexterous adapter of the ideas of other people.” Poe biographer Kenneth Silverman summed up the interchange as “the longest, strangest, and most-publicized personal war in American literary history.”
The accusations were so strong, a period of this real-life drama was nicknamed the “Little Longfellow War” (by Poe himself) in a series of articles in a New York newspaper for which Poe served as editor. The articles garnered responses, apparently, from a supporter of Longfellow writing under the name Outis (who some have suggested was actually Poe himself, perpetrating another of his literary hoaxes for a publicity boost). His former business partner admitted to James Russell Lowell, a friend and neighbor of Longfellow’s, that Poe was “a monomaniac on the subject of plagiarism,” and the best thing to do was to wait out his current obsession. Lowell privately believed that Poe was “wholly lacking” in character.
1876 portrait of Henry W. Longfellow (via British Library)
1901 portrait of Edgar Allan Poe (via Internet Archive Book Images)
Longfellow never responded publicly to his vitriolic accuser, once noting that life was “too precious to be wasted in street brawls.” Privately, however, he noted in his journal in 1845 that he “damns censorious Poe.” When Poe died four years later, Longfellow recorded his “high appreciation” of his fiction and poetry, and excuses his harsh criticisms as nothing more than the result of “irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong.” He even purchased copies of Poe’s collected works and provided financial support to Poe’s impoverished aunt Maria Clemm.
In this literary rivalry, Longfellow comes across as the level-headed one who stayed out of the controversy. Poe appears to be, and has often been presented, as being irrational and inspired more by jealousy than anything else. But what explains Poe’s angry rhetoric against Longfellow? Had he gone off the deep end, as some of his detractors (then and now) have suggested?
More likely, Poe did believe his assessments of Longfellow were accurate. Plagiarism, as Poe used the term, did not refer to verbatim copying as we think of it; it was a general term for the opposite of originality (one of the strongest yet most nebulous of buzz words in American literary criticism in that period). Poe believed Longfellow based entire poems on other poets, be it in their themes or rhyme schemes.
Worse, for Poe, was that Longfellow was doing everything that a good writer should not do, but succeeding immensely as a poet. His rising popularity made him an easy target — and it did not help that he was living a comfortable life just outside of Boston, a literary city which Poe both despised and sought affirmation from.
Poe was entirely correct about his rival. Longfellow, one of the most learned scholars of European culture, was a borrower of European styles, themes, and structures. Even he admitted as much: his two-line journal reference to the Poe controversy in which he “damns censorious Poe” included a notation that it was an imitation of an epigram by German poet Friedrich Schiller. Longfellow scholar Christoph Irmscher says the notation was tongue-in-cheek, his attempt at both confirming and mocking his accuser. Either way, later works were equally inspired by other works: Song of Hiawatha (1855) took its model from a Finnish epic called the Kalevala, for example.
Even so, Longfellow was merely continuing a tradition of poetic tribute common among most writers of the day — including Poe himself, whose “The Raven” (1845) was modeled after “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” by English poet Elizabeth Barrett.
Hypocrisy notwithstanding, it is likely Poe was using Longfellow as a representative target to promote his own critical theories on literature, most carefully expounded in essays like “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition.” Poe had little patience for dogmatic poems — those with a “moral taint” that taught lessons — a type of didactic poetry which Longfellow wrote almost exclusively. Poe further was frustrated at long poems, and would have scoffed at epic-length poems like Longfellow’s Evangeline (1847). Longfellow’s rapid rise earned him admirers around the country, who spouted unqualified praise. And Poe, who earned a reputation as a tomahawk-wielding poet who used prussic acid instead of ink, would not stand for such effusive praise for any writer who did not deserve it.
Illustration from “The life of Edgar Allan Poe” (1880) (via Internet Archive Book Images)
The disagreement between the two schools of poetry was enough that, in 1903, one writer asked, “What critic could warmly admire Longfellow and not feel somewhat bitter toward Poe?” The Cambridge poet was eventually revered as the most popular poet of the century — and hugely successful financially, an achievement Poe could never reach. But Longfellow’s popularity came crashing down in the 20th century in the aftershock of modernism. Poe, on the other hand, finally earned a place in the literary canon, and remains admired both by scholars and general readers who are intrigued by his literature and melancholy life.
The respective statues in the spotlight this weekend are perfect examples of the two men. Longfellow, who is getting a rededication, stands regally in a quiet public park in Cambridge. With the exception of a few dog walkers (and Longfellow loved dogs), it is a low traffic area, appropriate for a man who lived a relatively quiet life. Plans for its erection began not long after his death, representing an immediate recognition of Longfellow as a poet to be remembered. It stands just across the street from his former home (now a museum), not far from Harvard, where for several years he taught the children of upper crust families. Wanderers through Harvard Square can see the home of Dexter Pratt, the man who inspired his poem “The Village Blacksmith,” as well as his final resting place in bucolic Mount Auburn Cemetery.
2011 rendering of the Poe statue in Boston (courtesy Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston)
Poe, on the other hand, will be unveiled in an urban center, surrounded by heavy foot traffic and the constant roar of engines at the congruence of two busy roads. Poe used his writing career to show the dangers of an urbanizing world — places brimming with crime and untrustworthy strangers. And his recognition in bronze form comes significantly late, mirroring the length of time it took for Poe to achieve his place in literary history.
Boston finally joins the ranks of other Poe-affiliated cities that honor the writer — including his adopted Richmond (where he spent much of his young life), Philadelphia (where he spent his most prolific years), the Bronx (where he spent his final period), and Baltimore (where he died under mysterious circumstances). And whether Poe liked it or not, his connection with Boston is undeniable. Born not far from Boston Common, his maternal family immigrated to that city from England. Here, he published his first book of poems in 1827, credited only “By a Bostonian.” Later, he published “The Tell-Tale Heart” in Boston, as well as most of his final works when other publishers spurned him.
And, as Boston College professor Paul Lewis has argued, he spent his career trying to be as unlike the Boston writers’ coterie that had usurped literary America’s attention, while still hoping to earn their adulation. Lewis has been leading the charge in honoring Poe as head of the Poe Foundation of Boston.
With the Poe-Longfellow War so far behind us, perhaps this rivalry is water under the (Longfellow) bridge. Or perhaps we still have to ask the same questions from that period: For whom do we write poetry: critics and scholars, or general readers? What purpose does literature serve: entertainment or education?
As one poet’s monument is rededicated and another writer’s statue is unveiled, each of those in attendance might just have those same questions in their mind.
Detail of the new Poe statue (courtesy Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston)
The Longfellow Memorial in Cambridge will be rededicated on Saturday, October 4, beginning at 3 p.m., in a program overseen by Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. The Poe statue will be unveiled in Boston on Sunday, October 5, with a series of programs and events beginning at 12:30 p.m. The creation of the statue was spearheaded by the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation.
Rob Velella is a literary historian specializing in 19th-century American writing who has written extensively on Poe, Longfellow, and their contemporaries. Through tours, talks, dramatic readings, and performances, he hopes to bring writers of the past back to readers of today. His loyalties are somewhat torn as he will be presenting at both statue ceremonies this weekend.
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