Forget “Masshole”: The next time you’re trying to think of a way to slight your fellow Bostonians, consider calling them a “Frogpondian.”
That’s the preferred insult poet Edgar Allan Poe flung at his literary rivals from Boston in the 1840s. The author of “The Raven” had a notoriously fraught relationship with Boston, and it wasn’t until 2014 that the city acknowledged the poet’s roots in the Bay State’s capital with the installation of a statue of Poe.
Now Poe — his brooding visage all eyebrows and mustache — strides near the Boston Common alongside a raven, his cape caught in an invisible wind and his papers spilling out of a suitcase.
“People think of Emerson, Longfellow, or Hawthorne as Boston authors,” Lewis told Boston.com. “But not so much of Poe.”
Poe was born in 1809 to his roving actor parents in Boston, but only lived in the city for about 10 months total, including about five months as a baby and another five when he returned to Boston at the age of 18 in 1827, Lewis said. His first work, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was published in Boston in 1827.
“He was back here at other occasions and claimed to have attempted suicide in the autumn of 1848 in Boston,” Lewis said. “He claims to have done that, but he did not always provide the most honest accounts of his own life story.”
Despite his Boston roots, Poe viewed himself as a southerner, which may partly explain why he had (and relished) a career-long feud with the city’s prominent writers, one that often spilled out into public view. The poet saw Boston’s literati as a “kind of cabal” that “promoted its own writers and had no interest in writers anywhere outside of the Boston area,” according to Lewis.
Poe thought his Boston colleagues were too didactic, devoting their own poetry and fiction to the truth as opposed to art, Lewis said. The poet claimed that he, by contrast, was more interested in “stirring the heart” of his readers.
Poe wrote about his feelings for Boston in The Broadway Journal on Nov. 1, 1845:
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.
“He was constantly poking the bear,” Lewis said.
The poet’s seminal work The Raven was published in January 1845 to widespread success. Several months later, Poe was invited to read at the Boston Lyceum with the support of James Russell Lowell, a Harvard professor and editor of The Atlantic Monthly.
It did not go well.
When it WAS Poe’s turn to speak, he gave a rambling introduction for 15 minutes before reading. And instead of reciting The Raven, as was expected, he read a piece he wrote as a teenager.
The reading was poorly received. In response to negative reviews, Poe wrote in The Broadway Journal on Nov. 22, 1845, decrying the “Frogpondians”:
Never was a “bobbery” more delightful than that which we have just succeeded in “kicking up” all around about Boston Common. We never saw the Frog-Pondians so lively in our lives. They seem absolutely to be upon the point of waking up. In about nine days the puppies may get open their eyes…
… In conclusion: The Frogpondians may as well spare us their abuse. If we cared a fig for their wrath we should not first have insulted them to their teeth, and then subjected to their tender mercies a volume of our Poems—that, we think, is sufficiently clear. The fact is, we despise them and defy them (the transcendental vagabonds!) and they may all go to the devil together.
Poe used the phrase again in a 1849 letter.
“I wish you would come down on the Frogpondians,” he wrote to another writer, Frederick W. Thomas. “They are getting worse and worse, and pretend not to be aware that there are any literary people out of Boston… They are decidedly the most servile imitators of the English it is possible to conceive.”
Lewis said Poe never explained exactly how he came up with that particular insult for Bostonians, but pointed out that the poet would have walked by the Frog Pond on Boston Common “many times” when he was in town.
“One implication is that writers here were always croaking about the moral lessons in their poems and stories,” Lewis said.
And while Poe’s challenge of Boston’s reigning literary aesthetics were found to be irritating and provocative at the time, Lewis said that, by the end of the 1850s, even some Bostonian writers came to accept the embattled poet’s critiques had legitimacy.
The professor pointed out that not only does Poe appear to win the argument over the purpose behind fiction and poetry, but that, in a sense, the poet’s view is also reflected in the drift of American culture.
“We’re not living in the age of Longfellow when it comes to popular culture,” Lewis said. “Poe has in some ways become the guiding spirit, for better and worse, of modern American culture.”
In particular, Lewis said Poe’s ability to walk the line between humor and fear while grappling with the idea that the universe is a mysterious and threatening place makes his works perfect reading material for Halloween.
On Oct. 31, the Bridge Repertory Theater is holding an “immersive theatrical soiree” comprised of Poe’s “The Raven” mixed with iconic pop and musical theatre. The Boston Athenaeum is hosting a screening on Nov. 4 of the film Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, which traces Poe’s life story. Lewis will discuss the movie after screening with the director, Eric Strange.
“Poe had superb appreciation of the line between humor and horror, which is also what Halloween is about,” Lewis said. “So he really is a kind of the patron saint, or maybe devil, of Halloween.”