Boston's newest cultural district arrives on Emerson's doorstep

by Kavita Shah / Beacon Staff • October 15, 2014

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Among the daily flow of traffic pouring through Boylston and Charles Streets stands a statue of Edgar Allen Poe in mid-stride, manuscripts flying out of his briefcase and fallen leaves circling his frame. The literary icon returned to his birthplace earlier this month to celebrate Boston’s recent designation as the country’s first Literary Cultural District.

According to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a cultural district is a compact, walkable area of a community with a concentration of cultural facilities, activities, and assets. Boston’s newest district, also known as the BLD, includes 88 landmarks of literature—including two owned by Emerson­­—making it the first district dedicated to a single art form. Points of interest range from statues to bookstores to favorite restaurants and childhood residences of famous authors, highlighting the city’s expansive literary history as well as current activities and organizations.

The BLD encompasses the area from Copley Square to Beacon Hill and further east to Washington Street. The landmarks are geographically concentrated around Emerson’s campus, immersing students in a playground of past and present literary culture.

“I think Emerson students have a leg up just being from the Emerson community,” said Alden Jones, an adjunct professor in the writing, literature, and publishing department. “The literary district will make that community feel more public­— less enclosed to the Emerson bubble.”

 The district’s map, available on its official website, outlines every landmark along with its street address and a brief description of its literary relevance. Some locations include Emerson’s Ploughshares, the Colonial Theatre, and the newly erected Poe statue entitled “Poe Returning to Boston.”

 Associate professor Megan Marshall, who is currently on sabbatical, said she helped fundraise for the statue and read a passage of Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” at its unveiling.

 “It’s arrived on [Emerson’s] doorstep as a really fantastic emblem of literary devotion on the part of Poe,” Marshall said in a telephone interview. “It must be inspiring because it’s such a visual interpretation of literary genius.”

The statue is a lifelike, dynamic piece that features a life-sized Poe walking in the direction of his birthplace in Boston. 

“It’s a past that is living in us today,” she said. “In the case of the statue, [Poe] really is walking among us.”

Marshall said the drive was a collective effort. In fundraising for the statue, she said contributors included students, writers in the Boston community, and the Stephen King Foundation.

“It represents the energy involved now in people bringing this wonderful past to life,” she said. “In turn, it sparks a nerve in the literary community.”

Jones said that as the district starts to expand and local businesses get involved through events and opportunities to interact with other writers, its significance will be more apparent. She added that her students in the past have drawn inspiration from these landmarks throughout the city.

“Knowing that these people gathered here for a sense of collegiality and to feed off of each other’s ideas makes it feel like you’re walking in the footsteps of another college creative writing class,” said Marshall. “They just ended up being Whitman and Fuller and Emerson and Thoreau.”

Marshall, a historical nonfiction writer, emphasized that Boston had a strong influence on the roots of American intellectual life and that the district is a way of extending the existing celebration of the city’s past.

“[The cultural district] is a way of codifying what’s here and letting people know about it,” said Marshall. “There’s the Freedom Trail that addresses political events, which is a deeper past than the 19th century flowering of New England now marked by the literary cultural district.”

Emerson’s focus fits neatly into the literary community’s attempt to cultivate and highlight the art scene in Boston.

“Unless you’re in the know, there’s no way to tour the city this way,” said Ladette Randolph, the editor-in-chief of Ploughshares. “[The literary district] is raising a profile of that history.”

Randolph said Emerson has good stature on the tour, and students should be proud of the school for its involvement.

“It’s not just a museum, it’s a tour of ongoing intellectual and creative inquiry,” she said. “It would be a weird oversight if we weren’t included.”

Jones said that she always tries to make sure her students are aware of Ploughshares because it’s one of the top literary magazines in the country and a place for aspiring writers.

“[Students] are not aware of Ploughshares’ huge reputation,” said Randolph. “Some leave college never knowing that. I think [the district] might raise awareness to this.”