Archive for January, 2009

Happy 200th, Mr. Poe

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Today marks what would have been Edgar Allan Poe‘s 200th birthday. I cannot write a tribute more knowledgeable than the one Ken Hite posted on his blog, so I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll just mark the moment and indulge in a little reminiscence on my own history with Poe.

I loved Poe from the first time we had to read The Cask of Amantillado in Jr. High School. I read all of his horror short stories and much of his poetry over the next few years, but somehow missed out on the fact that he basically INVENTED the “detective story” until I took a class on that genre at college. If asked about my favorite writers, Poe was always there in the top 3 (something that was pretty roundly scoffed at by most undergraduates in the English department, who considered him too “popcorn” to really be a FAVORITE to anyone who was SERIOUS about literature … which does A LOT to explain why I’ve NEVER been particularly serious about literature).

Then came my final year at school.

I ended up taking the five-year-plan because in my sophomore year I jumped directly into senior-level thesis classes (I took 5 or 6 of those) and skipped over my sophomore requirements. So I had to stay an extra year to take basic classes in topics on which I’d already done A-level work in upper-level and even post-graduate level courses. Yay, bureaucracy!

One of the classes I needed to take was “Introduction to Pre-Twentieth Century American Literature” and, naturally enough, the syllabus featured almost two full-weeks on Poe. The problem was, the professor seemed unable to teach the Poe section of the course at introductory level. He loved Poe. He’d made Poe a centerpiece of his own academic writing. And so he did not ALLOW the students come to the work and approach it as new readers would … he insisted that the class apply detailed knowledge of the author’s personal history, comparisons of the piece to historical and literary work of the time, and theories proffered by his favorites critics. In other words, he insisted that a class (mostly) full of sophomores treat some of the most APPROACHABLE and ENJOYABLE 19th-century American literature (because, lord knows, the writing style of the time makes it difficult for a casual modern audience to immediately enjoy much of the literature from that period) and turned it into a confused muddle of hyper-modern (at the time) criticism.

NO ONE enjoyed the Poe section of the course. In fact, most of the class came away feeling like they didn’t UNDERSTAND Poe … when they started with very real and very VALID reactions (mostly positive) to his stories.

Now, all this is CERTAINLY the professor’s fault … not Mr. Poe’s. And yet, for years afterward, I couldn’t read Poe without having flashbacks to that awful course. Thankfully, I’ve gotten past it in recent years and can once again ENJOY The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Eldorado, and the rest of E.A.’s work on the level I always have … as RIPPING yarns spun by a master storyteller.

So happy 200th, Edgar, wherever you are and whatever is rapping at your chamber door!