Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
Contributing Editor: William Goldhurst
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students confuse Poe's narrator with the author, so that in stories involving drug addiction and murders, students often say "Poe this" and "Poe that" when they mean the narrator of the tale. Poe's reputation for alcohol abuse, drug abuse, poverty, and bizarre personal habits--all exaggerated--often comes up in classroom discussion and should be relegated to the irrelevant. Students ask: "Was he an alcoholic?" "Was he a drug addict?" "Was he insane?" I quickly try to divert attention from such gossip to the themes of Jacksonian America, asking them to ponder the nature and value of Poe's vision.
I have a slide lecture, largely biographical, which always is well received. Lacking such materials, I would recommend a line-by-line reading of the major poems, with explanations as you go along. Particularly "The Raven" and "Ulalume" are understandable by this method. I would also prepare students for effects late in "Ligeia," then have them read aloud the last few pages of this tale. I always prepare the class for the Poe segment with a quick review of President Andrew Jackson's policies and what is meant by "Jacksonian Democracy." I believe this to be essential for a study of Poe.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Stress Poe's affinities with mainstream America. He was culturally informed, rather than isolated, reclusive, and warped. I have spent years studying his ties to Jacksonian popular culture. It is unrealistic to ask all teachers to be informed to this extent; but the point should be made, and repeatedly.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Poe's fictional architecture is unparalleled. Stories such as "The Purloined Letter" and "Ligeia" have definite form and symmetry. On another level, while most critics align Poe with the Gothic tradition, I emphasize his links with the sentimental writers of his time and earlier.
The "cycle" form practiced by many painters of his time is reflected in poems such as "The Raven."
It is important to establish the fact that death literature was common in Poe's day, owing to the high mortality rate among the young and middle-class citizens. In some ways Poe participated in the "consolation" movement of this time, by which he attempted to comfort the bereaved.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. I always ask students to express their concept of Poe the man and Poe the author before we begin our studies. Later, I hope they have changed their image from the stereotype to something closer to reality. I also ask the students to mention more recent figures who compare to Poe. If they say Stephen King, I argue the point. I try to introduce them to Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock.
2. Explain the steps involved in the "Initiation Ritual," and then ask the students to trace the initiation pattern in Poe stories. It works out very well for all concerned.
Editions of Poe
The standard edition is the Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by T. O. Mabbott et. al., 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969. Volume 1 of this edition is the best edition of Poe's poems.
Poe's critical and aesthetic works are collected in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews. New York: Library of America, 1984.
Imaginary Voyages contains texts and elaborate notes for Poe's Hans Pfaall, Pym, and Julius Rodman, edited by Burton Pollin. Boston: Twayne, 1981. "Eureka" is included in the Penguin Edition of The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Harold Beaver.
The best student edition is The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Stuart Levine and Susan Levine. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1976, 1990.
Of Primary Importance: "Annals" in T. O. Mabbott's Vol. 1 of the Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. A year-by-year summary of Poe's activities, reliably documented.
The Poe Log, edited by Dwight Thomas and David Jackson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. The most complete documentary of Poe's professional and personal history.
Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography by Arthur Hobson Quinn. Appleton Century, 1941, reissued New York: Cooper Square, 1969. Still the best Poe biography by a conscientious scholar.
Poe's letters have been brilliantly collected and edited in two volumes: The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols., edited by John Ward Ostrum. New York: Gordian Press, 1966.
Two recent biographies contain some of the old patronizing and sensational features of nineteenth-century commentary and should be approached very skeptically:
Edgar Allan Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance by Kenneth Silverman. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy by Jeffrey Meyers. New York: Scribner's, 1992.
Reviews and essays about Poe during his lifetime are collected in Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, edited by I. M. Walker. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.
More recent criticism is collected in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Eric Carlson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966.
Poe Studies: Dark Romanticism, a periodical published at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, publishes up-to-the-moment bibliographies listing critical articles on varied aspects of Poe.
The best and most complete critical book ever published is the recent release Companion to Poe Studies, edited by Eric Carlson, Greenwood Press, 1996. Twenty-five chapters by Poe scholars on different aspects of Poe's fiction and poetry, including his influence overseas. Many interpretive essays, all on a relatively high professional level. For Poe overseas, supplement the Companion with Carl Anderson's excellent Poe in Northlight, Duke, 1973.
An extraordinary collection of Poe photographic portraits and daguerreotypes has been assembled in The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allen Poe, collected by Michael J. Deas, University of Virginia Press, 1989.
Much attention has been given recent psychoanalytic and deconstructive Poe criticism. Central arguments in these areas are collected in The Purloined Poe, edited John Muller and William Richardson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Concentrated criticism of Poe's one novel is collected in Poe's Pym: Critical Explorations, edited by Richard Kopley. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.
Myths and Reality: Thy Mysterious Mr. Poe, edited by Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1987. Contains thoughtful essays on the tales and the life.
The Rationale of Deception by David Ketterer. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1979. Contains some insightful commentary on the tales.
Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales by G. R. Thompson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973. Reads most of Poe's effects as humorous satires or hoaxes.
A delightful review of Poe correspondence, clippings, and early criticism is found in John Henry Ingram's Poe Collection at the University of Virginia, edited by John Carl Miller at Charlottesville, 1960.
The standard bibliography, but active only to 1967, is Edgar Allen Poe: A Bibliography of Criticism, edited by J. Lasley Dameron and Irby Cauthen, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974. As mentioned earlier, recent criticism is regularly listed in Poe Studies: Dark Romanticism.