Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe: Happy 200th Birthday

The 19th of January marks Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday.

I always name Ernest Hemingway as the first writer who enthralled me with his prose, but that isn't completely true. Hemingway is the first among writers I read on my own. However, the first time I lost myself in a writer's words was when my fourth grade teacher read aloud certain stories by Edgar Allan Poe.

On learning this my aunt––childless and for that reason far more indulgent than my parents––took me out for my birthday and bought me the Modern Library Edition of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. The year was 1963. I know because I just now checked the inscription.

I'm sure I don't need to list for you the stories our teacher read and which I and most others associate with Poe: The Black Cat, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart (which is still my favorite first line in any story I've read, "True!––nervous––very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say I am mad?"); and what are considered the first detective stories like The Murders in the Rue Morgue or The Purloined Letter.

Yet the first story in the collection was one I hadn't heard of, The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall. The story is about a man who constructs a balloon and travels to the moon, returning five years later. It ran about 40 pages, which was way too long for me, and it wasn't at all scary. In fact, at age 10, I found it boring. So I skipped it, and put it out of my mind for years like all the other stories and essays that didn't fit into Poe's dark and what many assume to be his signature style.

A few years ago I was inspired to attack that collection again. This time starting at the beginning and continuing, intermittently, through to the end. When I approached Hans Pfaal in my middle years, I understood it a lot better and found myself laughing out loud, something that surprised my husband when he saw what I was reading. In fact, Poe was much more than the writer of the horror/detective fiction or the dark poems he is always identified with now. Much of his work is very humorous satire like The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq and Never Bet the Devil Your Head to name just a very few.

He is also known for his criticism. His Criticism of Hawthorne's Twice- Told Tales
is a treatise on the short form still read today in many writing workshops. It includes the "single effect theory" and some words I often think of when reading current work in the "literary genres."
It may be added, here…that the author who aims at the purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at great disadvantage. For Beauty can be better treated in the poem. Not so with terror, or passion, or horror, or a multitude of such other points.

I don't need to mention that Poe wrote some beautiful poetry, much of it in the classic style. But my collection also includes an unfinished drama, "Politician."

So, in honor of Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday, why not pick up a collection of his work. It is still fun to re-read the classics with which we are all so familiar, but you may be very surprised at what else you find.

Happy 200th Edgar Allan Poe


Kathryn Magendie said...

200th! wow....and what a legacy to leave behind...

Angie Ledbetter said...

A big EAP fan here. Love his work and his fascinating personal life factoids.

Nannette Croce said...

At the Philadelphia Free Library we have the stuffed raven that apparently inspired the poem. You have to specifically request to see it, but it's really cool.


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