Friday, January 16, 2009

Books: Killing Poe in the classroom or "Some motherf*****s just have it comin'."

Good morning my little Screamers and Screamettes. I'm back at the keyboard. I hope the Blog-a-matic 3400 Mark 9 Content Creation System found some interesting material for you while I was gone.

Today, we're going to go a little upmarket and check in at The Smart Set, Drexel University's snark-besotted culture site, and see how they're commemorating the Bicentennial of Poe.

Here's the grabber for the article "Poe at 200":

There are lessons on the horror writer in every American school. And they are crap.

The author goes on:

2009 marks the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe, arguably the most famed and influential writer in American history. Not only does his work entirely limn the culture, but he also created no fewer than two genres of popular fiction — mystery and modern horror — almost single-handedly. Virtually anyone in the U.S. can recite his poetry (a few lines here and there, at least). His personal life and ambitions inform the clichĂ©s of the starving writer in his garret and that of the mad genius. And it's nigh impossible for someone to graduate from an American high school without having read him.

Poe was also a player of hoaxes, a plagiarist, had a substance abuse problem, and couldn't keep a roof over his head. Poe was a proponent of slavery, the worst sort of would-be social climber, and married a 13-year-old girl in his cousin Virginia Clemm. None of this information is new, of course — these fun facts are probably the answers to a fill-in-the-blank quiz given each year in some sixth-grade classroom in Ohio. The problem is that Poe has been so completely taught that he is very rarely read with the eyes of a reader.

Unlike Hawthorne, with whom he is often paired in criticism and in those awful "language arts" classes, Poe had little interest in portraying a true-to-life America or plumbing our historical discontents. Many of his stories take place in a world either fancifully sketched out or left purposefully ambiguous. In stories such as "The Tell-Tale Heart," the confession the narrator gives in order to prove his sanity occurs in a functional vacuum. The settings of "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Man of the Crowd," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" could be identified as Spain, Venice, London, and Paris, but the locations are more like panoramas made from magazine clippings than they are representations of the actual places. Poe even moved American stories, such as the true crime of the murder of Mary Rogers in Hoboken, New Jersey, to an explicitly parallel universe in which the murder finds its double in Paris: In "The Mystery of Marie RogĂȘt" the Seine spells the Hudson River, and the Paris of the story is rather oddly New Jersey-shaped.

Poe's stories won't lead to ersatz history lessons about the Puritans or any of the moral instruction that too often accompanies the reading of literature in schools. They don't exist here, or anywhere else we could identify on a map as part of a dual language arts/social studies curriculum.

Later, in what I think is the most thought provoking part of the article, we get a rundown of Poe's amoral approach to horror – an approach the article's writer contrasts with other crypto-moralistic modes of "transgression":

Poe was one of the first authors of modern horror in that he was not interested in resolving the social trespasses his work depicted with pat morally correct endings or appeals to cosmic justice. In this way, he was also one of the only modern purveyors of dark fiction. The bloodiest slasher flicks often betray a Puritanical ideology, with only the virginal characters allowed to survive. Gangsta rappers love their mamas and write songs about them. Noir writers made sure their sleuths had a code of ethical conduct, even if it only consisted of a single line they would not cross but that the baddies they hunted would. Stephen King's novels summon up dark miracles that threaten families, towns, and occasionally civilization itself, but these evils are put down more often than not thanks to the power of friendship.

You can find "Two-Fisted Poe" and other wacky delights in Martin Kupperman's Snake 'n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret.


OCKerouac said...

Welcome back. So some of the Poe article is spot on dissertation, while other parts read like a pissed off short story writer who's bitter about not being able to get published.

I guess what I'm saying is I agree with a lot of what the author is saying, but it makes me feel kind of dirty...

The Headless Werewolf said...

It's also worth noting that Poe undermined the very kind of horror text that the writer credits Poe with creating. Poe created amazing fiction, but he was drawing from a myriad of sources--temperance literature, gothic novels, etc. His satire, "How to Write a Blackwood Article," also lends some insight into Poe's attitude toward his own art while showing that his "tales of sensation" followed a certain pattern that his audience had come to expect. In other words, it's not that Poe invented the modern horror story so much as he did it much better than his contemporaries.