Recently I wrote about both the well-received texts I taught this school year (Of Mice and Men, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”) and the “misses” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Heart of Darkness). Not that anything here is to say that the “misses” weren’t texts students didn’t learn from. For example, though “Julius Caesar” can be a tedious, the play affords a lot of great teaching moments; it allows students to learn about Shakespeare’s life, it helps them to understand and later write iambic pentameter, and it shows a great five-act play structure with well-defined sections of exposition, rising action, falling action, and a climax which can’t be missed. But was it the hit that Edgar Allan Poe was? AND HOW ON EARTH DID I LEAVE HIM OFF THE LAST BLOG POST?!
I was not a huge fan of Poe before this year. I never hated him, to be clear, but he wasn’t someone I think I appreciated as much as I do now. Now, I think Poe is one of the greatest American authors of all time—top three, for sure. And my opinion of Poe from a teaching perspective is even better: MAN he is an author students can get into. Poe is grisly. Poe is dark. Poe is fun. Poe’s language is a bit antiquated, it doesn’t seem to give any students any trouble. Poe wrote prose. Poe wrote poetry. All of his works are short and easily digestible. And Poe married his wife when she was 13 and he was 27. Also, she was his first cousin.
Poe and his wife probably never consummated their relationship, they mostly kept different beds, and she encouraged him to flirt with not one but two other married women. Yet after she died, he was so heart-broke that he probably became a chronic alcoholic. As a teacher, sometimes you need these interesting facts to get a student into studying a text. If you’re teaching Oscar Wilde, mention his personal life—it really helps students identify with him. If you’re teaching “Romeo and Juliet,” make it clear that that Juliet is thirteen-years-old—the age of many 8th graders. If you’re doing “Oedipus,” well…. anyway, such “trivia” has you still reading this post, right?
Oedipus, by the way, was another text students absolutely loved. I didn’t even have to start with the incest aspect because one student in each class already knew—thanks Freud. Other tidbits most students do not beforehand, however: Brave New World was most likely inspired by mescaline use, for his great literary work Chaucer was given a stipend of a gallon of wine a day for life, and to return to Poe, on the night he died he was found mumbling in a ditch wearing someone else’s clothes (as odd as it sounds, he probably wasn’t drunk)! Also, he was one of America’s first professional writers, the Baltimore Ravens take their name from his famous poem, and Poe pretty much invented the detective story.
Students really got into “The Purloined Letter,” though it wasn’t as big a hit as “The Raven,” with its very clear rhyme scheme, clear rhythm, and dark subject matter. Poe’s smaller poem “To Helen” was a hit, “The Pit and the Pendulum” was a hit, “The Black Cat” was a hit, and my personal favorite, “The Cask of Amontillado” went over perfectly. To wrap things up, what’s the last story about? Well it’s about a man getting buried alive! But it also has great imagery, great dialogue, great vocabulary, and an unreliable narrator. In short, Poe is perfect for many reasons, and to the author himself, my apologies for leaving you off the last post! I won’t forget you again!
–Jeff and Leah