My freshpeeps began their research project today, with an introduction to the annotated bibliography. It’s restricted to literary topics and requires nearly twice as many sources as the paper they will eventually write does. Among other things, I told them that there are certain authors who have simply been done to death and are therefore no longer acceptable topics in my class. Specifically, I’ve outlawed Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Edgar Allan Poe. As I told the kids, if I get one more paper on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I’ll take hostages. This decree may also diminish the number of recycled high school papers I receive (although my requirement that the bibliography include the provenance for sources may help as well.)
So why have I seen so many papers on these three writers over the years? In the cases of Angelou and Hughes, I think it’s at least in part a question of canon formation and well intentioned attempts to be inclusive. And that’s fine, but I suspect it leads too many of my kids to think that these may be the only African American writers worth knowing. Indeed, my students are much more likely to know Hughes and Angelou than, say, Alice Walker or even Toni Morrison (admittedly, I don’t think Morrison can write her way out of a wet paper bag, Nobel Prize or no). I respect the interest on the part of my African American students in black writers, and I’ll more than happily steer them to folks like Walker, Morrison, Chester Himes, Chip Delany, Ishmael Reed, or Iceberg Slim.
Poe, meanwhile, presents other problems. A professor I once knew described Poe studies as “the odd sock drawer of American Literature,” and there’s more than a little truth to that. Heaven knows that many people remain enraptured by the romantic image of the tortured genius-cum-madman that is the Griswold-filtered image we have received.
And that brings me to an interesting article at Prospect. Kevin Jackson observes:
American literature came of age in the 19th century, and quite soon produced a remarkable crop of masters. Hawthorne and Melville; Emerson and Thoreau; Longfellow and Whitman; Twain… and very much the odd man out, Poe. Though many of them met with neglect and incomprehension in their lifetimes (Melville’s almost complete lapse into obscurity throughout his later life is the most notorious tale), their posthumous reputations have proved pretty sturdy. Yet one could reasonably argue that none of them has had such a far-reaching and protean influence as Poe—and not just the murky waters of mass culture, but also amid the loftier, more rarefied heights of elite culture.
This dual triumph is all the more improbable when you reflect that, by most standards, Poe was not a very good writer. The historian and critic Owen Dudley Edwards once drew up a list of routine accusations. Poe, he noted, was guilty of “endless self-indulgence, wallowing in atmosphere, incessant lecturing, ruthless discourse on whatever took the writer’s fancy, longueurs, trivialisations, telegraphing of punch-lines, loss of plot in effect, loss of effect in plot… In sum, what Poe lacked above all was a sense of his reader.”
Aldous Huxley pronounced Poe “vulgar,” with a show-off manner he likened to wearing a gaudy ring on every finger. Kingsley Amis admitted to enjoying some of the screen adaptations from the short stories, but thought Poe an execrable stylist. George Orwell acknowledged Poe’s acuity in the depiction of deranged characters but summed him up as “at worst… not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense.” So: a poseur, a poetaster, a borderline lunatic? There is surely some justice in these dismissals. One might go so far as to say that Poe is the worst writer ever to have had any claim to greatness.
So, why the fascination, to the point at which I’ve placed him off limits for my frosh? Jackson’s answer is interesting, and I think there’s more than a hint of Frye to it. Give it a look.