Off-Limits

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.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Off-Limits

  1. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I like Hughes and I would not have thought he was overdone in American lit classes, but I have not been paying attention. His autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander has a great section where he travels about Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan with Arthur Koestler during 1932.

    African American writers you did not mention are Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Both of whom ended up in Ghana. So did Du Bois, but I classify him more as a political writer than a literary one.

  2. Andrew Stevens says:

    I love the line “In sum, what Poe lacked above all was a sense of his reader.” Given that Poe was hugely more popular with readers than Owen Dudley Edwards, it seems pretty clear who had a better sense of their respective readers. Most of the dislike of Poe is sheer snobbery – the belief that if something is popular, it must be bad. This is coupled with the usual elite distaste for a man who has risen above himself. Many of the criticisms of Poe’s style sound precisely like old money criticizing the nouveau riche (“vulgar,” “gaudy,” etc.) and most of the critics come from backgrounds far more privileged than Poe’s.

    You have to give the French credit here. The same thing happened with Alfred Hitchcock. Like Poe, American elites similarly refused to acknowledge the genius of Hitchcock. He was, after all, popular. How could he possibly be good? Then the French elites anointed Hitchcock a genius and American elites were reluctantly forced to go along. The French were right in both cases.

  3. alexbpop says:

    I’m a Poe fam myself. I try not to throw fits aobut literary criticism. You read what you like, I’ll read what I like, and Kevin Jackson can read what he likes. The charge that I have to respond to is Poe’s “wallowing in atmosphere”. I like authors who wallow in atmosphere, provided that they do the atmosphere well. Mervyn Peake is one of my favorites.

    I’ll admit that Poe’s short fiction is spotty; his poetry is much better.

  4. Andrew Stevens says:

    Alex, a fair criticism of my criticism of the critics. You could easily convince me that I’m taking criticism of Poe too personally. (I should say that I’m actually not a huge fan of Poe. I believe he was the greatest poet in history at capturing the grief of the widower in a genuinely moving way and that there are very good reasons for his immense influence on virtually all genre literature from horror to science fiction to detective fiction.)

    On the other hand, they started it (and I genuinely do believe for not terribly literary reasons, but for reasons of class and distinguishing the intelligentsia from the hoi polloi). I don’t care much for Dickens, but I’m not going to write a very long book dressing up my personal prejudices in a lot of theory in order to demonstrate why Dickens isn’t very good after all. I recognize that my inability to appreciate Dickens is due to a defect in myself and not in Dickens’s literature.

    • profmondo says:

      And here we have common ground — I’ve never liked Dickens. I always thought it was far too obvious that he was paid by the chapter. (Of course, when I had to write an essay for an AP exam almost 30 years ago, I chose to write about Fagin; even then I knew enough about rhetoric [or gamesmanship] to know the importance of understanding one’s audience.) Ultimately, I reckon it’s that old chacun a son gout thing.

  5. Huck says:

    ProfMondo – My comment here has not to do with any pronouncements upon the merit or quality of writers, but your actual practice of placing recognized writers “off-limits.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I think you have every right to mount such prohibitions. As one of my former professors once said in a Latin American International Relations class I took with him: “The academy is the last bastion of authoritarianism when it comes to absolute power vested in the professor to run his class the way he sees fit, and I intend to exercise such power for as long as I can.” He said this in the context of some students wanting to take a “vote” on whether or not to change an assignment due date by a few days. I thought the suggestion of a “vote” by these students to be quite presumptuous at the time, and so I had a satisfied chuckle at their expense with the professor’s response. As a professor myself, I often repeat this little gem of brusque killjoy when my students get the itch to try to set the terms of my classes, whether it’s to go outside for class or whether it’s to ask for an early class dismissal. But, all that said, when it comes to actual intellectual work, I am much more prone to freedom of choice in the subject of a research project, as long as the process I’ve outlined and the quality of the research is superior — even if the subject of the research is overdone or something I consider to be bad writing/scholarship. (In my field, one case would be the subject of Indigenous oppression and genocide as manifested through the story of Rigoberta Menchu as told by herself in her very contested autobiography). But there’s always the possibility of creative and innovative scholarship, even regarding such overstudied and exhausted subjects. In fact, it poses an even greater challenge to students who want to tackle such subjects to really produce something interesting. So who am I to prevent students from taking on this challenge, especially if it’s something they are genuinely enthusiastic about. So what that means is that I have to understand that it is my weariness with reading yet another paper on a subject that I don’t necessarily find worthy of my creative and intellectual pursuits. And I have to remind myself that the assignment is not about me, but about my students and their curiosity, interests, and choices. Just imagine, ProfMondo, if you were a bright student told that Shakespeare or Chaucer were off-limits and hearing your professor declare that if he got another paper about “MacBeth” or about “The Miller’s Tale” (which you were thinking of tackling in what you thought was a creative, unique way in spite of all the previous scholarship on these pieces of literature) he would take hostages. What impact would that have on your feelings about yourself as a student scholar and your own interest in these authors, not to mention the validity of the authors’ work in the eyes of someone supposedly in the know about them? When it comes to the core of intellectual work, I think authoritarian inclinations to make things “off-limits” to the critical mind perhaps needs to be reconsidered.

    • profmondo says:

      Huck, in the abstract, I agree with you. In actual practice, however, particularly in a Freshman Comp class (which this is), this is, ummm… highly unlikely. (As an addendum, I have told the kids that if they are crazy in love with one of the forbidden authors, we can work something out.) Really, though, I fear that Hughes, Angelou and Poe have become the abortion, capital punishment, and marijuana legalization of lit-oriented comp classes.

      • Huck says:

        You are right that it is highly likely that a freshman paper in a composition class is likely to be nothing more than a reworking of some idealistic, but probably not very well written, high school term paper, and that creative, innovative analysis will come from the assignment. But I think that’s probably true about anything they write. But your taking certain things off the table and not other things leaves you open to what I think would be a fair criticism of your picking on things you personally don’t like and not things that really fit the “off-the-table” criteria of being overdone. Again, I would imagine that just as many high school students, if not more, write papers on Shakespeare or Chaucer than they do on Hughes, Angelou, and Poe. And I bet Shakespeare and Chaucer have been “done to death” quintuple times over compared to Hughes, Angelou, and Poe. But are they on your “off-limits” list? Again, I respect and defend your right to determine what your students get to write on, but I do think that your prohibitions are likely to come across as personal dislike/judgment of the authors than because of some objective measure of “done to death.” Your subsequent discussion of Poe rather confirms this view. You would know better than I, but I would wager that Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is probably more “done to death” than anything written by Poe.

      • profmondo says:

        Again, in the world at large, you may be right. At Mondoville, not so much. I assure you — for every freshman paper on Shakespeare I’ve received, I’ve had eight on each of the “big three.” For that matter, I’m about twice as likely to see papers on Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein than I am on Shakespeare or Chaucer. (Please notice, all these strictly apply to my Freshpeeps — in the Brit Lit courses, it’s obviously different.) For the record, I actually like Poe and Hughes; Angelou, not so much, but chacun a son gout.

        The vast majority of my kids come from SC public schools. If the Spawn’s experience is representative (and if it isn’t, it’s because she’s in the advanced/college prep classes), the exposure to literature is pretty shallow. Add to that the common young person’s belief that ancient history=breakfast, and we’re looking at a pretty narrow universe of topics.

        And as a last bit of irony — as I was writing yesterday’s reply, I approved a paper topic from a freshpeep. “The Harlem Renaissance.” Obviously, Hughes will be there, but the kid is passionate and a pretty fair writer. Maybe my bark is worse than my bite. 🙂

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