Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Of Edgar And Literature And Abraham Lincoln

Occasionally while lost in the throes of literary passion, I forget that I am in a room full of jaded, ultracool sixteen-year-olds who find much of anything written before say, yesterday on their cellphones, pretty extraneous and boring. I get all excited and emotionally invested in what I'm talking about--flinging myself about the room, perhaps even welling up a bit and getting verklempt and all, gesticulating meaningfully--and they watch, not the least bit amazed or impressed. Oh, at first they were frightened, sure, but now it's become so commonplace that they just sort of wait me out until it runs its course and the moment passes and I come back to them.
This week, it happened with Edgar Allan Poe. Edgar is...well, I feel like I am A Special Defender Of His Memory. This man has been so vilified for so long that I never let an opportunity go by to set the record straight on his story. (And, yes, I am on a First Name Basis with him. I've studied him and his works and taught him for so long and protected his legacy so unstintingly that I feel I have the privilege.)

I always start out introducing Edgar by asking the students what they think they already know about him. They trot out the usual crap: he was a drug abuser. Wrong. He was an alcoholic. Wrong. He was crazy. Wrong. Sigh. About the only thing they get right--and gleefully announce--is the fact that he married his 13-year-old first cousin. That much is true. Then I tell them the whole story of how he called her "Sissy," how he lived with Virginia and her mother for a time and was concerned with the scandal it was creating, how he and Virginia were childless for their entire marriage, and how the most recent scholarship says the marriage was likely never consummated based upon the above and other letters and evidence. I tell them about how Edgar's biography was first written by his archenemy, Rufus Griswold, and how it became the accepted story. And then, I tell them to look at the photo of Edgar in their textbooks while I read them a better bio of his life. And I say, "Can you just see the terrible sadness in this man's face? Look at him. His whole life was one of want and loss. He practically gave his genius away. The story we're reading today was sold for only ten dollars! Let's give it more than that for him." Later, as the students were analyzing the story in groups, one group called me over to ask me a question about the story's theme. We talked about the evil inherent in man, and man's instinct to struggle to survive. I related it back to Edgar's life. "Poor Edgar," I said ruefully. "I just want to go back in time and try to save him from it all."

The two girls smiled at me. "Oh, Mrs. D.," one said. "You can't do that. Then he might not have written all these stories. And then Stephen King might never have written any of his stories. "

"That's true," I said. "But, haven't you ever looked at an old photograph of someone and seen something in the person's face, in his eyes? Something that told you what that person had seen or been through?"

"No," one girl said, eyeing me cautiously. I think she was starting to worry that I'd be off again into one of my little spells.

"I hate old pictures. They creep me out," said the other girl.

I was undeterred. "Well, I have a thing for Abraham Lincoln," I began (probably an unwise choice of words, I soon realized by their expressions). "I read books about him like crazy, for some reason. And when I look at his picture, into his eyes, it's like I fall in. I can just completely get him. I find him fascinating and human and incredible. But his pictures; I can't explain it. It's not entirely like that with Edgar, but I care about Edgar."

Just then, another student in another group raised his hand. As I moved away, I heard the boy near the girls' group say, "What was that all about?"

"Mrs. D. was talking about Poe and Abraham Lincoln," one girl said.

"Yeah, she kills me," the other girl said. "Now, I'll never be able to look at Abraham Lincoln's picture the same way again. Or Poe's. She does that to me a lot."


  1. He was every bit an alcoholic. I just asked my Prof who wrote his thesis on Poe and has things published about Poe. He was not a druggie but was an alcoholic. I'm sticking with that. THere's no way that there can be so much negative about a person and not have any of it be true.

  2. It's a teacher thing. I read aloud books to my students all the time and just well up with emotion. Luckily, they are elementary students and are very understanding.

  3. Wait, are you saying that Edgar never got laid? Ever? That explains so much.

    I get veklempt when I read Charlotte's Web to my kids. I totally feel your pain.

  4. I hadn't known the drug and alcohol things were untrue, either. I thought he was a big absinthe drinker?

  5. "Never look at Abe's picture the same way again"? Way to go teacher! Another life changing moment!

    Personally I loved it when you would get all worked up and run around the room. That you loved what you taught was always apparant.

  6. Keep getting excited and emotionally invested. That's what was best about your class--you really knew what you were talking about. I miss sitting in on your classes!

    And speaking of Mr. Poe...he looks sad and a touch angry in that picture. Perhaps it's everything knotted up so high around his neck!

  7. Anonymous10:42 PM

    I've heard a lot and believed some of it...but I'm open to new research.

  8. I am so with you on the face being an open book. That photo speaks volumes, but for the record, I prefer this one, which retains the suffering, melancholy, and penetrative force but is somehow... a bit less harsh, and makes me think he sometimes enjoyed a good joke:

    As for Rufus Griswold (was there ever a better name for such a scoundrel?), a.k.a. Ludwig, well... there is a difference between being a drunkard and having bouts of drunkeness. He was probably manic depressive, but... I doubt that anybody who was a full blown alcoholic could have written as he did.

    Didn't mean to go on. I am no expert on E.A.P., but I do believe there is a mixture of sadness and wisdom in his portrait, and that alone would endear him to me.

    More classroom stuff, please.

  9. So, Nance, do you show any of the Vincent Price/Poe mash-ups? You could play "name that story."

    I loved reading EAP in high school. I'm usually a shower person, but the bathtub is the perfect place to read his stories.

    I have a "thing" for Lincoln, too. Have you seen the Nation's secular relic - Lincoln's chair from Ford Theater? It's at the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Mi. I get lost in thought when I look at it

  10. nancy in a2--I don't show any movies of Edgar's work. They all stink. I do love Vincent Price. I went to hear him speak once. He was an incredibly charming and engaging man with a gorgeous voice that he used like a musical instrument. As for the Lincoln chair, no, I've never seen it. I think I'd burst into tears. Seriously. It would move me immeasurably.

    ortizzle--(I feel incredibly awed that you're here!) Pulled up that photo--it's instructive. I had not seen it that big before. He looks puffier and a bit more dissolute, but you're right--less bitter and more humored. And I feel that this of your comment is most germane and so true: there is a difference between being a drunkard and having bouts of drunkenness.

    wordgirl--recently, a novelization of Edgar's story came out with some new research regarding his last days: The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. It's not a very good read (I won't discuss the book at length here, for obv. reasons, but would be happy to via email w/anyone who would like to), but it is well-researched and has an interesting final "historical note" of some length which provides a summary of the latest known information of Edgar's final time on Earth.

    jenomena--oh, you know me: I never worry about what anyone thinks of me. I continue to act as if English is the single most important thing on Earth. Mainly because it is. And every single thing I teach is my favorite thing because at that moment it is. I always find something new every time I teach a piece, no matter what it is. That's why literature is so incredible.

    j.--Oh, I doubt that I changed her life, unless I just made her connect me and Abraham Lincoln subconsciously! Yikes. But thank you for fond memories of our time together. As you well know, all teachers like to hear that!

    gina--See? That's what I mean. Because Edgar wrote in first person so much, readers automatically assumed that he was the narrator and was, therefore, telling his own stories and experiences. And Rufus Griswold didn't help any.

    scarlet--Oh, I never said THAT. Edgar was quite a hit with many ladies. And he lived apart from Virginia quite often during their marriage. You figure it out.

    mrs. who--jeeze. you should hear me read The Great Gatsby out loud. Sigh. And do NOT get me started on To Kill a Mockingbird.

    donnage--Please read Ortizzle's intelligent comment re: drunk vs. drunkenness. Aside from that, I would be so interested to read your professor's work on Edgar. Does he use very recent scholarship? Is it biographical or literary criticism? Would I be able to find it or would he let me read it? Is he hostile to Edgar or an Edgar sympathizer? Sometimes, there are haters out there. Perhaps such as yourself, it pains me to say.


    Do not let the children of today deter you from, or make you tone down your passion. They will remember you down the road, and your passion and will smile.

    Twenty-odd years after the fact, I remember our English teacher, Mr. Compton. He dropped to the floor and did an army crawl in the middle of our English Class one day. He *may* have been a bit crazy, but I'm sure you're not...

  12. ck--Thanks for visiting and chatting at the Dept! Oh, >blush<, I'm way too old to be "awesome". I leave that to the newbies and their smart boards and technological bells and whistles. I just do my thing. I don't crawl, that's for sure, but all English teachers are a little bit crazy. We have to be--we teach life.

  13. at least you know you're leaving a lasting impression on your students :)

  14. nina--lol, oh yeah. one that only years and years of therapy can erase. hee hee!!

  15. This truly makes me miss English class...except with one teacher who I won't mention because I'm sure you know her!!! :-D

  16. Are your comments being screened now? I just posted a reply and it did not appear. What I said, and forgive the redundance if this is a second appearance, is that I DID know that "drunkenness" has 2 n's.
    I looked it up just in case, heh, heh. And then forgot to correct it. ;-)

  17. tera--go take an English class! or join or start a book club. isn't intelligent discourse stimulating? there's nothing i find more exciting or wonderful than talking books or learning something new. that's why i love teaching so much. and i really do learn something new each time i read or teach the same story or novel. classic literature is classic for a reason; it continues to deliver.

    ortizzle--i never moderate or screen comments. blogger has been tweaking its servers to "add new features", thus screwing around with everything already in place. you have to really watch and wait for that yellow box to appear at the top of the comment box that tells you "your comment has been saved." if not, scroll back down to where your comment still awaits, languising in the "leave your comment" box, where you can decide if it's ALL STILL WORTH THE BULLSHIT to verify. Sigh. I'm so sorry. Blogger is a bitch.

  18. Nance,

    A drunk? I don't think so.

    Could a drunk write such lines as...

    And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain...


    For the Moon never beams without bringing me dreams
    Of the beautiful Annabelle Lee
    And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
    of the beautiful Annabelle Lee..

    Reminds me of President Abraham Lincoln's remark when he was informed that one of his generals was drinking too much.

    Lincoln said,"Find out what brand he drinks. I want to get some for all of my generals."

  19. nancy--you know, Annabelle Lee is my favorite Edgar poem. It's not too English-teachery to say so, since it's one of his most popular, but it's so melodic and tragic. And I'm in absolute heaven this weekend: after browsing Amazon.com, I found a brand-new book on Mary Lincoln regarding her insanity trial and a new one on Lincoln to put on my Christmas list as well. Now I'm just waiting for a new, sensitive bio on Edgar. And I've been waiting for a long time.

  20. One of my distant cousins is Billy Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, and often reputed to be a drunk. Family lore says no, not a drunk, just a drinker. I say there's a difference, but many would not agree.

    Regarding your enthusiasm in class, I'm thrilled that you're so excited. I remember most fondly the teachers from HS who really gave a shit about what they were teaching, though god forbid if I had been so uncool as to let them know what an impact they were having on my inner core...

  21. j.--you know, i realize that some of the students simply can't let on that they share or even appreciate my enthusiasm. i get that. but i can't help but find it sad.

    (on another note, i wanted to reciprocate and read you and comment on your blog. i think i have been on one of the blogs on which you are a "team member" instead. sorry about that. i'll try to head over to your site soon.)

  22. Anonymous8:54 PM

    Hey Nance,

    Visiting from V-grrrl's blog. Glad I did! I so understand what you are saying about Poe and Lincoln, without having anything close to your knowledge of them. When I toured UVA many years ago, seeing the room and area where Poe lived was very ... hmmm, I am not sure of the right word, compelling perhaps ... intriguing for sure. Re: Lincoln, in Springfield, IL, my friend from that state took me to his tomb and great statue (where you rub his nose for good luck--that was a surprise!), his law office, and his home. The latter was the most moving to me. It was just hard to believe that Lincoln, that incredible man, had lived in that house writing some of his most famous words at a very small desk. The new book you mention about the insanity of Mary Lincoln is one written by a local historian here in my area of VA. To think that two years ago he discovered 25 letters pertaining to Mary Lincoln that had been stowed away in a trunk many, many years, with most of them actually written by her. Just amazing to me. Yet a similar thing happened not too long ago with a discovery of Robert E. Lee's letters that shed a totally different light on him. It makes you wonder how much history is left to be discovered and analyzed ... and makes me want to go out in seach of hidden truths. Anyway, it's obvious that you are an awesome teacher. That love and passion clearly comes through to your students and you are affecting them--their comments say that in volumes (no pun attended). Having been a former teacher myself (and lover of books with an English degree), I can identify with your students' comments also ... I taught elementary school, but my students' comments always amused me, as well as their perspectives many years down the road when I've reconnected with them. Sorry to go on so long, I'll try to come back more often. Thanks, Shirley

  23. Shirley--Welcome to the Dept.! I'm happy to have you as a visitor and, I hope, as a returning reader. The idea of anyone rubbing the President's nose, as a statue or not, irritates me to no end! How undignified a tradition for a man of such incredible stature. How ever did that get to be associated with him, I wonder? Doubtless, though, he would find it ironic and humorous. Thank you for your very kind words regarding my work in the classroom. And please, never abridge your comments here. I don't have nor set a word limit, and I read and respond to all with much appreciation.


Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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