It’s difficult not to encounter the work of Edgar Allan Poe. His famous raven’s refrain “Nevermore” continues to caw in high school classrooms. The icy grip of his short stories keeps hold of our movie and TV screens generation after generation. But there’s more to Poe than spooky tales.
Brion Drake is taking students beyond “The Raven” in a new UChicago course dedicated to the works of Poe.
“We tend to think of ravens and still-beating hearts of the newly murdered, hidden beneath floorboards,” said Drake, an English Ph.D. candidate studying 19th-century American literature. “We think of this comic or campy, pop cultural icon of horror and the grotesque. And that's part of the story, but not nearly all of it.”
Born in Virginia in 1809, Poe wrote in an era when American identity and literature were still being defined. Though best known for his Gothic horror stories and poetry, Poe also wrote humor, satire, hoaxes and is even credited for inventing the detective genre.
While navigating a nascent, difficult publishing industry, Poe attempted to scrape together a living as a writer when few could. His personal life, including notorious squabbles with other writers and his mysterious death in 1849, has made Poe into a mythological figure as compelling as any of his characters.
In this edited Q&A, Drake gives insight into the course and explores the author’s range of work and pervasive hold on popular culture.
Why teach a course solely focused on Poe?
The reason I'm probably drawn to Poe probably has something to do with my lifelong passion for death metal and for horror movies. The image of Poe sits there in the background and provokes me from time to time.
There's an insight, or an intimacy, that develops out of reading an author's body of work. To sit closely with his work over a course, you encounter a very different Poe than the character that we see in pop culture, or by only reading his greatest hits. I think the students are learning quite quickly that the more you read, the more enigmatic he becomes.
What are some lesser-known works of Poe that you’ll be reading?
He has a great essay called “The Balloon-Hoax,” which is trying to convince the American public that a passenger balloon floated across the Atlantic. At the end of his career, he writes this long metaphysical essay called “Eureka.” Is it a performance piece or a sincere treatise on the nature of the universe?