The haunting power of Edgar Allan Poe

UChicago course explores work of writer beyond his greatest hits

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?  

I wanted that to be a capstone on the class to see where we situate Poe. Is he always winking at us? Where do we find genuine sentiment? It’s hard to know because he's a brilliant satirist alongside the gothic and the horror. It’s difficult to pin him down.  

What did the literary world look like during Poe’s era?   

Poe was very much embedded in a moment when American literature was just coming into its own. It was still undefined; there was a question of who would define it. 

This is also a time when it was nearly impossible to make a living as a writer. Poe published most of his work in magazines. What does it mean to carve out an authorial identity in a miscellany where you're situated next to a bunch of different writers, often anonymous?  

In trying to make a living, Poe scrambled and would travel and write whatever he could sell. So, being a shrewd, itinerant writer—and understanding how text circulated at the time—he understood that sensational literature sold and people liked reading it. He would be intentionally excessive; he would push boundaries. He'd go to the extreme and others wouldn't. 

What do you hope students will take away from the course? 

I think the range of Poe is what I'm hoping my students come away with. He invents the detective genre entirely. We don't have Sherlock Holmes without Poe, we don't have “House” without Poe. 

I hope we're also animating him in the terms of today. Why are we continually reworking him into modern idioms? For example, what can a pathological narrator tell us about our fixations with digital media?  

I want them to make Poe their own—develop an intimate connection with this writer in a way that kind of incorporates the mass cultural image of him, but also a more nuanced understanding of him as writer and as a person. 

Why do you think Poe’s writing has such staying power?  

His work is not only terrifying, but it's kind of delightful. It's a pleasure to read the raven’s retort “Nevermore.” Or to watch a narrator go mad while listening to the heartbeat of the man who he murdered and buried beneath his floorboard. These are scenes of torment. Yet, we read them with the same kind of joy of modern suspense or horror films.  

But I also agree with those who see a dispassionate clarity in his work, a willingness to confront the terrible and the dramatic head on without flinching from it. He finds tenderness in anxiety, fear and trauma.  

He models a way of seeing that resonates beyond this historical moment. There's an intensity of focus in horror that reveals what is typically hidden or lurking at the margins of thought.  

What’s your favorite piece by Poe? 

Of his short fiction, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” We can see his poetic practice at work in the structure of the story. There's tenderness, there's horror. I think it has a bit of everything.