Friday, February 13, 2009

Another Bicentennial

Over the past few days there has, of course, been a lot of discussion about Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, both born 200 years ago yesterday. But there's another prominent, more purely literary figure whose bicentennial occurs this year, and who perhaps deserves more attention than he's getting. Edgar Allan Poe was born January 19, 1809.

The California writer Nick Mamatas has an interesting and thoughtful tribute at Mamatas points out that while paranoid moral policemen have banned books from schools which are significantly less threatening than Poe's (see my February 9 entry) Poe has for the most part escaped unscathed. This certainly isn't because he lived an exemplary life: Poe was a pro-slavery substance abuser who married his 13-year-old cousin. Nor is it because his stories have uplifting morals; indeed, Poe is one of the most "transgressive" writers in our literature. Rather, it is the methods used to teach him that have rendered Poe "safe." By concentrating on the analysis of literary tropes or trying to place him in the context of his times those entrusted with introducing Poe's work to schoolchildren manage to "defang" him (to use Mamatas' phrase).

One can only hope such strategies are not totally successful. Besides his literary importance -- Poe virtually invented the detective story and the modern horror story -- we need writers who are willing to ask the darkest, most threatening questions and take us to the edge of the abyss so that we can get a view which might provide some answers.

Marmatas' article on Poe can be found here. By the way, one of my favorite opening sentences in literature comes from Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado": "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." Not a sentiment I necessarily endorse, but it's a great way to begin a story.

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