You Don’t Really Like Edgar Allan Poe

76652-004-60D7B595You think you do, but you don’t.

You think you do because you remember some of his stories from school: the one where the guy cuts up and buries his neighbor, the one where the guy buries the other guy alive in his cellar, the one where death ruins a party. Maybe you remember “The Raven” and thought it sounded cool.

But here’s the thing: those are probably the only pieces you know and, frankly, they’re not very representative of his body of work. They’re the greatest hits. They’re the ones we know kids might like.

Have you ever read much more of his stuff? It gets pretty dense. After the pieces mentioned above, textbooks tend to have “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The former is universally thought to be boring, what with a narrator who is constantly terrified and fainting at nothing, and the latter bores even the most ardent honors student to tears. I love the florid, Gothic prose of “Usher,” but students can’t stand a story so heavy on atmosphere and so light on action.

And the rest of his oeuvre gets worse from there. Try slogging your way through “Descent into the Maelstrom” some time. Took me a few tries to even finish that one.

This isn’t to say that Poe’s a bad writer who only wrote boring stuff. Far from it! Many of his other pieces are hidden gems (and this one is actually quite funny!).

But he is, frankly, overrated, and the pop culture adoration of him is rooted in naive nostalgia for a tiny fraction of his work. If more people read more of his work, rest assured the honeymoon would be over pretty quickly.

Now me, I’m more of a Lovecraft man.

Professor Huston Performs and Lectures on YouTube

Ever since I started blogging, I’ve wanted to do some kind of podcasting: I’ve always been told I have a pretty good voice, and I try to have an energetic, engaging classroom presence.  Therefore, I thought I’d post some audio of me at work, to see if anyone else out there might like it or find it useful. 

Yesterday, just in time to start the Halloween season, I posted a 23-minute piece on YouTube of me performing and giving my teacherly commentary on Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Masque of the Red Death.”  I’ll put it up on TeacherTube also, so more classrooms might be able to use it.

And, of course, the world finally has a chance to hear just what the magic is like in Huston’s class!



Weird Metaphors

Throughout this first semester of American Literature, a pair of bizarre metaphors have stuck with me for their singular strangeness.  Good figures of speech work because they connect a new experience with a familiar one.  “Walking through the fetid jungle was like trying to swim through a soaking wet wool blanket,” for example.  Never been to the jungle?  That’s OK, because we can all imagine being swamped by a wet blanket.  It’s like that. 

In a famous scene in Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab admits that the white whale had bitten off his leg; Ahab savagely wails and screams the fact, “with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” 

So, how exactly did Ahab sound when he crazily lamented the loss of his leg to the whale?  Well, he sounded like a moose when his girlfriend trots away, or something.  You know.  That sound.

Oh.  Because we’ve all spent time in Alaska with lovelorn wildlife. 

Melville’s contemporary Edgar Allan Poe was even more esoteric.  Continue reading

Edgar Allan Poe Writes Real Estate Ads

After teaching Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” last week, in which he wallows in every chance to describe the building in as much awful detail as possible, I wondered how such skills would carry over to the modern world of real estate advertising.  Thus, this, with obvious material lifted straight from the story:

FOR SALE. 4 bed, 2 bath, spacious lot. Bleak walls, vacant eyelike windows, rank sedges, decayed trees. Good starter home.

AVAILABLE IMMEDIATELY. 2100 sq. ft. Black and lurid tarn w/ precipitous brink and ghastly tree stems. Also, HOA dues.

Ranch house, gated neighborhood, close to schools, w/ a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, leaden-hued. A fixer upper.

Downtown duplex to rent. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled webwork from the eaves; no masonry fallen! No smokers.

Retail/office space available. A wild inconsistency between perfect adaptation of parts, crumbling individual stones. Reminds one of a long neglected vault. A barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the front of the roof of the building in front, makes its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it becomes lost in the sullen waters of the tarn. Zoned for commercial operation.

Cozy bungalow for sale. Carvings on ceiling, somber tapestries, ebon blackness on floors, phantasmagoric armorial trophies rattle. Take the virtual tour online!

Condo units for lease. Large and lofty. Windows long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light make their way through the trellised panes. Accented by vaulted and fretted ceiling. Fully furnished: profuse, comfortless, antique, tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about. College students preferred, pets OK.

Don’t miss upcoming mansion open house! Good for close family. Contact Usher Realty. Some remodeling needed.

Style Imitation Exercise

As the year winds down in American Lit, I assign a style imitation exercise to review the major works we’ve read and the styles of some important authors.  The students’ job is to write a brief version of any four stories, each in the style of a different author.  Either the story or the author has to be one we studied in class. 

Here are two examples I gave them (I know, neither Shakespeare nor Star Wars is American Lit, but I had the idea and couldn’t resist):

The Empire Strikes Back, as written by William Shakespeare

VADER:  Fair young apprentice, it is I who am the father of thy fleshly tabernacle!

LUKE:  Oh, forswear it, vile wretch!

Never shall the days come when I shall agree

To partake of the black compact thou hast proposed.

The very seraphs of heav’n shall blow their mighty trumps

Ere I rule the galaxy with thee!

Napoleon Dynamite, as written by Emily Dickinson 

Alas and woe is me,

For bereft of the sweet tots am I.

My lily-white palm reaches–

Out–to cast away the button of

The flippin idiot who–

Votes for Summer in place of Pedro–

My heart drops and yearns for…

Ninja skills!

They came up with some pretty impressive stuff.  Here are some ideas, just to give you a sense for their creativity:

  • Twilight, by Mark Twain (he highlights the pathetic flaws in every character by sarcastically mocking their lame, emo worldview)
  • William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by Herman Melville (a sixteen-word poem becomes a stark, 1000-page epic: “So very much of the innermost intensity of our eternal, ethereal souls depends upon the minutest particularities of crimson hue inherently blasted, seared into the fibre of the side of the wheelbarrow…” etc, etc)
  • A Walk To Remember, by Edgar Allan Poe  (The way it was meant to be–less corny romance, more gory phantasms torturing the dark secrets hidden inside us all.  The girl still dies.)
  • William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” by Dr. Seuss  (“I would not, could not with a corpse…well, maybe I could.”)
  • The Crucible, by Dorothy Parker (the men accuse all of the women of witchcraft because they’re neurotic and needy–the women tartly retort at first, but end up agreeing and hanging themselves.)
  • Moby Dick, by Stephen King (Ahab can’t kill the whale because it’s a psychic, flying alien!  But Ahab turns out to be a vampire from another dimension!  Now we’ve got a story.)
  • The Great Gatsby, by Mr. Huston (everybody dies on page 2)