Archive for Sunday, January 18, 2009

Nevermore: Lawrence scholar writes final book on famed writer Edgar Allan Poe

January 18, 2009


Stuart Levine calls him Uncle Eddie when he’s tired of using his full name.

Sometimes it’s Edgar ... or Edgar Allan. But usually it’s just Poe.

Levine has produced a handful of books about Poe — his most recent out this month.

But the Lawrence resident promises he and his wife, who are co-editors of “Critical Theory,” didn’t plan for the book to come out just weeks before Poe’s bicentennial birthday, which is Monday.

“This book was conceived decades and decades ago,” Levine says.

The 229-page book ($50, University of Illinois Press) analyzes what Levine considers Poe’s most definitive texts.

“We’re the first ones to point out how contradictory he is,” Levine says. “Our book is very frank about that.”

Godfather of genres

When Denise Low hears the name Poe, she thinks about fantasy, fiction and mystery stories. And she thinks of all the different genres the author is responsible for creating.

“Edgar Allan Poe was incredibly innovative,” says Low, Kansas Poet Laureate and Lawrence resident. “His poetry is really important. He invented, really, horror fiction.”

Some of Poe’s most famous works include “The Raven,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” But it’s Poe’s lesser-known works that intrigue Levine the most. The retired Kansas University English professor has studied Poe for 55 years and has written, co-written or edited six books on the author.

“Everything he wrote is a collage of stuff he’d written before,” he says. “Sometimes he’s playing games. He’s very, very playful.”

Edgar Allan education

Theresa Martin tries to weave Poe’s work into her classes at Free State High School.

“The students who are good readers tend to really get into it,” says Martin, an English teacher. “They get sucked into the atmosphere of it.”

Martin requires her advanced students to read “Premature Burial” and even has some of her classes imitate Poe’s writing style.

“It’s that dark gothicness that’s still around today,” she says. “The kids do great.”

Even at the collegiate level, Low says students become engaged with Poe’s writing.

“I do find that students are familiar with his poetry and respond to it,” says Low, who teaches English at Haskell Indian Nation University. “They have experience with him that they’ve had in high school.”

A mystery man

Although it’s been about 160 years since Poe’s death, Heidi Raak still receives requests for his books at her bookstore.

Raak, co-owner of The Raven bookstore, 6 E. Seventh St., says customers frequently pop in to talk about the author.

“We definitely sell quite a few of Poe’s works,” Raak says. “People actually wander in and want to have little conversations about him.”

Originally the store, which shares a name with one of Poe’s most acclaimed poems, carried only mystery novels to pay tribute to the author.

“He’s credited with being the first author of contemporary mystery in America,” Raak says. “The mystery genre is popular. We have quite a few customers who rely on us to carry mysteries.”

Though the store no longer limits its inventory to mystery novels alone, Raak says she plans to decorate the store windows, offer refreshments and provide a discount on all mystery books to commemorate Poe’s birthday.

“It’s definitely a pretty important day for us, and were excited to celebrate with the Lawrence community,” she says.

Farewell friend

When Levine put the finishing touches on his latest book, he was — in some ways — saying goodbye to Uncle Eddie for good.

He can trace his relationship to Poe all the way back to his undergraduate career at Harvard University, where he wrote his first paper about the author. Later, Levine wrote his dissertation on him.

“I expanded on what I had done in my undergraduate paper,” he says.

Eventually, Levine grew to pity Poe in some ways.

“The pathetic picture of him is true enough,” he says. “It’s a sad, struggling life.”

Still, more than five decades since Levine first began his descent into the mind of Poe, he’s ready to let go.

And his final book, which includes variations of Poe’s “major documents,” allows him to do just that.

“Poe’s a bigot. People just politely don’t mention it,” he says. “I don’t like people who sweep stuff under the rug. We don’t. We hold it up so you can see it.”


Name: Edgar Allan Poe

Born: 1809, in Boston

Died: 1849, in Baltimore

Famous works: “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Lenore.”

Museum: A museum dedicated to Poe’s life is in Richmond, Va., where he lived much of his life. Its exhibits include Poe’s walking stick, his boyhood bed and a handwritten autobiography.

Death theories: Just as Poe created many mysteries with his writing, the reason for his death is unknown. Theories have included beating, epilepsy, a heart condition, diabetes, rabies and carbon monoxide poisoning.


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