Edgar Allen Poe: More Than the Master of Horror
Celebrate Poe's birthday with works that don't feature incorporeal hearts or evil houses.
By Elijah Ammen
How would you celebrate Edgar Allen Poe's birthday? A tuberculosis-themed party? Entertaining stories about people being buried alive? Recurring themes of guilt and insanity?
Poe is undoubtedly a master of the short story, and he plumbs the disturbing depths of the human psyche like few others. Even here at Lesson Planet, we have previously explored lesson ideas for learning about Edgar Allen Poe, and examining the darker side of his stories.
But just because Poe understood the dark side of human nature, doesn't mean he was the 1800s version of the teenagers you see loitering around the mall wearing all black and metal dog collars. Poe's stories are richly layered with classical allusions and multiple levels of meaning. While we remember the classic stories of horror, it was not Poe's only genre.
This January 19th, celebrate Poe's birthday by taking a look at some of his other works. Though if you want to use this time to re-read "The Tell-Tale Heart" or "The Pit and the Pendulum," no one could blame you. Or, since most of Poe's work is in the public domain, feel free to read them online or listen to it for free on sites like Librivox and Books Should Be Free.
Edgar Allen Poe is widely credited with the first modern detective story. His three stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Purloined Letter") are precursors to Father Brown and Sherlock Holmes, and by proxy our modern glut of TV crime procedurals.
Dupin's use of analysis and deduction was unprecedented and inspirational. Because of the progressive revelation of clues, foreshadowing is a major element of these stories. If you teach "The Purloined Letter" (the best known of the three), you can use a quiz to check comprehension.
If you have a more extended time to work with, a comparison of fictional detectives would be a great way to have your class think through how authors are influenced by previous authors.
A college professor once told me that Poe's poetry was depressing because every woman in his poetry was already dead. The beauty of Poe's poetry is that he rises above the tragedy around him in true romantic fashion and embraces a sense of wonder and fascination with themes of transcendence. Poe doesn't approach death with a nihilist's gloom, but with a romantic's heart. In order to fully understand his poetry, students need to understand the mindset of romanticism, and how that influenced Poe.
To further their understanding, you can incorporate ideas from this resource about his two best known poems "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee," focusing on summarizing, interpreting, and comparing the two poems. Use "To Helen" to track allusions and themes of love and beauty in Poe's poetry. A complete alphabetized collection of Poe's poetry in the public domain, is available on this website.
Poe's life greatly influenced his writing, and his death has been an enigma for centuries. The world around Poe, the stories he read in the newspaper, and the deaths of people close to him all shaped the themes in his writing. This New York Times blog post does an incredible job of guiding students to infer the influence of Poe's life on his writing. In addition, learners can examine Poe's life as well as the historical events that he incorporated into his stories.
Finally, for the author that loved to use unreliable narrators, here is a lesson that examines unreliable biographers, and how to determine the legitimacy of information on Edgar Allen Poe.
Because I'm a sucker for anything by Poe, here are a few resources if you still choose to go the traditional horror story route.
Analyze Poe's work by looking at the emotions of his characters and reproducing the emotions in your own creations.
Create your own Reader's Theater with selections from Poe's work (with a sample from "The Raven").
Model your writing after Poe by tracing backwards from the denouement in order to identify foreshadowing and the building of suspense.
Model your writing after the first paragraph in "Masque of Red Death."
Make sure your class understands "The Tell-Tale Heart" by having them create quizzes for each other.