Teaching Poe, Writer of Literature, a Most Noble Profession

The Poe Toaster

January 19th is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, and if you’ve considered teaching some of his work, either in honor of his birthday or as a planned part of your curriculum, you might want to share the following anecdote. On the anniversary morning of Poe’s birthday, someone (or if you’re superstitious, something) leaves a birthday gift of fine cognac and three roses at Poe’s gravesite. It is believed that a person, creature, or something in between, is responsible for leaving the gifts. This legend is well known in Baltimore, where Poe lived, worked, and was buried. The mystery gift giver is referred to as the Poe Toaster. According to accounts by Baltimore natives, during the hours shortly before sunrise, the Poe Toaster, masked and clad in black, can be seen flitting about near Poe’s grave. The elusive figure has never been identified, but it has been steadfast in leaving birthday gifts.

Setting the Tone for the American Romantics

Along with his contemporaries Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Poe is known for spearheading the American romantic movement. Poe is notorious for crafting dark and decadent tales of the supernatural. In contrast to the European romantics and American transcendentalists, who underscore the benignity of the poetic imagination and the natural relationship between man and the land, Poe and the darker American romantics were fascinated by man’s capacity for sinfulness, and view nature as, to quote the famous German poet Goethe, “an all-consuming, devouring monster.” This tone is best illustrated in Poe’s The Fall of The House of Usher.

Teaching Poe to Students

If there is anything out there as enjoyable as reading Poe, then it must be teaching Poe. For teachers looking to challenge their older students, The Fall of The House of Usher can be paired with Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown to give students a more nuanced understanding of romanticism. For these students, activities should place special emphasis on the personal lives of both authors and illustrate the ways in which their writing can be contextualized by the authors’ personal histories and larger socio-historical trends. For younger students, these pieces should be tackled in isolation. In addition, because of the arguably disturbing thematic content, activities should focus on the author’s stylistic conventions and how these conventions affect the reader. For example, one activity could ask readers to focus on the emotional impact of word choice.

Teach American Romanticism with Poe’s Short Stories

Because of Poe’s idiosyncratic style and the way his writing embodies the romantic spirit, Poe’s short stories make a nice introduction to a unit on American romanticism. For students, it is usually helpful to understand American romanticism by comparing it to the dominant literary movement from the century beforethe Enlightenment. To get a feel for some Enlightenment era thought—particularly political thought—check out Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or even the American Declaration Of Independence. In contrast to Enlightenment writers who valued logic and reason, American romantics valued intense emotion and intuition. Furthermore, romantic writers often wrote about unconventional subjects on the periphery of society, such as criminals and the mentally ill. Knowing this also gives a better historical understanding of the word “romantic” and its implications for modern readers.

Interpreting Poe with a Psychological Focus

In addition to writing about the phantasmic, Poe creates characters that are psychologically complex and true to life. Poe’s manic portrayals of the grotesque are windows into the psyche of the mentally disturbed. Many of his short stories lend themselves well to psychological interpretations. For example, stories like The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Cask of Amontillado explore the various, and often unsightly, forms human thought and behavior can take. In modern culture, these portrayals might be inferred to use Freudian defense mechanismsand their psychological tolls—which include repression, rationalization, and projection.

Unreliable Narrators and Mental Illness

Also, Poe’s narrators in stories like The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat make excellent psychological case studies in and of themselves. The accounts of these mentally unhinged narrators, despite their pretensions to candor, often misalign with the facts. For this reason, these stories work well as part of a lesson on the unreliable narrator and can facilitate class discussions regarding Poe’s skillful use of tone and style, as well as writing tone and style in general. You can also discuss these stories’ depictions of and preoccupation with mental illness in conjunction with (and in contrast to) Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper for a lesson on portrayals of mental illness in literature. For older students, teachers may be interested in using these pieces to teach a lesson about the interaction of biological and social causes that culminate in mental illness.

Literary Devices in Poe’s Short Stories

Contrary to popular belief, Poe does write about less macabre topics than the mentally disturbed—take death and decay, for example! Despite his express dislike of allegory, Poe’s The Masque of The Red Death is often viewed by critics as an allegory for the human condition and the inevitability of death. For example, Prince Prospero’s failure to bar the Red Death from his impregnable fortress can be viewed as a metaphor for the human tendency to rage defiantly in the face of imminent doom. In addition, teachers can teach this piece in combination with Poe’s The Fall of The House of Usher to deliver a lesson on literary devices and the use of symbolism. In The Masque of Red Death, teachers may choose to focus on color symbolism to reflect the various phases of a life cycle. In The Fall of The House of Usher, the decaying Usher home is used as an extended metaphor for the deterioration of the human body and the inextricable relationship between physical and mental well-being.

Reading and Teaching Poe throughout the Year

Though Poe went largely uncelebrated in his lifetime, his work has endured and is part of the American canon of literature. There are many good reasons to teach and celebrate Poe’s work throughout the year—not only on his birthday as the Poe Toaster does. Poe is one of the fathers of the American short story. He’s a master storyteller and writes mysteries as entertaining as they are enchanting. Whether he’s tackling universal truths about the human condition in The Masque of The Red Death or writing about specific case studies of madness in his other short stories, Poe creates an atmosphere that captivates the reader and exceeds expectations. Most importantly, he does what few writers can: he crafts tales that stick with you, leaving you a different person from who you were before you started reading them.

Don’t forget to check out all of our Poe-themed Teacher Guides here!