Why Don't My Students Read Poe?

And I don't mean on their own time; I mean, when I assign it to them.

I decided this semester to have my Interpretation of Fiction students read several of Edgar Allen Poe's sensationalist/horror stories (Descent in the Maelstrom, The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado) and several of his mystery/detective stories (The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Gold Bug, The Purloined Letter), and The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather (categorize that one as you will!). Plus several of his critical essays including On Unity in Effect, On Plot in Narrative, On the Prose Tale, On the Design of Fiction and "The Philosophy of Composition."

I go out on no limb to assume that most readers are very familiar with most if not all of these stories, because Poe's stories are still incredibly popular. I first fell in love with his stories through The Gold Bug, which I read when I was 10, and the first book I ever lobbied my mother to buy (rather than just reading whatever she and other members of my family brought home) was The Unabridged Edgar Allen Poe. I still have that original copy, even though it is falling apart. I keep it as a memento. But I bought a newer hard-bound edition of the same book several years ago, so that I can still read the stories.

And the stories are fun. Poe wasn't much of a poet, but that man could put a short story together like few have since. Anyone who's read his letters and criticism knows that he wasn't just a weirdly imaginative drunk who barfed up some scary tales -- no matter the popular image of him -- he was a committed writer who analyzed his own work and the work of others with a keen eye for structure, detail, and effect. All that hard work and analysis added up to the written equivalent of a roller-coaster ride: terrifying twists and gory turns, dreamlike loop-de-loops. Through it all, however, are some clear modern humanist themes: the certainty of death, the vanity of desire, the power of observation (not to mention math and physics and reason itself) to get a person out of what seems an utterly hopeless predicament.

I actually worried a little when I decided to put these stories on my syllabus. I worried that someone might see them and pull me aside and say, "Poe? Really, Amy? Poe?" Because Poe is considered so un-serious in academic circles. Poe's stories are the stories you read as a pre-teen or teen, your growing pains and shifting hormonal balances making you a vessel just waiting to be filled with angsty darkness, and series of sentences that start with, "O--!" But the class is a 2000-level class for novices, and I designed the entire syllabus around popular reading -- there is nothing obscure on my reading list -- unless you count Harold and Maude, the one film I'm teaching. I see much of value in teaching Poe, and the fun and accessibility just mean the class will go more smoothly.

So that brings me back to my question: why don't my students read Poe? I've had no problem keeping my students' interest and prodding them to keep up with the reading, until now. The quiz I gave them Thursday was universally bombed -- and it was the easiest quiz I've given them yet, made up of questions you couldn't possibly not know, if you even just knew what the stories were about.

This isn't a rhetorical question, exactly, because I do have a theory, a possibly answer, to my puzzle. I ask my students to read aloud passages from our readings in class. Up to now, everything we've read has been a recent translation out of Greek, Latin, Middle English, or French. Poe is the first thing we've read that's in its original English. And there are unfamiliar words: "particularizing," "beetling," "encompassed," "gyrating," "rapidity," "precipitous," et cetera. (These words are from the first few pages of Descent into the Maelstrom.) My students, whose skills reading aloud have never been stellar, have stalled upon these words like a ship upon a reef. They do not sound them out slowly; they simply stop -- sometimes they look at me to tell them the word, sometimes they guess ("gyrating" becomes "grating," "rapidity" becomes "rapidly") -- and if I tell them the word, they seem to recognize it. But with the exceptions of 2-3 students, they don't, as a rule, sound it out and figure it out.

I mentioned this to Brian. Who has a 17 year old daughter. (This turns out to be a channel to sooo much information regarding the our-student-aged-set.)

He told me that most public schools no longer teach phonics (sounding out words). I found this almost impossible to believe, because he may as well have said they've stopped teaching kids how to read. Instead, they now teach what they call "whole language" reading, which means learning "whole words." This apparently means that when the student encounters a new word, he has no strategy to figure out what that word is. He either knows it or he doesn't. This would explain a lot. Because my students, so long as I say the word for them, understand, and keep reading. And because once they read the whole story together as a class, they seem to enjoy it. But they are almost helpless on their own.

So it seems it may be that, thanks to their own so-called "educations," my students are being blocked from enjoying one of the most rawly enjoyable authors in English. This is a horror darker than anything in the most dark and terrible tales of Poe.

They should all sue.

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