News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 24, 2011

The Off Season: Pass a ‘midnight dreary’ with The Big Read

By Mike Lunsford
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — It was a pretty poor excuse for an evening one night last week as I lay beside our glowing fireplace, a pillow propped behind my head. I was spending some time with my current read, enjoying each page in the semi-darkness, smug in the knowledge that I’d not be heading to my classroom the next day. It was nearing midnight, but I had just glanced at the blowing snow as it began to pile near our back door in the glimmer of a yellow porch light. It was a nice feeling, knowing I wouldn’t have to crawl out of bed the next morning in the dark and cold, although I knew I’d have to make the day up when the grass was green and the sky blue.

The whole scene had only a passing resemblance to the circumstances facing the sullen and melancholy narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s epic poem, “The Raven.” There were very few “ghosts” being “wrought” on my floor by the dying embers of my fire. I had it well stoked, and the scent and blush of hot oak and sycamore filled my living room.

I heard no “tapping at my chamber door,” either, just the popping of that dry firewood and the scratch of my own turning pages. I had no mysterious caller that night, as does Poe’s tormented hero, only a fat, snoring cat named Arthur who had decided to join me near the warmth of the hearth. My “sainted maiden,” my Lenore, was not lost at all, unless you consider it some sort of a desperate separation that Joanie was sipping a mug of hot chocolate at the kitchen table as she graded papers.

But, I was alone, in the company of a staring animal-hardly the “fiend” Poe described-and I was “nearly napping.”

Obviously, I’ve had Poe on my mind a bit lately. Not only am I about to start teaching a unit about the morbid master of early American Romantic literature in my classes, but I’m going to take part in another year of “The Big Read,” a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest. The Big Read is conducted locally by our area’s libraries, partly because it’s a proven fact that Americans are reading less and less these days, and, well, because it’s fun.

According to the NEA’s website, The Big Read answers a big need. National studies have “found that not only is literary reading in America declining rapidly among all groups, but that the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young.” The Big Read, says the NEA, “aims to address this crisis squarely and effectively. It provides citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their communities.”

Poe is a writer that most of us probably recall from our days in junior high school English classes. I remember my time with Mrs. Byers and Miss Soyak and Mr. Theisz, tackling “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” not always getting the point they probably hoped I would, but enjoying the ride anyway. I may not have understood Poe’s themes or appreciated his mastery of the language, but I do remember that my imagination was running full bore about the time Montrossor shoved that last brick into place, entombing his unfortunate rival, Fortunado, in the catacombs amongst the wine and the “honored dead” of his family. It doesn’t take much to fuel a 13-year-old’s imagination, so Poe’s premature burials and vulture eyes and black cats were right up my alley, then, and now.

Chris Schellenberg, who drives The Big Read for the Vigo County Public Library, says, “We’re delighted to get another NEA grant for 2011 and be able to hold an Edgar Allan Poe Big Read. This year, for the first time, readers have a choice of short stories and poetry. So even if you don’t have a lot of time, you can participate, and we hope you will.”

“In terms of programs, we really have something for everyone - gardening, ghosts, movies, music, art, theater and history. The Library website has updated information, so those who are interested should check there for a current list,” she added. 

Ironically, Poe struggled to gain notoriety in his short life, yet he’s remains a best-selling author 150 years after his death. One bit or another of Poe’s work has been in print since 1827. Born in 1809 to itinerant actors, he was orphaned at 3, saw an older brother die and suffered through a fractious relationship with his stepfather, John Allan. In debt for most of his life, the strange, alcoholic and combative Poe strived to be a great poet, but eked out a living primarily as an editor for magazines and literary journals. He was so poor at one point that he broke up his own furniture for firewood.

Much of what we think we know about Poe may not even be true. A scurrilous obituary, published soon after his death by a rival writer named Rufus Griswold, whom Poe had publically ridiculed, has, no doubt, misled us. Poe’s death even remains a mystery to us, and books and theories abound solely on that subject alone. One suggests he had contracted rabies.

After a life filled with sorrow, including the loss of a childhood sweetheart and his young cousin bride (yes, Poe did marry her before her 14th birthday, but all indications point to a happy marriage until her death a decade later), Poe eventually found some measure of fame after he published “The Raven” in 1845. He sold the publication rights to that masterwork for little more than $10, but marginally profited from the poem by delivering renderings of it at afternoon teas and public lectures. It was reported that some ladies swooned at his performances.

Poe’s brief life remained a struggle to its bitter end. Despite his own grief, his messy and complicated love life and his battle with poverty, he penned an impressive array of poetry, essays and short stories. He wrote a novel and a textbook, wrote a book on scientific theory and published hundreds of book reviews and scholarly papers. He is credited with being an innovative voice in the American short story, for inventing modern detective fiction and for experimenting with science fiction. He died, penniless, in a Baltimore hospital after being found, delirious, on the floor of a bar room. His last words: “Lord, help my poor soul.”

Although I read a while that snowy night, I jumped awake when Arthur, hardly perched upon a “pallid bust of Pallis,” as Poe’s raven was, sauntered across my stomach as he headed to the kitchen for a badly needed snack. The fire had burned down to a few crackling and cooling coals, and the room was dark.

It was a perfect time to read a little Edgar Allan Poe.

You can contact Mike Lunsford by email at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He is working on his third book. The website for the Vigo County Public Library is www.vigo.lib.in.us.