Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today on the blog, in the inaugural article of a three part series, Jeff L. Wright (University of Arkansas) discusses adaptations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. His first article examines Poe’s The Raven in the context of Halloween. Parts 2 and 3 examine Richard Corben’s comic book adaptations of Poe, tracing the evolution of these adaptations from the cultural ‘memeplex’ to the individual ‘selfplex’.
Growing up in the woods of Sherwood may seem like some sort of magical childhood full of secret gardens and talking lions, but in reality, Sherwood, Arkansas was your typical run-of-the-mill suburban, U.S. town in the “South.” Every year there were fireworks on the 4th of July, pastel suits and Easter egg hunting, and of course lights and parades to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. The holidays were always a lot of fun; they broke up the monotony of school with guaranteed days off and the hope of material goods in the form of presents. But of course, we always had to dress up in our “Sunday clothes” to eat what was otherwise an ordinary meal with the same people you ate with yesterday, or in the case of the 4th, you had to plan to weather what was usually a 36 degree day by slathering on tons of sunscreen and bug repellent to fend off the pinky sized mosquitoes coming out of the nearby creek. Of all the holidays to dress up for, though, Halloween was always my favorite. Costume planning went from weeks before to a full year of prep time by the time I was nearing the end of my Trick-or-Treating days (I think somewhere around the age of 40).
As Halloween approached again this year, I was reflecting upon my early school days when we were allowed to wear our costumes to school and we would all have a parade of classes, and Suzy was lying about getting to see Alien (1979), and the teachers and staff would hand out candy, and there was that one year that Johnny’s single, low-income mom “forgot” it was costume day and Johnny tore rips in his school clothes and said he was “a punker” and the teacher chastised him in front of everybody for it, and… well, there are always a lot of tangled memories tied up in childhood. But, the one thing that always stood out in my mind was when they would take large groups of costumed students to the library where the school librarian would be dressed up looking exactly like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz (1939), which wickedly scared the pants off the really little kids. Scaredy-cat babies! There was more candy and we always got to watch the Bing Crosby narrated The Legend of Sleep Hollow (1949), which in the days before VCRs was a big deal to get to see a Disney cartoon in the library.
But before that, every time, we had to sit through a reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. It was like they had to get it out of the way first. Teachers would scurry around hushing and shushing the fidgety ones while the Wicked Witch read the poem out loud to us… from a book that didn’t even have any pictures in it! Why oh why would anybody think that little kids would be fascinated by this poem is beyond me. We whispered to each other, pulled our neighbors cape, popped the elastic string on the back of a mask; fidgeters every last one of us! Getting to watch cartoons and eat candy was fun, having to listen to someone drone on and on about a stupid raven tapping on a window sill??? “More like crapping on the window sill!” The wit and wisdom of the juvenile mind.
As a result, I was conditioned at an early age to be weary of “one of the U.S.’s greatest authors,” and like those awful, bottom-of-the-bag, all-that’s-left Halloween licorices or star mints, it put a bad taste in my mouth whenever it came to Poe for years afterwards. One of our few “canonical” U.S. authors, a good ole’ red blooded patriotic ‘Merican for crying out loud, and we were taught as schoolchildren to hate him, or at least note him to be the most boring aspect of Halloween, which to a kid is pretty much the same as saying “you’re the old lady coffee candy someone fished out of their old lady purse and put it in your Trick-or-Treat bag.” Realistically, in the eyes of a 7 or 8yo child, how was some ancient poet ever going to compete with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966). And even though it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it was still an era in which the Universal Monster Movies were considered “G-rated” and family friendly. So, a poem that harkens back to middle-English about a dead girlfriend and a raven were about as scary or creepy to me then as when my little sister went as the Looney Toon, Tweety Bird, for Halloween. I’ll pit The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) against any Poe antagonist any day, any time.
In truth, looking back, I realized this was my first foray into the controversy of canonical literature. “Why do they get to say who we read?!” And as the Wicked Witch read the poem out loud, I remember a girl, maybe a grade lower than me, interrupting with “Who’s Lenore?” Unfortunately, I do not recall the witch’s response, but it had to be something to the effect of “Well, that’s his dead wife and the man is sad about it.” Which you can just imagine the slew of questions that is going to follow that: “Why’s she dead? How do you know he’s sad? Why do people drink when someone dies? Can you make my mommy stop drinking? Will a raven come and peck my eyes out?” What the hell were those educators thinking?
It’s an example of how easily we can (please tell me it was inadvertently) warp the minds of young readers and turn them away from authors by trying to introduce them at too early an age. In all fairness, it was also the same public school district that taught us that Frankenstein was about “not playing God because it’s a sin.” Unfortunately, it would not be until years later that my opinion of Poe would change. At this point, Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Raven, still stands out in my mind as one of the worst aspects of Halloween and those witchly open-mic readings were an epic fail.
Jeff L. Wright is currently working on PhD in Cultural Studies and as a writing instructor at the University of Arkansas. He has a BA and MA in interdisciplinary studies in the fields of Anthropology, Rhetoric-Composition, Gender Studies, Film Studies, and Theatre. Jeff’s writing ranges from academic research to playwrighting, and he is currently working as one of the official bloggers for the Sam Walton College of Business. His current research is focused on “Bitch-Rhetoric” in comic books and tattoos.