Poe’s prose prompts professor’s presentation

Advocate staff photo by APRIL BUFFINGTON -- LSU Boyd Professor of English Jerry Kennedy holds one of the seven books on Edgar Allan Poe that Kennedy has written or edited. Poe's work is the spring One Book/One Community selection.
Advocate staff photo by APRIL BUFFINGTON -- LSU Boyd Professor of English Jerry Kennedy holds one of the seven books on Edgar Allan Poe that Kennedy has written or edited. Poe's work is the spring One Book/One Community selection.

Edgar Allan Poe, whose writing Baton Rouge celebrates in this spring’s One Book/One Community, had much to say about terror and terrorism, LSU Boyd Professor of English and Poe authority Jerry Kennedy said in a talk at the East Baton Rouge Parish Bluebonnet Regional Branch Library.

One Book/One Community promotes reading and civic engagement by encouraging a city’s residents to read the same book and talk about it.

“We associate Poe with terror and the Gothic,” Kennedy said in an interview before his talk, “but he had a lot to say about how we deal with terror.” Kennedy is the author or editor of seven books on Poe.

Poe, who died in 1849 at the age of 40, is prominent in American literary, film and television consciousness, Kennedy said.

Poe’s most famous poem inspired a mascot for an NFL team — the Baltimore Ravens. His writings continue to suggest stories for film and television, “The Raven” in 2012 and the current TV series “The Following.”

Kennedy finds most Poe-inspired drama not very good, but says Poe’s work survives in the reading public’s mind in a way that contemporaries James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadswoth Longfellow, Herman Melville and Catharine Maria Sedgwick do not.

Terror and terrorism were stamped on American minds Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida terrorists flew two airliners into the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked airliner crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pa.

“Poe understood the unconscious connections with our own death anxieties,” Kennedy said. “He constructed a whole repertoire of tales that created new scenarios of facing the fact that we’re going to die.

“He did it through symbolic event that was so frightening it struck us to the core of our own humanness.”

Poe, like terrorists, created shock that was “totally unexpected but totally intelligible. We get it,” Kennedy said.

The crumbling of the House of Usher creates a shock not unlike “the spectacle of 9-11 and the sight of those buildings falling,” Kennedy said.

While not suggesting that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida operatives were Poe fans, Poe’s tales and terrorists each seek to control the mind, Kennedy said.

On Sept. 11, 2001, more than 3,000 people died, but 280 million Americans and hundreds of millions more around the world were also affected, he said.

“Everyone is far more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than terrorist attack,” he said, “but no one spends a minute worrying about being killed by lightning.”

Poe knew terror was heightened by stories that unfold in a short period of time. He took control of his readers, Kennedy said.

Terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center on a Tuesday, shortly after 9 a.m., when they knew millions of Americans, along with much of the rest of the world, would be watching television.

As good as Poe was at terrorizing his readers, contemporary terrorism has the aid of television and the Internet, Kennedy said.

“Terror (today) works because of the broadcast medium,” he said.