A Tell-Tale Anniversary: 50 Years of Poe Studies

The 2017 volume of the journal Poe Studies marked the 50th publication of the journal dedicated to the author near and dear to our hometown of Baltimore. The annual issue included a cluster of papers on "Poe and Nineteenth-Century Medicine." Washington State University's Jana Argersinger, who edits the journal along with the University of Cincinnati's Leland Person, joined us for a Q&A about the milestone and the journal's place in the field of literary studies.

What does it mean to be in charge of the journal at such a milestone?

In one way, it’s bittersweet—recognizing that the first scholarly journal centered on Edgar Allan Poe has had a longer run than the author himself, whose life spanned only forty years (from 1809 to 1849). While in a sense such milestones, like the century marks of prominent writers’ births, are arbitrary, just round numbers, they give us convenient occasions to take stock. (The Poe Studies Association feted Poe’s bicentennial in 2009 with an international conference in Philadelphia.) In the case of Poe Studies, the progression of five decades says something about both the vitality of the journal and the enduring power of the writer.

This is a time, then, to celebrate what has come before, a time to look ahead, and foremost, a time to say thank you. So I’ll take a moment here to say that we profoundly appreciate our broad and growing circles of community: the authors, book reviewers, audiences, editors, graduate student associates, board members, specialist readers, administrators—and, certainly, the staff at Johns Hopkins University Press—along with many others who give life to the journal. It takes a village, indeed.

Celebrate the history, then. What spurred the launch of the journal?

In 1968, the Poe Newsletter was founded by G. R. Thompson at Washington State University, and just three years later, under his aegis, the newsletter became a full-bodied scholarly journal. Before that time, Poe hadn’t really secured a seat in the American literary canon; in the eyes of many academics and arbiters of literary taste, he was not much more than a hack practitioner of the popular Gothic genre, whose morbid texts perhaps channeled his own troubled character and tragic life: Poe as Roderick Usher, Poe as the tortured narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” This perception of character stretches back to the author’s literary executor, Rufus Griswold, who infamously took a hatchet to his reputation: according to the first paragraph of Griswold’s obituary, “few” would “be grieved” by the death of this “brilliant” but “erratic star”—a misanthropic genius consumed by “‘cold repellant cynicism’” and vulgar ambition who wandered the streets “in madness or melancholy,” all of which makes itself felt in his writing. And that hatchet job had staying power in the United States (if not elsewhere in the world: the late nineteenth-century French symbolists, for example, embraced Poe as a major influence). A landmark 1950s book by F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, conspicuously left him out of its constellation of five male literary greats of the antebellum era: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville. Professor Thompson’s enterprise in large part answered a demand for more sustained, serious critical study of the author and his texts. As amply shown by five decades of work published in Poe Studies and elsewhere by both established and up-and-coming scholars, alongside Thompson’s own pivotal 1973 book, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales, there turns out to be much more complexity—more artistry, more cultural importance—to Poe than many had previously assumed.

What accounts for the journal’s success?

Poe Studies has been and continues to be, at its best, a discourse community that holds difference in solution—a multi-generational project bent, not on advancing particular ideologies, but on publishing the highest quality scholarship possible, even as theoretical paradigms for making sense of authorship and print culture shift and evolve. Over the years, the journal’s editors have sponsored conference sessions on Poe in such contexts as trauma science and new single-author studies; published innovative and influential work on topics as varied as literary nationalism, queer theory, corporate personhood, gender, game theory, and archival discovery; engaged global networks of knowledge through bibliographies and review essays; and developed leading-edge thematic features on nineteenth-century medicine (in volume 50) and Poe’s relationships to place, among other subjects.

A commitment to community—to the human in the intellectual and the intellectual in the human—is just as important. Since its birth, the journal has pursued a twofold mission: holding itself responsible to individual scholars and the scholarly record in equal measure—that is, collaborating with authors, at all stages of professional life, in ways at once supportive and intellectually challenging. Through it all, according to Alexander Hammond, runs a robust sense of “the importance of the craft of scholarly editing” as advocated by Thompson, who continued to serve as editor then coeditor through 1979, and by the first associate editor, Kathleen McLean, the journal’s mainstay until her premature passing in 1988. In the decades since, their editorial colleagues and successors—Hammond, Scott Peeples, Leland Person, and myself—have guided the journal according to these ideals, carrying them into new critical territory.

What contributes to the lasting effect of Poe's work?

Poe is something of a conundrum. Over the course of his short life, he did enjoy intermittent success (including some acclaim among the literati)—“The Raven” caused a sensation, inspiring a spate of invitations to recite at public events and private salons, which he did to riveting effect—and that broad popular appeal has come down to the present. How many contemporary Americans have not read “The Raven,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” or another of the small set of Gothic texts most likely to be anthologized for high-school courses? And otherwise, how often do we see Poe stalking through the Halloween season? The relentless Griswold, again, had much to do with this unbalanced legacy, this long suspension of the artistic stature that Poe made clear he passionately desired. Of course, Griswold didn’t conjure his posthumous Poe entirely out of misty imagination. Some aspects of the author’s turbulent life, if by no means all, comport with the darker tales and poems: he was beset by alcoholism, poverty, and professional disappointment, bereft of loved ones early and often, and eventually died in lonely, still-mysterious circumstances in Baltimore. There is a tragic human element in the persistence of Poe. However, the biographical vein, not only the dark but also the bright, the funny, the venturesome, is variously entwined with and in some cases hardly relevant to the rich materials for literary criticism and scholarship tapped in the Poe Studies enterprise: his forays into the literary marketplace as author, editor, and reviewer; the relationships and aesthetic opinions visible in his reviews of other authors; the artistry on display in many of his works; the treatment of women that productively vexes feminist readings; the eerie prescience that may be found in his textual explorations of psychology, medicine, and other areas of science; the complex sexual dimensions in some characters that make them fertile for queer studies; and much, much more. Poe has lasting effect because his own life was storied and because he was a gifted human storyteller.

How would you describe the current and future role of Poe Studies, as an example of a specialized scholarly journal, in academia and beyond?

Journals like ours are said to face extinction-level threats—author-centered approaches have fallen into some disfavor and the economics of relatively small journals can be challenging—but Poe Studies and the nine other single-author journals published by Johns Hopkins University Press (including the highly regarded Henry James Review and Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies) demonstrate that such approaches can evolve and remain vibrant. In another insistent sign of life, the American Literature Association, which describes itself as “a coalition of societies devoted to the study of American authors”—a number of which publish journals—has hosted well-attended annual conferences and symposia since its inception in 1989. In fact, it struggles under pressure of an expanding canon to find program space for societies interested in joining a coalition already more than a hundred strong. Being accepted into the ALA is one mark of arrival for a new author society. Having an academic journal named for you has long been—and arguably still is—one mark of recognition as an author susceptible of sustained critical study.

Looking beyond academia: We increasingly feel called to speak to the general public outside university walls, and it may be that Poe’s cross-over appeal holds a special potential for broader reach that our journal has not yet fully tested. In the words of one professor of American literature, Poe Studies is a place “where new understandings grow.” In a time of immediate threat to democratic community and even to global survival, we embrace this mission anew, our small role in the largest conceivable project: defending and strengthening the often-fragile bonds among human beings and their ideas, in words that mean and matter.