Scholar uses Poe’s works to portray themes of terror

Published: February 5, 2009, 10:06 pm ET
Collegian Reporter

Edgar Allen Poe’s works can be used to illustrate that in this “Age of Terror,” terrorism, not terror, is the enemy in the new millennium, said Poe scholar Gerald Kennedy.

“It is the act of terrorism that affects the soul of a reader,” Kennedy said, “but this only becomes apparent after the horror occurs.”

Through the Edward C. and Mary S. Peple Library Lectureship, Friends of the Boatwright Memorial Library invited Kennedy to speak at the Jepson Alumni Center to celebrate Poe’s 200th anniversary. Kennedy is an English professor at Louisiana State University and a former charter member of the Poe Studies Association.

Kennedy pointed out different themes of terror and terrorism in Poe’s various works, and said that the terror of fiction came from unconsciousness.

Themes of espionage and contagious disease were recurring in many of Poe’s works, but it was also uncontested that Poe wrote about himself in his tales of horror and terror.

He lived in Boston during the time of a cholera outbreak. The disease, also referred to as “Red Death,” took his childhood friend Ebenezer Burling in 1832 while he lived in Richmond.

The presence of Red Death was a mass destruction that “you can’t see coming,” and Poe referred to it as “thief of the night,” Kennedy said.

He drew connections between modern terrorism and the terror Poe instilled in his readers. Although each prose tale and poem exemplified the theme of terrorism, Kennedy said, it also portrayed the need for managing our terror.

“By accepting our end as natural, and realizing that death is inevitable, we begin to wage the real war on terror,” he said. “Terror is not a palpable enemy, and what we have to tell of terror in the new millennium is that it eradicates our own fear of mortality.”

Kennedy’s interest in Poe began in junior high school, when his English teacher pushed his interest in American Literature. Poe’s work helped him get through the grieving process of his grandfather’s death, he said.

“About the time my grandfather was dying,” he said, “Poe helped me begin to process what it meant to die.”

English professor Welford Taylor directs the Poe Society of Richmond and has known Kennedy for years. Kennedy is one of the top four Poe Scholars, he said.

Interest in Poe is still strong because terror and fear will always be relevant, he said.

“We all have these fears, concerns both conscious and subconscious,” he said. “Poe addresses those fears.”

Poe was the first American author to influence literature in Europe, he said. Before Poe, the majority of American writing was derivative of its European roots.

“Poe was an accomplished critic, fiction writer and poet,” Taylor said. “There are precious few authors who can claim that.”

One student said that he thought Kennedy made convincing connections between Poe’s fascination with terror and contemporary war on terror, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“It’s like he said. There is no such thing as a war on terror because terror has no substance. It’s in the mind.”

Contact reporter Sawyer Weirman at sawyer.weirman@richmond.edu

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