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Using Primary Source Documents to Teach Edgar Allan Poe

This bibliography is a small list of primary source documents that will be useful  in the secondary English classroom. While these five items do not all fit one category, they can all be used to supplement the teaching of Edgar Allan Poe’s life and how his life impacted his literature. Descriptions of each primary source document are provided along with possible educational applications.

Emory, Hopper. Print (etching) 1881, Art Collection. The Edgar Allan Poe Digital Collection. Harry Ransom Collection. 28 July 2013.

This primary source document is of an undated etching of Edgar Allan Poe’s tomb in Westminster Churchyard, Baltimore, by Hopper Emory originally from the William H. Koester Collection. This piece of artwork could be useful in the English classroom to accompany Poe’s literature because of the symbolism of color and could provide a good lesson on inferences. This etching is very dark and portrays a man slumping over Poe’s tomb in distress. The trees and background are all black, portraying this final stage of death for Poe. In the classroom, Poe’s literature is often discussed as having heavy symbolism of dark and lightness, as does this piece of artwork. A comparison of the colors in this artwork with the colors portrayed in, for example, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” would be beneficial to students. Also, this picture would allow students to make many inferences based on what we know about Poe’s life. For example, the teacher can ask students to make guesses as to what the tomb of Poe would say, who the man looking at the tomb is, and why he was buried in Baltimore at the Westminster Churchyard. Their answers could be turned into a compare and contrast writing assignment comparing this piece of artwork to a piece of Poe’s work or his own life, like his fears of being buried alive.

Ludwig. “Death of Edgar A. Poe.” New-York Daily Tribune 8 Oct. 1849. The Poe Log, 13 Oct. 2011.

This source is the obituary of Edgar Allan Poe that Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote in the pseudonym “Ludwig.” This obituary was published in The Daily Tribune on the 9th of October, 1849. It was also published on October 13th in the Richmond Enquirer, and the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post on October 20th. This obituary has significant literary importance as it created a subjective view of Poe’s life that has negatively influenced his reputation even today. The obituary explains that few people will be grieving Poe’s death as he had few friends and even assesses Poe’s character stating that it was unbalanced and dealt in ideal realms of heaven or hell. In the secondary English classroom, this obituary could be used in a number of ways. First, students can use this artifact to determine fact from fiction, or subjective from objective. Next, students can compare the accounts of Poe’s life as they actually happened and compare that to the accounts by Griswold. To see the broader impact, students can search for articles that use some of Griswold’s misleading ideas about Poe in their depiction of his life and literary work. It is important for students to know the important work Poe did in the field of literary criticism, mystery, and other areas, and to not be swayed by Griswold’s opinion of Poe. In this sense, students could compare and contrast Griswold’s obituary with other obituaries or articles about Poe, such as “The True History of Edgar Allan Poe: Child of Destiny” by Elizabeth Ellicott Poe in the Washington Times on July 5, 1903.

Moran, John J. Letter to Maria Clemm. 15 Nov 1849, manuscript. Edgar Allan Poe Collection, 2002. Enoch Pratt Free Library. 28 July 2013.

This primary source document is a letter from Dr. John J. Moran to Maria Clemm in 1849 on the condition of Poe during his last few days alive. Dr. Moran states in the letter that he was unsure of who brought Poe to the hospital and that even Poe himself was unsure as to why he was there. It explains that in his last few days Poe was talking about nonsense and even saw images on the walls. Dr. Moran explains in the letter that Poe could not answer any questions and that his last words, according to Moran, were, “Lord, help my poor Soul.” This would be a great primary source in helping students understand the life and death of Edgar Allan Poe as most believe his death is a mystery, but this letter gives a clearer picture as to what was really going on right before his death. This letter could be paired with any of Poe’s literature that focuses on the mental insight of a crazed protagonist. Students can see the ironic similarities between Poe’s last days on this earth and the issues he sought to explore in his literature. Also, it is important for students to understand the purpose of letters during this time period. Maria Clemm inquired about Poe’s last moments because Dr. John J. Moran was the only person able to explain these moments, giving this letter great significance.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Raven and Other Poems [and] Tales. 1845, manuscript. Edgar Allan Poe Collection. Harry Ransom Collection. 28 July 2013.

This primary source document is a printed book of Poe’s poetry with revisions made by Poe himself in ink. It was the Bookplate of James Lorimer Graham with a notation in the book stating that it was Poe’s own copy from Graham. This primary source is free to the public and easy to look at online, making it accessible to all students. This will have a great significance in the high school English classroom as students can look at the poems and revisions of Poe’s poems made by Poe himself. For example, in “The Raven,” he crossed out all the lowercase ‘r’s in ‘raven’ and changed them to uppercase. In the classroom, one can discuss why Poe made this decision and how it made an impact on the work as a whole. He also made grammatical changes such as the elimination of certain commas. This would lend itself to a discussion on using punctuation for effect, especially in poetry, and challenges students to think about why Poe would remove these marks in his poems. Other revisions include Poe changing phrases like ‘sad soul’ to ‘fancy.’ Connotation is especially important to poetry and this revision would lend itself to a discussion on the impact of the connotations of words to the overall meaning of a text.

Poe, Elizabeth Ellicott. “The True History of Edgar Allan Poe: Child of Destiny.” The Washington Times 05 July 1903. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Elizabeth Ellicott Poe writes the article, “The True History of Edgar Allan Poe: Child of Destiny,” in The Washington Times newspaper published on July 5, 1903 to set the record straight about the life of Edgar Allan Poe. This article gives a detailed account of Poe’s lineage explaining that ‘Poe’ is the American version of the ‘Italian De La Poer.’ It explains that despite contradictory claims, nobody actually knows for certain where Poe was born. It discusses things like Poe’s mental state while writing poems like “The Raven” and the false accusation of Poe being a drunkard during his lifetime.  This article also gives information about the time and place Poe wrote the poem, “The Bells,” something not discussed in most other places. This source contains information of the night of Poe’s death that started on the street in Baltimore and ended University Hospital, which Ellicott insinuates could have possibly been from drug poisoning. An interesting feature of this source is the use of pictures including the speculated place of birth, the room in which Poe died, and the house in which Poe wrote “The Bells.” In the secondary classroom, this article would be best used in conjunction with teaching the historical background of Poe’s life. This article gives interesting facts and pictures that are unlike most newspaper articles during this time period. Also, this could be used in connection with Griswold’s more subjective version of Poe’s life to distinguish subjective and objective material from the two.

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  1. […] Using Primary Source Documents to Teach Edgar Allan Poe […]

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