From ravens and mavens, to carriages and marriages, Edgar Allen Poe and Jane Austen represent polar opposites of the same literary genre. The American vs. the Brit, facing off with two wildly different worldviews, possess two markedly different styles. But only one can be arbitrarily crowned “the most interesting.”
In a debate that did not fear getting dirty, fit with blows below the belt, percolating with condescension and fun, the Jane Austen-Edgar Allan Poe Smackdown tried to settle this point once and for all. Out of the English department emerged our two champions, both professors. Elizabeth Wallace upheld the landed gentry for Austen, while Paul Lewis embraced the melancholy of Poe’s prose. Both were flanked by student defenders, dead set on proliferating superior ideas about their respective literary heros. A smackdown was promised and a smackdown was delivered indeed.
Lewis’ opening remarks set the fiery tone for the evening, as he invoked Shakespeare.
“I have come not to bury Jane Austen, but to praise Edgar Allan Poe,” he said.
His praises of Poe included the author’s penchant for misery and human suffering, citing that the troubled artist honestly captured the plight of so many in apt Gothic fashion. The suffering of life, from Poe’s perspective, was not solely a source of utter despair, but also mystery. Poe looked at the misery and found mystery in the daily machinations of dour thoughts and forlorn yearnings. Poe mastered that mystery and brought it to pen and paper where it has captivated readers for decades.
Citing The Black Cat, Collin Couch, MCAS ’18, outlined why he perceived Poe to be the most prolific. The piece sees a poor, alcoholic narrator wrought with fears over a simple black cat. When the narrator, in an attempt to alleviate his agony, attempts to kill the cat, but ends up slaughtering his wife, the lesson seems clear enough. Surface level analysis would pin the act to his alcoholism or poverty. This is not the case. Therein, Couch explained, lied to beauty of Poe as he tackles moral perversion.
“Poe used this piece to explore the nature of evil. Is it something within ourselves?,” he said. “It is an analysis on knowing ourselves.”
Another defender of Poe, Molly Collins, MCAS ’18, took a different approach as she championed Poe as a man ahead of his time. Citing The Imp of the Perverse, Collins outlined the nuance of Poe’s progression of narrator trust. Initially, the narrator is believable and solid when discussing others who act against their self-interest. They act under the control of the titular imp. Later on, his reliability comes under question as he divulges his own crimes, including murder. Collins contends that such notions of disadvantageous behaviors fall in line with concepts in neuroscience, in which one can find many such cases related to injury and disease.
Poe documented real issues while establishing intrigue in the narrative form. He spoke of afflictions that he, as well as others, might have had in an attempt to explain why we act the way we do.
As the Poe’s constituents laughed at Austen’s seemingly pedantic love stories, Wallace came to her defense. Wallace framed Austen as a powerful visionary novelist operating under the constraints of her time. These mere “love stories” actually house poignant political commentary that spoke to social mobility, gender, and class. While Poe languished in his own self pity, Austen offered up commentary on a life worth living.
Kate Cahill, MCAS ’17, took the mic in Austen’s honor. Citing Persuasion, Cahill spoke of how Austen was not solely concerned with the dispositions of women during the 19th century, but also those of men. Referencing her posthumously released Persuasion, Cahill showed how the Austen’s characters detailed internalized dialogues that were deeply concerned with the propensities of men. Reductively, some may look at Austen’s works and see a simple tale of suitors and archaic propriety from the female perspective, but, as Cahill explains, Austen truly details the relation between the two forces as they each seek prosperity.
Ardently, Daniel Lee, CSOM ’18, came prepared for his bout for his beloved icon. Using Northanger Abbey, Lee showed how pragmatic Austen truly was in her analysis of Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney’s relationship.
“Tilney is an arrogant, cavalier a-hole,” he said. “But he is still the best suitor out of all those in the novel.”
It is not simply a love story, but a tale of self-discovery and self-evaluation as one situates oneself logically among the braggarts of society.
The evening was one of merriment, jests, and stern pleasantries as each side criticized, conceded, and clashed. Though the Austen-ites deemed Poe a wallower, indulging in the swamps of self-pity, and the Poe-ians dismissed Austen as an astute, but ultimately banal novelist, the end saw mutual respect wash over the crowd.
When Andrew Sofer, professor in the English department, took the podium, anticipations ran high. But he, as so many others in the audience, came to the conclusion that each were too mighty for one to top the other. As such, he awarded Team Poe the award for “Psychological Terror,” while Austen was graced with the award for “Political Critique.”
Smackdown left viewers satisfied as passions were not weak and weary, but hot and heavy as a love of literature could be seen welling up in the hearts of those who hold old words so dear and near to the heart.
Featured Image By Taylor Perison / Heights Staff