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What's So Funny About Poe?

This article is more than 9 years old.

Good question.

Who better to ask than Boston's No. 1 Edgar Allan Poe advocate, Boston College professor Paul Lewis. Lewis has long been crusading to debunk common perceptions about the Boston-born writer.

First, the professor got behind the dark author's Beantown roots, even going to the mat against advocates from Philadelphia and Baltimore this past December. Now Lewis is turning to the horror master's funny bone.

(Drew Dernavich/The New Yorker Magazine)
(Drew Dernavich/The New Yorker Magazine)

That's right. According to Lewis the notoriously macabre writer was capable of conjuring more than fear and madness. Poe, he claims, actually wielded a wily sense of humor.

On Thursday, Feb. 18, Lewis teams up with Robert Mankoff, cartoonist and cartoon editor of the New Yorker magazine, to explore Poe's unique brand of humor. They'll share Poe-related putdowns, parodies, satires and imagery.

As a regular figure in New Yorker cartoons, Poe — like the Grim Reaper — provides plenty of opportunities for joking about all those things that can go bump in the night. This is Mankoff's department.

Lewis plans to make the point that the master of the macabre's work is much more diverse than his popular short stories might suggest.

"Poe understood that stories that deal with mystery (seemingly inexplicable events) can move in a number of directions," Lewis explained in an e-mail. "Deep into fear if the mystery turns dangerous; into laughter if the mystery is solved and no one gets hurt; into confusion and madness if the process of interpretation breaks down."

"In addition to the Gothic tales for which he is best known," Lewis said, "he (Poe) wrote hoaxes and satires, also snarky book reviews and critical essays."

Take, for example, Poe's "Balloon Hoax" (You thought the "balloon boy" in Colorado was a first? Think again). Decades before Orson Welles scared the willies out of radio listeners everywhere, Poe created a little ruckus all his own.

In 1844, Lewis explained, "Poe published what to all the world looked like news story about a trans-Atlantic balloon crossing."

Headlines of the event included: "Astounding News! By Express Via Norfolk!" "The Atlantic Crossed In Three Days!" "Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck Mason's Flying Machine!"

Of course, none of this was true. Ha ha, Mr. Poe.

Thursday, Lewis and Mankoff will present gobs of evidence to prove that beneath Poe's creepy exterior, he was a prankster and a good-natured humorist.


"What's So Funny About Edgar Allan Poe?" runs Feb. 18 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.

This program aired on February 18, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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