Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Poe's honorary membership

Poe has received various accolades over the years, but most of them have been after his death. Conversely, during their lifetimes, other writers like James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Washington Irving were getting thrown honorary degrees left and right while they were still living (many from institutions across the pond, like Oxford and Cambridge). Poe was a college drop-out himself so it might not be surprising that he rarely was recognized by many educational institutions during his lifetime.

One major exception might be Jefferson College, named after Thomas Jefferson — the same man who founded the Virginia university which Poe dropped out of. The tiny college in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania (south of Pittsburgh) named its literary society after Benjamin Franklin, who donated the money (in francs) which established the school's first library. The Franklin Literary Society, founded in 1797, extended an honorary membership to Edgar A. Poe on September 9, 1836.* The Franklin Literary Society still exists today, though the institution is now known as Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA.

What I find most impressive about this offer is that it was in 1836. Poe had not yet established himself as a major writer of fiction or poetry (his poetry collections did not garner much attention, but some great stories, including "Metzengerstein" and "MS. Found in a Bottle" had already seen print). Instead, the Franklin Literary Society was honoring Poe's contributions to the world of literary criticism, specifically as a staff member at the Southern Literary Messenger.

This might have been controversial. Poe had only recently introduced the world to his new style of literary criticism which was directly opposed to the "puffing" tradition. Instead of unquestioning praise, Poe offered sincere criticism, which often came across as mean-spirited or heavy-handed. Much to other writers' chagrin, Poe also cut his way through bad grammar and poor word choices. He examined sentences like a doctor and diagnosed a number of problems.

I had the good fortune of working at W&J College for a time. I didn't hear about the Poe connection until a few months into my time there. When I learned about it, I couldn't help but get a kick out of it: Poe is everywhere, even in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania.

*The college maintains the original letter Poe wrote to respectfully accept his honorary membership. Unfortunately, his autograph has been torn off, likely by a collector. Pictured above is the original log cabin which was the first building of Jefferson College; it is still standing.

1 comment:

Christina said...

We know what's up in Canonsburg!