UA English Professor Contributes to Tucson’s Year of Poe

Recently, Paul Hurh was selecting quotes by Edgar Allan Poe to be paired with Poe-inspired food and drink that will be served at Tucson restaurants and bars. One of the final selections came from a letter Poe wrote defending the horror tale: “Whether the articles of which I speak are, or are not in bad taste is little to the purpose. To be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity.” Poe’s continuing popularity and the popularity of horror today, from Stephen King to The Walking Dead, show how accurate Poe’s claim was, a thought Tucson restaurant goers may ponder over their “Quoth the Raven” Ice Cream or Tell-Tale Heart Margaritas. 

Hurh, an associate professor in the Department of English, has been studying Edgar Allan Poe for more than half his life. That expertise is coming in handy these days as he collaborates with Literacy Connects for “Big Read Connects Tucson,” which is presenting a series of events and activities throughout the year to celebrate and explore Poe and his work.

“Paul Hurh is a brilliant scholar who has written the definitive book on American terror as a concept and feeling,” said Lee Medovoi, head of the UA Department of English, housed in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Nobody wrote more terrifyingly than Edgar Allan Poe. While people all over Tucson are reading Poe's stories, Professor Hurh will be traveling across town talking and discussing Poe's disturbing and uncanny genius for narrative with the public.”

Big Read Connects Tucson is a community collaboration presented by Literacy Connects through a Big Read grant. The Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest, hopes to broaden our understanding of our world, our community and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book or the work of a great poet. The program has been cited as a potential contributor to the finding that the number of adults who read literature is increasing for the first time in decades.

The organizers from Literacy Connects asked Hurh if he would consult on the project, and together they brainstormed ideas for activities and events, drawing upon Hurh’s deep well of Poe knowledge.

For example, when they asked Hurh if Poe had any local connections, he shared the little-known fact that Poe was an avid amateur astronomer.

“One of his last works was a long treatise on his theory of the cosmos—a strange mash up of science and poetry where he tries to make the claim that the universe is a kind of poem,” said Hurh.

The result is an event on January 30 at the Poetry Center called “Starlight POEtry” and an event (date to be determined) at the Flandrau Planetarium that will involve stargazing and poetry.

Hurh also shared Poe’s love of cryptology with the organizers, and now there is a section on the Big Read Connects Tucson website where visitors can try their hand at deciphering crytograms that Poe published.

“Cryptology was a ploy to get readership for his journal,” said Hurh. “Poe invited anyone to send in a cryptogram as a sort of challenge—‘I bet you can’t stump me.’ He would then show off his expertise in the next issue.”

“Paul is a terrific partner,” said Dana Pitt, who is on the Literacy Connects Awareness/Capacity Building Committee. “He has been an invaluable and enthusiastic resource on all things Poe for us. Whenever we have a question or are stuck for an idea, we say, ‘Let’s call Paul,’ and he never disappoints. His information and ideas have helped broaden and deepen our Big Read Connects Tucson programming.”

The University of Arizona Poetry Center and the College of Education are also program partners and are offering many fun activities throughout the year. Currently, the Poetry Center is presenting streaming POEtry on the Tucson Streetcar, as well as an Edgar Allan Poe mural. The College of Education is offering events for children and teens through its Worlds of Words program.

Hurh will be involved in Poe events throughout the year. First up is a talk on Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. at the Poetry Center titled “The Raven and the Tomahawk: Poe, Poetry, and the Rise of Popular Criticism.”

Hurh said that in his day, Poe was best known as a literary critic, which is an aspect of Poe that is often overlooked. According to Hurh, Poe heralded in a new era of literary criticism that was more scientific and changed the way that people thought about literature.

“He obtained this reputation as ‘the tomahawk man,’ because he would just eviscerate these authors in his reviews. He didn’t make a lot of friends in the literary circle. But he understood how important healthy criticism is to healthy poetry.”

In his talk, Hurh will share stories of Poe as a literary critic, including “the Longfellow war, as its come to be known,” when Poe wrote an article accusing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the esteemed poet, of plagiarism. An anonymous reply by “Outis” claiming that actually Poe was the plagiarist resulted in several heated responses by Poe.

“It’s this crazy ramble about plagiarism, but what’s more crazy is that most scholars now accept that Outis was actually Edgar Allan Poe,” said Hurh. “He had single-handedly created this controversy where it seemed like people were arguing about literature, and ironically, that got a lot of people involved. Poe understood popular culture better than anyone of his day with the possible exception of P. T. Barnum, and, like Barnum, he didn’t hesitate to manipulate it to his benefit.”

Later in the year, Hurh will be involved at an event at the Tucson Museum of Art titled “Into the Night with Edgar Allan Poe,” and he will also give a talk at Himmel Park Library next February titled “Poe’s Crises:  Money, Women, and Alcohol in the Life of a Poet.”

Hurh remarks that Poe’s colorful biography, including his mysterious death, may be one of the reasons Poe still has a hold on the popular imagination.

“He’s a fun guy to base an event like this around,” said Hurh. “Because on the one hand he was severely rigorous about the art of poetry and creative writing. But on the other hand, he’s an editor of these journals, so he’s trying to get bigger and bigger readership. I think the combination of the two is what the Big Read is about—it’s a call to focus on timeless literature that a community of readers can get excited about reading together.”

Contact: Paul Hurh, Department of English,, (520) 621-5241

Published Date: 

09/21/2015 - 9:21am