Laura Purdie Salas wondered if I might post the foreword to the newly released book about the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe. I asked my editor, Jim Baumlin, for permission and he graciously granted the request. So here it is.
David L. Harrison
Burma-Shave was a brand of brushless shaving cream when I was a
boy in the 1940s. It was famous for its funny signs, which I loved to
memorize. There were usually five or six small signs spaced along the
roadside so when you spotted the first one, you started anticipating
those to come.
Does your husband
Grunt and grumble
Rant and rave
Shoot the brute some
Hardly a driver
Is now alive
This was not my first experience with memorization. I was already
famous (with my parents plus one aunt and one uncle) for
memorizing the Gettysburg Address. And what did all those words
committed to memory teach me? They taught me the pleasure of
carrying beautifully written ideas around in my head.
Does that sound silly? I don’t mean that I became a memorization
freak, but I did like thinking, sometimes, about those words in my
head put there by Abraham Lincoln and wondering how he decided
on just those words and none others and how he managed to arrange
those particular words to create such a powerful message. “Four score
and seven years ago” reads like poetry. It has a solemn cadence to it,
the perfect cadence to begin a somber speech in a sad place. He could
have said, “Eighty-seven years ago,” but there would have been no
magic in it. It’s not just what you say; it’s also how you say it.
Not long later I discovered Edgar Allan Poe. I read “The Raven”
and was transported into the world of a master story teller, sitting
alone and forlorn, “pondering … over many a quaint and curious
volume of forgotten lore.” This was a long way from Burma-Shave
signs! And although Lincoln’s great speech was exquisitely crafted,
this guy Poe was a poet in a class by himself.
So what do you think I did? I memorized “The Raven,” of course.
Like, who wouldn’t? I’m not telling you you have to memorize
anything. But I am telling you that to read a poem or story by Edgar
Allan Poe is to sit in the presence of a unique American genius. Few in
any age have matched him for creating a mood, word-painting
indelible images, and capturing an audience the way Poe does.
He was born in Boston in 1809 and died in Baltimore forty years
later. During much of his brief life he was described as melancholy,
erratic, and willful. He never made much money and was often in
need. Yet he became an important figure in American literature and
even now, more than one hundred sixty years after he died, his work
remains well known and respected.
That’s why I’m so glad that the book you are holding has been
created. When you start turning its pages, you’ll learn about the life
and times of Poe, the mystery of how he died, the many ways in which
his work has influenced other writers and whole genres of writing
and, best of all, you’ll get to sample rich servings of the man’s
If you want a good chuckle, look up some Burma-Shave signs:
Avoid that run-down feeling
If you want to read one of history’s finest speeches, check out
… our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation …
But if you want to meet the haunting and often haunted melodies of
the works of Edgar Allan Poe—
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir …
—turn the page and go!
David L. Harrison
1 February 2013
The book is a private printing that is available at the Library Center in Springfield and at select Big Read events. It can be purchased (for $5.00) exclusively at PawPrints Bookstore in the Plaster Student Union on the MSU campus. (417) 836-8959.