Edgar Allan Poe – The Darkest High School History Teacher There Ever Was

Edgar Allan Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether does not appear on as many high school syllabi as one would expect. Despite the richness of the historical information that is contained in the short story, it appears to have been kept at the sidelines of most of the Poe education that occurs in high school. In the same way that the short story is not used as effectively as it could be, Poe’s other more canonical works too, are often not viewed through as many lenses as they should be. Poe was a voracious reader with extensive editorial experience and had access to a wealth of scientific, historical and social knowledge. He used this fact bank in his stories, enriching many if not all of them with metaphors, descriptions and scenarios that can inform the contemporary historically minded student with useful knowledge about the 19th century.

The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether is in my opinion, a particularly noteworthy example as Poe provides a commentary on mental illness and related institutions such as asylums and abolitionism and the Revolutionary War. In order to make the text useful for high school history students, I created an annotated edition in which I provide students with facts and information about Poe’s references and authorial decisions in addition to posing a number of questions, intended to encourage their curiosity and ensure that they are being active and engaged readers. My layout was designed specifically to both allow students the opportunity to have a relatively authentic reading experience, and to view the text as a historical document rather than a story. It is for this reason that I did not include many colors or shapes, and instead added space for students to make notes and pose questions themselves.

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Doctor, Aliya. The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether Assignment. 2017. Microsoft Word.

The allusions to mental health and illness and asylums in the 19th century are evident even upon first encountering the story as the narrator begins his description of his surroundings by referencing N.P. Willis, another prominent 19th century author who had just visited an asylum in Sicily, Italy. Despite the fact that there exists some certainty about whether or not Poe was writing satirically, as N.P. Willis had recently insulted him, there exists no reason to think that the details provided in The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether are inaccurate. (Mabbott, 999) The fact that N.P. Willis had provided this description for an article rather than in a story reinforces its historical accuracy making it a useful resource for a high school history student wanting to learn more about people’s experiences at 19th century mental health institutions and asylums. In addition to informing students about experiences, the story also provides the viewer with insight into how people thought about the mentally ill, as the number of men to women in the story is disproportionate and reflective of how women were more often placed in these institutions and for unwarranted reasons a lot of the time. (Doctor)

The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether is also often seen to be a parable for the events that occurred during the Revolutionary War and Southern attitudes towards the abolitionist movement. The narrator’s description of the prisoners’ escapes may be reflective of his belief that abolitionism would wreak havoc on the lives of white Americans who would be subjected to a state of chaos and disaster. (Doctor) Acclaimed scholar and critic Louis D. Rubin states how the comparison of the prisoners to “chimpanzees, ourang-outangs or big black baboons” implies that “the result [of abolition] would be a slave revolution that would place the white population in jeopardy.” (165) Examples such as the one provided above reveal how Southerners felt about the abolitionist movement in a manner that is engaging and unique, as students are most often informed through facts rather than through literature. Furthermore, most history books tend to reference primary historical documents rather than canonical authors with which students already have some familiarity, which makes Poe an incredibly effective and memorable teacher even  in the 21st century.

Ultimately, my annotated edition of The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether is intended to engage high school history students and encourage them to seek knowledge from unexpected sources. By viewing Poe’s story as a historical document,  teachers and parents too, may begin to rethink the way in which historical narratives, canonical authors and their more underrated works are framed and taught. Hopefully, writers such as Poe will gain a new, current and politically and socially charged legacy in this process, whether it be positive or negative…

Works Cited:

Doctor, Aliya. The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether Assignment. 2017. Microsoft Word.

“Edgar Allan Poe — “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”.” Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore – Works – Tales – The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 April 2017.

Mabbott , Thomas Ollive. ” “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. III: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 997-1024 (This material is protected by copyright).” Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore – Works – Editions – The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe – Vol. III: Tales and Sketches (Plan of this Edition). N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Rubin, Louis Decimus. The edge of the swamp: a study in the literature and society of the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U Press, 1989. Print.

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