I am honored to be able to say that most of what I know about the work of Edgar Allan Poe, I learned from Dr. Merrill Maguire Skaggs. To be honest, prior to taking her doctoral course on Poe and Emerson in the fall of 2003, I was not particularly interested in Poe. As my perspicacious advisor at Drew University, Dr. Bill Rogers, suspected, I registered for Dr. Skaggs’ course mainly because it fit into my schedule! After all, I was a Ph.D. student, working at two off-campus jobs (adjuncting at Seton Hall University and working as the youth minister at my parish); I needed to minimize commuting time and maximize my productivity at each of my locations. But was I ever in for a wonderful surprise when I walked into class on the first day!
I quickly learned (after being enlightened by Dr. Skaggs’ quick 5-minute introduction to the course) that I was in the presence of one of the most brilliant and versatile literary critics I would ever meet. Little did I know, at that time, that her guidance on my writing and academic presentation skills would also prove invaluable to me—and I make use of and share her advice to this day.
Each of us in the course was assigned to make one presentation and write two papers. Because I was interested in learning more about Dr. Skaggs’ work, I signed up to give a presentation on what I considered the most intriguing of the options. In 1981, Dr. Skaggs had written an article titled “Poe’s Longing for a Bicameral Mind,” which appeared in The Southern Quarterly in 1981. More than 20 years after the article’s publication, the Department of Homeland Security had asked Dr. Skaggs for a copy of the article and interviewed her about her analysis of Poe’s brilliant detective, C. Auguste Dupin. In her article, Dr. Skaggs had analyzed Dupin from the perspective of Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. My presentation was to focus on why the Department of Homeland Security, in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks (and just a few months before our course began), would be interested in this particular article about Poe. I can honestly say that this was one of the most challenging, enjoyable, and rewarding assignments I have ever completed.
Throughout the semester, we did pay close attention to Poe’s horror stories. But Dr. Skaggs also guided us through Poe’s detective stories, poetry, and non-fictional prose with great care. This course that I discovered solely because I was seeking convenience turned out to be one of the most memorable, efficacious, and mind-expanding courses I ever took. Thank you, Dr. Skaggs. Requiescat in pace.