Edgar Allan Poe or Jane Austen?

Two Boston College English professors duke it out in a page-turning rumble. 

Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe may not have much in common biographically, stylistically, or in their chosen subject matter, but what they do share is a rare ability to stay relevant in pop culture. Two centuries after their deaths, both authors continue to inspire adaptations, imitations, and reprintings, all devoured by their devoted fans. But who’s more interesting to a modern-day audience? Each year, two professors in Boston College’s English department conduct a spirited debate on that very question. Where do they come down on the subject? We asked Paul Lewis, a Poe scholar, and Rebekah Mitsein, an Austen expert, for the CliffsNotes of their annual academic throwdown. — Lisa Weidenfeld

Paul Lewis: During her short career, Jane Austen wrote six luminous, insightful, nuanced, and politely amusing novels. During his short career, Edgar Allan Poe worked across genres, including short story, poetry, drama, literary theory, hoax, book review, and, yes, a novel. Driven by financial need, Poe navigated a hectic career in magazine writing and editing to make ends meet alongside his creative pursuits. His fertile imagination and obsession with mystery shaped popular culture by taking us inside the minds of Gothic villains, inventing the modern detective story, and promoting the idea of art for art’s sake. If you’ve ever enjoyed a popular work not for the lessons it teaches (think Austen) but for the sheer, thrilling pleasure it brings, then you owe a debt to Edgar Allan Poe, who, early in his career, insisted that “he who pleases, is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs.” 

Rebekah Mitsein: At core, perhaps all of Austen’s novels are about the same things: the dangers of superficial reading and the folly of falling for first impressions. Austen was a master of irony, and the irony of the fact that we think we know Jane Austen is that anyone who reads her books with a careful eye finds that they maddeningly refuse to be known. We can only know her novels as we can know a person: The more time we spend with them, the better we get at recognizing their patterns. And yet, they keep little pieces of themselves hidden, defy expectations, are riddled with ambiguities, stay silent when we want them to speak, say one thing and mean another, and (like all worthy friends, lovers, or even rivals) grow more interesting with each encounter. 

Paul Lewis: No less astute a student of British literature than Winston Churchill agreed with my sense that Austen brilliantly covered a mostly closed-off world in which privileged characters navigate predictable challenges. Alive during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, Austen kept to the parlors and tearooms, where young women needed to avoid marrying an idiot, narcissist, snob, or (heaven forfend!) a poor, working man. Poe, on the contrary, was himself a poor, working man, a man of the crowd, familiar with the dark side of urban life in the dynamic cities of the young United States.

Rebekah Mitsein: Austen’s books take readers far outside of the drawing room. There are no plots without Lord Mansfield’s Antigua plantation, the battles in which Captain Wentworth fought and which left his comrades in arms disabled and traumatized, the boarding house in Bath where Mrs. Smith lives crippled and alone, and the slums of London where Colonel Brandon’s first love died and where Willoughby consigned her pregnant daughter to destitution. Her worlds are only small and tidy on that never-to-be-trusted first impression.

Paul Lewis: Writers are only as interesting as the questions they ask us to consider. In Austen, they’re usually about which man to marry: Mr. Darcy or the Rev. Mr. Collins? Mr. Willoughby or Colonel Brandon? The kinds of questions Poe asks take us far outside this limited sphere. For instance: “Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigour? The boundaries which divide Life from Death, are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”

Rebekah Mitsein: Austen’s fiction is not about who to marry but about the stakes of marriage. Romance is a side plot in a larger investigation into how we live in community with one another. Her love stories—not just between men and women but also between family members and friends—are satisfying because they suggest that we can create ports in the storm of human selfishness for ourselves and each other.

Paul Lewis: Reading fiction is a form of intellectual and emotional tourism. We set aside time to visit the world according to writers we find interesting, whether it’s Richard Powers or Toni Morrison, Jane Austen or Edgar Allan Poe. And, of course, we all love visiting Austen’s world, would be delighted to spend a weekend at Pemberley, among the teacups and chatter (okay, brilliant conversation), not thinking about what that level of wealth requires from the masses of people who struggle to meet the most basic human needs: food, clothing, and shelter. In the two centuries since Austen and Poe wrote, the perverse, selfish, and, yes, horrific impulses that Poe described have seen technology augment and globalize the brutal carnage our species has inflicted on itself, other life forms, and the planet. The truth that writers of Gothic fiction, most notably Poe, were trying to tell is that understanding the fate of humanity in our time requires us to see the world beyond Pemberley, to peer deeply into the darkness.

Rebekah Mitsein: In some ways, Austen and Poe are more alike than different. They died at roughly the same age. In the face of financial precarity, they both tried to make a living by their pens. Both felt and saw the foibles of the social and cultural systems on which life depends. Poe isolated and dramatized the parts of ourselves and our worlds we’d rather not confront, and he did so in a way that makes it impossible to look away or pretend that they don’t exist. But hyperbolic and supernatural metaphors for social ills are ignorable in their own way—we have the luxury of dismissing those stories as improbable. Austen’s work deals in the undramatic horrors of the everyday. When her characters succeed, they achieve not infinite ease or bliss—just tolerable comfort. So why is it that some find Austen’s endings so unrealistically tidy? Isn’t it interesting to consider that, though it takes courage to look in the face and believe in the things that unsettle us, somehow it takes even more courage to look in the face and believe in the possibility of our own happiness?  

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