Letters to my Students in the time of Covid (1)

When the pandemic shut down my college writing classrooms, the main way I kept connected to my students was through emailed letters.

I sent this letter to my senior-level cross-genre writing workshop students on March 28, 2020

Dear Students,

I hope you are all doing as well as you can under the circumstances. In the past three days, three more-distant relatives of mine have spent time on ventilators in ICUs in Seattle and Houston. One is still on it, one has gotten off it and improved, and one has died. All three of them are relatives I have never met -- so my obligations are to the emotions of other people, who did know them, who did love them. But I fear this virus is getting closer to us all and none of us will emerge from this pandemic unscathed.

When I was 10 years old, I discovered Edgar Allen Poe through an "abridged" 9th grade reader my older brother brought home from school. Poe of course has a reputation for writing "gothy emo" stuff, but he also wrote humor pieces and detective fiction, and the reader mostly focused on those (and translated them into modern English).

I loved that book so much I managed to get my hands on a giant unabridged (archaic English!) volume of Poe's complete stories, poems, and essays, which I loved so much I literally read and re-read that book until it fell apart, I taped it back together, and it fell apart again.

One of the things I learned reading that book was that Poe wrote a lot about death, disease, and loss, but it wasn't an emo/goth "pose" or an image he sought to cultivate, it was his lived reality. Poe lived before vaccines, in an age when water was supplied to homes by unregulated private companies. It was routine to avoid naming babies until they'd survived a year, because they so often didn't. Multiple marriages and "blended families" were common even though divorce was not, because death did plenty well at ending marriages. No one actually realized that if you caught cholera and died it was probably because someone's poop was in your water. Having no idea what caused the deaths, they couldn't stop them. People just died and died in endless outbreaks. Tuberculosis -- "consumption" -- killed people all the time. Polio and Measles have been killing and crippling us for centuries, even if people didn't know what it was. Smallpox has been found in Egyptian mummies. Plagues short of "The Black Death" came all the time. Life, in its normal state, was "nasty, brutish, and short."

One of my favorites of Poe's stories is the "Masque of the Red Death" -- in it, a prince named Prospero decides to have a party despite the disease (The Red Death) that's ravaging the country. He's young and strong and healthy, and so are all his friends, so they hold their masked ball. The story progresses with a kind of dream-like description of the chambers in which the party is held, each a different color, lighted by fires through stained glass. Extra attention is given to the last-and-final seventh chamber, a room that's black and trimmed in red, firelight through a red-stained window. This room houses an ebony clock that strikes at the top of each hour, and when that clock strikes, throughout all the chambers, the musicians stop playing, and people stop dancing, and everyone listens to the striking of time, as though something will happen, as though they are about to remember... and then it stops, and the party resumes.

But finally the clock strikes midnight, and in the length of those twelve long tolls people suddenly notice the figure of a person moving through the rooms, who'd been there all along, unseen. This figure walks from the far sunny-blue first room, in which prosperous prince Prospero stands, towards the clock, still striking -- and the figure is shocking, because his costume is the appearance of someone who has died of The Red Death, the present plague: blood risen up from the pores streaking the skin everywhere red. Prospero is offended: this is too bold, strikes too close to home. He tells everyone to seize this intruder so they can hang him at sunrise, but no one moves, they are too scared. So he draws his dagger and chases the villain himself, all the way to the dark 7th chamber where the 12th toll strikes and the prince's dagger pierces... nothing -- the figure is a ghostly vision, without physical form, it is The Red Death himself, crashing the party. The prince falls dead, and all his friends follow.

What most appealed to me when I read this as a kid was (well, first, the whole gothy/emo thing, but then...) the idea that death can't be escaped, and that you can party all you want, but TIME moves you always forward, which is always closer to "the end" -- and that trying to avoid it is folly.

But what strikes me now is something else: something that had actually always seemed to me a slight flaw! Because to me, the story would be stronger if the figure were not a ghost but a solid human being, not a masque but a man, not a reveler but, perhaps, a waiter -- I wanted to read it in terms of class, in other words (I was a pretty political teenager), as a story about how we're all connected and money can't buy you out of society's larger problems. But that was me, that was what was in my head.

Poe's ideas were different: the figure was invisible until he was visible, and the figure could not be touched.

Like a disease.

I never realized, until now -- and only because of this deadly pandemic -- how terrifying that is.

I've attached our revised syllabus and the description of the second assignment. Please read them and let me know any/all questions you may have.

I miss our class  🙂