English Majors, Edgar Poe, and Ouija Boards

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November 19, 2019 by libroshombre

Adventure novelist Clive Cussler wrote, “There is no greater unknown than the sea and no greater mystery than a lost ship.” I disagree; how about Ouija Boards, Edgar Allen Poe’s death, and the persistence of English majors? The last one’s pretty easy, as outlined in “The World’s Top Economists Just Made the Case For Why We Still Need English Majors” by Heather Long at WashingtonPost.com. It’s true the number of English majors is down by 25.5 percent since 2008, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, which is “the biggest drop for any major tracked by the center.” Meanwhile, computer science and health-related majors have doubled, and engineering and math have also jumped.

However, the point of Nobel Prize economist Robert Shiller’s new book, “Narrative Economics,” is “that stories matter. What people tell each other can have profound implications for markets.” He cites bitcoins and house-flipping bubbles as examples of how “traditional economics fail to examine the role of public beliefs in major economic events – that is narrative,” which is something Liberal Arts majors are good at. “When asked if he’s essentially arguing for more English and history majors, Schiller said, ‘I think so,’ adding ‘Compartmentalization of intellectual life is bad.”

Long writes, “There’s no denying that the typical computing science major makes more money shortly after graduation than the typical English major. But, contrary to popular belief, English majors 25 to 29 had a lower unemployment rate than math and computer science majors … After about a decade, STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) majors start exiting their job fields as their skills are no longer the latest and greatest. In contrast, many humanities majors work their way to high-earning management positions … By age 40, the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up.” That’s because “in management and leadership positions, communication is key.”

Moreover, we need help explaining interrobangs. These appear as “!?,” “?!,” “?!?,” or a “!” and “?” superimposed, and combine the functions of both symbols to end rhetorical questions or simultaneously question and exclaim. Questions marks are sometimes called “interrogation marks,” and exclamation marks are known as “bangs” in printer’s slang, hence, “interrobang.” Martin Speckter, head of an American advertising firm “conceptualized the interrobang in 1962,” believing it would improve the look of some visual ads. He solicited names for the new mark, and “exclamquist,” “QuizDing,” “rhet,” and “exclarotive” were suggested, but he stuck with interrobang.

Ouija Boards emerged in the late 1800s during the height of the Spiritualism movement. An 1891 New York newspaper ad said Ouija Boards were “interesting and mysterious,” cost $1.50. and was “Proven at a Patent Office.” Similar boards had first appeared at spiritualist camps in Ohio in 1886, and in 1890 Charles Kennard of Baltimore, a non-spiritualist but hearty capitalist, organized the Kennard Novelty Company and began manufacturing and distributing Ouija Boards. He received the coveted patent after bringing in a renowned medium to prove the board’s veracity by spelling the examiner’s name, which was theoretically unknown to Kennard’s group.

By 1892 Kennard’s company had added another Baltimore factory, two in New York, two in Chicago, and one in London, and a year later Kennard was squeezed out by his partners. A Smithsonian.mag.com article said “Ouija boards work on a principle known to those studying the mind for over 160 years: the ‘ideometer effect,’” subconscious muscular movements that take place, like when salivation is caused by imagining sucking lemons.

Poe’s death is truly mysterious, with clues for and against the leading theories. He was either beaten by ruffians during a drunken stupor, “cooped,” wherein supporters of a candidate for office kidnapped, disguised, and forced men to vote for their guy, drank himself to death, asphyxiated from carbon monoxide poisoning from coal gas fumes, poisoned by mercury chloride prescribed by his doctor during a recent cholera epidemic, or he perished from rabies, flu, a brain tumor (a strong contender), or was murdered by the brothers of his wealthy fiancée.

We’ll probably never know. As Poe wrote, “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?




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