DUBOIS, Pa. — Building upon his long career in literary research and education at Penn State DuBois, Richard Kopley, distinguished professor of English emeritus, has spent his time in retirement breaking new ground in the study of literature. His latest book, “The Formal Center in Literature: Explorations from Poe to the Present,” examines previously undiscovered and undiscussed structures in composition that are used by some of recent history’s most notable authors in various works.
Studying literary works spanning 180 years, both English and American, Kopley said that although the structure is not present in every example, a formal center is employed as an element by a number of authors.
“It’s a central point that everything is built around,” he explained. “Not to be confused with a climactic point — it coexists with that. The center is subtle. It doesn’t hit you over the head, and you can enjoy the work without it, but you can enjoy it so much more when you see it.”
Kopley first discovered a center in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” which he used to illustrate the structural technique further.
“The work is a remembrance of Poe’s brother, whose death deeply affected him. They were very close, perhaps even sharing a room when his brother died. We find the book has 25 chapters. The 13th chapter covers two weeks, takes 22 paragraphs, and at 11 paragraphs in we find the death of a character based on Poe’s brother,” Kopley said. “Students ask, ‘Did he really put that in there, or is it a coincidence?’ Well, which is likelier? Poe wrote works that were complex, and this is consistent with his M.O. His works have an architecture.”
In another example, Kopley offers evidence of formal centers in Lewis Carroll’s well-known Alice books, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.” Again, the center is framed by symmetrical passages, bringing the story full-circle. “Wonderland,” for example, opens with Alice and her sisters on the river bank in Chapter 1, and ends there in Chapter 12. Likewise, at the beginning of the book Alice wonders what a candle flame looks like after it’s been blown out, as she also wonders in Chapter 9 what happens when the number of hours spent on lessons diminishes to nothing.
Kopley said that while the Alice books are whimsical at first glance, they also possess a sturdy and deliberate structure that draws the reader, almost subliminally, into the world in which the stories are set. In the opening and closing, Carroll uses the word “half,” both halfway through the passage, encouraging the reader to think in terms of halves, creating an even framing. And the image framed, with both the Cheshire Cat and Humpty Dumpty, is the Ouroboros, the snake with the tale in its mouth, a symbol of eternal life. With the formal center, Poe offers infinite memory, and Carroll offers infinite life.
Diving into a full 15 works by literary greats such as Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau, as well as Joyce, Anderson and Hemingway, Kopley points out the use of the framed center across continents, as well as centuries, yet left virtually unnoticed.
“This has not been studied before in a book-length analysis of recent literature,” he said. “I think it could be a significant new contribution.”
That significance, Kopley said, lies in both scholarly study, as well as enjoyment by the casual reader.
“We see this is a purposeful structure. Understanding that helps us better interpret the literature,” Kopley said. “I hope that it advances the study of the works it focuses on, and I hope it leads people to consider the design. More broadly, recognizing the formal center speaks to more intense attention, which you have to have to see this. If I can encourage that kind of attention in this time when attention is so fleeting, I would be very pleased. Everyone’s relationships with each other might well be improved with more attention.”
“The Formal Center in Literature,” published by Camden House, is available on Amazon.
Kopley taught composition and American literature at Penn State DuBois from 1983 until retiring in 2014. He is an internationally known author and literary scholar with expertise in classic American literature and one of the world’s foremost experts on Edgar Allan Poe. He has contributed to numerous journals and magazines as an expert on Poe’s work and has spoken about his research at international conferences. He has also been interviewed for articles that have appeared in such publications as U.S. News and World Report.
Kopley graduated from New Rochelle High School in New York in 1967, where he returned each year from 2000 to 2015 to chair a panel of literary experts who shared their knowledge with high school students.
From New Rochelle High School, he went on to study English at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. He earned his master's degree in English at Teachers College at Columbia University, and eventually a doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he also taught while completing his degree. He taught at Illinois State University before coming to Penn State DuBois.